Midsummer Night Reads

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Ann Lamott wrote that “you own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” Below I’ve picked three memoirs that I’ve enjoyed over the past month and will follow with my pick of fiction and non-fiction over the next week.

Between Them: Remembering My Parents by Richard Ford ( Bloomsbury)

 

 

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For any Ford fan this is a must read as the Pulitzer Prize winner writes with affection and some humour about his parents Parker Ford and Edna Akin. The memoir was originally written as two essays written decades apart and in their fusion creates one of the most extraordinary depictions of loss in literature. Ford writes first about his father, Parker, a traveling salesman who died in Ford’s arms in 1960 when Ford was 16. He wrote the piece about Edna, his feisty, independent mother shortly after her death in 1981. In the author’s note at the beginning of the memoir Ford acknowledges that writing the two memoirs thirty years apart he has permitted some inconsistencies persist between the two timelines and has allowed himself the lenience to retell certain events.This is a subtle and beautiful testament to devotion and a writer repaying parental love with his exacting prose and ability to animate his parent’s lives. In the afterword to the memoir Ford writes that ” the fact that lives and deaths often go unnoticed has specifically inspired this small book about my parents and set its task” and that ” the chore for the memoir writer is to compose a shape and an economy that gives faithful, reliable, if sometimes drastic, coherence to the many unequal things any life contains.”I had the privilege to hear Richard Ford read from this memoir at Listowel Writer’s Week last month, his voice suffused with emotion and deep south charm inducing a trance like state in the audience where we confronted some of life’s beautiful but painful truths.

 

 

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Once We Were Sisters by Sheila Kohler published by Canongate.

Once We Were Sisters

South African novelist Sheila Kohler has been haunted by the death of her sister, Maxine, who died a violent death on a spring night at the hands of her abusive husband. This memoir is the author’s attempt to unravel the truth of what happened and sift through the sands of memory to recapture the privilege of their childhood in 1950’s South Africa, a society where colonial gentility co-existed with violence and privilege. This searing illumination of sisterhood starts in 1979 when Kohler hears the news that her brother-in-law, a protege of heart surgeon Christian Barnard, drove off a deserted road and into a lamp-post causing the death of his wife Maxine. When Kohler sees her sister’s face in the morgue she feels guilty about not saving her from a husband they knew to be unspeakably cruel. She soul searches through this memoir and confronts the dark questions that her sister’s death bring to the surface including her own passivity which may have been exacerbated by the misogyny of 1950’s South Africa. This memoir is written in the present tense which reminds us that Kohler’s sister is forever with us and in her stark and delicate prose she captures the sensuous South African childhood of “swimming in the big pool, picking armfuls of bright flowers, gathering oranges and lemons” as well as the heart of darkness that destroyed this paradise.

The Rules Do Not Apply by Ariel Levy

This memoir by New Yorker writer Ariel Levy confronts the notion of having it all. She was riding high in 2012, successful at her chosen career, legally married to a woman and pregnant with her first child. ” Thanksgiving in Mongolia” is the heart -breaking essay that Levy wrote about the miscarriage that happened in a hotel room in Mongolia where she had flown to do a report on the country’s mining boom.Her memoir picks up where the essay leaves off and explores the aftermath of the miscarriage where her marriage fell apart and Levy felt that the Universe had delivered her a karmic blow for dreaming that she could live a life of her choosing. Of her generation, Ms. Levy writes: ” Sometimes our parents were dazzled by the sense of possibility they’s bestowed on us. Other times, they were aghast to recognise their own entitlement, staring back at them magnified in the mirror of their offspring.” This memoir confronts taboos and life-shattering events in self-lacerating detail and ends with a Austenesque happy ending though in typical Levy style she has declared that this is not an ending as she is not dead.

 

 

 

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The Age of Anxiety

Daniel Smith, author of Monkey Mind, writes that everyone has it, everyone must deal with it. “Anxiety compels a person to think, but it is the type of thinking that gives thinking a bad name; solipsistic, self-eviscerating, unremitting, vicious”.

