I always love to rediscover an old holiday read on the bookshelf, its pages stained with sun tan lotion, the pages clumped and curling from frequent encounters with my dripping self. I can always remember the holiday where it earned its battered state, the beach or poolside that provided the backdrop to its disfigurement and post- sodden state. Summer reads like destinations should supply just enough entertainment to help the mind unravel. A tome that requires too much concentration as you lie poolside is never a good idea. My friend Orla has asked me to put together a list of books to read when holidaying this Summer, whether in Ventry or Venice Beach. I’ve put together a list of books that I have found engaging and stimulating and ones which will enhance that dreamy bliss of lying on a beach or a deck-chair chilled after an al fresco lunch with cold vino and opening the cover of a book that will weave its magic on you. I still remember getting a dose of the giggles poolside in France reading McCarthy’s Bar by Pete McCarthy and At Last by Edward St Aubyn and receiving puzzled glances from the other po -faced poolside sunbathers who were reading the latest Dan Brown. Books have become a bit of a fashion accessory and supermodels like Bella and Gigi Hadid have been snapped clutching copies of Albert Camus’ The Outsider, while Emma Watson and Resse Witherspoon run book clubs and regularly post shots of themselves engrossed in some novel or memoir. Get readinghttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cxAjb45RAow for a Summer of #amreading :
1 This Happy by Niamh Campbell
This Happy sees its narrator reflecting on a youthful affair with a married Londoner named Harry, a “truly rootless, mildly amoral cosmopolitan”, ultimately running away with him to a cottage in Ireland. Now in her early thirties, Alannah is married and settled herself, but an encounter with the cottage’s landlady forces her back into the past – pushing her to reassess that first, all-consuming love. The moral ambiguities (and irreconcilable power struggles) inherent in the relationship are familiar territory for fans of Conversations with Friends, but in many ways, the prose is less reminiscent of Rooney’s clipped, email-honed style than of Eimear McBride’s lyrical Joycean sentences. It’s a perfect read for an Irish Summer with its perfect confection of romantic recollection of a first love affair recollected with all its dysfunction as well as a portrait of a recently married woman, who is reckoning with all that a new life with a husband entails . Campbell writes beautifully and brings wonderful little moments and detail to life.
2 The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith and Lullaby by Leila Slimani.
Thrillers are always a delight on the beach, reading tense , psychological horror while happily enscounced on a sun lounger is the ultimate in summer reading. Both Highsmith and Slimani are queens of the genre.
Ms Highsmith’s writing style is as languid as a day on the beach at Mongibello. Her real strength lies in the ability to make the reader engage with Tom Ripley’s character, even though he is clearly deeply flawed and – based on any objective analysis – largely amoral.
Slimani’s novel is tense and deftly written about a perfect nanny’s transition into a monster, it will take your breath away.
3 The Great Gatsby by F.Scott Fitzgerald.
“And so with the sunshine and the great bursts of leaves growing on trees, just as things grow in fast movies, I had that familiar conviction that life was beginning over again with the summer.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby. One of my favourite re reads are those of F.Scott’s, expecially Gatsby which seems to get better with every read.https://www.townandcountrymag.com/leisure/travel-guide/g3044/f-scott-fitzgerald-french-riviera/
A superb fragmentary novel about what it is like to live now’ – The Sunday Times
‘A brilliant exemplar for the autofictional method’ – The Guardian https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/why-i-love-the-great-gatsby-by-f-scott-fitzgerald-1.2021751
‘Using her characteristic, epigrammatic prose style that’s both jittery and deadpan at the same time, Offill presents us with a wryly funny state-of-the-nation novel wired to the hilt with a dread that’ll infect your dreams.’ – The Daily Mail
‘A barometer of how it feels to live now a powerful simulation of the current cultural atmosphere’ – The Sunday Times
‘It’s surprising, given the subject matter, how much fun Weather is, both to read and discuss, and also how darkly funny’ – The Guardian
‘In Weather, we construct a whole from the pieces that we hold in our hands a truly remarkable novel, perhaps the most powerful portrait of Trump’s America yet.’ – The Observer
5 Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart.
