Reading for inspiration

17 May

Bathsheba Everdene - a true heroine  © all rights reserved Bathsheba Everdene on Flickr from Yahoo

Bathsheba Everdene – a true heroine
© all rights reserved Bathsheba Everdene on Flickr from Yahoo

I’m feeling slightly bereft this week after finishing reading the excellent Sea Glass by Anita Shreve. The story is both a tale of unrequited love and personal fortitude, as well as an historical account of the economic crash in 1930s America. The journey of the central character, Honora, from unsatisfied newly-wed to single mother, sustained by friendship and the sense of purpose brought about by her baby, couldn’t fail to resonate with me.

Undoubtedly, many people read simply for entertainment and escapism without a thought for whether they particularly like, or agree with the central protagonists.

For me however, a good book, and in particular the characters in fictional narratives, can rattle around my head long after I’ve turned the last page, as I try to make sense of the emotional responses, actions and comeuppances of those whose lives I’ve inhabited for several weeks.

With this in mind, here’s my list of the top five books which have influenced my thinking, or inspired me in some way, particularly when the going’s got tough:

1. Far from the Madding Crowd, by Thomas Hardy

This key A level text made a huge impression on me as a shy teenager desperate to cultivate an air of sophistication and confidence. The main protagonist is a naïve but head-strong young woman holding her own in a man’s world. The novel charts her personal growth as she contends with the trials and tribulations of running a big farm and a tumultuous love- life, each knock back teaching her a valuable life-lesson. A true heroine, flawed and yet, self-knowing. Bathsheba Everdene, I salute you.

2. The Whole Woman, by Germaine Greer

As a young woman in my twenties and in all honesty, in hot pursuit of men, the notion that I might be a feminist was faintly ridiculous – didn’t they burn their bras and have dodgy haircuts? Needless to say, as press officer for Nottingham Trent University I was required to report on a lecture she was giving and was so buoyed up by the experience I swiftly went out to buy her latest book. Although I don’t fully embrace all of Greer’s opinions, The Whole Woman made me question things I’d never considered before about women, gender and equality.

3. Lovely Green Eyes, by Arnost Lustig

This gripping story centres on a teenage girl sent with her family to Auschwitz. Using her red hair and green eyes as cover, 15 year old Hanka poses as an Aryan to gain work in a German military brothel. Her unfaltering self-preservation and cunning enable her to escape death. This was quite a harrowing read, but Hanka’s survival reminded me of the immense strength, dignity and unfaltering hope of those who suffered at the hands of the Nazis. I can recall reading this at a particularly trying time in my early married life, dealing with family and financial problems, and realising how insignificant my woes were in comparison to those living through wars or persecution. Humbling.

4. Eat, Love and Pray, by Elizabeth Gilbert

This book, which preceded the no doubt smaltzy film, heralded a fresh mind set for me during a very difficult period of hurt and confusion about what direction my life should take following my separation. Very few of us can go to such great lengths to find inner peace, but like Liz, learning to allow myself to step off the treadmill and ‘just be’ has been hugely restorative.

4. Wouldn’t take nothing for my journey now, by Maya Angelou

I chanced upon this book earlier this year, whilst I was struggling to juggle my demanding job and look after (single-handedly) my young daughter. Maya’s lessons on life are poetic, humourous and forgiving of human fallibility. Her guidance is as much about loving thy neighbour, as the importance of self-preservation and dignity. Take this nugget: “Whining is not only graceless but can be dangerous. It can alert a brute that a victim is in the neighbourhood”. Sage words indeed.

So dear book lovers, now it’s your turn – which books have inspired you, helped inform your life philosophy or given you succour when you needed it?

Related links:

Top 100 Most Inspirational Books

Love Reading UK

An Awfully Big Blog Adventure

The f word – contemporary UK feminism

4 Responses to “Reading for inspiration”

  1. Laura May 25, 2013 at 3:31 am #

    Hi Kate – my (jewish) mother-in-law gave me a copy of the Red Tent by Anita Diamant when first arriving to NYC. I started to read it (sceptically) as it told the story Dinah (a character fom the first testament)… I figured it would be a religious book, which I would not relate to, having little interest in this subject, but instead I felt pulled in by her story. This was a book, which made me look at the relationship between women and their roles within a family. The strength and knowledge, which is passed from mother to daughter enabling them to grow and deal with the world around them. Although based thousands of years ago, the underlying message remains relevant today and this is a book I’ll pass on to my own daughters one day.

    • Kate Mensah May 25, 2013 at 3:31 pm #

      Hi Laura thanks for sharing details of the Red Tent – it sounds like another book which I should add to my ever growing reading list! It’s great that your mother-in-law wanted to share something with you that has been such a strong influence, presumably, in her life. Like you, I am not a particularly regious person (and if challenged I’d probably say I was Church of England), but have recently discovered the Jewish website the best kind of life and find their videos really inspiring.

  2. Rachel May 21, 2013 at 10:41 pm #

    On holiday I read “The Handmaids Tale” – Atwood (my favourite book ever. I have a reading age of about 13, so is just the right size for me, not too many pages) and “Lady Chatterley’s lover” – Lawrence, (bit of challenge for me, lots of pages, small writing) just because it was in the best 100 books of the 20th century according to Waterstones and I wanted to feel “well read”….but now I suspect Waterstones just wanted to sell more books. Anyway after finishing them, I realised I had only just read the same exact story twice, just set in different worlds.….controlling relationships between men and women, the social duty of the two female characters, a strict class system, oh and the sex thing. If it’s not power or money at the bottom of things, its sex… I don’t why I am always shocked every time I learn this and its not just fiction guys!
    I’m going to read The Whole Woman, by Germaine Greer. Thanks for the recommendation. Just got a few chapters to go on Eat, Pray, Love….I hope she doesn’t go all mushy over a man, not sure how I will feel about that….is that really the best way to end a journey of self discovery….

    • Kate Mensah May 22, 2013 at 7:38 am #

      Hi Rachel, I think you make a good point about the perennial themes of power, money or sex. I will add The Handmaid’s Tale to my reading list, it sounds right up my street. Good luck with The Whole Woman – it was a bit radical for me if I’m honest, but definitely a turning point in my thinking. Suggest you have Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus, by John Gray, on standby as an antidote! Let me know how you get on with Eat, Love, Pray. There’s a sequel too, Committed… if you want to see whether she gets the happy ending without losing her newly found sense of self.

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