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I discovered the first of my favourite Matt Haig books a couple of years ago when I stumbled across his novel ‘How To Stop Time’.
Matt Haig is a British author who writes books for both adults and children. He writes a mix of fiction and non-fiction. His style of writing is easy to read and I was quickly gripped by the book.
Sadly, nowadays, in my opinion, many modern books on Kindle are badly written with poor grammar and editing.
Not so with Matt. I devoured How To Stop Timequickly and looked for other books by the author.
Next up was ‘The Humans’. I didn’t enjoy this one quite as much, I didn’t seem to warm to the main character. Don’t let this put you off, it was still a good read and is critically acclaimed.
I didn’t read any further books from Matt for a little while. Then I heard an interview with him about his book ‘Reasons To Stay Alive’. This is a non-fiction book about Matt’s struggles with depression and anxiety. It was number one in the bestsellers lists for many weeks.
Here is my review of my favourite 3 of the 4 books I’ve read so far.
How To Stop Time
I’ve always loved a good time travel story, particularly those where the travel is to the past. This isn’t a time travel story in the truest sense. The main character, Tom, doesn’t actually travel through time. Instead, he has a condition that means he ages VERY slowly. So he doesn’t hop about through time willy nilly! He has simply been around for a long time (over 400 years) although he only looks about 40.
We meet him as he takes up a role as a History teacher in London. An obvious role for someone who personally met Shakespeare, Captain Cook and F Scott Fitzgerald!
The underlying story is a love story, but this isn’t your usual ‘romcom’ type material. There is a sinister undertone to the book in the form of a secret society made up of others like Tom. Those with Tom’s condition are known as ‘Albatrosses’ or ‘Albas’ where the rest of us are ‘Mayflies’.
The aim of this secret society is to hide the Albas away from research scientists and other prying eyes. They also have one key rule ‘never fall in love’. The society arranges a new identity for its members every 8 to 10 years to avoid detection. The malevolence comes from there being no choice in this. Something that the main character struggles with increasingly throughout the book.
The historical scenes are what made the book come alive for me. I was particularly fascinated by Tom’s description of Shakespeare and his time spent in the theatres with him. He tells his students that Shakespeare was “A man with hands and feet and bad breath”.
“How do you know he had bad breath?” they ask. Tom longs to tell them how but of course doesn’t! Turns out Shakespeare ate an awful lot of oysters!
The description of The Globe theatre was also fascinating. Theatre then wasn’t the civilised affair it is today. All kinds of people (‘thieves, troublemakers, prostitutes’) were crammed in together. Brawls and fights were commonplace.
Hubby and I once had a backstage tour of a theatre from a similar era and were told that the place would’ve had no toilets. So people would just go where they sat! Matt does a good job of describing the smells and atmosphere of the place. They all ate oysters, drank a lot and there were no toilets, so you can imagine!
Throughout the story, an understanding of what it is to be human shines through.
Neil Gaiman said of Matt’s writing: ‘Haig has an empathy for the human condition, the light and the dark of it, and he uses the full palette to build his excellent stories’.
Reasons To Stay Alive
The first thing that strikes me about this book is its honesty. Expect a no holds barred description of one man’s experience with depression, panic and anxiety and how he learned to manage his illness.
Whether you have suffered from mental illness yourself, or are close to someone who has, this book is for you.
I like the balance in this book between Matt’s own story alongside chapters with helpful advice and tips.
Like his fiction books, Matt’s simple and engaging style of writing continues in this book. I was hooked from the start where he tells his story of how he first became ill and suicidal.
Matt acknowledges from the outset that no 2 people will experience mental illness in exactly the same way. He says that he wanted to share his account as he has found accounts from other people helpful along the way.
Throughout the book, Matt speaks to his ‘younger self’ from the present. He tells him that ‘the storm ends’ (although at first, his younger self does not believe him).
You might think that this book will make for a difficult or depressing read given the subject matter. I would describe the early chapters of the book as ‘raw’ rather than difficult or depressing.
Matt has a brilliant knack for describing exactly how he was feeling and bringing this to life on the page. This didn’t depress me, more it helped me to understand. (Thankfully I have never suffered from depression, although I have had issues with anxiety and panic).
There are many uplifting and inspirational sections throughout the book as well. And humour. All the books I have read by Matt have had that in common.
Giving advice to his younger self, Matt says:
Minds have their own weather systems. You are in a hurricane. Hurricanes run out eventually. Hold on
Some other quotes from the book which resonated with me include:
There is no standard normal. Normal is subjective. There are 7 billion versions of normal on this planet
3 in the morning is never the time to try and sort out your life
Matt also includes a helpful section at the end of the book about how to seek help, how to prepare for an appointment with your doctor and useful organisations to contact.
Notes On A Nervous Planet
I haven’t quite finished reading this one. It’s another non-fiction book which builds on some of the ideas and advice that Matt talks about in Reasons To Stay Alive.
The book talks about the effects of the modern world on our mental well-being. As you would expect if you’ve read Reasons To Stay Alive, there are also sections containing practical advice on how to counter these effects.
The book is thought-provoking and interesting. Parts of it resonated very strongly with me.
For example, Matt talks about the ‘excess of everything’ in the modern world. Even in my relatively short lifetime, the explosion of choice in every aspect of living is phenomenal. When I was a child, we had 3 TV channels. I remember this increasing to 4 and it was so exciting! Now we have hundreds plus anything we want to watch on demand.
And what about books? Matt quotes figures from the website Mental Floss which estimates there were 134,021,533 books in existence halfway through 2016. With his trademark humour, he asks us to imagine a book club in the early 16th century, not long after the invention of the printing press. In those days there were about 40 new books published each year. Matt describes the conversation at the book club. “So what are you all reading?” “Whatever there is Cedric”.
He points out we are drowning in books. We are drowning in TV shows. There is no way we will ever be able to read or watch them all. Instead, he suggests looking at all this from a more human perspective. Not worrying about the books and tv shows we will never watch, but instead, focus on the few that we can.
Another section of the book that resonated with me (given that I was around when there were only 3 TV channels) is that on the subject of ageing.
I admit to feeling a bit down lately when I look in the mirror and see the wrinkles and the lines.
Matt points out a few times in the book that no one else except for you worries about your face. I’d never looked at it like that before.
I tried to think if I had ever worried about anyone else’s face. I haven’t, not even those of my nearest and dearest. The simple fact that their faces belong to them is what I notice.
Unless I’m looking back at old photographs, I never really notice that they look any different as the years go by. (And even then it’s more the hairstyles I notice above anything else!!)
Matt talks a lot in the book about the internet and social media. Again, a lot of this resonated as he describes the plus side of the internet along with the downsides and impacts on our mental health. I will end with this quote from the book which is a reminder to disconnect from the drama and trolling which is a sad reality of the online world at times.
When anger trawls the internet, looking for a hook; it’s time to disconnect and go and read a book
So there we have my 3 favourite Matt Haig books. Have you read any of them? Or any of his others which I haven’t read so far? I’d love to hear what you think.