Midsummer Night Reads


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)




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.




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.




Books, Books, Books. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys.

Image                            Image                                      Image

Am currently reading  Viv Albertine’s memoir Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys. It’s a great read for any music fan especially one with an interest in the punk scene in London in the seventies. Viv was a guitarist in an all female band called The Slits who were once so reviled by the establishment that hotels refused to let them stay. Her journey from a north London council estate to a guitarist in a trail-blazing all girl band is recounted with blatant honesty. From the shocking opening passage relating to masturbation the reader is left in no doubt that the writer is no Jane Austen. Albertine’s purpose is to grab hold of people and say ” Right, you’re in for one hell of a ride now.” Inspired by Johnny Lydon’s performance in the Sex Pistols for not trying to be anyone else, singing in his own accent, Viv formed a band called Flowers of Romance with Sid Vicious and after its demise she joined the Slits.

If like me you are curious about the lives of Vicious, Lydon and Mike Jones of the Clash then you’ll be treated to a sometimes dizzying immersion in their chaotic life styles and regaled with great descriptions of the gear worn on those smoky nights in the Roxy. Punk rock was late to hit an industrial town in North Kerry, in fact years after its inception, a little later than the Kings Road but just as angry and powerful. I remember seeing a local band playing in the town park in Tralee in 1983 and my fourteen year old self fell for the boys with the lips gnarled into a sneer, rangy bodies contorting to the symphony of cacophony, a mass of entropic energy, all ripped jeans and leather jackets.

For excellent anecdotes about Nancy Spungen, McLaren and Westwood, this book is a great read. On a deeper level in the second half of the book Albertine’s story becomes more human as after the demise of the Slits she becomes an aerobics instructor and morphs into a post-punk Jane Fonda teaching at the Pineapple Dance Studios in London, she encounters fertility issues, cancer and divorce. Perhaps there are second acts in life and clearly Viv Albertine is enjoying another time in the sun and a much deserved solo career.

Other books that music lovers will enjoy:

I Play the Drums in a Band Called okay by Toby Litt

Toby Litt is a very fine writer and as a teenager like most of us aspired to be a guitarist in a rock band. His homage to rock and roll is a wry look at the career of a Canadian indie band called okay, who have a meteoric rise from a corrugated-iron shack to join the rock and roll aristocracy with lifetime achievement awards, top 10 singles and the obligatory Japanese stalkers. Narrated by Clap, the drummer, more sensitive than his hedonistic bandmates, this novel is also about growing up and growing older and told in a series of short fragments from the other side of fame.

The Thrill of It All by Joseph O’Connor

The latest novel from Joseph O’Connor is narrated in memoir form by the guitarist Robbie in the fictional band Ships in the Night. As the son of an immigrant Irish family settled in Luton in the Thatcherite 80’s, Robbie bucks tradition by forming a band with the cross-dressing Fran, beautiful Trez and her geezer brother Sean. Much of the humour of the novel arise from the sometimes fraught but always tender exchanges between the staid but loving father, Jim, who works at the local Zoo and is alarmed that education is turning his son into a “Daisy.” The passages where the inebriated Robbie has a late night meeting with Jim are comedy gold for all of us who ever played the role of mouthy teenager in a late night kitchen drama featuring a discombobulated parent.

Robbie is “beckoned to the kitchen” as he tries to creep up the “reversing escalator that drunkenness made of the stairs.” The tirade has a familiar ring to it with mentions by Jim of electricity bills, phone bills, treating the house like a hotel and “ruined tea.” The book is a love story from Joseph to rock and roll bands and is peppered with musical references and song titles so is a most-read for all music nerds. For any fans of Spotify, all the songs referenced in the novel are compiled under The Thrill of it All by Joe O’Connor, compiled by Andrew Basquille. For all lovers of blues, ska, classic showtunes, New Wave and punk the soundtrack is an inspired choice for a Summer’s evening with a chilled glass of wine and a healthy escape into the nostalgia of the soundtrack of O’Connor’s youth.

Click the link below to listen to Andrew Basquille’s playlist The Thrill of it All by Joe O’Connor on Spotify: