Real Pregnancy Talk: The Woman’s Guilt, Part #1

Let’s talk about how it feels to not have undergone hours of intense labour.

If you’ve had a chance to keep up with my blog in the last few days, you’ll know that I recently gave birth to my baby boy, Dorian Lee. Well, here’s the thing…can I really say that I gave birth to him considering that he was born via emergency C-section?

This is something I’m struggling with at the moment and is the subject of today’s post. As I mentioned in my birth story, my experience of bringing Dorian into the world was not at all what I expected and did not go to plan (even though I didn’t even have a concrete birth plan to begin with). I had to consent very quickly to a C-section because my baby’s heart rate was dangerously low. Now, to be honest, I had always joked that I wanted to have a C-section because it would be easier than having to push an entire human out of my unmentionables. But, let’s be real, a C-section is major surgery and isn’t advisable if not completely necessary, and that’s what all of my friends and family kept reminding me. In the end, though, I had no choice but to have a C-section and it wasn’t a particularly easy one at that. 

Even though I am currently still recovering and feel bruised and battered in a lot of places, I do have quite a bit of guilt with regards to my birth experience. When my husband and I were leaving the hospital after my 2 day recovery, we actually ran into a man that we had one of our prenatal classes with. He was holding his adorable newborn and immediately asked me how my labour was. I explained to him that I had an emergency C-section, which he seemed really shocked by, but then he told me that his wife went through a 29 hour labour and my heart fell in my chest. How can I say anything to that when I was merely wheeled into an operating room and got to come out an hour later with a beautiful baby boy, no conscious effort on my part required? I felt embarrassed that I didn’t actually have to do anything physical or challenging to receive this incredible reward, and I almost felt that I somehow shirked my womanly duty or something like that. I didn’t have to push for hours, and that honestly makes it feel even more surreal to me that this sweet boy I’m holding in my arms is mine because it’s almost as if he appeared out of nowhere. 

I know, from speaking with my friends and family and especially my mother, that these feelings are totally unfounded. I had to make an incredibly difficult decision when consenting to my emergency C-section, and I had to fully surrender to my team of doctors and nurses at a moment that was overwhelmingly frightening and confusing. I truly feared for my baby’s health and safety, and for my own as well, and that is no small thing. So why do I feel like this isn’t as valid a birth experience as pushing for 29 hours would have been? Why do I feel that earning my motherhood badge requires going through a very specific type of birth? As I type these questions, I know how crazy it is to think this way and I know that, no matter how it happened, the most important thing is that my baby entered this world healthy and secure. I think that society plants in our head all these notions about what pregnancy and motherhood have to look like and how it should all happen, and that is seriously detrimental and can mess a woman up in ways that are profound and unfortunate. I for one think we need to do away with all expectations surrounding pregnancy, birth and labour, and motherhood, and remember that each person’s individual experience is valid in its own right and as long as it works for mother, child and family, it is absolutely perfect.

So, I’m throwing out my preconceived notions about what labour should be like and continuing to remember that I made a baby, he was with me for 9 months and I cared for him like no one else on this planet ever will, and he is here now for me to love, nurture and adore, regardless of how he got here!

Janille N G

Girl with a Green Heart

Real Pregnancy Talk: Suffering from Severe Anxiety

Let’s talk…or at least try to…about what it means to have severe anxiety while pregnant.

I desperately want to talk about my struggles with severe anxiety here on this blog, but to be honest, I am afraid to. For the last week I have felt the urge to speak about how challenging the last 6 months have been for me, and although the words flow very easily when I am sitting with my journal open, they don’t at all when I’m attempting to write something meaningful for this public space. Let’s be honest…talking about anxiety does, unfortunately, make people uncomfortable, and I find myself mainly struggling to write openly and honestly about my experiences because I want to shield other people. For some reason, I am most worried about offending people or making them uneasy, which is actually absurd if you think about it because then I am the one left with the weight on my chest. But anxiety is something that, while a very personal and intimate experience, also sometimes involves other people or is caused by external triggers, and these can be harder to speak about out loud.

The fact is, I am scared to delve too deeply into why I have been so anxious during my pregnancy, and that is mainly because my anxiety and its severity have been exacerbated by feelings of intense guilt and shame. Shame about not being strong enough; shame about having no choice but to put myself and my baby first and make tough decisions because of it; guilt about even being pregnant at all because it might not be convenient or preferable for some of the people around me. And maybe speaking in such veiled terms about my feelings is an act of shame as well, but it feels hard to be honest about something I am only just beginning to work through and heal from.

