Summer Reading Recommendations: Exploring Mental Health

Grace shares with us her top reading recommendations for books that explore the significance of mental health.

Every summer during the school holidays, I would devour as many books as I could. I blame the reading challenges in my local library for this seasonal habit that has followed me through the years. I guess the little pencils and bookmarks you won when you crossed a new book off your reading list each week really worked in building the association between warmer weather and escaping into someone else’s world for a few hundred pages. Not that I knew this at the time, but countless scientific studies have now shown how reading regularly can greatly support your mental health, and that as little as reading for five minutes can cumulatively reduce stress and promote sounder sleep. If I could hand my seventeen year old self a stack of books now to gain some perspective on those summers between A-Level exams, or the longer summers of my first few years at university, this collection of provocative female thinkers would be it.

Tackling isolation, romantic relationships, social media and friendships between women to name some of their themes, these writers explore the experience of living contemporary society in a way that is deeply honest and refreshing. Having read each author widely and as a devoted reader of Jia Tolentino’s essays on both literature and politics in the New Yorker, I would highly recommend all of their work. If reading is not yet one of the ways you support your mental health, but you are curious about making it a part of your routine, the collection below are the books I’ve recommended most to friends who are adamantly against reading to show them the radical impact of powerful literature. If you are more of an audiobook person or would like to build reading into your daily commute, I am ever so slightly obsessed with the New Yorker Podcasts and have listened to all the short stories and interviews that I can find from the writers below. This could be a great place to start. Rooney’s ‘At the Clinic’, Russel’s ‘The Ghost Birds’, Moshfegh’s short stories and Lockwood’s poetry are all re-reads for me that I keep coming back to. I hope you find something below that resonates with you as much as they have with me.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh

Moshfegh’s unnamed protagonist is a young, wealthy graduate living in her own studio in New York, who makes it her mission to sleep for a year in hope of waking up a newer, happier woman. Exploring the experience of grief after her parent’s death, our unnamed narrator becomes a recluse from the world, and we are fed repeated snippets of her runs to the bodega and her job working in an independent gallery. We see the city at the turn of the millennium through her narrow lens, and through her relationship with her friend Rita, Moshfegh explores the impact of female friendship on the mental health of both women. Moshfegh plays with the privilege her narrator has to drop out of the world for a year, and after many of us have experienced isolation during Lockdown, this book’s exploration of the cost of isolation resonates now more than ever.

Orange World and other stories by Karen Russell

I typically listen to short stories when I’m walking to and from the university library, and Russell’s ‘Orange World’ was so vivid and fresh that I remember stopping my commute and just sitting down on a bench until the story ended, completely unable to hit pause. Her full collection is just as gripping, and you can easily read a story in one sitting. My favourite from the collection has to be ‘The Bad Graft’, which follows a couple who go back to the site of their first date, Joshua Tree National Park. Russell uses the cactus that the girl Angie is pricked by with a fairytale like twist to represent the decline in her mental state, and explores the challenges this places on their relationship. Her novel Swamplandia! is an incredible exploration of sibling relationships, with Russell’s writing bringing in elements of folklore and fantasy that push her stories in unexpected directions.

Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino

Tolentino brings her own experience of editing and working online to her first published essay collection, exploring the ever-blurring line between the public and private that being a person on the internet promotes. The first essay in this collection, ‘The I in Internet’, explores how the internet and social media have become places where we store or catalogue our selfhood, navigating virtue signalling, monetization, and how our daily lives get broken up by scroll adventures down the algorithm as a ‘break’ from our busy lives. Her collection provides some much valued perspective on many of the aspects of our daily lives that we don’t often give enough thought, with her essay ‘Always be optimizing’ tackling body image and insecurity in a refreshing way.

Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney

If you haven’t already binge watched the BBC’s adaptation of Rooney’s first novel Conversations with Friends, the novel follows Frances and her ex-girlfriend Bobbi as they navigate their friendship and write spoken word poetry together in Dublin. Both the novel and the TV adaptation offer thought provoking explorations of the shifting bonds between women and representation of the impact on Frances’ mental health after her endometriosis diagnosis, exploring how the women support one another in both their mental and physical health. Rooney has become widely and wildly popular for good reason, with her most recent publication Beautiful World, Where Are You also exploring female friendship through a series of letters exchanged between Alice and Eileen. Rooney’s work challenges her reader to explore how her characters sustain and foster relationships in the real world outside of her fiction, with her writing about the pressures of university and navigating the student experience one that has resonated with many of her readers. 

No One is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood

Winner of this year’s Dylan Thomas Prize for Fiction, No One is Talking About This is Lockwood’s debut novel and was adapted from her short story ‘The Winged Thing’ which sits in interesting conversation with Tolentino’s Trick Mirror. Lockwood explores the unspoken impact of the internet on our lives, and follows a character whose makes her livelihood on the internet when she is suddenly ripped away from her life of posts and travel by a family emergency. Hilarious and horrific at once, as a reader we follow Lockwood’s protagonist as her familial relationship and relationship with her body challenge the frameworks ‘the portal’ (or the internet) have given her to navigate reality. Despite this, No One remains a comic and profoundly political read that along with Tolentino’s writing, has pushed myself and my friends to re-evaluate our relationship with social media.

 Written by Grace Brimacombe-Rand, University of Edinburgh