Tag Archives: Insomnia

Reading insomnia 

The irony was far too obvious to be ignored. I was unable to sleep for thinking about the books I was reading about insomnia. I was thinking about writing a post (this post) on the subject. The ideas and words and the books kept circulating in my brain, as those things do when you can’t sleep.

Insomnia

It began, my insomnia, in the time of Covid. My circular thoughts turned over fears about social isolation, especially for those over 60, about falling ill, about what we would lose in this pandemic. These thoughts engulfed me and interrupted my normally healthy sleep. I was not alone. Even without the anxieties over Covid, sleep experts had been referring to the widespread incidence of insomnia as an epidemic.

For the first 70 years of my life I had not bothered much about sleep. It came easily, refreshed in the way good sleep did. The worst impact was to be annoyed by how much time it took out of my life. I had had episodes of not sleeping when I worked in a very stressful job: headteacher of an inner-London secondary school. Then I had developed the technique of noting down whatever was troubling me and adding an action to take the following day which would move me towards a resolution of the issue. And then I would fall asleep. I did not regard this as insomnia, more as an inevitable outcome of the stress of the job. My blood pressure remained low, my appetite remained good but my sleep was infrequently interrupted.

But since March 2020 sleep has frequently eluded me, usually disappearing between 2 and 3 am. I developed several responses, all of which took at least an hour, sometimes two, to get through.

  • I would complete another Sudoku or crossword
  • I would scroll through my twitter timeline, or news apps
  • I would listen to podcasts
  • I would read, frequently this was several pages from Insomnia by Marina Benjamin, or a short story.

After two or three hours of this I would eventually sleep, but when I woke I felt terrible, and even a restorative doze in the afternoon did not make me feel better or avoid the same thing happening again the following night.

My insomnia retreated somewhat with the restrictions we all hoped would deal with the virus. I am aware that Covid is still around, doing its own rising and falling activities. I decided to read a bit more about sleep and what might help me get more of it. 

First up was The Sleep Solution: why your sleep is broken and how to fix it by Dr W. Chris Winter (2017). The title and author seemed to promise everything I needed: a definition of the problem (aka a diagnosis), a solution, provided by a doctor no less. It was quite chatty, full of diagrams, chapter reviews and sub-headings. All very reader-friendly, and full of good advice and sound information. I learned about ‘sleep hygiene’, which is a terrible name for some sensible actions. And it reinforced what I knew about smoking, drinking and other drugs on the quality of sleep. But it did not help me work out why I wasn’t sleeping well, or indeed what I should be doing differently.

More frightening was the second book, because it emphasises the function of sleep in keeping our bodies and brains in good health and I learned I was in danger of damaging mine: Why we Sleep: the new science of sleep and dreams by Matthew Walker (2017). I’m not sure in what ways the science he is reporting on is ‘the new science’, but I got a good sense of the work being done while I sleep and dream to maintain my health, memory, and wellness. But no diagnosis and no cure.

And most recently I have been dipping into The Shapeless Unease: my year in search of sleep by Samantha Harvey (2020). This describes a year of hell by the author, the effects on her life, her writing, her relationships, her sense of herself as a result of what she calls ‘hard insomnia’. There is little evident structure to this book, and it embraces many different approaches: a case study, a conversation with a friend, a novel she might be writing, straight forward accounts and some consideration of the medical encounters she endures. I think this lack of structure echoes the experience of unwanted awakeness. Although the writer stresses that there is no solace, the book ends hopefully:

This is the cure for insomnia: no things are fixed. Everything passes, this too. One day, when you’re done with it, it will lose its footing and fall away, and you’ll drop each night into sleep without knowing how you once found it so impossible. (175)

My go-to book, however, remains Insomnia by Marina Benjamin. I can start reading it wherever I have left off. I love it for its accessibility, for its artistry, intellectual insights, lateral thinking, gems of cultural disclosure and the picture of the writer and her dog, together on the sofa in the depths of the night. The dog is asleep. 

Related post

Sleep in Fiction (Bookword, March 2020)

Books referred to

Insomnia by Marina Benjamin, published by Scribe in 2018.

The Sleep Solution: why your sleep is broken and how to fix it by Dr W. Chris Winter, published by Scribe in 2017.

Why we Sleep: the new science of sleep and dreams by Matthew Walker, published by Penguin in 2017.