Suffice it to say that, although some days are much happier and brighter and I have come a long way from where I was just 3 months ago, there is not a single day that goes by that I don’t feel at least a few moments of severe anxiety. At the height of my struggles 3 months ago, I was having around 7 panic attacks a day, and now, thankfully, I am down to 1 or 2 a week. But, the process to get there has been slow and arduous, and I know that if I slip up or something drastic happens, I could easily spiral downwards again. If I weren’t pregnant, I probably never would’ve taken the steps to work through my long-standing mental health issues, but honestly, I had no choice because I am not the only one at risk…my defenseless baby is also subjected to my panic attacks, and when my doctors blatantly told me that what I was going through was a huge risk to my unborn child, I had no other option but to react and take precautions immediately. After breaking down in public places with no warning multiple times over the span of a 3 week period, after being rushed by my family to the emergency room because I had back-to-back panic attacks with virtually no time to recover, after enduring some traumatizing and unexpected moments, what else could I do? I had to make changes, and fast, because I truly have never felt more vulnerable or scared for myself (and, consequently, my baby) in my life.

There are so many things I’ve been doing to try to get myself to a better place during this pregnancy, from seeing an expert psychiatrist regularly, to starting meditation practices, to studying the book Mind Over Mood vigilantly, to exercising on a daily basis, and luckily, it seems like a lot of it is working. I went from being unable to eat or sleep (particularly alarming and dangerous while pregnant) to being able to smile in photos, looking forward to being out with my husband, family and friends, and actually enjoying the adventure of pregnancy. But, as I said, this does not mean that my work is done, and I still wake up with feelings of guilt, a tight chest and racing heart almost every morning. There are still triggers in my dreams and in my mind that pop up when I let my guard down and in quiet moments, and I may be working through them for years to come. This fight against anxiety is a journey, a daily battle, but it is one I have no choice but to engage in, for myself and my growing family.

Maybe nothing I’ve said here will make sense to anyone but me…I don’t think that’s the point, though. I have let myself speak, I have given voice to the fact that I am not 100% okay, but I am hoping to get there. And, ultimately, I am pledging each day to be the strongest, best example to my soon-to-be-born son that, yes, anxiety is real, it is physical, it is debilitating at times, but it can be overcome.

From a day when my husband had me laughing!

Janille N G

Girl with a Green Heart

My Body, My Choice ~ My Opinion on Abortion

There is only one thing I have done in my life that I have truly regretted, and it is a choice I made back when I was in high school (as so many of these things are). I went to a Catholic high school, and while I wouldn’t say that I was staunchly pro-life or anti-gay marriage, I was taught these sorts of opinions in my classes at school and I have to admit that I didn’t think to question them at the time. I want to say that this was because of my age or naïveté, but those are just excuses – the truth is that I was just ill-informed, and didn’t have the urge to make myself better-informed, which is without doubt very sad. One day, back when I was in grade 11 or 12, my English teacher approached me and asked if I would be willing to write an essay for a competition my school wanted to enter. I had very high marks in English, so I knew the teacher was coming to me because he hoped I would write an essay that would win the competition and bring some sort of recognition to our school in a relatively small town. When I asked what the essay had to be about, my English teacher told me that it needed to be a pro-life essay – basically an essay that was anti-abortion and argued for why abortion was wrong. I do remember feeling a bit uneasy about this, but I didn’t want to disappoint one of my favourite teachers and my entire school, so I agreed to write the essay.

That was the hardest piece I have ever written in my life. Again, it wasn’t because I considered myself pro-choice at the time (I like to think if I did, I would’ve had enough backbone and self-respect to decline writing the essay altogether). My difficulty came when I sat down in front of my laptop and realized I didn’t have any good arguments for why abortion was wrong other than, naturally, what the Bible (which I hadn’t even fully read, to be honest) told me. I wished that I never agreed to write the essay – something I wish even more fiercely now – and I wrote several drafts that were, to put it mildly, pitiful. Eventually, I turned to my dad for some guidance and he suggested I take the angle that the unborn child could turn out to be the next Mother Theresa or Martin Luther King, and focus on the lost potential that abortion precipitates. Of course, the unborn child could also go on to be the next Hitler, but we didn’t think about that too closely.

(It is worth noting here that my father is firmly pro-choice now and his opinions altered significantly at around the same time mine did.)