“The body—especially the body in pain—blazes on the pages of Shuggie Bain . . . This is the world of Shuggie Bain, a little boy growing up in Glasgow in the 1980s. And this is the world of Agnes Bain, his glamorous, calamitous mother, drinking herself ever so slowly to death. The wonder is how crazily, improbably alive it all is . . . The book would be just about unbearable were it not for the author’s astonishing capacity for love. He’s lovely, Douglas Stuart, fierce and loving and lovely. He shows us lots of monstrous behavior, but not a single monster—only damage. If he has a sharp eye for brokenness, he is even keener on the inextinguishable flicker of love that remains . . . The book leaves us gutted and marveling: Life may be short, but it takes forever.”—Leah Hager Cohen, New York Times Book Review
“We were bowled over by this first novel, which creates an amazingly intimate, compassionate, gripping portrait of addiction, courage and love. The book gives a vivid glimpse of a marginalised, impoverished community in a bygone era of British history. It’s a desperately sad, almost-hopeful examination of family and the destructive powers of desire.”—Booker Prize Judges
6 David Sedaris’ Calypso and Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk.During these strange and uncertain times, who doesn’t need a bit of David Sedaris humour to brighten your day? David Sedaris is an American comedian, essayist, and radio contributor. He is most well-known for his essays and books that are humorous, thoughtful, and poignant, often all at the same time. And just when you think he must be out of stories to tell, he comes out with another book that’s just as good as the last. So which David Sedaris books should you read if you want to add a bit of cheer to your day?
7 Love by Roddy Doyle and White City by Kevin Power
Neither Davy nor Joe know what the night has in store, but as two pints turns to three, then five, and the men set out to revisit the haunts of their youth, the ghosts of Dublin entwine around them. Their first buoyant forays into adulthood, the pubs, the parties, broken hearts and bungled affairs, as well as the memories of what eventually drove them apart.
As the two friends try to reconcile their versions of the past over the course of one night, Love offers up a delightfully comic, yet moving portrait of the many forms love can take throughout our lives.
Kevin Power’s novel opens in a rehab, where Ben – the only son of a rich South Dublin banker – is piecing together the shattered remains of his life. Abruptly cut off, at the age of 27, from a life of heedless privilege, Ben flounders through a world of drugs and dead-end jobs, his self-esteem at rock bottom. Even his once-adoring girlfriend, Clio, is at the end of her tether. Then Ben runs into an old school friend who wants to cut him in on a scam: a shady property deal in the Balkans. The deal will make Ben rich and, at one fell swoop, will deliver him from all his troubles: his addictions, his father’s very public disgrace, and his own self-loathing and regret. Problems solved. But something is amiss. For one thing, the Serbian partners don’t exactly look like fools. And, for another, Ben is being followed everywhere he goes.
Someone is being taken for a ride. But who?
8 The Disconnect by Roisin Kieberd and Startup by Doree Shafrir.
A thought-provoking and shockingly honest essay collection on identity, culture and love in a world experienced increasingly online
We all live online now: the line between the internet and IRL has become porous to the point of being meaningless.
Roisin Kiberd knows this better than anyone. She has worked for tech startups and as the online voice of a cheese brand; she’s witnessed the bloated excesses of tech conferences and explored the strangest communities on the web. She has traced the ripples these hidden worlds have sent through our culture and politics, and experienced the disorienting effects on her own life.
Startup is a novel set in the heady world of the start up techy companies. The veteran online journalist and BuzzFeed writer Doree Shafrir comes a hilarious debut novel that proves there are some dilemmas that no app can solve.
9 Kevin Barry’s There are little Kingdoms.
Kevin Barry has produced a collection of vibrant, original, and intelligent short stories, and a number of the tales contained in There Are Little Kingdoms deserve to be read and reread, and to outlast the strange years that made them.
— Philip Ó Ceallaigh, The Irish Times
10 Otessa Osfegh ‘s My Year of Rest and Relaxation-In Moshfegh’s novel,the unnamed narrator—a young, tall, thin, blond, beautiful woman whose physical appearance functions as a near-comic disguise for her laziness, uselessness, and misanthropy—can hardly stand to be conscious. Her solution is to put herself into chemical hibernation for a year. “Neuroproxin, Maxiphenphen, Valdignore, Silencior, Seconol, Nembutal, Valium, Librium, Placydil, Noctec, Miltown,” she recites, running down her arsenal.
I can’t remember the last time I read a book that gave me such nonstop pleasure. The narrator is self-absorbed, arrogant, broken, and determined to medicate herself into a coma. That’s pretty much the whole premise: she evades the affections of her despised best friend and scams various drugs out of her psychiatrist, working towards the combinations she’ll need to achieve her dream of sleeping for a year. That either makes sense to you or it doesn’t. If you read Twitter, or the news in any form, it probably does. Either way, you should read this book.’ Lit Hub
11 Anne Enright’s The Gathering.
Winner of the Man Booker Prize 2007
The Gathering is a novel about love and disappointment, about thwarted lust and limitless desire, and how our fate is written in the body, not in the stars.
The nine surviving children of the Hegarty clan gather in Dublin for the wake of their wayward brother Liam. It wasn’t the drink that killed him – although that certainly helped – it was what happened to him as a boy in his grandmother’s house, in the winter of 1968
12 Rupert Everett To The End Of The World ( travels with Oscar Wilde )
Fuelled by his obsession with Oscar Wilde, Rupert Everett maps his extraordinary journey around Europe and into the past, whilst painting another fascinating self-portrait with novelistic skill.
Irresistible.’ – Sunday Times
“A supremely gifted writer.” – Lynn Barber, The Times
‘A literary star…anyone who enjoys peeking behind the curtain of celebrity life will love it.’ – Daily Telegraph
13 Animal by Lisa Taddeo
Animal begins, its narrator, Joan, has driven cross-country to Los Angeles, where she’s rented a ramshackle three-storey house in a compound in Topanga Canyon. Joan is defined by the trauma of her past, which has left her, she tells us, “depraved”. Thus, she’s soon involved with two men who live in the compound; the young and beautiful River and the senile, lascivious Leonard, each of whom will decisively affect her future. But she has really come west to track down Alice, a woman with a mysterious connection to her past. Their meeting will trigger the final catastrophic act of Joan’s depravity and the revelation of the childhood horrors that set her on this path.
A] propulsive, fiercely confident debut novel . . . Joan’s voice is so sharp and magnetic that the reader will follow her anywhere. . . . Taddeo’s prose glitters. She has a gift for aphorism, the observation that astonishes.”
—Jennifer Haigh, The New York Times Book Review
14 A Light That Never Goes Out : A Memoir by Keelin Shanley
This is a stunning memoir of a life lived to the fullest by one of Ireland’s most talented journalist who passed away in February 2020.
A stunning memoir – courageous, searingly honest, moving, funny, an incredible life story beautifully told.’ Miriam O’Callaghan
‘A beautiful love story, a behind-the-scenes career exposition and a candid telling of what it is like to live with, and die from, cancer. Heartbreakingly honest and heartachingly inspirational.’ Caitríona Perry, RTÉ Six One News Co-Presenter and Author
‘I found myself moved again and again by how simply and truthfully Keelin talks about the experience of dying and I am in awe of the immense courage she showed in her final months. A book which might have been bleak instead breathes with love – for her work, her colleagues, her friends and above all, her family.’ Lenny Abrahamson, Director Normal People, Room
15 How To Cure A Hangover by Andrew Irving
Dr Andrew Irving offers authoritative medical advice on the short- and long-term effects of too many rough nights. Today drinking and its effect on health has become more of an issue than ever before. With drinking laws changing in the UK and binge drinking becoming a high profile issue in the media, this book offers serious information and guidance on the effects of alcohol on health. There are sections on drinking and the liver, drinking and heart disease, drinking and women, alcohol and weight gain and other effects of over-doing it on a long-term basis.The book also deals with the science of a hangover, including the role of coffee and water, plus the history of weird and wonderful hangover cures since antiquity. The book is packaged to entertain as well as to inform. Hand-tinted stills from the golden age of Hollywood show favourite film stars in a range of compromising states and add a tonic of humour to the more serious advice.
entries sealed with loving kisses by lips garish with pink lipstick .The pathos of the long bus drive back to Tralee , the back seats occupied by love struck students wrapped in a final embrace before life conspired to send them home to Crumlin , Cahir, Galway and Westport, back to school, exams and the dark hour of reason. Someone played The Jackson Brown song “Stay “on a tinny tape recorder over and over again, the chorus punctuated by sobs and wails adding a whiff of romantic melancholia.
Taking the sharp left or was it the right before the pier I drove up a narrow road clinging to the mountain, the darkness obscuring all except the row of cottages. Waking on the first morning I am treated to a valiant February sun illuminating the churning sea, a surreal confection of stone wall, sky and grazing sheep, such a vista that evoked a strong sense of pantheistic delight, in the words of Wordsworth feeling “ a presence that disturbs me with the joy of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused.” Michael Hartnett in his poem The Gaeltacht Place wrote of such terrain “old hills/ now made of Irish tweed” and of “ kelp on the stones , oh yes-like drowned crocuses; pools full of purple creatures/ a bird as black as hunger is.”
Baile ‘n Sceilg is named after Sceilg Mhichil , a rocky outcrop which thrusts violently from the Atlantic , founded in the 7th century as a monastic centre for Irish Christian Monks. Ley lines are hypothetical alignments that run across ancient landscapes connecting both natural and sacred prehistoric structures, their existence first suggested in 1921 by the amateur archaeologist Alfred Watkins, whose book, The Old Straight Track brought the linear phenomenon to the wider public.
Skellig Michael is, according to believers in these ancient energy lines, at the juncture of two leys lines, one the archangel Saint Michael leyline which runs for several hundred miles and includes St Michael’s Church Glastonbury, Thor and a second ley line that goes on to connect to Saint Michael’s Mount in Cornwall, to Mont Saint Michel in France and all the way to Egypt and Israel.
Dublin poet Colm Keegan was also keen to get a good picture of the ancient rocks and we set off on the Sceilg ring towards Portmagee. Egged on by his adventurous spirit my mini spluttered up a vertiginous road and onto Glen pier, St Finian’s Bay. There framed by a spectacular sunset were the iconic rocky outcrops jutting up from the foaming Atlantic, majestic, magical and sublime, emanating their druidic power. Whether ley lines exist or not is irrelevant to my romantic heart, as human beings we like to find patterns and connections in the world around us. And memory is the most powerful ley line of all, a magical path and portal to the past, connecting us to all the moments that we store in the monuments of the heart.
I don’t believe that non-fiction is the new fiction but it is impossible to ignore the slew of essay collections, autofiction and personal narratives interwoven with philosophy, science and rigorous research. There is a desire for readers in this post-truth era to consume material rooted in reality and read titles that enter and even reframe public discourse.David Shield’s Reality Hunger published in 2011 plays with all these themes in a very provocative but intelligent way.‘Fiction’/Nonfiction’ ” is an utterly useless distinction,” states Reality Hunger. How so? “An awful lot of fiction is immensely autobiographical, and a lot of nonfiction is highly imagined. We dream ourselves awake every minute of the day.”
1- Notes To Self By Emily Pine.
I read Emily’s book in one sitting on holidays last Summer and was blown away by her candid intelligence and emotional honesty as she tackles subjects as diverse as addiction,infertility and rape.Emily has written about her love of the essay form-“The verb essayer in French is to try something , I like that it takes an idea and that it pushes it, it looks at it from different angles..” Kudos to Tramp Press for publishing this gem of 2018.
2- Picnic Comma Lightning by Laurence Scott.
Scott’s book is a very stylish and playful exploration of what digital life is doing to the way we find meaning in the world. The book’s charm lies in the author’s ability to weave confession, autobiography and social analysis with a brilliance tempered by a sense of empathic embrace. You can watch an interview with the author here https://video.search.yahoo.com/search/video
The title comes from Nabokov’s Lolita where Humbert Humbert compresses the story of his mother’s death into two words and a comma, wedged between brackets that keep the cataclysm contained: “(picnic, lightning)”.As well as discussing our changing experiences in an age of technologically mediated information, the book is a fragmentary memoir of the author’s childhood , and his grief over his parent’s death.
3-Natural Causes by Barbara Ehrenreich
Ehrenreich has always been a writer that I admire and this latest book was very though provoking with her characteristic mythbusting.With a PH.D in cellular immunology she is well placed to take potshots at the “wellness industry” and at a culture that increasingly treats ageing as an outrage and rages against the dying of the light.Barbara Ehrenreich writes “that preventative medicine exists to transform people into raw material for a profit-hungry medical-industrial complex.”She sees the rising popularity of mindfulness delivered to the time poor by a swarm of apps made originating in Silicon Valley as “Buddhism, sliced up, commodified and drained of all references to the transcendent.”She argues that what” makes death such an intolerable prospect” is our belief in a reductionist science that promises something it cannot deliver-ultimate control over our bodies.
4-The Recovering:Intoxication and its aftermath by Leslie Jamison.
Jamison’s book is essentially an addiction memoir but overcomes the limitations of the genre. She believes that” all addiction stories have already been told as they all come down to the same demolished and reductive and recycled core:Desire.Use.Repeat.”It is also a critical study of the addiction genre that it joins, a biographical Who’s Who of alcoholic writers in the vein of Olivia Laing’s The Trip to Echo Spring. The subject of writers and alcohol is one that still interests readers and this beautifully written memoir is a triumph of this genre.
5-On The Edge by Diarmaid Ferriter.
Having heard Diarmaid speak about his book last week it reignited my interest in history and in this case the history of our islands,which have long held a romantic fascination for me. From the congested district’s boards to the plays of Synge, the literature of Robert Flaherty to personal memoirs, Ferriter uncovers and presents a fascinating homage to the islands and to the islanders who lived on the edge of European civilisation.
The Cambridge dictionary defines work as an activity, such as a job, that a person uses physical energy to do, usually for money. Physics defines work as moving a force over a given distance which rings true for all us worker bees who daily move forces over vast distances in a sisyphean effort to make a living. Jerome K Jerome stated: “I like work: it fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours.” Honoré de Balzac wrote that all happiness depends on courage and work.The Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno said that “work is the only practical consolation for having been born’’.