WH Auden published the book-length poem, The Age of Anxiety, in 1947 and it immediately struck a cultural chord. The piece begins as a conversation among four strangers in a New York barroom on Third Avenue and is the poet’s method of analysing Western culture during the second World War. The Age of Anxiety won a Pulitzer Prize and also inspired a symphony by Leonard Bernstein. Auden’s title The Age of Anxiety has been ubiquitous for more than six decades. From the moment it appeared, the phrase has been used to characterise the consciousness of our era, the awareness of everything perilous about the modern world: environmental issues, global warming, nuclear energy, religious fundamentalism, violence, terrorism, economic calamity. Anaïs Nin wrote that “Anxiety… makes others feel as you might when a drowning man holds onto you”. Kierkegaard compared anxiety to a type of spiritual dizziness, afflicting “he whose eyes happens to look down the yawning abyss.” In his poem No Worst, There is None, Gerard Manley Hopkins describes a mind jagged with anxiety:

“O the mind, mind has mountains;
cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed.”

Danny, Withnail and I’s drug dealer and famous roller of the Camberwell Carrot joint, described postmodern and peri-hangover social anxiety thusly: “If you’re hanging onto a rising balloon, you’re presented with a difficult decision – let go before it’s too late or hang on and keep getting higher, posing the question: how long can you keep a grip on the rope?”

Few people would dispute that anxiety is a hallmark of our times or that anxiety has become a kind of cultural condition of modernity. In Britain, 19 per cent of people suffer from depression and anxiety and up to 40 million Americans have an anxiety disorder, with the average age of onset only 11. There are no accurate figures detailing the prevalence of anxiety disorders in Ireland, but it is estimated that 1 in 9 individuals will suffer a primary anxiety disorder over their lifetime. Anxiety, according to Scott Stossel, the author of My Age of Anxiety, “has become part of the cultural furniture”.

As a clinical condition, anxiety has only become classified in the last 30 years. It can be seen through the work of writers that anxiety has been with us since humans first emerged, from Hippocrates to Freud. Ancient Epicurean and Stoic philosophers suggested techniques to reach an anxiety-free state of mind that are reminiscent of modern cognitive psychology. Typical cases of anxiety disorders kept being reported and in the 17th century. Robert Burton described anxiety in The Anatomy of Melancholy. Anxiety is a normal human emotion. From an evolutionary viewpoint it is adaptive, since it promotes survival by inciting people to steer clear of perilous places. Just because our anxiety is heavily diagnosed and medicated, however, doesn’t mean that we are more anxious than our forebears. Perhaps as a society we are more cognisant of the mind’s tendency to spin out of control.

Whether the anxiety is social or status, generalised or obsessive compulsive, the following books are an enlightening read.

My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind by Scott Stossel

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Scott Stossel is an American journalist and author, Harvard graduate and editor of The Atlantic. He is also a man who has suffered all his life from an acute anxiety disorder, beginning with separation anxiety as a child and culminating in a myriad of phobias including public speaking, flying, fainting, heights, germs, vomiting and cheese. Stossel has been in therapy since he was 10, and he has consumed pharmacopoeias of psychopharmaceuticals – Thorazine, Nardil, Prozac, Zoloft, Paxil, Wellbutrin, Valium, Librium, Xanax as well as copious amounts of alcohol to temper his symptoms – but the respite never lasted long.

His current therapist encouraged him to write this book, and he says he has taken the advice in the hope that “by tunnelling into my anxiety… I can also tunnel out the other side.”

This book is not a memoir. Stossel only reveals parts of his life that are relevant to what he calls “ the riddle of anxiety”. Most of the book is a scholarly exploration of the history of anxiety and a journalistic account of the present state of medical knowledge on the subject. Stossel’s description of his anxiety on his wedding day is evoked with humour despite the horror he endured at “one of the happiest, most significant moments of life”. He stood trembling with rivulets of sweat running into his eyes, his limbs trembling on the verge of convulsing at best or unconsciousness at worst. He felt that at the reception afterwards he was only pantomiming happiness, which induced a brutal, self-lacerating despair.

The Pursuit of Happiness: And Why It’s Making Us Anxious by Ruth Whippman

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When this British journalist moves to California, she realises that the American obsession with finding happiness is driving everyone crazy. Whippman feels that happiness in America has become the overachiever’s ultimate trophy. As a cynical British woman, Ruth finds that in conversations with everyday people that the route to “happy ever after” is a constant concern. Techniques used to achieve this happy state range from the mundane (yoga and meditation) to mind-boggling seminars on how to Unleash the Power Within and, most bafflingly, the drinking of wolf colostrum. She struggles with the concept of mindfulness and cannot see “how greater happiness could be achieved by reining in that magical sense of scope and possibility to stare down some oatmeal”.

Whippman notes that her new happiness-seeking American acquaintances seem no happier than her cynical British ones and her instinct is that happiness should be serendipitous; the byproduct of a life well lived.

Anxiety for Beginners by Eleanor Morgan

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This fusion of memoir and scientific investigation is very accessible. It begins with a vivid description of a panic attack that Morgan suffered at 17 in the middle of biology class. “Within seconds I was convinced I was about to detonate there on my wooden stool” as the blackboard went blurry, her head started to prickle and her hands went numb. As well as speaking to fellow sufferers, Morgan consults psychiatrists, psychologists, OCD specialists and nutritionists. With a generous dollop of humanity Morgan analyses genetic and environmental influences on anxiety as well as hormones, fertility, trauma and medication, all the while interspersing science with her own stories and those of fellow sufferers.

Mad Girl by Bryony Gordon

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This is a funny, intimate, personal account of the author’s OCD, bulimia and drug habit. At the age of 12, Gordon woke up convinced she was going to die of Aids and began obsessively washing her hands. After she revealed her fear that she might murder someone, a doctor diagnosed OCD and prescribed antidepressants. When she landed her dream job in journalism she led a double life: to friends, colleagues and lovers she was the effervescent girl about town, while privately she fought her demons. Bryony chronicles all of this in a breathless, self-mocking tone, which helps when reading such dark material. Her story is a potential lifeline for others who may suffer in silence.

A Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled by Ruby Wax

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The larger-than-life, seemingly confident Ruby Wax of our TV screens was also clinging on to sanity. She spent some time in the Priory Clinic, London to tackle her problems with anxiety and depression. Wax now has a master’s degree in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy from Oxford University. Practical and pragmatic, A Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled talks in a funny way about depression and demonstrates how mindfulness exercises can help with everyday problems.

Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton

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Status anxiety is about who you are in contemporary society – whether you’ve got enough money, enough kudos, enough fabulosity to cut it in our judgemental world. De Botton’s bestselling book is concerned with just that: an exploration of this anxiety and a valuable insight into class and a meritocratic society.

Truth is the new fiction

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Writers such as Philip Roth and more recently Will Self have predicted the death of the novel and have written its obituary notice with Roth declaring that he “was finished with fiction” and that in a few decades the novel will be as irrelevant as Latin poetry. In a recent Guardian piece Self writes that “the omnipresent and deadly threat to the novel has been imminent now for a long time.”

There is a trend over the last few years for a new type of fiction, a genre that molds memoir with biography to form a literature that feels fresh and hyperreal, a type of reality fiction for the modern reader. Sheila Heti, Karl Ove Knausgaard and Rachel Cusk are the disciples of this new strain of writing which channels the stream of consciousness of the post-moderns with a fiction of the everyday in depicting quotidian reality. The subjects described can often be banal but with these writer’s talent and skill the writing outshines its often plot and artifice driven competitors.  David Shields presaged this new trend when in his 2010 “manifesto” called Reality Hunger he advocates a return to the “real” in literature and he rails against conventional plot-driven fiction in favour of the lyric essay and the memoir.