I really wasn’t all that confident in the essay but I ended up winning the competition. To say my teacher and my school were very proud is an understatement. When they stated that I had won over the morning announcements, I recall feeling some embarrassment, but I’m not sure if that was because of the subject matter of my prize-winning essay or because the announcement revealed me as the high achiever that I was in front of all my peers. In any case, I was then asked by the association who ran the competition to attend one of their meetings and read my essay in front of several hundred of their members. Somehow (surprise, surprise), I didn’t have the courage to turn that down either, and a few weeks later, I found myself surrounded by a room full of hardcore Catholics (as well as my parents and grandparents) reading words that I wasn’t exactly confident in.

It didn’t take long for me to investigate the topic of abortion again and come to a totally different conclusion than the one I spouted in my essay. Two years later, I was in university in downtown Toronto and was exposed to a whole lot of things I didn’t get to see or hear about in my tiny Catholic school. And I knew within months of being at university that everything I had been taught was absurd and outlandish – at that point, I became adamantly pro-choice and I have been so ever since.

When I think about it now, writing that pro-life essay, and apparently writing it pretty well, is a source of shame because it so radically conflicts with what I now know to be true. I don’t want this post to come across as accusatory of those that are religious or are pro-life for whatever reason. I am not trying to criticize these viewpoints because my main stance is that I am pro-CHOICE. This can easily become conflated with being pro-abortion, but that is completely erroneous, false and unjust. I have never professed the opinion that a woman must or should have an abortion – on the contrary, I have always believed the opposite, that a pregnant woman should be free to do whatever she chooses, whether that be to keep her unborn child or to have an abortion. I believe in the choice and in the fact that every person, male or female, deserves to be able to make their own decisions about what happens to their own body.

Obviously, abortion is a hot topic right now, hence this very post. I have recently come up against the opinion that my position on abortion should be different now that I am pregnant, and I wanted to set the record straight that my opinion has not and will not ever change. I am and always will be (PROUDLY!) pro-choice, and having a child inside of me does not alter that fact. On the contrary, it makes me more firmly pro-choice because I now realize the magnitude of being pregnant and the challenges that I face in raising a child. If a woman does not feel she is ready for that responsibility, is not in a relationship that will allow her to comfortably raise a child, or has been forced into the circumstance of pregnancy because of a horrific incident such as rape or incest, then that woman should absolutely, without question have the right to terminate her unwanted pregnancy. It is that simple and straightforward, and this is an opinion that is scientifically and medically supported. In my opinion, religion should not enter the picture here – we should be looking to doctors and medical professionals to assess when abortion is safe and allowing them to do their job, in conjunction with the circumstances of their female patients. If a religious woman (or any woman for that matter) chooses not to have an abortion herself, again, that is totally fine because, being pro-choice, I believe that woman should get to do exactly what she wants in that situation. The circumstances surrounding abortion are so subjective and so dependant on the individual woman and the scenario she is faced with, and I think it is dangerous to make blanket statements and blanket laws that apply to everyone across the board without understanding the subtle nuances at play.

I also firmly believe that no one has the right to tell me when I should become pregnant – not my family members, not my friends, not my employer and certainly not my government. My husband would have a say, certainly, but he should not be allowed to make that decision himself, without my active participation in it. Just as I believe no one can or should dictate when I choose to have a child, I feel strongly that no one should force me to have a child if I do not want it, and that is what is at stake here. I am not a politician and I haven’t read enough to know every minor detail of the laws that are being put forth recently, but I do know that the right to have an abortion is a human right. That makes this a question of human decency and compassion, and I personally cannot imagine being the type of individual who would subject a woman to carrying a baby to term that she does not want. That seems cruel and unjust to me in every sense, and I like to think that if there is a god, he or she would support those of us who protect and fight for the rights of ALL humans, not just a select few.

If this opinion offends any of you, I do apologize for that – but it may be worth remembering that your opinion may equally offend other people out there, and so no one is completely spotless or innocent when it comes to these sorts of debates. I go to bed each night feeling like a very good person because I try to be sympathetic and empathetic toward all of my fellow humans…and that is all I can really hope for when I turn out the lights at the end of a long day…

Janille N G

Girl with a Green Heart

A Change of Heart…and a New Frame of Mind

I wrote recently about how 2018 was my best reading year ever. I somehow managed to finish 75 books throughout the year, and this was despite the fact that I switched jobs and so lost some formerly valuable reading time during lunch breaks and in the evenings. I don’t think I’ve read 75 books in a year ever, and if I have, it was probably in university when most of the books were selected for me by my professors. At the end of 2018, I was elated and proud with my accomplishment, and looking back at the year and the titles of all the books I read, I was utterly amazed that somehow I still remembered them all.

