On Depression, Privilege and Staying Strong

I finally worked up my courage to write this post after reading Matt Haig’s outstanding book ‘Reasons to Stay Alive’ and David Mark’s article a few days ago about access to mental health services in the UK.

Image from socialworktutor.com
Image from socialworktutor.com

‘Well, the blood tests seem fine. It’s just age – you’re not getting any younger, you know.’

And my French family doctor smiles ruefully, as if to apologise for being so ridiculously young and glamorous in the face of my galloping infirmity. I had been complaining of weight gain, migraines, insomnia, lack of energy, occasional palpitations. She suspects menopause or a shade of hypochondria.

I cannot complain that she is not helpful. After all, I am not entirely honest with her as a patient. I am reluctant to share my whole story, and not just because I fear breaking down in tears and using up all of the tissues from the box she has so thoughtfully placed on her desk. I also fear being labelled, once and for all, as mentally deficient or unstable or somehow missing that even keel that most people seem to be able to find. If most people can balance on choppy waters and tack against strong winds, why can’t I?

My mother tells me off each time we speak on the phone: ‘You’re just too bloody sensitive. It’s all in your head. Stop dwelling on things.’ This comes amidst many other helpful suggestions on how to fight obesity, be a better parent, earn more money and be more docile, loving wife. Unsurprisingly, our telephone conversations often end in shouting matches, so are becoming less and less frequent. But I fear she may be right (about the sensitivity bit) and I chide myself for being so weak, so helpless.

The other thing I fear is being given pills to dull my senses and make me gain even more weight. Pills speak of lifelong dependency rather than a temporary measure: it’s about acknowledging a long-term condition rather than a momentary blip in the system. Visions of 1984 hover in the sidelines. Fears of being sanitised and lobotomised swim towards me like shark fins. How will I be able to keep up with my children’s sprightly chatter and constant requests if I am dull as a cow laid out in pastures with grass too high for her to comprehend?

When I was younger, the periods of grim depression beset me mainly in winter, and were offset by manic bursts of activity for the rest of the year. As I get older, those moments of frenetic energy have become too strenuous and it’s greyness evermore. Everything is slowed down to the point of unbearable. I cannot think of more than one thing at a time and I’m forever forgetting what I was supposed to be searching for, where I left my papers, whether I’ve paid a bill or not. I leave everything for later because it is too difficult to do immediately or today or tomorrow or … soon. I get caught out without winter tyres when the snow begins to fall, so my car lurches and sloshes from kerb to ditch.

A sunny day makes me want to crawl under the duvet. You don’t even want to know or imagine what a rainy day makes me feel like. Above all, I want to dig my nails into my flesh, to escape this inner pain which seems to find no release, day after day after day.

When the self-pity has had its play with me, guilt and sneering take their turn. Middle-class ‘woman of leisure’ problems! The world is burning and this here woman can think of naught else but combing her hair! There are hundreds of people starving or dying or losing their homes all over the world at this very moment, while I’m boo-hooing about getting old, failing to live out my childish dreams of being a writer and an academic, being stuck to a faithless husband who doesn’t understand me – the oldest cliché in the book -, children grunting their way towards their teens, a family life which seems as alien to me as if I’d been parachuted somewhere in Papua New Guinea. Only the cargo cults don’t worship me – they despise and can’t wait for my ship to sail away.

My shepherd ancestors – tough cookies one and all – would despise my whingeing. They witnessed the rise and fall of empires, tyrants, wars, forced collectivisation, betrayals in the name of the fatherland or the Communist ideal or simply greed for one’s neighbour’s land or herd. ‘Life is hard, yes, but grit your teeth and carry on! Don’t expect anyone to help, love or understand you. Go up the mountains, all by yourself, find some peace and a mountain stream.’