Karl Ove Knausgaard’s opus Min Kamp or My Struggle, which has been one of the publishing sensations of the last few years, is a perfect example of the fusion of memoir with essayistic discourse. Frustrated by the confines of the novel to write about his father’s death from alcoholism he decided to write a real account which was unconcerned with literary niceties such as structure and plot and he invented his own language “the banality of the everyday.  ”Part of what makes My Struggle so thrilling and hypnotizing is the evocation of the everyday such as diaper-changing, washing the dishes or going for a hair cut in a flat, almost conversational tone. This poetry of the prosaic is exemplified in Karl’s writing and no subject is deemed too secret to divulge. This truthful selling of his soul is very liberating for the reader, almost as if the baring of his secrets to us frees us from the shame of some of our own.

Rachel Cusk’s new novel Outline is narrated by an English writer who has flown to Athens to teach a writing workshop and writes of her encounters on the plane, in the classroom and observations made during evening meals with other writers. It is essentially plotless and imbued with greatness through Cusk’s ability to conjure up these vignettes with her characteristic stylish prose. She said in a recent Guardian interview that “autobiography is increasingly the only form in all the arts” and that description and character are “dead or dying in reality as well as in art.”

Zadie Smith wrote that she awaited the next instalment of Karl’s volume with all the longings and cravings of a crack addict. The modern reader clearly has a hunger for depictions of reality unsullied by the filters of fiction.  The lure of such work is evidently potent and perhaps truth will become more popular that fiction.

Literary Bad Girls- Part 2

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Sylvia Plath ( October 27,1932- February 11, 1963

This Boston born bad girl studied at Smith College and won the opportunity to spend the Summer of 1953 as one of the guest editor’s of Mademoiselle magazine. Out of these experiences Plath wrote the modern masterpiece The Bell Jar, where her voice is channelled through the character of the main protagonist Esther Greenwood. This wry, morbid voice explores sexism in American society, modern pop culture, her mental struggles and the psychiatric profession. As a Fulbright scholar in Cambridge this emerging poet met the handsome Ted Hughes at a book launch. The intensity of their meeting makes Sylvia a queen of the Bad Girls, during their initial discourse Sylvia bit him on the cheek so hard, her teeth drew blood. This marked an almost savage and elemental aspect to their relationship, gothic in its inception and tragic in its demise.  As a couple they worked and wrote, travelled to America, taught , returned to England. She had two children after a series of miscarriages and Ted had affairs. He left her for Assia Weevil after a tempestuous five years and she committed suicide by putting her head in a gas oven.  What remains of this girl is her legend and of course her canon of work, her poetry collection Ariel continues to be analyzed and admired decades later.Listen her:

BBC INTERVIEWS WITH SYLVIA AND TED

And Ryan Adams beautiful song about her

 

Jean Rhys(1890-1979)

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Read this biography by the brilliant Lilian Pizzichini to get a measure of this Bad Girl with literary talent and artistic integrity.  Rhys had a dreamy childhood in the lush island heat of Dominica, the daughter of a white Creole mother and a Welsh father. A colourful life included a brief stint as a chorus girl in London, a career as an artist’s model and a vagabond and bohemian existence in Paris.

Rhys had three failed marriages, was often alcoholic and destitude, economically on the edge and abandoned by caddish men. Yet it was all these hardships that made her such a great writer, Rhys distilled her experiences into the beautiful prose of books such as After Leaving Mister Mr Mackenzie(1930) and Good Morning, Midnight (1939) and the unforgettable Wide Saragasso Sea, the story of Bertha Mason, the first wife of Mr Rochester in Jane Eyre.

It is a great consolation that Rhys lived to see her work attain critical acclaim and was made a CBE in 1978. The monde recognised this fragile voice of the demi-monde and bohemia, a life full of flawed humanity and fragile dreams.

 

Blame it on the Rosé…

DISCOMOVIE

On holidays in France last month I noticed a flurry of activity in the lobby of our hotel in Juan Les Pins. Red carpet was being rolled out the door and young women clad in designer clobber clicked around the foyer in vertiginous heels having animated discussions in their iPhones and clutching clipboards. I immediately sniffed a party of the private variety and the antithesis of the events I attended in Rathmines in the mid eighties where groups of students sat on bedsit floors puffing ciggies and watching their harp stash.