Staring fondly at a very old book in my happy place, The Morgan Library.

But, what’s that saying again? New year, new you. When January 1st, 2019 rolled around, I immediately set my Goodreads goal to 50 books (just like I did in 2018) with the intention of pushing myself to read 75 books this year again…or more, if possible! For some reason though, my mentality toward reading, and particularly toward the reading challenge, was different as soon as I cracked open my first book of 2019. Although as of this moment I am technically 4 books ahead of schedule with my goal, I have had days where my heart and mind just have not been in my book and I have taken a break from reading on these days. However, that reading challenge is always there in the back of my head, whispering about all the time lost when I’m sitting watching TV or browsing Pinterest, and I found myself feeling guilty and almost anxious about not forcing myself to dig into my book. This seemed totally paradoxical to me because reading is meant to be my escape, not an added source of anxiety. I love reading because it takes me away from the burdens and responsibilities of my real life, and to have it become a symbol of stress was incredibly disappointing and worrisome. I also recognized that on the days I “took off” from reading, I needed to because I was feeling emotional or exhausted, and so slogging through a prescribed number of pages of my novel wouldn’t be healthy or productive. I couldn’t fault myself for taking the break, but I also did feel that number flashing in my mind: 50 books you MUST finish!

I’m sort of an all or nothing person, and I’m very goal-oriented, but today I had this realization that something’s gotta give! It’s one thing to be focused on goals and checking tasks off a To-Do List at work or school, but in every day life, it’s simply unnecessary and, for someone with my Type A tendencies, unhealthy. So, with all that in mind, I made the tough (for me, at least!) decision to reduce my Goodreads goal to…1 book. This basically means that, since I have already read 10 books this year, I have officially achieved by 2019 reading challenge. Now, of course, I still want to read as many books as I can this year…but I want to read because I LOVE IT and AM EXCITED ABOUT IT, not because it is an obligation. I would rather use the Goodreads challenge as a sort of counter, to track the books I’ve finished this year and be able to look back at them, than a concrete goal. And while it went against everything I’m about to reduce the number of books on my challenge, I already feel so much lighter and freer to read at my own pace and to sit down with my book when my heart is eager to.

I know a lot of readers feel the same way I do about reading challenges and how arbitrary they can be, and that has definitely given me an extra push to approach reading differently in the future. Like I said, reading is something I have always adored doing, and I never want that feeling of joy and peace to be taken away by a number or a competition.

Do any of you fellow readers feel this way about reading challenges? What is your approach to them? I’d love to discuss with you and get your feedback on my decision!

JNG

Girl with a Green Heart

Roar ~ #JNGReads

You can find more photos like this one on my bookstagram, Emerald & Opal.

I have to start this review with a disclaimer. The opinions that follow are simply my opinions about the short story collection Roar by Cecelia Ahern. If you particularly liked this collection, you may not enjoy this review.

I seriously considered not posting a review of Roar because, to be honest, I don’t have much that’s nice to say about it. Roar is a short story collection that I can understand why a lot of people like, particularly at this moment in history. The collection contains thirty stories about women and each one plays on a popular turn of phrase, image or metaphor. There is the woman who thinks her mirror is broken because she looks aged in it. There is the immigrant woman who literally grows wings and flies away, finally free. There is the woman whose husband keeps her on a shelf for the world to see and admire but not interact with. These ideas are certainly relevant, and Ahern plays on societal concerns that are on everyone’s minds and makes them into fairytales full of magical realism.

However, in my opinion, Ahern doesn’t do social commentary very well. While her stories make sense, they are not creative and they are, ultimately, very silly. These common phrases or metaphors, such as wanting to fall into a hole and die when something embarrassing happens, are definitely used in common speech on a daily basis, but they don’t make for good or interesting fiction. Each of these stories is full of oversimplification and they border on the nonsensical. While magical realism is meant to be a bit outlandish, Ahern’s tales are downright ridiculous, and I found myself laughing every so often at how absurd and literal they are. Everything is just too on the nose and it gets to be very annoying and irritating very quickly.

What’s more, Ahern spends a lot of her time pandering to her reader. Her stories are simplistic enough that they hardly need explanation, but Ahern still feels the need to spell out exactly what each symbol means in detail. When a woman has bite marks spontaneously appear on her skin in one story, after returning to work from maternity leave, it seems unnecessary to be given a sentence like, “The guilt was, quite literally, eating her alive”, italics and all. And yet, Ahern constantly offers these analyses of her own stories, and it made me feel as though I was being talked down to or not being trusted to draw my own conclusions and insights from this fiction. There are such wonderful female short story writers out there like Alice Munro and Mavis Gallant who write about women being trapped in their hometowns or about women feeling displaced and exiled in ways that are subtle and nuanced. Ahern doesn’t do this at all, and I personally found that her stories came across as childish and unsophisticated because of it.

Don’t get me wrong, there was one story I sort of liked – The Woman Who Forgot Her Name – but one story out of thirty isn’t at all what I was hoping for. In the end, I got very clearly what Ahern was trying to do…but I wished she had tried harder to do it better.

❥❥ (out of 5)

JNG

Girl with a Green Heart

A Little Life ~ #JNGReads

It is hard to describe how reading A Little Life made me feel.  This novel is, to sum up 800+ pages in a single word, sorrowful.  There is nothing optimistic about this novel, there is no bright, shining kernel of truth that makes the trauma and sadness easier to swallow.  It is a novel full of pain and suffering, and one that almost wallows in it, not trying to lift the reader into any more positive circumstances.

I now understand more fully a word my professors in university often used to describe literature and our reactions to it: visceral.  I always knew in theory that a visceral reaction to a text implied great emotion and feeling, and meant that the reader had temporarily put aside their more intellectual assessments to let feelings overwhelm them.  I have always been this type of reader – one who favours emotion over logic, who prefers to talk about how I feel about a novel rather than dissecting it with scientific vigour – and I was always so happy when lectures in my English classes tended toward sentimentality rather than structured analysis.

But I don’t know that I’ve ever been quite so touched by a novel as I was by A Little Life.  Don’t get me wrong, I have read my fair share of upsetting novels in the past – The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson immediately comes to mind, and it does, actually, have a similar narrative style to A Little Life – but I haven’t read one so moving and painful in quite some time.  A Little Life follows the friendship of four men, but it zeroes in pretty quickly on the relationship (romantic and otherwise) between Willem and Jude.  Jude, as many reviewers before me have noted, is the heart and soul of the novel, though, and much of the text is devoted to investigating Jude’s childhood traumas, including a whole host of disgusting circumstances that made me physically nauseous to read about.  Reading Jude’s story is not for the faint of heart, especially as it documents in graphic detail horrific stories of childhood sexual abuse, and it is downright hard to read at points.  So many times, I felt like I wanted to stop reading, to put the book down, and yet I didn’t because for whatever reason I felt compelled to keep going.  That is surely a testament to how talented Hanya Yanagihara is as a writer, and there is no doubt that the prose flows and is highly poetic and beautiful.  There is such a jarring contrast between the subject matter and the gorgeous words Yanagihara uses to describe the events…but the result is that the reader is urged to move forward and, ultimately, does, even despite every instinct not to.

There’s not much I can really say about A Little Life without repeating myself endlessly (it is painful, sorrowful, sad, depressing, traumatic, serious, touching, heartbreaking…blah blah blah), so I’ll just leave it at, it’s brilliant.  Many reviewers have disagreed, and that is totally fine, but for me, it was a moving experience in every way and I feel like a better person for having read the story.  I am proud that I’ve read it as I feel it is a modern work of great literature, a contemporary classic, and I truly can’t find any fault with Yanagihara’s writing or characterization or pacing or any of it.  Yes, many readers have felt that the novel is too long and a bit repetitive, but I am a lover of Dickens and John Irving, and so I am used to meaningful repetition, to long novels that say much and say it so well.  So, I cannot fault Yanagihara for writing a large novel because, the bottom line is, she wrote a great one.

I would urge anyone who is okay with deep, thoughtful and heavy literature to pick this one up because it is a read you won’t soon forget.

“[H]e was worried because to be alive was to worry.  Life was scary; it was unknowable.  Even Malcolm’s money wouldn’t immunize him completely.  Life would happen to him, and he would have to try to answer it, just like the rest of them.”

❥❥❥❥❥ (out of 5)

JNG

Girl with a Green Heart

By Your Side ~ #JNGReads

“I knew it was the extreme amount of stress I’d been under lately. Something had to give. I needed an outlet.

Under no circumstances should it have taken me almost a week to read a 350 page young adult book. But, I had an unexpectedly rough week, which is fitting for this reading experience in so many ways.