Douglas Coupland has declared the nine to five as barbaric and thinks that one day we will look back at nine-to-five employment in a similar way to how we now view child labour in the 19th century. He has always been one of the sharpest critics of the modern workplace and his literary works such as Generation X, JPod and Microserfs all revolve around smart and creative young people struggling with the demands of the corporate world.
The world of work is tainted by being perceived as being dull and dreary and to depict it using prose can prove a project too stultifying for a novelist to dedicate a few years to its depiction. Considering the ubiquity of the work experience in our lives, novels that focus on the working life do not crowd the shelves of bookshops. When a novelist can explore heightened worlds innervated with psychological tension the mundane terrain of the water cooler and a poor performance appraisal can seem a turgid option.When there’s war, heartbreak, murder, fictitious future worlds, class struggle, familial discord and clever plots aplenty why would any fiction writer preoccupy himself with the nine to five?
In The Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway, the narrator of the story, heads east to learn the bond business but, instead of office politics, the novel pulsates with high drama and extravagant parties. The odd sentence appears in the novel to confirm that Nick has a job: “Up in the city, I tried for a while to list the quotations on an interminable amount of stock, then I fell asleep in my swivel chair.”
Yuval Noah Harari the author of Sapiens recently predicted that most jobs that exist today might disappear within decades. He writes that as artificial intelligence outperforms humans in more and more tasks, it will replace humans in more and more jobs. If a world of post-work awaits us future generations can learn about the nine to five through works of fiction which will stand as a testament to the world of work. Reading most contemporary fiction one might assume that real life was something that went on outside of working hours. The following novels put work firmly where, in the majority of people’s lives it belongs – in the middle.
The Pale King by David Foster Wallace
All jobs entail tedium and toil but the depiction of the work environment in a regional tax-processing centre on the outskirts of Peoria, Illinois, takes brain-crushing boredom to a new level of pain. One of the characters’ remarks that “enduring tedium over real time in a confined space is what real courage is”. There is a stunning passage about men on a work break, standing around talking about nothing in particular, but it nails the condition of bleak office-life with definitive accuracy.Wallace focuses on an assortment of misfits, eccentrics and outsiders who come to work at the I.R.S. and work as accountants, pushing paper and numbers in a generic office fitted with fluorescent lights, modular shelving and the ceaseless “whisper of sourceless ventilation”.
Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler
Ever since Anthony Bourdain published Kitchen Confidential in 2000 there has been a vogue for books that take us behind the scenes into the intoxicating world of restaurant work. Stephanie Danler’s debut novel is a poetic coming-of-age story about a young woman, Tess’s, experience working as a waitress in a Union Square Cafe, negotiating both New York and a new world of tastes and desires. Her descriptions of the aftermath of the sex, drugs and rock and roll lifestyle are rendered with poetic dazzle.Unwelcome daybreak with its ensuing horror is “a dagger of morning prowled outside the open windows”, and “sunrise came like an undisclosed verdict”. Danler’s description of the panic of the unannounced health department inspection will resonate will all workers who have lived through similar situations. The narrator distills from her experience of her working life some philosophical truths including that “ a certain connoisseurship of taste,a mark of how you deal with the world, is the ability to relish the bitter, to crave it even, the way you do the sweet”.
Personal Days by Ed Parks
When Ed Parks was let go after New Times Media took over The Village Voicehe wrote this novel channelling the pre-layoff atmosphere of dread and anxiety into witty prose. Personal Days unfolds in three parts: Can’t Undo, Replace All and Revert to Saved, all familiar from Microsoft Word. He employs the language of computer software to narrate the happenings in the archipelagos of cubicle clusters while lambasting the lingo of corporate speak. Parks has said that this is “a layoff narrative” for our times.
Microserfs by Douglas Coupland
Daniel Underwood the narrator of this novel is a 26-year-old aspiring code writer, an affable insomniac who tells the story through his online journal Daniel@microsoft.com. Daniel and his fellow “microserfs” lead lives of frantic tedium tethered to their computer screens for 15 hour days, living on junk food and obsessing about Bill Gates. The novel makes a prescient point that “machines really are our subconscious” in this entertaining depiction of life as a computer techie in the early days of the technological revolution.
