I began 2021 on a not terribly optimistic note. With the world as it is, work as it is and not being able to see my nearest and dearest, I felt defeated by the 2nd of January. Not a good time, you might think then, to read either of these two books which found themselves at the top of my January list. But oddly, they both gave me much insight into myself, my relationships with others and left me feeling more positive than I had felt in a very long time. And realising that things are not always my fault as I am prone to think, but rather that the actions of others often shape not just who we are but who we allow ourselves to be.
I read Notes to Self by Emilie Pine first. A series of six deeply personal essays, many of her experiences echoed elements of my own life. These are essays to read one at a time as they contain an outpouring of things that we so often as women, just simply don’t talk about. From her father’s alcoholism ( I should point out that my father certainly wasn’t one) and subsequent illness and near death to her troubled relationship with her own body and reckless, some would say, teenage years much of this clever book resonated, not least because she was brought up in Ireland as I was myself – a country which is still dealing with the way it treated women in the past and where my teenage years were filled with self- loathing and a sense of never properly fitting in. It’s interesting that things that have bothered you, never occur to you that they might be so deeply seated. It’s a painful read, a joyous read, poignant, wise and above all, true to itself. I urge you all to go and buy a copy and pass it on to your friends, daughters and perhaps your male partners…
Talking of not fitting in, my second January choice How to Fail by Elizabeth Day takes this as one of its central themes and again I found myself fascinated by this painfully honest but filled with humour book. Day says, “If I have learned one thing from this shockingly beautiful venture called life, it is this: failure has taught me lessons I would never otherwise have understood.” For me, the chapters on How to Fail at Fitting In, Relationships and Friendship where the most pertinent and as I read about toxic relationships, being an outsider in Ireland (yes that again but this time Northern Ireland) where you were never included in anything from the tennis club to clubbing because you were British and people pleasing friends who ultimately drop you when you become less interesting or don’t need their ‘help’ anymore were the most relevant, and again, it was a book that I read slowly and with consideration. Please don’t get me wrong here, I didn’t have some awful traumatic childhood but it’s interesting to note what I remember and what’s stuck. Someone recently sent me a deeply personal email pointing out some of what they felt were my ‘faults’ which were, amongst other things, being stubborn and over sensitive and I was not just hurt but dismayed that this person who I call a friend could say such things. In Day’s book she tells us to turn these sorts of events on their heads and see the positives in them – being stubborn and sensitive can be great qualities as well as negative ones, and also to realise that sometimes we have to let go of people and let them get on and make new friends for different phases of their lives.
Of course, what comes from this book, is that to be successful, you have to fail. It teaches you valuable lessons. Inspired by her podcast of the same name where Day interviews well known people about their failures (Nigel Slater’s were – not living up to his father’s expectations and being a hugely selfish friend – who knew?), it shows us that even the most ‘on the surface’ successful people still harbour feelings of sometimes, intense failure. Again, it’s a book to be read at leisure, one chapter at a time and who doesn’t need one entitled How to Fail at Being Gwyneth Paltrow! Most intense for me was the Anger chapter (we are treated like hysterical women if we dare to be angry) and I realise that I’ve been miles too nice about things that I should have been furious about for too many years (and let people walk all over me) and shall be from here on in adhering to the assertion that ‘We can be angry. We can be honest about it. And we can use it as fuel, motherfuckers’. Read it. You’ll be glad you did.