Hope Street Cards Book Club - January

Welcome to the ‘Last Wednesday Book Club’! It’s our very first meeting and this gathering probably would have started better had I properly invited you along or given you full notice in advance. But we will continue.

Here’s the down low. ‘Last Wednesday Book Club’ is new to Hope Street Cards for 2016 and what it will involve each month is me posting a blog reviewing a book which in some way discusses issues related to mental health or mental illness. It might be a self-help book (not to be scoffed at – some are actually helpful), a memoir or autobiography (we will NOT be reading anything related to Ben Cousins), it might even be a textbook of sorts. Each month I’ll let you know the book we will be reading for the month and if you wish, you can join in. And due to the powers of the Internet you can join in in the most wonderful ways. You can submit your own review by commenting on the blog, you might choose to leave your thoughts on our Facebook page (Hope Street Cards) or you might like to tag really lovely photos of you reading the book to our Instagram account (@hopestreetcards) or with the hashtag #lwbc. Again – how wonderful is the Internet?

So, I will know channel my inner Jennifer Byrne and kick it off. This Month I read Sane New World: Taming the Mind by Ruby Wax.

For those who haven’t come across her, Ruby Wax is/was a British comedian who apparently used to interview a lot of celebrities on the tele. As she discloses in the book, at one point she was involved in a television series where she interviewed people in their homes who were experiencing mental illnesses like OCD, depression and PTSD. Interestingly at this time she was also an inpatient at a (very nice) private psychiatric facility and would return to the hospital post-interview to receive treatment for her own depression. Following this, Wax began studying psychotherapy before going on to Oxford University and completing a Masters in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy in an attempt to understand the neuroscience behind her own experience of mental illness.

The book is split into four parts. The first part is a subjective look at depression and Wax’s formulation for why we are all “mad”. She moves on to make a compelling case for how certain “normal” human thought processes and behaviours were incredibly useful to the average hunter-gatherer – and how they’re not so well suited to the ins and outs of everyday modern life. The third section looks at the ways in which the brain controls and balances our emotional lives. There’s information about the structure and the function of different parts of the brain, and an outline of some of the better known neurochemicals. And in part four of the book she explores mindfulness – the practice of focusing one’s attention and becoming aware of one’s experience – and its use in self-regulating thoughts and emotions as a means of dealing with mental health problems. Replete with exercises that aim to put in practice the art of mindfulness, the book encourages readers to reconsider the way they deal with and think about their emotions and thoughts and ultimately the ways we can retrain our brains to improve our health and happiness.

I don’t really know how to write a book review. I was in a book club once before but it seemed as if our main priority in that club was reviewing the food available. So, I’m going to do this review motivational interviewing style, because that I know how to do.

The good things about this book:
• This book is really quite funny. Despite a lot of banging on about how most of society is really gloomy, Wax makes you laugh out loud. Whether it’s describing her Nazi-escaping parents (“child rearing was not their specialty”) or explaining the complex issues surrounding the evolution of human brains: “Millions of years of natural selection, and this is what we’ve come to. We want to be the most famous, the richest, the thinnest and the busiest. Darwin would shit himself in his pants”, you can't help but chuckle.
• The part of the book where she talks about the brain – the development, the structure, the way it works, the important neurotransmitters – is brilliant. Really well researched and informative. And because she brings in her humour, there’s a chance you’ll actually remember some of it. I really wish I had have been able to use this book to study for my second year undergrad neuroscience subject at Uni. The text I tried to rote learn was dull in comparison. Can’t remember a single thing. The diagrams in this book were also very good.
• In terms of celebrity memoir (of which there is quite a bit) it’s not too over the top or narcissistic or irrelevant here. That seems to happen with celebrity memoirs. A lot.
• Because of her inherent sarcasm and almost cynicism about the world around her, that Wax has faith in mindfulness practice adds further to her argument for neuroplasticity and mindfulness practice. For example, she scorns books that give 200 pages of advice “that boil down to ‘Think happy thoughts and your dreams will come true, just like Tinker Bell promised’”, yet she’s ultimately providing us with a 'self-help' book of sorts. And she puts in a lot of evidence-based research to support her theories.
• For a ‘self-help’ book it’s pretty brutal and honest. When outlining the predicament of the minds of all of western civilisation in part one there’s not much sympathy. In a nutshell, Wax sees us all as pretty stupid. And that was quite refreshing for a book of this genre.
• The overall message is one of hope. And this message is supported by the science. That we can change the way we think and improve our responses to things like depression and panic and feeling crap. Or as Wax puts it, “the brain is like a pliable 3lb piece of Play-doh, you can resculpt it by breaking old mental habits and creating new, more flexible ways of thinking”.

The less good things about this book:
• I can’t really figure out who this book is for. I think she thinks it’s for everyone, however it would be very difficult to read if you were experiencing a mental illness or in early recovery. The first part in particular is very heavy on the doom and gloom. If it’s for people who are functioning, however haunted by the “nag-nag” voices then it might be worthwhile. But then the parts regarding Wax’s own experiences with depression might make it feel less relevant. Still stumped on this one.
• It’s really quite a tiring read. And I don’t think it was the content, with all the brain information , research etc., that made me tired. It was all the quick sentences and punch lines and exclamation marks. It’s written in a very similar way to how she speaks on a comedy tour. And I found it a little relentless and exhausting. It was hard to read before going to bed. The irony of it all is that she’s writing at such a frenetic pace, yet telling us all we should all slow down.
• It might be funny (for some people), but I don’t think there’s anything to be gained by using terms like “mad” and “crazy” and “inmates” to describe oneself or other people. Nothing at all. We have so many other words at our disposal, yet Wax almost incessantly sticks to stigmatising mental illness language. I think it’s unhelpful. I’m not going to bang on about why it’s unhelpful. Now, anyways. (You can find one of my rants about it here though).

So, that’s my review. Overall I think it’s pretty good. And my take home message was if we don’t start paying attention to what’s happening in the present, we’ll miss it all. And that will suck.

If you’ve read it and have opinions get involved and let me know them. If you haven’t read it, but have opinions on my opinions get involved and let me know.

Next month I’ll review The Anti Cool Girl by Rosie Waterland. Last Wednesday of February. Happy mental health reading!



Comment on this post (1 comment)

  • Ray Booker says...

    Haven’t read it yet, but a helpful review, Sam. Looking forward to hearing what you think about Rosie’s book.

    02 February 2016

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