20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2022), Author, Book review, England, essays, George Orwell, Non-fiction, Publisher, Pushkin Press, Setting

‘England, Your England: Notes on a Nation’ by George Orwell

Non-fiction – paperback; Pushkin Press; 188 pages; 2021.

George Orwell’s England Your England: Notes on a Nation is a collection of five essays brought together in one volume published by Pushkin Press last year.

The subjects covered are incredibly varied but all share a common theme: English life and culture in all its peculiarities.

The essays were penned between 1931 and 1946 and showcase Orwell’s gift for observation and his masterful ability to convey the political machinations that underpin society. And everything is written in his distinctive pared-back prose style that makes it an effortless read.

Essays one and two

The first essay, Decline of the English Murder, is an almost satirical look at the tabloid press’s obsession with true crime reportage, and reading it now, more than 75 years later, not much seems to have changed.

[…] one can construct what would be, from a News of the World reader’s point of view, the ‘perfect’ murder. The murderer would be a little man of the professional class —  a dentist or a solicitor, say — living an intensely respectable life somewhere in the suburbs, and preferably in a semi-detached house, which will allow the neighbours to hear suspicious sounds through the wall.

In Shooting an Elephant, he reveals his personal experience in the early 1920s when, as a policeman in Burma — then a province of British India — he was required to shoot a rampaging elephant.

He made the decision to play the hero as a way of proving himself to the locals, who had taken against him, even though he did not want to shoot the animal because he was squeamish and regarded it as murder. He has an alarming sense of self-awareness:

Here I was, the white man with his gun, standing in front of the unarmed native crowd — seemingly the leading actor of the piece, but in reality, I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by those yellow faces behind. I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys.

Essay three

Perhaps the most interesting essay, or at least the one that is most shocking (to this reader anyway), is Down the Mine, a look at what it was like to be a coal miner deep underground in the 1930s.

Orwell’s first-person piece, which first appeared in his book The Road to Wigan Pier (published 1937), details the hardships and sheer grunt work the men do in dangerous, claustrophobic conditions in tunnels so small they cannot even stand up to wield their picks and shovels.

He marvels at the speed at which they do their work — shifting coal at around two tons an hour — and is amazed by the idea they often have to walk, or crawl, more than a mile underground to reach the coal face.

When I am digging trenches in my garden, if I shift two tons of earth during the afternoon, I feel that I have earned my tea. But earth is tractable stuff compared with coal, and I don’t have to work kneeling down, a thousand feet underground, in suffocating heat and swallowing coal dust with every breath I take; nor do I have to walk a mile bent double before I begin. The miner’s job would be as much beyond my power as it would be to perform on the flying trapeze or to win the Grand National.

Essay four

The grim theme continues in The Spike, which is about life inside a workhouse. In this 1931 essay (which you can read in full online at The Orwell Foundation website), Orwell details an overnight stay when he was deliberately living as a vagrant as part of his studies for his first book Down and Out in Paris and London.

Acting as a passive observer, he paints pen portraits of the men that eat and sleep there and contrasts life inside the institution — dank, depressing, grim — with life outside, on the road, where “the chestnut branches were covered with blossom, and beyond that great woolly clouds floated almost motionless in a clear sky”.

He explains how the men are given a bath, a medical inspection, a bed to sleep in for the night and an enormous meal, but are then thrown back out onto the street and left to fend for themselves once again. In between, they are locked up inside, denied their tobacco and forced to talk to one another to pass the time.

It is a silly piece of cruelty to confine an ignorant man all day with nothing to do; it is like chaining a dog in a barrel. Only an educated man, who has consolations within himself, can endure confinement. Tramps, unlettered types as nearly all of them are, face their poverty with blank, resourceless minds.

The masterpiece essay

The book culminates with Orwell’s three-part essay on English socialism, The Lion and the Unicorn, which was first published in 1941 and outlines his opinions on the Second World War and the role that Britain was playing in it at the time.

His analysis of the British character, the class system and Empire seems remarkably on point more than 80 years later, particularly in light of Brexit and the political shenanigans currently happening in the UK.