But I’ve always been a weak urban sapling. The mountains I climbed, the streams that I found, I wanted to rejoice in them with others. I needed to believe that someone cared, that I could be my anxious, failing self and still be respected and loveable. Now I know that all love is conditional. And compassion is not an endlessly renewable source of water. Sharing is a weakness and each one of us is alone – that is the only thing we can count on in life.

‘My therapy is writing and reading,’ I used to say in my twenties with a faraway look in my eyes, hoping I resembled Emily Dickinson rather than Sylvia Plath, Jane Austen rather than Virginia Woolf. But, in truth, it has become more reading than writing now. How can I give voice to my grief and doubts without becoming annoyed with my privileged, spoilt self? How can I deal with the confetti of time left after anxieties, night sweats, endless To Do lists, yet another last-minute catch-up for work, yet another change of plan regarding parents’ evening? What words (other than swear words) will come when I tremble with fury after yet another point-scoring conversation drowning in logical circles? I cannot trust my own thoughts, my own words. I have to feed on the words (and pain and grapplings) of others. It gives me perspective, it makes me feel less alone.

Meanwhile, other than my compulsive reading, all I can do is flounder and flail. Now I understand my childhood nightmare of drowning. It was in fact not water but ash and sand in my mouth. The struggle to appear normal and smiley. The need to carry on.


In the spirit of transparency: The TBR Book Tag

I came across this on the Cleopatra Loves Books blog (which is a real treat of a book blog, so do go and pay it a visit if you are not familiar with it already). Cleo was very brave to admit her bookish foibles, and a few of her readers have followed suit. So, in the interests of transparency, it seems only fair to attempt my own form of accounting. I’m sure it will help rein in my book-buying or requesting (yeah, right!). I define TBR as the books I do actually own but haven’t read, rather than my wishlist.


I have’t to date, so this is my opportunity to be a star pupil now. Before, I would scroll down on my e-reader and sigh. Stare at the double or triple pile of books up on the shelves and learn to avoid them when they fall.


Let the painful counting begin. 172 currently on my tablet, but another 10 or so in pdf or trickier formats on my laptop (I get sent a lot by author friends). Plus another 15 or so on my husband’s account on Kindle, which I conveniently forget about, books I downloaded back in the days when I had no e-reader of my own and didn’t really like those ‘dang things’. So a total of 200 or so in electronic format.

My collection of physical books is comparatively slender: only 78. Of course, I don’t include any library books in that pile.


As a reviewer for Crime Fiction Lover, I often have deadlines linked to the launch of a book or a broader feature such as ‘Classics in September’ or ‘New Talent November’, so those will take priority. I occasionally take part in reading challenges such as ‘German Literature Month’ or ‘Global Reading Challenge’, so that influences my choices.

Most of the time, however, I just go with my gut instinct, although I do find that one book will lead to another in a mischievous, conspiratorial way. For instance, I will find myself embarking upon a series of reads about bad mothers or male midlife crises, whether French or elsewhere. After such a bout of misery, I will then need to find something funnier, lighter to rinse out the bitter taste from my mouth.


This would be amongst the ‘forgotten pile of books’ on the Kindle. I believe it’s a tie between Jutta Profijt’s debut novel ‘Morgue Drawer Four’ (shortlisted for the Glauser Prize in Germany back in 2010 and translated by Erik J. Macki) and Stanislaw Lem’s ‘Solaris’ (I loved the Tarkovsky film, less so the more recent adaptation with George Clooney, but the author apparently didn’t think much of either of them).


poisoningJust this morning, I made the mistake of going to Netgalley (to post a review) and lingered there… so I ended up downloading Lauren Holmes’ Barbara the Slut and Other People (who can resist a title like that, hope it will give me loads of insights into the younger generation) and Jean Teulé’s The Poisoning Angel, translated by Melanie Florence for Gallic Books. This latter is based on a true story about a 19th century female serial killer.


