Well, this book is a number one bestseller … but I wonder how many positive reviews it’s got, short of the puff pieces in the book and the helping-to-sell Stephen Fry quote on the front. I’d be really interested to hear from other people who’ve read it, because I had a very negative reaction to it and almost err on the side of finding it a bit dangerous. After all that opprobrium, I’m sharing some new books at the bottom of this post, at least …

Ruby Wax – “A Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled”

(22 May 2017)

Now, OK, I can’t have been desperate to read this because I did let it drift to the top of the TBR before picking it off, but I can imagine that a lot of people who are feeling vulnerable or anxious or indeed frazzled have picked this up. It says it’s a bestseller on the cover and I’m sure a lot of people will have picked it up, there’s also much talk about the Master’s in Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy which Wax has taken, so I was expecting something a bit more kind and a lot less harsh and, to be honest, crass than I got.

I want to say right now that of course it’s good to talk about mental health issues – and it’s fine to joke about them, too. Some people who have mental health issues reclaim various words that have been used negatively in the past to apply to themselves and that’s a thing and it’s fine. But I do think books like this have a duty of care and a duty to be consistent, and I didn’t find this in this book. Maybe others will. If it helps one person in one way, it’s obviously worth having, and I don’t begrudge that person the help they’ve received. I also appreciate that Wax is known as a brash and perhaps crass character who – as she says in the book – uses humour to shore up her own worries about her shortcomings. But the tone of the book comes over as cynical and mean.

Now, I don’t mind a bit of robustness. I’m enjoying Bruce Springsteen’s book and he’s just admitted he’s mislaid his knowledge of whom he lost his virginity to in the “fog of battle”. But he’s not writing a self-help book. And there’s a duty of kind, perhaps. A duty of compassion.

I’ve agonised about whether to share some of these quotes. Wax does not bring her kind words. She uses the word “moron” a lot and I didn’t think that was a word we used. She describes being worried that an academic will think she’s “brain-damaged”, as a joke. Um. There’s a terrible bit of crassness, well, I’ll share this because it’s not being horrible about people in psychiatric institutions …

If you’re in an emergency situation, happiness is more elusive. I’d just like to remind you that I realize I’m only addressing about 5 per cent of the people in the world in this book: those who have enough food in their mouths, and clothes on their backs. Most people on this globe don’t have the time to contemplate happiness; whether they live or die is just a flip of a coin.

So far, fair enough. But then she continues …

I apologize to them – not that they’d be reading this book, but if they happen to be using some of the pages to build a fire and read any of this … I’m sorry. (p. 29)

Well, I’m sorry, too – I just don’t find that funny.

She has one core statement in the book that chimed with me. Here it is:

My definition of mindfulness is noticing your thoughts and feelings without kicking your own ass while you’re doing it. (p. 35)

A lot of the rest of the book tells us why mindfulness is good for us and all the things it can help with or cure (quite a scary list if you’re in the middle of something you need the mindfulness for). There’s always a lot of self-justification in self-help books of any kind, but it gets quite repetitive and then plays to some of the clichés – that there are areas in the brain that light up when you think about something (it’s not that simple). She is trying to simplify and she says that – but who let her use her own drawings of the brain when there are perfectly decent diagrams to be had?!

And yes, you can’t get away from the fact that she mocks people who have been resident in clinics and psychiatric wards. Even though she includes herself, it feels nasty. “We need a sense of self for three things: self-reflection, consistency and identity. (It would be terrible if you thought you were Napoleon, as some do; but they’re locked away.)” (p. 67); “I only found my people when I was institutionalized; I felt understood and safe even with the ones who set their hair on fire and claimed that Norman the Conqueror was passing them secrets” (p. 135). She talks a lot about having compassion for yourself but this really undermines that, to my mind.

Then there’s the cynicism – she offers quite a good model for dealing with marital arguments in her section on relationships, then immediately undermines it: “I have never succeeded in this particular exercise, and I don’t think anyone has” (p.147). Why include it, then? I was genuinely confused. There’s also a section detailing a depression she went through which I think was supposed to illustrate how her new clarity helped her deal with it and recover faster – but a) it felt self-indulgent and b) it underlined the idea that depression will come back and get you and you’ll just have to ride it out, which isn’t fantastically helpful as far as I’m concerned.

The actual six-week programme she promises is 40 pages of quite basic ideas about grounding, work with the senses and some elementary yoga that is hard to follow without illustrations if you don’t already do yoga. I think that’s a bit of a rip-off, to be honest. There’s then a chapter on relationships, which I read and was cynical, and ones on children and babies and older children which I have to admit I didn’t read.

It wasn’t for me. I really hope it’s helped some people and I really hope it hasn’t harmed anyone. I’m not sure what else to say. I was really disappointed as I do find value in the mindfulness experienced in my yoga classes and some things I brought out of a mindfulness running book I read a while back (see review here).

Ooookayy. Let’s get back to reading confessions. Well, first of all I’m greatly enjoying Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography, “Born to Run” and I’m reading “Souvenir” by Rolf Potts on the Kindle, which is about the history and meaning of souvenirs and is also really good so far.

“This Cold Heaven” by Gretel Ehrlich is a book about seven seasons in Greenland which came highly recommended on Bookish Beck’s blog. I’d popped it in my Amazon basket and then when I went to pre-order a book about US and UK English, there it was and I bought it with an Amazon voucher my parents-in-law had given me. It looks as good as I’d hoped. I’m a bit obsessed with Greenland (not as much as I am with Iceland).

Chase F. Robinson’s “Islamic Civilisation in Thirty Lives” is sitting here with its paperwork inside because it’s a review copy for Shiny New Books. It’s apparently a very accessible journey through the early figures in Islam and, as is suitable for a Thames and Hudson book, has some lovely illustrations. I have to read it for May, which is fine.

I’ve also won two books on NetGalley (bringing my reviewed books ratio down to 79%, oh no!). “Oh my God, what A Complete Aishling” is a comedy novel by Emer McLysaght and Sarah Breen which came with an enthusiastic recommendation by Marian Keyes. It’s a country girl goes to the big city novel and unfortunately isn’t out till 03 May and can’t be reviewed until a week before, so won’t fit in to Reading Ireland Month. “The Lido” by Libby Page” is an uplifting novel about a community of women coming together to save an outdoor swimming pool and is meant to be a feel-good read and the next big thing. It comes out on 19 April so I’ll try to start it next month.

Have you read any of these or got them lined up? Have I been too hard on Ruby Wax and missed the point?