Welcome to our weekly Books Digest where we round-up what you should, and shouldn’t, be reading. This week features Matt Haig, Joe Mulhall and Bette Howland.
For more books take a look through our Books Digest Archive.
The Comfort Book by Matt Haig (Canongate), £16.99.
Matt Haig’s The Comfort Book is a strange 251 pages of waffling notes and reflections ranging in length from a single sentence to a couple of pages. At first glance, the commercialisation of mental health into Instagrammable quotes such as, “continually looking for the meaning in life is like looking for the meaning of toast,” is laughable. But between the clichéd self-help quotes, there are flashes of wisdom and regular references to a broad understanding of philosophy and psychology. The notes titled “Current” and “Resting is doing” particularly stand out. The short form lends more meaning too. Perhaps, in the midst of a breakdown or panic attack, a few words are all that is useful, and, at that moment, The Comfort Book’s simplicity makes it accessible. One gripe is the note reading “No physical appearance is worth not eating pasta for”. Reducing eating disorders into a common stereotype is harmful, ignorant and makes the critic’s job all too easy. And many critics there are. Haig himself told The Guardian, “I have never written a book that will be more spoofed or hated,” and he is right. But despite its shortcomings, I can see how it might be helpful to some. After all, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to mental wellbeing, and if Matt Haig can help even a handful of people, why not let him get on with it.
Drums in the Distance: Journeys Into the Global Far Right by Joe Mulhall (Icon Books), £14.99.
If we are to combat fascism, then we first need a deep understanding of how the global far-right think and operate. But, for many of us, the task of studying these movements may feel too grim. Luckily, Joe Mulhall has done the work for us. And his new book, offering a deep dive into far-right movements across the world, is bursting with pertinent analysis. Mulhall is a senior researcher at HOPE not hate, the UK’s largest anti-fascism and anti-racism organisation. And he hasn’t just studied these fascist groups from afar, he has infiltrated them. Because, as he acknowledges, “sometimes it is only by getting inside these movements that you can really uncover the truth.”
The book is meticulously researched and entwined with personal anecdotes from his work over the years. He has attended hundreds of far-right demonstrations in the UK and across Europe, as well as infiltrating Ku Klux Klan meetings, anti-Muslim riots in India and much more. This leaves him in a strong position to offer his take on what motivates these individuals and their hateful politics. And he covers a wide range of groups – from the BNP to the “counter-jihad movement” to Hindu nationalism and Bolsonaro’s Brazil. In the interconnected world we live in, keeping a global perspective on fascism, he argues, is paramount. Mulhall recalls a time, over ten years ago, when his anti-fascist activism was viewed by friends as “earnest but unnecessary”. Why focus on irrelevant far-right movements and not Islamists, many would ask. But, after the far-right terrorism we’ve seen in recent years, few still subscribe to this view, making Drums in the Distance all the more necessary.
W-3: A Memoir by Bette Howland (Pan Macmillan), £14.99.
Bette Howland’s memoir about her stay on Ward 3, a psychiatric unit in Chicago, is far from the personal retelling of one woman’s time in hospital you might expect. Instead, her own story occupies little space. Howland’s experiences punctuate those of the other patients on W-3, rather than driving them.
It was first published in 1974, after a literary magazine editor, Brigid Hughes, discovered an original copy of Bette Howland’s W-3 in a secondhand bookshop in New York in 2015 and vowed to bring it back to life. Through its raw portrayal of mental health treatment and patients, Hughes recognised W-3 to be as necessary now as it was in the 1970s, and she was right. Howland draws up the blueprints of life as an “inmate”; the time, place and names involved are of little importance when the truth and insights are this timeless.
Throughout the book, we rub shoulders with the chatty and the speechless, the erratic and the withdrawn; those sedated by the system and those at the doors begging to be let out. “Each of us had a story,” Howland writes. Transformed beyond case studies, in W-3 these “inmates”, housewives, mothers and students, are given space to become human again. Bette Howland’s work will, and should be, read and rediscovered time and time again.
Look out for more Books Digest each week, until then why not visit our Books Digest archive.