London and the South-East by David Szalay
Thoreau’s observation that the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation finds embodiment in the character of Paul Rainey, the anti-hero of this sharply written satire on the modern workplace. He is an ad salesman with a company engaged in the increasingly profitless business of selling advertising space in trade magazines whose only subscribers are the advertisers themselves. The novel’s evocations of the day-to-day textures of the workplace, the routines, rivalries, allegiances, resentment and camaraderie, the lunch hours in the pub, the Monday morning postmortems of weekends. Paul’s dissatisfaction with his life lived in a sapping fog of alcohol and automation is brilliantly conveyed by Szalay: “Lying in his tepid bed, wheezing shallowly, eyes shut, ticker fluttering, his head a tightening knot of pain, he is once more sentient of his self, and his situation.” This novel is compulsively readable; Szalay’s prose and darkly comic tone make this a classic of the genre.
50 Jobs Worse Than Yours by Justin Racz Satirist
Justin Racz has spanned the globe to find 50 jobs that can only instil gratitude in any worker complaining about the difficulty of his job.This mini-book with 50 jobs and 50 photos showcases occupations from silly to gross, tedious to terrifying and may serve to dispel all work woes and take the blue out of Mondays, at least until it rolls around again.
No Time For Work by George Ryan
In the humorous tradition of Myles na gGopaleen, Ryan’s comic novel’s narrator is a newly qualified teacher who along with his friend Cecil Chuckleworth do all in their power to avoid work.They manage to outwit headmasters, school inspectors, parish priests and publicans with their escapades in an effort to live the dream, getting paid for sipping porter. The misadventures and comic capers will raise a smile with any reader who has navigated the Irish education system; Ryan writes that “long ago I discovered that teaching is an easy way of earning a living provided that one does not make the mistake of actually teaching.”
Sleep, or the lack of it, is another modern malaise. The purpose, function and drive to sleep has eluded science for millennia; to unravel its mysteries and deliver its age-old secrets has become the holy grail of modern neuroscience and research. Michael Rosbach, one of three American biologists awarded a Nobel Prize for their discovery of the master genes controlling the body’s circadian rhythms, has declared that all of western society is chronically sleep-deprived.
Though feted as a malady of the technology era, insomnia has always been the unwanted bed fellow of modern man. Some of the most famous actors, artists and political leaders have been unable to court the Sandman, and tales of their insomnia are legendary .Vladimir Nobokov, a famous insomniac, called sleepers “ the most moronic fraternity in the world” and felt that the wrench of parting with consciousness almost unbearable. He wanted always to be an eye awake, a seer in a sleeping world, a solitary watcher among the unconscious.
Vincent Van Gogh was said to have been a sufferer and used to douse his mattress and pillow in camphor, a close relative of turpentine, which scholars believe may have caused the brain damage which contributed to his suicide. Groucho Marx’s extreme insomnia led to him reportedly calling strangers on the phone in the small hours to insult them and wrote: “What do you get when you cross an insomniac, an agnostic, and a dyslexic?” According to Marx the correct answer is someone who stays up all night wondering if there is a Dog.
The modern-day equivalent is the insomniacal tribe of online social media users, who often commune and direct message in the small hours, propelled by the excitement that they are not alone. As an often-reluctant member of this wide-awake club, I have taken comfort in Leonard Cohen’s line that the last refuge of the insomniac is a sense of superiority to the waking world.
Medieval humans slept in two phases, a deep first sleep from sunset until 2am, followed by a few hours of wakefulness, then a lighter second sleep until dawn
Roger Ekirch, author of At Day’s Close: A History of Nighttime, writes about the pattern where medieval humans slept in two phases, a deep first sleep from sunset until 2am, followed by a few hours of wakefulness, then a lighter second sleep until dawn. The wakeful hours were spent in prayer, visits to neighbours or engaged in nocturnal shenanigans. He argues that the modern “precious eight hours’ sleep” is a product of the industrial age and the advent of artificial light and that medieval sleepers got closer to nature’s intention than we do. As well as negotiating the tribulations of middle age it appears that my sleeping pattern is medieval, a nightly throw-back to the bi-modal sleep pattern of my ancestors.
Tallulah Bankhead, the early 20th-century filmstar and libertine, hit on a solution to her lifelong insomnia by hiring gay caddies to hold her hand until she nodded off
Tallulah Bankhead, the famous early 20th-century filmstar and libertine, hit on the solution to her lifelong insomnia by hiring gay caddies to sit with her and hold her hand until she nodded off. A less expensive and modern alternative is to try to nod off to the gravelly tones of Drew Akerman, aka Dearest Scooter, the 42-year-old creator and host of the popular Sleep With Me podcast. This is downloaded about 1.3million times each month, which gives some measure of the need for stories that succeed in boring the listener to sleep. Scooter sometimes calls his show “the podcast the sheep listen to when they get tired of counting themselves”. In Greek myth, Hermes used his inimitable wit to tell stories so long-winded and labyrinthine that they lulled the many-eyed monster Argus to sleep.