I live in hope of reading all of them… but I did discard one or two recently where I thought: ‘Was I drunk when I clicked the “buy” button?’ It’s just too easy to order things on Amazon – one more reason to avoid it.


besidemyselfI’ve been an admirer of Ann Morgan’s thoughtful reading and reviewing back in the days when she completed her ‘Year of Reading the World‘ challenge. I got to chat with her via Twitter and email, and even got to meet her when she gave a TEDx talk in Geneva. So I was very excited when she told me that she has a book coming out on the 14th of January, 2016. ‘Beside Myself’ is a twisted psychological tale of identical twins who swap places for a day – but then one of them refuses to swap back. Sounds like just my cup of tea!


bookthiefOK, I’ll stop feeling ashamed and admit that I’ve not read ‘The Book Thief’ by Markus Zusak. I’ve read about it, I’ve seen the film, I’m sure it’s the kind of subject I would be interested in… but somehow I never got around to it. I bought a second-hand copy of it this summer at a friend’s house clearance sale, so I finally have a chance.


I’m a big Pascal Garnier fan but haven’t read ‘Moon in a Dead Eye’ yet, which is the favourite Garnier for many of my fellow book bloggers. So, if it’s as good as ‘How’s the Pain?’ (which has been my personal favourite to date), I will be delighted!


No particular book but there are certain authors whom I really look forward to reading or rereading: Eva Dolan, Clarice Lispector, Virginia Woolf, Neil Gaiman, Simenon, Stefan Zweig.

You may not think so, given that in some cases I have more than a couple of books by them on my TBR pile but haven’t dived into them yet. Life just got in the way… and it’s sometimes easier to keep those ‘sure bets’ in the background for when you need some reading/writing inspiration.


Viennese tram stop.
Viennese bus stop.

785 but that’s a wishlist, so it doesn’t count. I keep adding to it as soon as I read a review of a promising book or someone mentions a new to me author or a topic I’m interested in. (Basically, anything to do with Vienna, Brazil, immigration and expats gets an automatic look-in.)

However, the most amazing fact is that before 2009 or so I did not have any TBR pile or wishlists. I would mainly borrow books from the library and only buy a few books which I read almost immediately. In 2010, however, I started writing again myself, and my reading has increased exponentially (not that I ever was a lazy reader). Plus, my husband’s misguided attempt to cure me of buying physical books by getting me an e-reader has resulted in double the number of books!

Combining Business with Literary Delights

Who said you cannot combine your work with your secret passion? During my recent business trip, I’ve taken advantage of my location to indulge in some literary pleasures.

BookBusinessTripBook Buying

In Quebec, I discovered local authors and McGill University alumni:
1) Heather O’Neill with her story of twelve-year-old Baby living a precarious existence with her junkie father fleeing from one short-term furnished let to the next, Lullabies for Little Criminals.
2) Alain Farah’s Ravenscrag (translated from French), described as an original blend of retro science fiction and autobiography about resilience, literature as remedy and survival through storytelling.

In London, I could not resist the lure of Waterstone’s Piccadilly (I had no time to go further afield, but spent a happy hour or so in there):
1) Penelope Fitzgerald’s short story collection The Means of Escape – I’ve never read any of her short stories
2) Pascal Garnier: Moon in a Dead Eye because I have difficulty finding his books in France, and it has been mentioned as a favourite among his works by so many fellow bloggers
3) Clarice Lispector: Near to the Wild Heart – one of my favourite authors, or at least she used to be when I last read her twenty years ago – high time to reread!
4) Javier Marias: A Heart So White – high time I explored this author – plus he was translated by Margaret Jull Costa, whom I got to see in my second extravagance on this trip. See below.

Literary Conference

The London Lit Weekend, a little-known and not very widely publicised event (at least not online), took place on the 3rd and 4th of October at King’s Place in London. I attended a fascinating discussion on literary translation with Margaret Jull Costa (prize-winning translator from Portuguese and Spanish) and Ann Goldstein (translator from Italian, including the recent Elena Ferrante tetralogy), chaired by Boris Dralyuk, himself a translator from Russian. I’ll write a separate post about this event, as it was full of quotable insights. But I was too shy to take any pictures.


