I’ve been commissioned to write a piece describing my book recommendations for those who aren’t, for whatever reason, looking forward to Christmas.
Christmas isn’t always a happy time
To have work commissioned makes me feel chuffed, I don’t think it’s ever happened before. And, yes, you’ve guessed it, I am not looking forward to Christmas myself. They couldn’t have asked a better person to write this piece.
I have my chronic mental health challenges to contend with, and all the more so at a time when most of my treatment team will be unavailable. That said though, everyone is making sure I will be supported. To add onto the usual yearly angst, my elderly father is awaiting medical tests that could reveal a serious, potentially life threatening illness, on top of the chronic illness he already has. So I’m worried about him, my Mum, and myself. On the positive side though, there are people who have him and my family in their prayers, which helps. It means a lot to me.
What do you do when it seems like almost everyone else around you is looking forward to a family time and lots of good food and celebrations with friends and all of that? And you… aren’t… The shops are full of Christmas months before… It’s like rubbing salt into the wound.
There’s the thing. Sometimes I want to run far away from anything remotely seasonal, and sometimes I’m drawn to the twinkly lights and the reminder of hope in a dark world. The bookshops and library shelves are full of those Christmas books you see every year. You know the kind, Chick Lit and cute animal books, mostly. Personally, as an ex cat owner, I’m a sucker for the cute animal books. Lost, unloved animal befriends lonely distressed human and changes their life. I hear there’s a new Cat named Bob book out. Blue, they’re always blue. And silver. Maybe red. Avoid these displays if need be.
Christmas can be a difficult time for the lonely who may feel their isolation more keenly while being inundated with images of perfect happy family life.
Maybe you want to escape the whole Christmas thing completely. So what do you do? One thing you can do is read… I share an office with the Home Library Service, and there are customers I’ve spoken to over the phone and heard about who will also be alone, and want plenty of books to help get them through.
One thing I absolutely do NOT recommend, and that’s copying my back in the day student self. It was February half term, the middle of a teaching practice (TP) in the most depressing area of Peterborough you can imagine, and I had the flu and some accommodation stress into the bargain. Flu happened with every ‘TP’, without fail… so there I was, checking my post, and my very astute English tutor spied me, bundled up in my fleecy shawl and said “I prescribe you to go to bed and read a thick book of your choice”.
Wise words. But my response was: “But I have my TP file to do….”, like any other teaching undergraduate, struggling with her class, a difficult supervising tutor, and Life. Needless to say, that’s what I did, my TP file, and my flu got worse.
Reading can absolutely make you feel better, whether that’s through escapism or catharsis or deepening your understanding of what you’re going through.
Here are some of my recommendations that cover a variety of tastes and preferences:
The Wool trilogy by Hugh Howey [Wool, Dust, Shift] – Excellent anti-utopia, thought provoking. I’m not into sci-fi as a genre as such, but I really loved these. There is the satisfaction of reading about this whole other world, and looking into how people survived emotionally and physically. You also get to know characters well over the three novels. The final one wasn’t so absorbing. But have a go at Wool for sure.
Anything by John Irving – one title is likely enough at a time. I’ve read The World According To Garp, and Last Night In Twisted River, a couple of years apart. Both are surreal enough to take you away from immediate concerns, at the same time as touching something deep.
Call The Midwife – series by Jennifer Worth – or anything similar – human and heart warming.
Letting Go by Emma Woolf – not just for those with Eating Disorders, encouraging and hopeful. I would recommend anything similarly with a focus on ‘healing’ as they’re more gentle than the average self help or workbook, which can be too intense when you’re feeling vulnerable.
A meaty historical epic is always a good bet. Edward Rutherford, Ken Follett et al.
In terms of reading for catharsis, you know what works for you. My 79 year old mother professes to never have cried when reading a book. And she’s read some pretty sad books. She’s more of a book worm than I am. And she’s had more than her fair share of sadness and trauma. I don’t quite get it! I, on the other hand, who have also been through some really tough times, will unashamedly and openly cry from pretty much any kind of book.
Maybe avoid very bleak books at Christmas!
However even I have limits. Some books are just too plain miserable. Lorna Doone. Hope by Lesley Pearse, which is the most devoid of hope book I’ve ever read next to Lorna Doone. And recently, though this didn’t make me cry, In Plain Sight: The Life and Lies of Jimmy Savile, by Dan Davies. I actually only made it three-quarters of the way through, as pretty much all you need to know is in the first 100 or so pages. I thought I owed it to myself, being a child of the 70s, to read this. But nope, it’s not my cup of tea. I mean, it opened my eyes to things I’d been blind to as a child and pre-adolescent. However I happened to be emerging from severe Depression when reading it. I came back to work and, after talking with my colleagues about it, which I have to say was an interesting discussion about Jim…I decided that this book needed to be returned, that it was totally NOT the book I needed to be reading right then. So I switched to the latest Casey Watson book. I’m quirky like that.
That saying, I actually do recommend abuse survivor biographies and Cathy Glass and Casey Watson type books for getting through tough times. For me it’s the combination of “I can totally relate to their feelings and behaviours, but their life sounds harder than mine” which can be a therapeutic alchemy.
Familiar children’s classics can be comforting reads.
I would recommend having a goodly pile of different types of books that catch your eye and interest. You can borrow 12 books, we’re open most days over the holiday season, and if you reserve items now, they are likely to arrive before the bank holidays. If you have a variety, every mood is covered. Maybe have at least one really chunky read. You might even find you’re drawn to children’s or young adult books, and there’s totally no shame in that, even when you passed young by many years ago. The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett could be a good example of this.
This piece is dedicated to all of you out there struggling with the Christmas season, whether you have Depression, struggle around food for whatever reason, live with intense anxiety, have lost someone close, have to spend time with family you don’t get on with for whatever reason, are waiting for medical test results, are out of work or at risk of losing your job, have bad memories of the Christmas season, are going to be alone, have a chronic physical condition that makes every day difficult, are living with domestic violence or other abuse, are in hospital, are working throughout, including those working nights…
I hope that you, wherever you are, find THAT book this December that will reach you and touch you and make your passage through a difficult season gentler and calmer. And please do share it with us if you feel able to, I for one would love to know your stories.