Aubade confronts what is at the heart of both poetry and insomnia: a preternatural dread of the Big Sleep of death, of which each night’s sleep is trope and harbinger
Anna Akhmatova wrote that insomnia is when both sides of the pillow feel hot. The great poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote a sonnet about sleeplessness called I wake and feel the fell of dark, when he lived in Ireland in the 1880s. In its depiction of a dark night of the soul, it is unparalleled in English literature. Another poet who distils the essence of the sleepless night is Philip Larkin. He often stayed up all night with his martinis and jazz LPs, and in the poem Aubade confronts what is at the heart of both poetry and insomnia: a preternatural dread of the Big Sleep of death, of which each night’s sleep is trope and harbinger. “Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare. In time the curtain-edges will grow light. Till then I see what’s always there: Unresting death, a whole day nearer now…”
Aristotle regarded sleep as a between world, “being as it were a borderland between living and not-living”, sleep being nearer to death than waking, or as Macduff calls it in Macbeth, “death’s counterfeit.”
As a seasoned insomniac, I have spent many years in search for a panacea from the gods, a miracle that would restore me to dream like the Waltons, fast asleep after lights out, cocooned in soporific dreamland far from the madding world. I have tried tinctures, tonics, flower remedies, herbs, homeopathy and acupuncture. I have downloaded apps, subscribed to YouTube channels, chanted and exhaled, twisted and turned and made Faustian pacts for nocturnal oblivion. I have spent vast sums on goose-down pillows and frette linen sheets as Spotify filled the bedroom with soundtracks of rainforests and jungles. The screeching cockatoos and monsoon rains’ aural ministrations have often scared me senseless and led to lights on in wonderland and paranoid checking under the bed for any stray jungle creature.
I have trawled the internet for moon juice and night dusts made by hippies in California, whose contents promised to deliver a nightcap that would lull me to sleep and let me slip slide away into a deep, sound slumber. A cornucopia of soporifics, including cherry juice, magnesium, B6, calcium and chamomile have left me still staring at the ceiling. As a great believer in bibliotherapy, I recently set myself a challenge to read my way through some of the recent publications concerned with the search for an enlightening sleep.
Wide Awake: What I Learned About Sleep from Doctors, Drug Companies, Dream Experts, and a Reindeer Herder in the Arctic Circle, By Patricia Morrisroe
This memoir is a must-read for fellow insomniacs. As a fourth generation sufferer of the plight, Morrisroe approaches the topic with the zeal of a researcher – always armed with her fabulous wit, which percolates the book and gives great light to the dark subject. Her insomnia is personified for her as John Malkovich in the tole of Valmont, the sadistic French aristocrat of Dangerous Liaisons. She realises that sleep, in its various dysfunctions, can be one of the most dangerous liasons of all, increasing your risk of heart disease, obesity and cancer.
Morrisroe’s book is a personal narrative of her search for that which eludes her, the perfect night’s sleep. On this journey to unmask her torturer, she meets drug researchers and dispensers, mystics and cowboys, psychotherapists and savants, and unravels the notions about sleep that are often founded on fantasy, mythology and marketing. She illuminates the murky world of smart drugs like Provigil, whose maker Cephalon paid a huge fine for allegedly marketing the drug as a wake promoter instead of its FDA approved use for excessive sleepiness associated with narcolepsy.
She also interviews an anthropologist, who says that in many traditional, non-Western cultures people sleep on light mats, in groups, around a fire and drift in and out of slumber instead of our “lie down and die” model. Sometimes they get up and dance for a while, which is very reminiscent of student life, but perhaps not compatible with a life based on a nine to five. Her description of a restful apartment’s ruination by the arrival of noisy upstairs neighbours, whose children proceeded to stampede nightly at 3am across her ceiling will strike a chord with many of us who’ve endured similar nocturnal nuisance.
Until she found her dream home she lived in a variety of New York apartments; one had such a flimsy common wall that she could hear her neighbour, an elderly Irishman, praying nightly for the Pope and President Reagan. The acoustics allowed her to hear his tonail-clipping, “the nails clattering over the hardwood floor like reindeer hooves.”
Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams , By Matthew Walker
Matthew Walker is a renowned neuroscientist and sleep expert who explores 20 years of sleep research in an attempt to solve the mystery of why sleep matters. This book is divided into four parts: the first two are concerned with the mechanics and benefits of sleep, the last two with how and why we dream as well as a new vision for sleep in the 21st century. As a bedside read, it can be dipped into according to one’s curiosity about sleep and the style is accessible, with the author able to demystify complex neurological phenomena.
