My 2020 Summer reading

I cannot quite believe it’s that time of year again! I’m taking a bit of Summer leave and one of my favourite holiday pastimes is getting engrossed in a good book. It’s been a crazy few months (a complete understatement) and I’ve struggled (as many others have) to really focus on reading, so am chuffed to have some time to rest, breath and more importantly read! So below is what I’ve been reading whilst basking in the sun/unpredictable British weather, hope it inspires!

The State of Disbelief by Juliet Rosenfeld (2020)

This book is a deeply personal account of the death of Juliet’s husband Andrew in early 2015 from lung cancer. It’s beautifully written, dotted with reference to psychoanalytic theory such as repression and splitting. Juliet threads Freud’s seminal paper on Mourning and Melancholia throughout the book, a piece she held onto throughout this difficult time in her life. 

What intrigued me was two thirds of the book cover the period of Andrew’s illness and the last third actually spoke of the period after his death. This surprised me as I had assumed this book to be more about grief and morning post death than pre. This is no way a criticism of the book, which I regard more as a love story, say than other pieces on grief such as Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking or Ricky Gervais’ show After Life on Netflix. 

There is a lot to admire in Juliet’s honest writing, but I especially appreciated her separating out of grief and mourning, explaining that “Grief is absence, despair, emptiness, abandonment…it feels black…mourning is memory, recollection, sadness, but crucially the knowledge that the person was, at one point, there, loving , loved…I was unable to mourn Andrew until the grief had had its way with me.”

Are you my mother? A comic drama by Alison Bechdel (2012)

This graphic novel was recommended to me by two different people in the same week, so it felt unwise not to respond and buy a copy for my personal reading. And I am very glad I did. This novel tells the story of Alison’s deeply personal journey through therapy whilst writing a book about her father’s death. It is brilliantly illustrated using every ounce of Alison’ dry wit, honesty and intelligence.

Each chapter starts with a profound dream of Alison’s and then slowly provides the real-life context and subsequent analysis. Alison weaves in psychoanalytic theory throughout each chapter, focusing on her personal reading of the works of Donald Winnicott and Alice Miller. And for us fiction lovers, she manages to weave in some Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath and A A Milne for good measure. Alison is able to explain tricky concepts easily and as a reader I felt like I was discovering this work all over again, just as Alison was in the book. 

I could really sense the conflict Alison experienced in regards to writing an account of her father’s life whilst still seeking her mother’s approval.  Despite her mother’s failings in some areas (there’s a fair amount of neglect and narcissism), Alison is able to portray her mother as very much a whole, if flawed individual. I did sense, as some of her therapists suggest, that there might have been some repressed anger on Alison’s part towards her mother (I certainly got a bit angry in parts) and I wonder if that might yield a potential sequel to this great graphic novel. Here’s hoping!

Me and White Supremacy by Layla F Saad (2020)

This book takes you through a 28-day course on how to recognise white privilege and combat racism. But I soon discovered that it is so much more than that. I for one have highlighted sections, added post it notes, written in my journal and returned to sections over and over again and will continue to do so. As Layla explains “this work is lifelong”.

As a white person, this book is written for me and others of my ethnicity who want to understand, reflect and start challenging our world of white privilege. I did find this book at times a difficult and uncomfortable read, which Layla recognises and challenges. It caused me to reflect on my values, beliefs, experiences and judgements. The stirring up of this material for me has been a profound experience and one I cannot and will not ignore. As Layla explains my discomfort is nothing compared to the oppression felt by Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour (BIPOC). 

This book lays out very clearly the fundamentals which have led to white supremacy including aspects such as white silence, tone policing, colour blindness and racist stereotyping.  Each chapter (which is for each for the 28 days) concludes with prompts for reflective journaling. This is not a book just for reading. It is one for absolut tough inner and outer reflection which ultimately will lead us to change. 

I especially enjoyed how Layla seemed to really connect with me as the reader/participator, whenever my fear took over and I tried to dismiss her words or even walk away from the book, she reached out to me and rightfully dragged me back in to where I needed to be.  Layla invites “you not to run away from the pain but to allow it to break your heart open…Doing the inner work and going into the truth blasts away all the lies and games, giving you a real opportunity to create change.”

This isn’t an easy read, as Layla explains “there is no safety in this work”. But when was anything worth fighting for easy? 

Untamed by Glennon Doyle (2020)

Untamed is made up of numerous small chapters retelling Glennon’s journey from childhood (where she suffered with bulimia) to being a wife and mother (and an alcoholic) to the breakdown of her first marriage which led to her rebuilding a new life with her new partner, now wife. Glennon extols the return of women to their wild or untamed ways. She asks, “Who was I before I became who the world told me to be?”

There are lots of sound bite gems within this book, such as “Life is alchemy, and emotions are the fire that turns me to gold” or “…we need to activate our imaginations. Our minds are excuse makers; our imaginations are storytellers” to name but a couple. However, that’s all this book really amounts to for me, a bunch of great sound bites and not much else. 

The book rallied a bit when it came to Glennon’s chapter on racism (going a tad off topic and the longest chapter in the book at 16 pages). Given I’d just started Layla’s book (discussed above), Glennon’s honest experience was an excellent accompaniment. She writes, “I felt ashamed as I began to learn all the ways my ignorance and silence had hurt other people. I felt exhausted because there was so much more to unlearn, so many amends to be made, and so much work to do.”

I love the message of this book, that we need to reconnect with the wildness within but I noticed I yearned for something more solid with every chapter. I found the short chapters to be a bit monotonous and too brief at times. It was more like a collection of personal journal chapters than something with more depth. The book felt quite disorganised at times, jumping around on timeline and topics. I felt Glennon’s message got lost and mixed up with lots of other important issues such as racism and masculinity. Maybe some delicate editing would have been useful here to help Glennon’s work carry greater impact. 

So, by now you can now guess what I did rather a lot of over my Summer break…. Reading! I hope my reviews have been useful, have a great break and please make sure you take a decent break, we all very much need one this year!

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

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