I’ve perfected the art of walking by door people with an air of possession. Book in hand I strode past the PR beauties muttering to myself a little and ignoring the chorus of madams emanating from the entrance. Once out on the beautiful courtyard over looking the beach I was offered a glass of champagne by a friendly waiter. All attendees were extremely chic and all the beautiful people mingled, air-kissed, laughed and posed for photographs with the confidence of movie stars.

I was beginning to stand out a little, cutting a lone figure centre stage with just a Tim Winton book and a glass of bubbly. I noticed a very dapper man sitting near by talking to a woman. He was clearly american and a little intimidating, but I had to ask someone where Tim Winton was.

” Excuse me, but would you know where Tim Winton is? I’d like him to sign my book?” I asked.

“Tim Winton isn’t here. He didn’t win the prize. Whit Stilmann did.” he replied.
“I’ve never heard of Whit Stilmann.” I said.
“I’m Whit Stilmann.” replied the famous American director.
I began to stutter and splutter and attempt to dig myself out of the crater sized faux pas, much mentioning that I love books and films followed and that I’d adored The Last Days of Disco, never realised that it had been released as a book.

Whit took it all with a sanguine and languid sense of humour and later talked about Gatsby and his love of Paris. I introduced him during the course of the evening to my friend Pauline. It was a combination of the rosé, the champagne, the sheer thrill of meeting a famous director but words failed me as my brain scrambled for his first name.

Whit is not part of the normal vernacular in Ireland and I struggled to remember this first name. My brain strayed into the literary memory and I found myself introducing Whit Stilmann as Walt Whitman. It could have been worse, Walt Disney and Ben Stiller were waiting on the tip of my tongue.Don’t blame it on sunshine, don’t blame it on moonlight, blame it on the rose.

ANNE

 

Holiday reading

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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.

I attempted Thomas Piketty’s ” Capital” on day one on the beach and after half an hour was in an advanced state of anxiety about the World, the economy and my own meagre place in all this. I abandoned it for an Autumn night, made immediate peace with the fact that I’ll never have much money, it seems to elude me somehow, like the green light in Gatsby.

I returned to my supply of novels that promised to transport me to other lives and other sensibilites. I can highly recommend the following beach themed books.

The Vacationers by Emma Straub- a deftly observed novel about the secrets,lies and jealousies that bubble to the surface over the course of an American family’s two-week stay in Mallorca.

Ladder of Years by Anne Tyler- The character Delia Grinstead vanishes without any reason. She sheds her old life for a new and exiting one, which makes it an ideal holiday read as you lie on the deck chair and think of new schemes and reinventions.

To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf- enter into this landmark novel of high modernism and join the Ramsay family in their summer house off the coast of Scotland, as prepare to be transformed by this moving portrait of family life.

The Lemon Grove by Helen Walsh- From the Ramsays at the turn of the century, you can now join the long-married Jenn and Greg on summer vacation in Mallorca. As you sip your vino be prepared for a very steamy read of lust in the lemon groves. Oh, and it doesn’t involve Greg as the object of this lust..

Alison Moore’s first novel ” The Lighthouse ” brings the reader on a holiday that begins on the deck of a ferry, where we meet Futh who is leaving an unravelling marriage for a walking holiday along the Rhine. What follows is a story of repetition and circularity, which is deliciously unsettling. As a Man Booker contender this book lends a bit of literary cachet to your beach look!

Always good when on foreign shores to hark back to the motherland with that peculiar mixture of smug gratitude at having escaped however temporarily and a sort of nostalgic patriotism for the old isle. These books, recently published by Irish authors are superb.
Eimear McBride’s ” A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing” is an experience that needs a little commitment from the reader and this award winning book will teach you more about language and consciousness than a PhD in linguistics. She’s hailed as a Joycean genius, make up your own mind.

Colin Barrett’s ” Young Skins” is probably the best collection of short stories I’ve read in the last few years. These stories are based in a fictional Mayo town, and in both style and scope excavate the gaping holes in lives and loves in post-boom Ireland.

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