The first chapter sets the tone, with Walker announcing the sobering fact that “routinely sleeping less than six or seven hours a night demolishes your immune system, more than doubling your risk of cancer” as well as contributing to your risk of Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, stroke and heart failure. Walker explains that sleep remains one of the last of the great biological mysteries. Our sleep patterns are cued by light and its absence, with photoreceptors at the back of the eyes picking up light and sending electrical signals to the suprachiasmatic nucleus in your brain. This is the master timekeeper, which regulates and synchronises body temperature and blood pressure, making sure that they all operate on the same cycle, known as circadian rhythm.
In an ideal world, without the blue light of digital devices discombobulating the clockwork, when darkness falls our pineal gland produces melatonin which induces sleep. During daylight hours, melatonin production is reduced to encourage wakefulness. Walker is particularly informative about our genetic propensity to be either an owl or a lark and society’s bias towards larks in work-scheduling. This causes owls to burn candles at both ends to fit into the work model, which exacts a huge toll on health and happiness. Despite some of the findings making this night owl a little uneasy, it’s a triumph in its field, where findings have huge implications for health and work life in modern society.
Acquainted with the Night: Insomnia Poems, By Lisa Russ Spaar (Editor)
Rudyard Kipling wrote that words are the most powerful drug used by mankind. This is a beautiful anthology, with poetic greats like Emily Dickinson and Elizabeth Bishop, Rimbaud and Sappho, Shakespeare and Shelley representing the best of the Western canon, alongside poets from Russia, China, Japan, Vietnam, Romania and other far-flung corners of the world to show the universality of sleeplessness and what it means to be acquainted with the night.
A restless night of tossing and turning can become, in the hands of Hopkins or Sappho, a visionary and artistic experience that can lead to epiphany or confrontation with existential crisis. The anthology is divided into three parts; Solititude, Vigil and Anguish and Longing and Epiphany and Vision. Insomniac by Sylvia Plath is a triumph of all of these odes to insomnia where Plath summons a nightscape of terror inspired by her own bouts of excruciating sleeplessness. Plath describes the insomniac’s pillow as being a desert – arid and bereft from the oasis of sleep. The insomniac is immune to the sleeping tablets “those sugary planets whose influence won for him/ a life baptized in no-life for a while” and their “poppy-sleepy colors do him no good”
The night is only a sort of carbon paper,
Blueblack, with the much-poked periods of stars
Letting in the light, peephole after peephole –
A bonewhite light, like death, behind all things.
Under the eyes of the stars and the moon’s rictus
He suffers his desert pillow, sleeplessness
Stretching its fine, irritating sand in all directions.
Pushkin’s poem loses none of its powerful evocation of a sleepless night in its translation from the Russian in its depiction of the sleepless author listening to the external ticking of the clock as well as the internal whispers of a reproachful conscience.
Lines Written at Night During Insomnia by Alexander Pushkin (Translated by DM Thomas)
I can’t sleep; no light burns;
All round, darkness, irksome sleep.
Only the monotonous
Ticking of the clock,
The old wives chatter of fate,
Trembling of the sleeping night,
Mouse-like scurrying of life…
Why do you disturb me?
What do you mean tedious whispers?
Is it the day I have wasted
Reproaching me or murmuring?
What do you want from me?
Are you calling me or prophesying?
I want to understand you,
I seek a meaning in you.
The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life, One Night at a Time , By Arianna Huffington
The media mogul Arianna Huffington’s book is a call not to lean in but to lie down and sleep as an aid to productivity and life enhancement. Arianna practices what she preaches and sleeps on a bed dressed with her organic cotton sheet range from her Huffington collection and her pillows stuffed with soporific hops and barley. She relegates her phone and electronic devices to the foyer outside the bedroom and engages in a half-hour nightly transition to sleep that includes gratitude journaling, bathing in Epsom salts by candlelight, rituals which help her to greet sleep with respect. Huffington believes that the miracle of sleep allows us to see the world with a reinvigorated spirit, to step out of time and come back to our lives restored. This is a must-read for all aspiring entrepreneurs as this newly anointed sleep evangelist believes that a sleep revolution will allow us to problem solve and dream a new future.
Sleep in Early Modern England, By Sasha Handley
Handley’s book is an illuminating cultural history of sleep, drawing on a rich host of archival sources, referencing Samuel Pepys and the Romantics in an effort to enrich our knowledge of sleep and its roles in earlier societies. The physician and clergyman Thomas Cogan in his The Haven of Health written in the late 1500s presaged this year’s Nobel thesis when he stated “the benefit of sleepe, or the necessity rather needeth no proofe, for that without it no living creature may long endure, according to that saying of the Poet Ovid.”