The Shapeless Unease: my year in search of sleep by Samantha Harvey, published by Vintage in 2020.

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Filed under Books, Learning, Reading, Reviews

Some books to help you through the night

As with many people, the pandemic has disrupted my sleep patterns. I often fail to go to sleep or wake at about 2.30am and can’t fall asleep again. I often read at that time (also listen to podcasts, or just fret). For these bouts of insomnia I like books of short stories, or with short sections. I am not trying to be bored to sleep but to occupy my restless mind. These three books have answered the need recently. 

  • Rose Macaulay: Personal Pleasures: Essays on enjoying life
  • Zora Neale Hurston: Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick
  • Marina Benjamin: Insomnia

Personal Pleasures: Essays on enjoying life by Rose Macaulay

Ideal for dipping into, Rose Macaulay presents sixty essays on a range of topics. She gives us something on Cows, Flattery, Hatching Eggs, Elephants in Bloomsbury, Heresies, Logomachy, Solitude, Reading, Writing and many other subjects. Some are short, less than a page, others much longer or with subdivisions. 

Notice the sub-heading: essays on enjoying life. What is on show is a writer who is confident that she has something to say, and that she can showcase her wit, her love of words and her erudition. She enjoys using arcane words and constructing them as well.

The lightness of touch reflects her position at the time: a respected and confident writer, in a steady if clandestine relationship, and earning enough from her writing to be independent. Personal Pleasures was published in 1935, and much was yet right with the world, or at least not yet of great concern in Europe (although there are several references to the Nazi Party and her objections to their policies and actions.)

Handheld Press has been responsible for reissuing many of her books, some of which I have reviewed on the blog (see below).

Personal Pleasures: Essays on enjoying life by Rose Macaulay, first published in 1935 and a new edition has been issued by Handheld Press (2021). I found the introduction and notes by Kate Macdonald to be invaluable.256pp

Related posts

Non-Combatants and Others: writings against war (1916) by Rose Macaulay

Potterism (1920) by Rose Macaulay

The Towers of Trebizond (1956) by Rose Macaulay

Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick by Zora Neale Hurston

This is such a good title, for it immediately conveys something to be considered, something unexpected. Besides it is much longer than most titles. Genevieve West, who collected and edited these stories, made a good choice there. And it matches the title of her best-known novel: Their Eyes Were Watching God.

The twenty-one stories in Hitting a Straight Lick are told in a mixture of phonetic colloquialisms or dialect and more conventional narrative style. You might imagine that they were difficult to read, but I soon got used to the rhythms of the voices.

Most of the stories feature Black people living in meagre conditions. The women have endless household chores to do while earning money at the same time. The men work in the docks, or in other industrial settings often in very low paid posts. The men woo women, often younger women who are newly arrived in their community, and they try to use violence to discipline and control the women to whom they are married. I enjoyed most the stories when the women get their own back. One character who appealed to me was Caroline Ports in The Country in the Woman. She had some amusing and innovative ways of deterring women from messing with her husband. Here’s the best example:

Delphine Hicks – Caroline had waited for her beside the church steps one First Sunday (big meeting day) and had thrown her to the ground and robbed the abashed vampire of her underthings. Billowy underclothes were the fashion and in addition Delphine was large. Caroline had seen fit to have her pony make the homeward trip with its hindquarters thrust into Delphine’s ravished clothes. (197)

There is genuine tension in Sweat, a story about a man who provokes his wife with a snake. And some stories feature very human situations, such as the older man who marries a much younger wife only to find that his much-loved son and his wife fall in love in Under the Bridge

Zora Neale Hurston was born in Alabama in 1891 and raised in Eatonville, Florida. She died in 1960. Her grandparents had been slaves, but she made the best of new opportunities in the 20s and ‘30s. Her name is often associated with the Harlem Renaissance (along with Nella Larsen and Langston Hughes). 

There are some less appealing stories in this collection, but overall it has been a pleasure to share my waking hours with this innovative and witty writer.

Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick by Zora Neale Hurston, her collected short stories, first published together in 2020 by HQ (Harper Collins)Collected and edited by Genevieve West253pp

Related Posts

Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) by Zora Neale Hurston

The first two books were written around the same time but are sharply contrasted. In March last year I wrote a post for this blog on the theme of sleep. I included this slim and invaluable volume:

Insomnia by Marina Benjamin (2018)

Recommend by Deborah Levy:

A sublime view of the treasures and torments to be found in wakefulness. Entertaining and existential, the brightest star in this erudite, nocturnal reverie in search of lost sleep, is the beauty of the writing itself. 