By Your Side by Kasie West is a novel about a teenage girl, Autumn, who gets stuck in a library over a long weekend with a misunderstood guy from her school, Dax. A common criticism of this novel that I’ve come across is that the setting of the library seems totally inconsequential, as neither of the characters actually read when they’re trapped in there, and that the portion of the novel when Autumn and Dax are trapped in the library is too short. These two things are true. However, they did not affect my rating of this novel whatsoever, and I will explain why.

“Just talking about rules right now was relaxing me. Structure sometimes helped me feel safe.”

By Your Side was unlike anything I expected from reading the synopsis, and yet, in so many ways, it surpassed my expectations. This is all down to the fact that Autumn suffers from anxiety.

I had an anxiety attack this morning. There’s a long story behind it, related to the long week I had, but to make that story short, I found myself crying in bed this morning as I thought about all the obligations (mostly social) ahead of me this weekend. I eventually calmed myself down (I’ve been told that anxiety attacks are not supposed to last for more than 20-minutes, even though they often seem to go on for an eternity), and when I did, I was able to get back into reading By Your Side right at a spot in the book when Autumn is also coming to terms with her anxiety. Autumn becomes easily overwhelmed when in certain social situations with her friends, and she slowly learns, through the course of the novel and with the help of her new friend/love interest Dax, that saying No is okay and important, particularly when she is being pushed beyond her limits.

“‘Have you ever felt trapped?’

I gave a single laugh. ‘Yes. I have anxiety.’”

Saying No is something I wish I was better at…but I’m working on it. I have felt exactly what Autumn has, that urge to give into people, to always say Yes to them even if you feel yourself starting to break. What I appreciated about West’s treatment of anxiety was that she focused on the sense of responsibility some people with anxiety feel, this burden of not wanting to disappoint other people or let them down. West focuses much of her portrayal of anxiety on Autumn’s family members and Dax reminding her that she has to keep herself healthy, that it is okay for her to admit her limitations, step back, and take some time alone to focus on her mental well-being. I don’t think this sort of thing is talked about enough in society, even with the current move toward focusing on anxiety disorders and mental illness. I believe that many people who don’t suffer from anxiety would find it hard to wrap their mind around why a person may feel uncomfortable about going to a particular social engagement, or why the thought of doing a certain social thing would bring them to tears. But, I have been there, most recently this morning, and I can say with conviction that for individuals who suffer from certain types of anxiety, there is no rhyme or reason; all we know is that some things, on some days, by no logic or rule, are simply beyond our power.

“‘Thanks for letting me stay home this week.’

‘Of course. You need to take care of yourself.’

‘I know. That’s why I’m staying home from the basketball game tonight too. Just the thought of it makes me cringe.’

‘There’s nothing wrong with that.’”

Autumn eventually gets to the point where she can say No to her friends, based on how she is feeling and by gaging her own mental health, and she is lucky in the sense that her friends are supportive of her and open to learning about her anxiety disorder. Believe me, not everyone in the world is that understanding. Having said that, I personally appreciated that West emphasizes the importance of taking care of yourself, of doing what is right for you. Anxiety is just as real as any physical illness, and I agree with West that it has to be treated as such: sometimes, a person with anxiety simply isn’t feeling well enough to do something, and that feeling should be viewed as just as valid as if someone couldn’t make it out because of a stomach flu or throat infection. We all have our boundaries and barriers, and not every day is going to be an anxiety-filled one…but the ones that are need to be taken slow and easy, and Autumn is conscious of that towards the end of her story.

Is By Your Side the best young adult novel I’ve ever read? Probably not. Don’t get me wrong, it would make an adorable, light-hearted move and I really liked Autumn and Dax and their cute banter. That, I would only give 3 stars for though…for West’s portrayal of anxiety, however, I’ll up my rating a touch.

I would encourage any teenager who suffers from anxiety to pick up this book, because not only is it enjoyable, it will also remind you that what you’re feeling is perfectly valid and should be respected.

❥❥❥❥(out of 5)

JNG

Girl with a Green Heart

Don’t Touch ~ #JNGReads

I got Don’t Touch at Chapters 3 days ago, on sale for $1.50. That is both a travesty and a blessing.

It is a travesty because Don’t Touch by Rachel M. Wilson is an excellent young-adult novel and it is worth much more than $1.50. So much more.

It is a blessing because if the book wasn’t on sale for $1.50, I never would’ve spotted it and decided to pick it up. And, I am lucky to have had the chance to read it.