Well, what is London without a visit to the theatre? I couldn’t resist the adaptation of Mark Haddon’s  The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, which my older son and I both read and enjoyed recently. And yes, he is very envious that I get to see it and he doesn’t!

Dirty Little Reading Habits

I saw this fun tag on the blog 50 a Year and could not resist joining in. It’s all about those silly little rituals us gourmand and gourmet readers like to build up around our favourite activity.

Do you have a certain place at home for reading?

I can read anywhere, in any position, even if my legs and arms get pins and needles. But I will always read at least a page or two (usually a lot more) propped up on lots of pillows in my bed at night, just before going to sleep. It helps me fall asleep more easily and forget about any of the day’s less glorious moments.

Bookmark or a random piece of paper?

I do prefer a bookmark and have quite an extensive collection of them scattered all over the house. However, bookmarks have a secret life of their own and have been known to disappear suddenly when you need them most (especially on planes). So I’ve been known to use boarding passes and even banknotes as an emergency bookmark.

Can you stop reading any time, or do you have to stop in a certain place?

Always at the end of a chapter. I hope that any choking child or burning house will have the courtesy to wait until I’ve reached that perfect point of interruption!

cherriesDo you eat or drink while reading?

As a child, during my summer holidays, I would read perched up in a cherry tree, so I did develop some fruit-eating habits whilst reading a book. Later in life, this led to quite a bit of reading/snacking marathons (on crisps and chocolate, mostly), because I didn’t want to interrupt the story for a proper sit-down meal. I try not to do it so much nowadays, not just for my own health, but also for the health of the books (no nasty chocolate smears on the pages or greasy thumb prints).

Can you read while listening to music/watching TV?

I say I can, but it does mean that the music/TV just gets completely drowned out and I have no idea what is on in the background.

One book at a time or several at once?

Am I really weird that I do have more than one on the go at any given time? I usually have about three in the mix, so that I can choose what to read depending on mood, time of day, how much time I have to read etc. I always have a crime novel close by (that’s my comfort read, even if I like them quite dark and gruelling), something in a foreign language (too much hard work to read it without occasional light relief) and then a literary novel or a volume of poetry or something non-fictiony. I don’t usually read three in the same genre and language at the same time: that would cross those dainty little wires in my brains.

From leapfrog.com
From leapfrog.com

Reading out loud or silently in your head?

I am almost a speed-reader (not really, I haven’t done any proper training, but I am quite fast), so far too fast to read out loud! However, I do love to read out loud if given half a chance. I used to bore my poor mother to death reading from the Mallory Towers series and The Little White Horse when I was a child, and I really enjoyed bedtime stories with my own children. Sadly, they won’t let me ‘perform’ for them anymore. I miss those cuddly, sharing moments.

Do you read ahead and skip pages?

Only if the book is really, really boring but I have promised to read it for reviewing purposes and I am trying to find its redeeming feature. Sadly, in most such cases, I will end up refusing to review it.

In my misguided youth, I may have peeked at the very last sentence of a book if I cared a lot about the characters. Unfortunately, the final sentence usually doesn’t give a lot away… and then I would have that on my conscience for the duration of the book. Not worth the guilt, I say!

Break the spine or keep it new?

Most of my books look virtually new and unread, so I expect to see them returned in that very same condition when I lend them to others. (!!!) Alas! I’ve often learnt that a bookworm friend might have very different reading habits from mine (bent-down corners, broken spines, even scribbles and greasy pawprints, to name just a few pet peeves).

But, before you think I’m too anal about it, I have to admit that I do have some well-thumbed, less pristine books in my collection. These are my faithful old companions that have followed me across borders for over thirty years now and have been re-read many, many times.

No, not my books! From RestorationSOS.com
No, not my books! From RestorationSOS.com

Do you write in books?

