Book Suggestions? Check …

This month I’m reading Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic by Sam Quinones for my book club and I’m 67% of the way through. I will finish it and I do recommend it as it explains how the opiate addiction epidemic took hold in America (and gives me some ideas as to why it hasn’t taken root in Europe to date).  I bought it on a whim after hearing Marc Maron rave about it as he was introducing an episode of his podcast (called WTF and on iTunes or which I listen to regularly. I don’t love every episode as I’m not into some of this older musician rock’n’roll types, but sometimes it is like listening to therapy and I get so much out of it.

This week I listened to a WTF podcast with Geoff Tate and he suggested a book called The Narcissist Next Door by Jeffery Kluger, which I also bought on a whim and downloaded to my kindle. I got it because Geoff said the first two chapters are about Donald Trump even though the book was written six years ago. Once a narcissist always a narcissist, I suppose. I work with a lot of them and have had my personal life damaged by one or two so I thought it would be a good book to read. I may or may not put it forward for book club as we usually read fiction, and given that October’s book is non-fiction having two non-fiction books in succession might be poorly received.

I’ve got 36 books on my kindle now, with a couple of them partially read. I have at least a dozen print books I’ve accumulated in the past six months stacked up on my bedroom dresser. Am I panicking a bit about finding the time to read all of them? In a word, yes. It’s one of the two things you have to make time for: reading and working out (health for your mind and health for your body). It’s a random selection and I don’t know if I’ll read all of them. For example, my partner’s mother gave me a Jojo Moyes book (which I will probably not read), and I’ve got three or four technical books in the stack that my data science colleague has suggested and which remain unread. I should probably alternate a reading for pleasure book with a reading for work book, but I have not implemented that as my reading schedule yet.

I struggle to resist adding new books to the ones I already want to read. I always believe I’ll have time to read them even though the list remains long. Lately I’ve been spending a lot of my train journeys and idle evening time reading the internet rather than these books. I think I’ve just been drawn in to the nightmarish, Orwellian dystopia that the world seems to be slipping into and I alternate between a desire for distraction and a need for further insight. Books (and poetry) would probably do both of those so best drop this bad habit and get on with chipping away at the reading iceberg I’ve built up.

Either way, book club is on October 12th, so I have no excuse to not have Dreamland finished by then.

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Poetry? Goth Teen Much?

2016 has proven to be a difficult year (and it’s not even over yet). Work has been slow and unchallenging. I moved from a furnished flat to an unfurnished house and that took me a month.  Others dear to me have had some life trials: cancer, divorce, children with emotional issues, you name it. Oh all that and Syria, Brexit, Hillary and Donald. It’s all been a lot to bear but not enough that I can claim some sort of sympathy for it.

I am not a religious person. I do not believe in any god or any supernatural being. I do however feel a terrible malaise that I can’t shake, something that has taken roost in my head and is pecking at my well-being. When faced with an emotional crisis that doesn’t really require therapy (or maybe it does, not sure), to what does the hardened atheist (hint: me) turn to ?  What would be uplifting and/or distracting from the hell-hole the world is turning into? I looked into my usual pursuits and rejected them thusly:

  1. Reading a book to take my mind off things? Yes, this is my go-to distraction method but because I was unhappy with my fitness and/or body image I started reading Kelsey Osgood’s book How to Disappear Completely and made myself feel worse. What was I thinking? I also had some missteps this year with reading for my book club, namely trying to get through Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon. What a mistake that was. I made it worse by trying a champagne and absinthe cocktail described in the book (and called Death in the Afternoon on the menu) at my partner’s birthday dinner. In a word: foul. I decided to take a break from reading books for a bit.
  2. Look for distractions on the internet? This is either a work activity, done during my lunch hour or a train activity, done whilst squeezing into overcrowded carriages trying to avoid touching people. This obviously was an idiotic idea but the dopamine hit my brain would get from finding something interesting to read kept me coming back for more. What a completely asinine and stupid thing to do.  I want to make the comparison of an alcoholic who’s given up drinking going and hanging out in a bar but I feel that’s unfair to recovering addicts (especially from the two books I’ve read recently on this: Blackout by Sarah Hepola and Parched by Heather King). I’m giving up looking for internet distractions for a while as best I can (and creating one instead, ok I get the irony).
  3. Resurrect my painting and drawing habit? I haven’t done this in so long it now feels atrophied. I didn’t have the space to paint or draw in my flat, and the house I moved into doesn’t have anywhere to create an ‘art studio’ type space. This makes me feel guilty and I really struggle with it. I dug out my sketch book and some of my pencils, but they’re still sitting on the shelf taunting me from across the room.

What to do? I didn’t want to burden my lovely friends with my malaise (although getting together with them to blow off steam and drink lots of wine was still a regular activity, make no mistake). No, this wasn’t a feeling that could be cured by interaction with others. This felt like my consciousness was going into a spin, a self-defeating grey mode, a place that had no perspective or colour.

When I was a kid and I felt grey or foggy or down, I might read The Lives of the Saints or some other book about people overcoming huge problems. Given that I now believe all of that is the same fiction as was letting me down at the moment, I couldn’t go back to it. I couldn’t pray. I’m haven’t tried to be good at meditating (the concentration it requires is what I’m currently lacking so I decided compounding my problem with it was self-defeating). I can’t do yoga on the train or at my desk, so what was the alternative to give myself a lift? The answer is poetry.

I have a little hardcover copy of The Oxford Book of English Verse 1250-1918 that I bought in a charity bookshop somewhere, maybe Brighton. It is the size of a missal, with a blue fabric cover and pages thin like a bible or a prayer book. It was published in the 1950s and my copy has an inscription in fountain pen on the inside cover that must have meant a lot to someone called Chris.


I started to carry this around with me and thumb through the pages, reading a poem or two that corresponded to my mood (or was the opposite of my mood). So many stories of nature, love, war, death, god, family and it occurred to me: how is this any different from a religious text, e.g. a  c bible? It’s the same physical structure (cover, pages, font) and it is also written by many different authors in verse form. Each poem has a message and it’s up to the reader to determine what that message is, much like the Christian bible.

What if reading and reflecting on poems had the same effect as reading, reflecting and praying according to a religious doctrine? Could I fill the empty space in my self with Lord Byron instead of the Lord Our God? Worshiping and following a doctrine are not relevant to this question, only the spiritual solace people ascribe to religious texts and why they read them. Could poetry do that for this literature-loving atheist?

I will try it out and we shall see.

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I know you wanted

To see yourself in me

For me to be made in your image

But I am not

Did you know I wanted

To see myself in you

For you to know I am different from you

But I am not

We say harsh things

We hurt with words

Only because we can’t

Hurt with harder things

I will not be like some

Who pin their failures on their genes

The nature and the nurture

Or lack of

I don’t want to regret the times

We have and haven’t spent together

The words we did or didn’t say

The hours we wished we had

I am of your image but not of your soul

We keep our own souls

Separating us as individuals

But from the same roots, over and over again

We turn these leaves over often enough

They break, we start again

The days come now where they hold stronger

And we’ll be each other till the end

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I used to be on a project team at work and our biggest challenge was tricking people to do things that would be in their best interest, like flossing or doing their taxes on time. Along with joking about something we liked to call “Shannon’s Plan for World Domination” (still just a plan, won’t be disclosing it here), I dreamed of a place where things would be as I wished them to be, or SHANUTOPIA!

It’s a silly name but it makes me laugh and I will post some other things that make me laugh or wonder or whatever. Enjoy.

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