Don’t Touch is a complex, intricate and deeply moving story about a high school student and aspiring actress, Caddie, who suffers from severe anxiety and OCD. Caddie’s anxiety is so all-consuming that she has convinced herself, after her parents’ separation, that she cannot touch anyone without dire consequences. Caddie purchases gloves, she wears long sleeves and pants even in the oppressive heat of summer, and when she develops a crush on her classmate Peter and is cast as Ophelia in her school’s production of Hamlet opposite Peter in the title role, she does everything within her power to avoid getting close to him. Caddie is the narrator of Don’t Touch, and so the reader is able to develop a very intimate relationship with her, hearing her innermost fears and turmoil at wanting to engage with Peter and her other friends, but not feeling as though she is able to.

There were moments in Don’t Touch that brought tears to my eyes. I don’t suffer from severe OCD, but I have friends who do, and I myself suffer from anxiety. I am learning recently that my struggle with anxiety (which began at the start of high school) is so much less severe and difficult than what so many of my peers have to endure on a daily basis, but I do believe that mental health is all relative, and my anxiety sometimes feels like the most horrible thing in the world, at least to me. I luckily have never been in Caddie’s position where I fear touching others, but I do understand the frustration that comes from having this one fear playing over and over in your brain, no matter how hard to try to get it to stop or how logical you try to be. Anxiety isn’t really logical at all, or at least it isn’t in my experience, and I was deeply touched by Caddie’s narration of her inability to calm herself down even when she knows her anxieties are nonsensical, silly and impossible.

Rachel M. Wilson writes about anxiety well, with heart and respect. She mentions in her Author’s Note that she herself suffers from OCD, and that is clear in her careful treatment of mental health struggles that she is familiar with them. I only wish her book got more hype because I believe it is the exact sort of text that teenagers need to read. If I had read something like this book in high school, it may have helped me comprehend my anxieties and understand that they are not as uncommon or embarrassing as I originally thought. I don’t mean to say that a book like Don’t Touch would’ve cured me, but it would’ve made me feel a bit more “normal”…whatever that even means.

Caddie is a strong character, despite her anxieties, and what is most profound is the message that ailments like anxiety or OCD do NOT make a person weak, but rather they can make them impressively strong. Caddie goes through a lot and she doesn’t always come out on top of her anxiety, but in the end, she has developed methods to cope with it and she is able to touch people and enjoy this proximity. She comes a long way, but what is most special and poignant about her progress is that she seeks help, from her mother, from her friends, and from a trained professional. She eventually realizes that power comes from talking about her anxieties, from taking the power away from them, and she becomes vocal and unselfconscious in her discussion of what is plaguing her. This was beautiful to see and an incredible message for anyone who suffers from anxiety or OCD to be left with: that speaking about it, owning up to it and in a way embracing it, is the first step toward wellness.

“Talking about fear takes its power away.”

I would highly recommend Don’t Touch to anyone and everyone because it truly blew me away. I wasn’t expecting to find it so sharp and touching, but it was, and I think it is worthy of a lot more attention. Spend $1.50 on it, spend $15.00, spend $50.00…but whatever you do, pick up this book!

❥❥❥❥(out of 5)

JNG

Girl with a Green Heart

The Idiot ~ #JNGReads

The Idiot by Elif Batuman is a book I can say I REALLY liked, without hesitation. Although I expected to LOVE it when I began (and probably give it a 5-star rating), the narration and plot started to drag a little for me toward the halfway point…however, I still thoroughly enjoyed this debut novel and found many moments to be laugh out loud funny and highly entertaining.

The Idiot is a novel that I think recent college and university graduates would find very compelling. I graduated from the University of Toronto only a short while ago, and so the experiences of attending lectures, completing long and arduous research papers, and developing friendships with a wide array of likeminded individuals are fresh in my mind. This meant that I instantly connected with the main character and narrator of The Idiot, Selin, and I found her interactions and anxieties to be relatable and realistic. Selin immediately comes across as very intelligent, if a bit socially awkward, and I enjoyed reading about her various classes, particularly her linguistics course, which reminded me of my own first-year linguistics class, and some of her stranger seminars like the Crooked Worlds “art” class she finds herself a part of. I also found it ingenious on Batuman’s part that she included samples of Selin’s required readings in the text of the novel: the references to Noam Chomsky’s theories brought me right back to Linguistics 101, and I particularly enjoyed the short “novel” Nina in Siberia that Selin is required to reading for her Introductory Russian course and which the reader is invited to study along with her. Pieces of Nina in Siberia became my favourite aspects of the novel, and I found it interesting to receive Selin’s thoughts about the text, from her academic perspective, because it felt as though Selin and I were fellow students, working through our course text together before a big exam. Batuman expertly writes about the college/university experience, and this was a topic I for one really appreciated. Obviously, this sort of text won’t be for everyone, but it definitely was one I easily became immersed in.