(Whispers) I used to. I feel really bad about it still.

I might do it in textbooks or reference books (the ones I own, of course, not the ones I borrow from the library, of course), but not in novels. I have a notebook to scribble my thoughts in for later reviews, but I don’t always have it to hand, so the best thoughts just fly away…

I’d love to hear all about your own secret little reading habits, if you want to let me know in the comments below. Or, who knows, maybe even join in the tag on your own blog?

Reading Acrostic

What better way to start a week full of hard work and worthy projects than with a delightful bit of procrastination? Thank you to Susan, Annabel and David for the impetus… I think…

The rules are simple: make an acrostic of your name using the books you have read recently (or, in some cases, not all that recently). I have used books that have truly impressed me, that I have rated 4 or 5 stars. The links are to reviews, although not all of the books below have received the reviews they deserve from me. I don’t think I’ll have time to do them justice in the near future, so I’ve completed with brief comments taken from my Goodreads archive.


M  Moominpappa at Sea by Tove Jansson

An island, a lighthouse, a garden: what more could you want? The book where we get the clearest picture of the tensions between Moominpappa and Moominmamma, yet also a story of the triumph of family love and the beauty of impractical dreaming.

A  Apocalypse Baby by Virginie Despentes

R  La Route de Beit Zera by Hubert Mingarelli

I  The Islanders by Pascal Garnier

N  No Other Darkness by Sarah Hilary

A The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

Amazing how the author manages to inject such a serious and heartbreaking subject, so many rather shocking and sad events, with humour, tenderness and the practical, no-nonsense yet vulnerable mindset of an adolescent. Beautiful and emotional piece of work.

S  Scarred Hearts by Max Blecher

Such a modern feel to this one: Blecher does not shy away from the good, the bad, the ugly, the things we would rather not acknowledge. Not for the squeamish or hypocritical. A burst of candour and poignancy, an urgent love of life, from a character (and an author) doomed to die. Heartbreaking.

O  Our Andromeda by Brenda Shaughnessy

This inspiring collection of poems has something for all tastes: from the playful and linguistically inventive (particularly for those among us who are more auditively inclined) to the deeply moving pathos of the title poem, which had me in tears even while queuing for 1.5 hours at US borders. Captivating voice and a willingness to be brave, honest and experiment, rather than showing off.

F Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli

I  Les Ignorants by Étienne Davodeau

A  Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Would love to see your own versions, so please don’t be shy!



Summer Reading Round-Up

Back from holidays and sooo much work to catch up on (as well as reviews). Needless to say, I did not get quite as much writing and reading done this past week of ‘real holiday’, because I did not spend all my time on the beaches below (more’s the pity!).


Luckily for my reading/writing projects, I only had one week ‘off’. This summary represents two months’ worth of reading, because the school holidays here spread over July and August.

Women in Translation Month

In August I spent most of my time reading women in translation, trying to rely on books that I already had. I grouped some of them together for reviewing purposes (lack of time or because I thought they were made for each other), but here they are in the order I read them.

Kati Hiekkapelto: The Defenceless and an interview with the author here

Valeria Luiselli: Faces in the Crowd

Therese Bohmann: Drowned

Virginie Despentes: Apocalypse Baby

Karin Fossum: The Drowned Boy

Alice Quinn: Queen of the Trailer Park

Judith Schalansky: The Neck of the Giraffe

Adina Rosetti: Ten Times on the Lips

Renate Dorrestein: The Darkness that Divides Us

Gøhril Gabrielsen: The Looking-Glass Sisters

Tove Janssen: The True Deceiver (and other assorted Moomin books) – to catch up on later

Rodica Ojog-Braşoveanu: The Man at the End of the Line (to be reviewed)

Veronika Peters: Was in zwei Koffer passt (All that Fits in 2 Suitcases)


Other Women Writers

Following the WIT reading, I was in the mood to read more women authors in English as well. Some of them were for CFL reviews, but many were just escapism.