This book sits on my bedside table and I continue to dip into its paragraphs and reflections on insomnia and sleep as required. 

Insomnia by Marina Benjamin, published by Scribe in 2018. 144pp.

You can find the post Sleep in Fiction by clicking on the link.

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Filed under Books, Essays, Reading, Reviews, short stories, Women of Colour, words

Sleep in Fiction

Through most of my life sleep has seemed a waste of time. Other people seem to relish it, want more of it, but I have always felt that I would rather be reading, writing, knitting, talking or even awake.

I know that sleep has a function for humans, not fully understood, with both physical and psychological effects. So a recent bout of bad sleeping focused my mind on sleep in fiction. Considering we spend about one third of our lives asleep it is strange that it does not feature more in novels. 

It is useful for novelists as a passage into the next scene. It is used when writers want their main character to emerge from sleep in a befuddled state so they can be surprised by something they take time to understand. Another function is that the sleeper when awoken suddenly is more credulous, or more willing to write off what they have witnessed during the night. And the lack of sleep, as we know, can be very disorienting. 

You can find dreams, any number of dreams, in fiction. Dreams that foretell, or warn, or explain, or reveal the turmoil in the characters’ minds. But dreams are not the focus of this post.

Here are four works of fiction in which sleep plays an important role

  1. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte 
  2. Night Waking by Sarah Moss
  3. The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
  4. Insomnia by Stephen King

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (1847)

First Edition of Jane Eyre 1847

We know that our heroine is in trouble again when she is awoken in Thornfield Hall by a woman’s hysterical laughter in the night. Soon after this Jane saves Mr Rochester from being burnt alive during the night. She is told that these events are caused by Grace Poole, but the madwoman in the attic is not Grace Poole. She is of course an inconvenient wife. This is how we are introduced to Mr Rochester’s dark secret and the revelation is the cause of yet another reversal in Jane’s fortunes.

Night Waking by Sarah Moss (2011)

As the title suggests the tensions in this novel come from lack of sleep. Anna Bennett, her husband Giles and their two children are spending the summer on Colsay, a St Kilda-like island. She is suffering from lack of sleep. She also suffers from lack of time to finish her book and from lack of internet connection. Her husband counts puffins and seems unaware of her struggles.

Anna’s story becomes serious when the skeleton of a baby is discovered near their house. This leads her to spend time checking the history of the island, its inhabitants and absentee landowners. Her story is interwoven with letters from May, a young woman from Victorian times, who tried to bring better birthing practices to the island’s inhabitants. Eventually the two stories coincide.

The novel is written in the first person and the humour is found in the authenticity of her chaotic life and her commentary upon it. At one point it seems as if ghosts are about to intrude. In the end all these difficulties are revealed to be functions of sleep deprivation. And by the end Anna has moved into relative freedom from her children’s sleeplessness and recommitted to her marriage. Recommended reading by many people I know.

The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1892)

Charlotte Perkins Gilman found society’s attitude to women deeply repugnant and she was a critic of their treatment. In this long short story she describes how a woman is treated (medically and psychologically) in order to bring her to the proper attitudes of a wife. It was based on her own experience.

The narrator undergoes a rest cure, in a room in which the wall paper is a hideous yellow. Her husband is a physician and it is his prescription. She is required to do nothing and takes to sleeping more and more during the day as she can’t sleep at night. The act of sleeping emphasises her helplessness. She gradually identifies with a woman she sees in the wallpaper, and escapes.

Insomnia by Stephen King (1994)

I have not read this horror story, but I refer to it as it came up repeatedly when I googled some variation of novels/fictions and sleep. When I looked up the plot on Wikipedia I was mystified, but it centred on a main character who sees things as a result of insomnia.

Insomnia by Marina Benjamin (2018)

And I recommend this memoir:

A sublime view of the treasures and torments to be found in wakefulness. Entertaining and existential, the brightest star in this erudite, nocturnal reverie in search of lost sleep, is the beauty of the writing itself. (Deborah Levy)

This slim book sits on my bedside table and I dip into its paragraphs and reflections on insomnia and sleep as required. 

Over to you …

Have you any suggestions of novels where sleep is important to add to my selection?

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Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews