Unfortunately, more often than not Valentine’s Day induces that sinking feeling, not the idealised love bubble presented to us at every turn. But don’t fear, the antidote is nearer than you think – Julie Hoegh goes on a literary quest for self-love
February is about love. And while it’s easy to be cynical about the commercial fest that Valentine’s Day has become, beyond the cheesy cards, overpriced red roses and candlelit meals in romantic restaurants, having someone to love is one of life’s great gifts. But what about the love for yourself? After all, how can we love someone else if we don’t love ourselves? So, step away from the Instagram selfie love forged in narcissism, and instead opt for the variety of healthy, confidence-built self-love that makes you capable of loving someone else, perhaps even more than yourself. Can books help us in finding the right kind of self-love? Here’s a few that I’ve found insightful.
DOES VULNERABILITY, SHAME AND PERFECTIONISM STAND IN THE WAY OF YOUR SELF-LOVE?
The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are is the brainchild of social work researcher and TED talk superstar (37 million views) Brené Brown. Through her groundbreaking research on shame and fear, Brown realised that truly happy people distinguish themselves by their ability to expose their vulnerabilities and embrace imperfection. Guilty as charged! I loved Brown’s warm, funny and self-deprecatory style. Sometimes self-help books feel trite and self-evident. Not so in this case. I learned a great deal about loving myself from this eye-opening, wonderful book. Hazelden, £13.99
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU FORGET TO LOVE YOURSELF?
An absolute hoot of a novel, Wilful Disregard: A Novel About Love by Swedish author Lena Andersson, will have you nodding in recognition, cringing with embarrassment and laughing out loud at the levels of shame to which someone desperately in love is willing to stoop. Ester Nilsson, respected poet and writer, has spent too much time being an intellectual and too little being a human. Everything changes when she falls head-over-heels in love with successful artist Hugo Rask. But how will Ester reconcile her analytical brain with her biological urges? And what are Hugo’s intentions? Is he looking for love or just someone to stroke his ego? I was engrossed by Andersson’s intelligent and wickedly funny portrayal of the nature of relationships. A book for anyone who has loved without being loved back. Picador, £8.99
CAN LITERATURE HELP YOU FIND OUT WHO YOU ARE?
A “defected” Jungian psychoanalyst, Jane Haynes says her tools are “dialogue, listening and relationships”. In her memoirs If I Chance to Talk a Little Wild: A Memoir of Self and Other, Haynes, who’s known to be more than a little unconventional in the world of therapists, opens up about her own traumatic childhood (abandoned by her depressed mother and raised by a father dying from syphilis) and shares some absorbing stories of her clients. We should accept our feelings and learn to live with them rather than change them, argues Haynes, who weaves literature into her practice. Proust, Shakespeare and Nabokov have helped her understand the human psyche; perhaps they can help us too. Quartet Books, £20
AM I ALONE IN STRUGGLING?
I was mesmerised by psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz’s The Examined Life: How We Find and Lose Ourselves, a collection of short essays based on his 25 years as a psychoanalyst. They range from loneliness, lovesickness and envy, to fear of death, hate and paranoia. I suspect there is an element of voyeurism too in the appeal of this book; the chance to have a peek into other peoples’ problems and perhaps realise that we are not alone in struggling. Grosz distils his clients' problems down to their very essence and communicates them in layman’s language. If his writing reflects his skill as a psychoanalyst, Grosz must be a truly brilliant practitioner. Vintage, £9.99
IS IT TIME TO FREE MEN FROM AN OUTDATED MASCULINE IDEAL?
As bigoted, chauvinistic, bare-chested horseback riding men take over the world, it’s a relief to read Grayson Perry’s call for a gentler masculine ideal in The Descent of Man. Perry, a transvestite British artist who (apart from his much-hailed art) is known for dressing up in pink baby dolls, might not be the obvious person to go to for advice on masculinity, but in his book he gives us just that, and with wisdom, honesty and humour. Society’s expectations of boys and men need to change in order for male behaviour to change, argues Perry. Men must be allowed to love themselves for who they are, not who society thinks they should be. He holds up President Obama, David Attenborough and David Beckham as examples of men who embody a new male ideal, describing them using terms such as “emotional ease”, “compassion”, “curiosity” and “intense joy”. Inspirational reading for boys of all ages – and the girls trying to understand them. Penguin, £8.99
CAN LOVE WITHOUT SEX BE FULFILLING?
Connie, the heroine of D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, experiences first-hand that, for her, love and fulfilment cannot be found in the mind alone. Out she goes and beds her aristocratic, paralysed husband’s gamekeeper, Oliver. Steamy scenes ensue, in fact so steamy, that the book didn’t find a publisher for over 30 years and, when Penguin finally published it in the 1960s, the British government took the publishing company to court. The rest is history, but the book is still excellent. And the message still relevant. Various publishers, from £2.50
EVERYTHING YOU NEVER DARED ASK...
It’s time to demystify female genitals and make you shamelessly love all your bodily functions. In The Wonder Down Under: A User’s Guide to the Vagina by Dr Nina Brochmann and Ellen Støkken Dahl, Norwegian sex educators (yes, you can count on a pair of Scandis to do this properly) lift the veil. Dahl and Brochmann tackle periods, discharge, douchebags, contraception, fertility, sex in all shapes and forms and everything else you never dared ask with frankness and humour. Did you know, for example, that the clitoris is shaped like a horse? Or that, wearing socks can improve your sex life? And perhaps, most interestingly, the still prevalent myth around the shape of the hymen, conceived to control young women’s behaviour. Hodder & Stoughton, from £8.99
LOVING YOURSELF OUT OF A MID-LIFE CRISIS?
In The Forty Rules of Love by Turkish author Elif Shafak we meet middle-aged American housewife Ella Rubinstein (husband, three teenage children, beautiful home) in a full-blown, mid-life crisis. The years are passing, slipping through her fingers in a blur of mundane tasks and domestic drudgery. A job at a literary agency offers an escape in the form of author Aziz Zahara and love poetry by the 13th-century Sufi poet Rumi. We’re transported into the exotic, bejewelled world of Istanbul, with its vivid colours, sounds and smells, and explore the fierce, painful beauty of love in its many different guises. Ella is set free and realises, “A life without love is of no account.” I told you. Literature really can change your life! Penguin, £8.99
ODES TO LOVE YOURSELF
I’ll round off with Odes, a little gem of a poetry collection by American T.S. Eliot prizewinner Sharon Olds. With poems such as “Blow Job Ode”, “Ode to the Tampon” and “Ode to the Penis”, don’t tell me you’re not curious. There are also the more melancholic “Ode of the Withered Cleavage” and “Ode to Stretch Marks”. Olds celebrates our bodies in all their gore and glory, in youth and old age. If this little collection doesn’t put a smile on your face and make you love (and forgive) your body just a tiny bit more, nothing will. Penguin, from £12