“It was hard to decide on a literature class. Everything the professor said seemed to be somehow beside the point. You wanted to know why Anna had to die, and instead they told you that nineteenth-century Russian landowners felt conflicted about whether they were really a part of Europe. The implication was that it was somehow naïve to want to talk about anything interesting, or to think that you would ever know anything important.”

As I mentioned previously, Selin is also a deeply self-conscious character, and this made her all the more human. Selin is confident in many academic ways, trying out classes that I never would’ve had the courage to enroll in during my own university years. She is, however, very self-conscious when it comes to her interactions with her fellow students, particularly her friend, Ivan. Selin and Ivan first begin their communications over the newly invented email, and although they have Russian class together, most of their conversations for two thirds of the novel are entirely in written form. This puts Selin in a peculiar position of being in love with Ivan, but of also being totally unable to speak to him in person. Both Selin and Ivan have difficulty navigating this “relationship” that they’ve created, and a large portion of the novel is devoted to Selin trying to figure out how Ivan feels about her and existing in this sort of limbo full of unrequited and confusing emotions. In this way, Batuman does an excellent job of portraying the uncertainties of being a first-year university student – the fact that you are treated like an adult, and yet still maintain the uncertainties of an adolescent life of the not so distant past. Selin is at once an adult with responsibilities and freedoms, but from an emotional perspective, she is still very much a child, a high school student, and so Batuman is able to explore the complexities of first love and of finding oneself in an environment of people with equally complex personalities.

“But, to me, nineteen still felt old and somehow alien to who I was. It occurred to me that it might take more than a year – maybe as many as seven years – to learn to feel nineteen.”

Selin’s friendships are also explored, and it is interesting to watch her interact with female characters like Svetlana and her roommates. Selin’s dry wit and humour make her interactions with her female friends often seem stilted and one-sided, but it also becomes clear very quickly that Selin is well-liked, especially by Svetlana, whose personality is so markedly different from Selin’s that it is very interesting to watch their friendship blossom and to witness the ways that these two young women support each other. I found the interpersonal relationships in this novel to be fascinating, and I even enjoyed the brief moments when Selin interacts with her mother and feels as though she must justify her decisions and actions, particularly those involving Ivan, to this thoroughly adult figure.

“‘I’m afraid I’ll accidentally eat it all before I get there,’ I said, following the rule that you had to pretend to have this problem where you couldn’t resist chocolate.”

My major qualm with the novel is that it began to feel a bit long towards the end. This is pretty paradoxical because the entire novel is only just over 400 pages, but I started to feel at around the 250-page mark that it was crawling by. Maybe this is because not much happens and the novel seems to be more of a character study than a plot-driven story, but I found that as Selin becomes more involved with Ivan, her narration becomes less interesting and engaging. This is somewhat fitting because Selin discusses how she is beginning to lose her language and her ability to communicate the more she becomes invested in her “relationship” with Ivan, but it also made it harder to be invested in her, as a reader. I missed the wit and sarcasm that she articulates in the first half of the novel, and I found myself laughing much less as the novel went on. (Sidenote: I literally burst out laughing while reading the scenes when Selin is teaching her ESL student…and where were the moments like this in the last half of the novel? They felt non-existent!) By the end of the novel, I felt as though I was just plugging away, trying to turn the pages as fast as I could to get to the point where something would happen. Again, I realize that this is more of a character study, and I appreciate that, but I felt as though Selin’s distinct character was what was lacking in the latter half of the novel. The last 100 pages just felt like more of the same, and I guess I was craving some spark or insight, some profound statement that I don’t feel I ever really got.

All in all, though, I would highly recommend The Idiot to current or recently graduated college/university students because I believe they will relate easily to Selin’s character and be able to insert themselves into her experiences. There is no doubt that The Idiot is well-written and I look forward to reading whatever Batuman produces next, as well as delving into some of her non-fiction, which I have heard great things about.

❥❥❥❥(out of 5)

JNG

Girl with a Green Heart