Lucy Atkins: The Other Child

Sophie Hannah: A Game for All the Family

Sarah Ward: In Bitter Chill

Rosamond Lehmann: The Echoing Grove

Anya Lipska: A Devil Under the Skin

Susan M. Tiberghien: Footsteps

Jenny Lawson: Furiously Happy


And Other Reads:

Review copy: Sebastian Fitzek: The Child

Library book: Emmanuel Carrere: The Adversary

Rereading: F. Scott Fitzgerald: Tender Is the Night



24 books, 15 in or from other languages, 9 in English, 8 crime fiction.

My best proportion of translated fiction ever, so the WIT initiative clearly works well even for those of us who believe we read a lot of women writers and a lot of translated fiction. I made many wonderful discoveries, and feel I have learnt something from each book, even though I may not have loved them all.

My crime pick of the month/holidays is Hiekkapelto’s The Defenceless, because it is such a timely topic (about the way we treat asylum-seekers). My overall favourite read is also Finnish (with a Swedish twist): Tove Jansson. Well, she sets a very high bar… But honourable mentions go to Valeria Luiselli and Gøhril Gabrielsen. (I exclude F. Scott Fitzgerald from the competition.) My disappointment was the Veronika Peters book, which I thought was going to be a more in-depth account of a woman’s search for herself, for God, for inner peace or spirituality. Instead, it was an (entertaining enough) account of everyday life in a convent, with all its rivalries, good and bad bits, but a lot more shallow than I expected – both the book and the narrator.






Reading Plans for the Summer Holidays

Only one week of summer holidays has gone by. A week only. Nothing but a week. ONLY one week with both children at home (2 1/2 weeks with the older son, who started earlier)… and I can see my plans for writing and reading are going to suffer… Add to that admin or professional things such as arranging house rentals, visa applications, travel arrangements for September, course preparation and tax returns, plus some writing-related projects which are more fun, but still require a lot of time. So you will not see me blogging very regularly over the next few weeks.


Instead, let me me tell you about my tentative reading plans. I’m very happy to have finished my #TBR20, but it’s only made a small dent in my reading pile. I will need to do a rerun at some point in September/October.

But first, I want to read those books I borrowed from the library, which have been waiting patiently in queue for #TBR20 to be over.

  1. Fred Vargas: Temps Glaciares – the latest Adamsberg book, not yet available in English
  2. Caroline Deyns: Perdu, le jour où nous n’avons pas dansé (Wasted, the Day We Did Not Spend Dancing) – a fictional account of Isadora Duncan’s life
  3.  Emannuel Carrère: L’Adversaire

Women in Translation Month (August)


  1. Valeria Luiselli: Faces in the Crowd (Mexico) – this will count towards my Global Reading Challenge as well
  2. Tove Jansson: The True Deceiver (Finnish)
  3. Therese Bohman: Drowned (Swedish)
  4. Alice Quinn: Queen of the Trailer Park (French) – this will count towards my Netgalley Challenge as well

Netgalley Challenge – trying to get my bookshelf in order, as I’ve been ‘overfeeding’ my already obese e-reader


  1. Sarah Ward: In Bitter Chill
  2. Renee Knight: Disclaimer
  3. Karin Fossum: The Drowned Boy (also counts towards WIT challenge)
  4. Sarah Leipciger: The Mountain Can Wait (also counts towards Global Reading Challenge)
  5. Lucy Atkins: The Other Child

You may notice there is a pronounced chiller thriller feel to the list above – just what I like reading on the beach (although there won’t be much beach featuring in my summer this year).

I reserve the right to chop and change within each category (except for the library books, which are due back end of August). I also hope at some point this summer to reread ‘Tender is the Night’ – quintessential summer read, to my mind (OK, depressing as hell, but still…).

Still, those are but shadowy plans and, as the Romanians say (as the Greeks are finding out): ‘your calculations at home never match the calculations in the marketplace’.