I underlined so many pertinent sentences and paragraphs and, indeed, entire pages, that I couldn’t possibly summarise or review this essay in any meaningful or articulate way. Instead, let me share some of my favourite quotes:

We are a nation of flower-lovers, but also a nation of stamp-collectors, pigeon-fanciers, amateur carpenters, coupon-snippers, darts-players, crossword-puzzle fans. All the culture that is most truly native centres round things which even when they are communal are not official — the pub, the football match, the back garden, the fireside and the ‘nice cup of tea’.

In England all the boasting and flag-wagging, the ‘Rule Britannia’ stuff, is done by small minorities. The patriotism of the common people is not vocal or even conscious.

Everyone believes in his heart that the law can be, ought to be, and, on the whole, will be impartially administered. The totalitarian idea that there is no such thing as the law, there is only power, has never taken root. Even the intelligentsia have only accepted it in theory.

The insularity of the English, their refusal to take foreigners seriously, is a folly that has to be paid for very heavily from time to time.

It follows that British democracy is less of a fraud than it sometimes appears. A foreign observer sees only the huge inequality of wealth, the unfair electoral system, the governing-class control over the press, the radio and education, and concludes that democracy is simply a polite name for dictatorship. But this ignores the considerable agreement that does unfortunately exist between the leaders and the led.

England is the most class-ridden country under the sun. It is a land of snobbery and privilege, ruled by largely the old and silly.

I could go on… but I won’t.

England Your England: Notes on a Nation is a gem of a collection: forthright, thought-provoking and an astute observation of English life from another generation but one that still resonates today.

This is my 8th book for #20booksofsummer 2022 edition. I bought it from the independent book store Crow Books here in Perth last Christmas using some money I was given by Mr Reading Matters to treat myself to “books and beer”! I love the look and feel of this Pushkin Press edition. There’s a second one in the set, “Inside the Whale: On Writers and Writing”, that I now need to hunt out.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2022), Australia, Author, Book review, essays, Non-fiction, Publisher, Sean O'Beirne, Setting

‘On Helen Garner’ by Sean O’Beirne (Writers on Writers series)

Non-fiction – hardcover; Black Inc.; 138 pages; 2022.

On Helen Garner is the latest volume in an ongoing series about Australian writers written by Australian writers. There are ten in the series so far (see below) and this is the latest to be published.

Sean O’Beirne is a Melbourne writer, so it seems fitting that he would write about Helen Garner, who is also a Melbourne writer. I’m not familiar with O’Beirne’s work, but according to the blurb, he wrote a satirical short story collection, A Couple of Things Before the End, which was shortlisted for several awards. He also works as a bookseller at Readings at the State Library Victoria.

In this essay, it’s clear he is a deep thinker and not afraid to write intimate details about himself, traits he shares with Garner.

His main thesis is that Garner writes a “closeness to self” that allows her to be completely honest and open, to say the things that others may think but never say, and in doing so this allows her to get closer to the truth.

He argues that she does this in both her fiction and her non-fiction. Her fiction, he says, is particularly close to the truth because much of it is based on her first-hand experiences or people she knows, and, indeed, Monkey Grip, her debut novel, was basically her diaries just with the names of people and locations and dates changed, something to which she confessed later on in her career.

He compares this approach with other writers, including himself, who may get to the truth but only by using fictional characters as a foil to say the things the actual writer would be too guarded to say in non-fiction. He puts it like this:

And I notice too that in this whole book I haven’t given you one specific incident, telling as me, about my family, my dad, my mum. About Mr and Mrs O’Beirne. I can’t, I can’t give them to you. But ‘Mr and Mrs O’Dingle’ — I’ll tell you what those people did. As soon as I make some new names, as soon as I get the freedom of some substitution, it is remarkable, I get a feeling in my head like all the lights coming on, my own lit-up feeling of permission.

He explains how it isn’t just as simple as the use of first-person narratives, of inserting an “I” in the story, to get to this truth. The use of “I” is to act as an eye witness, to give a “sort of limited verification” of being present, that “I was in the room, these things happened, I saw them”.

But for many writers, including Janet Malcolm whom he references (and whom I love), this is a device used to suggest that the writer is a “participant observer” and that they know about the subject and are reporting it with a level of intelligence.

But what Garner does, argues O’Beirne, is to go one step further and not be afraid to admit that she’s confused or frustrated or angered or is out of her depth in situations in which she is reporting. And in doing that, the veil of objectivity, of being a passive observer, is lifted.

The book looks at Garner’s novels and short stories as well as her non-fiction books to make these points. Anyone who is familiar with Garner’s back catalogue will enjoy the references.

I have not read much of Garner’s fictional work so these did not resonate as much as her narrative non-fiction, including The First Stone (read pre-blog), Joe Cinque’s Consolation, This House of Grief and her diaries. It does make me keen to explore those works of fiction, though.

Writers on Writers series

The 10 books in the series are as follows:

And there’s a new one forthcoming: ‘On Tim Winton’ by Geraldine Brooks, which I will look forward to reading when it is available.

This is my 6th book for #20booksofsummer 2022 edition. I bought it earlier this year because I am a Garner fan and thought this would make for an interesting read.

Author, Book review, Emilie Pine, essays, Ireland, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR 21, Tramp Press

‘Notes to Self’ by Emilie Pine

Non-fiction – essays; Tramp Press*; 190 pages; 2018.

Notes to Self is a deeply personal collection of essays by Irish academic Emilie Pine. The pieces are all themed around Emilie’s life and are astonishing in their frankness and honesty.

There are six essays, the majority of which are framed around what it is to be a woman in the 21st century, forging a career, trying to start a family and caring for vulnerable parents. Taken collectively, the book could also be classified as a memoir.

The opening essay, “Notes on Temperance”, sets the tone for the entire book, for in it Pine tells the story of how, together with her sister, they “rescued” their father, an alcoholic, from a decrepit Greek hospital where they feared he would die.

By the time we find him, he has been lying in a pool of his own shit for several hours.

The essay charts their efforts to help a man who does not want to be helped, flying from Ireland and Corfu, and back again, numerous times to ensure his well-being; how they got him back to Dublin for a bit before he took it upon himself to return to Greece; how Pine learns to respect her father’s “principled stubbornness” and admires his talent as a writer; and how she came to understand that the emotional labour of looking after a poorly parent might make her “heart race” but comes with its own rewards: “an ever-changing conversation between two people, father and daughter”.

In “The Baby Years” she explains her struggles with infertility (“Do I want kids? I agonised for years”) and how, when she finally got pregnant, the baby dies in-utero.

On October 18th I am admitted for what they call an ERPC. It’s another terrible acronym; this one translates as ‘the evacuation of retained products of conception’.

Similarly, the essay “Notes on Bleeding and Other Crimes” looks at the intimate biology of what it is to be female and to experience menstruation  — the bloody mess of it, the pain of it, the surprise of it, the sometimes embarrassing times we are caught out by it — from our teenage years to perimenopause.

For three decades I have lived within a silence that declares periods too embarrassing, too unwanted, too female to talk about out loud. […] To hell with covering up, with being embarrassed, with being silent.

There are other essays about what it is like to grow up in Ireland with parents who have separated (“Speaking/Not Speaking”), about her troubled adolescence in which drugs and sex and a wild-child attitude reined (“Something About Me”) and, finally, about sexism in the workplace, particularly academia (“This is not on the Exam”).

And while Pine writes from her own personal experiences living and working in Ireland, there is a universality about the topics covered that will resonate with many women regardless of background or upbringing.

There are a lot of home truths in Notes to Self, and the frankness is, at times, breathtaking in its audacity and crudity. But Pine is not afraid to break taboos, to shine a light on uncomfortable topics, to shake off the shame often attached to them and to show that resilience and bravery come in many forms.

It is a superlative read.

* Please note this book has since been picked up and republished by Penguin.

If you like this, you might also like:

‘Constellations: Reflections of Life’ by Sinead Gleeson: a collection of 14 extraordinary, life-affirming and very personal essays covering the author’s own experience of sickness, health, motherhood and grief.

This is my 15th book for #TBR21 in which I’m planning to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021. I purchased it from Dublin, Ireland, not long after it was released in 2018, and carried it in my suitcase when I repatriated to Australia in June 2019.

Author, Book review, essays, Janet Malcolm, Non-fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR2020, Text, USA

‘Nobody’s Looking at You: Essays’ by Janet Malcolm

Non-fiction – Kindle edition; Text Publishing; 304 pages; 2019.

Janet Malcolm is a respected American journalist who writes in a narrative non-fiction style. I regard her most notable work, The Journalist and The Murderer, first published in 1990, as one of the best non-fiction books I’ve ever read. It’s the quintessential work by which I measure all other narrative non-fiction work.

Nobody’s Looking at You: Essays, which was published by Text last year, brings together a variety of her shorter essays, which were originally published in the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books. As such they are fairly divergent in theme, if not style, and they cover everything from detailed profile pieces to long-form book reviews. (The title comes from her profile of American fashion designer Eileen Fisher, whose Catholic mother often said to her “nobody’s looking at you” as a way of stamping out any tendency towards self-absorption.)

This eclectic collection is divided into three parts: long-form journalistic profiles of famous people; shorter pieces on topics ranging from pop culture to politics; and articles about books and literature. Admittedly, I found the first part much better than the second and third, perhaps because the pieces were long enough to give Malcolm’s writing the chance to breathe — and to showcase what she really does best, bringing people to life with a simple flourish of her pen.

Profile pieces

In Part I of Nobody’s Looking at You: Essays there are several standout features, but the one that made the biggest impression on me was about Yuja Wang, a Chinese classical pianist who is renowned for wearing stilettos and outrageous little dresses on stage. I had never heard of her before, but reading Malcolm’s essay “Performance Artist” really made me feel as if I knew her personally. I found myself feeling quite defensive of her!

In this piece, Malcolm shows how Yuga’s preference for “extremely short and tight dresses that ride up as she plays” has almost eclipsed the music, as journalists and critics get sidetracked by her fashion sense.

The New Criterion critic Jay Nordlinger characterized the “shorter-than-short red dress, barely covering her rear” that Yuja wore for a Carnegie Hall recital as “stripper-wear.” Never has the relationship between what we see at a concert and what we hear come under such perplexing scrutiny.

Spending time with the young musician, Malcolm finds herself wondering if it might not just be easier for Yuja to ditch the risque outfits for something more sombre.

In 2014, when an interviewer from the London Telegraph asked Yuja about “her fondness for riskily short, clingy dresses,” she gave a flippant reply: “I am 26 years old, so I dress for 26. I can dress in long skirts when I am 40.” But in fact Yuja’s penchant for the riskily short and clingy has less to do with allegiance to the dress code of her generation than with an awareness of her own “super-smallness,” as she calls it. She knows that small, tight clothes bring out her beauty and large, loose garments don’t. But she is not just a woman who knows how to dress. She is a woman who is constantly experimenting with how to dress when she is playing on a concert stage. She is keenly aware—as many soloists affect not to be—that she is being looked at as well as listened to.

Malcolm gains further insight into her subject when the pair get ready to attend a meeting. Yuja spends an inordinate amount of time deciding whether to wear a flamboyant dress or stay in her casual attire:

Should she wear one of them or stay in the shorts? I asked what the issue was—was she interested in comfort or in how she looked? She stared at me as if I were crazy. What weird world was I living in where comfort could even be thought of? She wiggled into one of the bandage dresses, added her high heels, and we walked the three blocks to Lincoln Center at a brisk clip.

It’s these kinds of observations that distinguishes Malcolm’s work from the usual run-of-the-mill magazine features we might normally read. She spends a lot of time with her subjects on multiple occasions, which allows her to get a feel for the person she’s profiling.

Putting in the hours

In her essay “Three Sisters”, which is about three sisters in their 70s who run Argosy Bookshop on East Fifty-Ninth Street in New York, she actually works behind the till to allow her to understand how the business works.

“One day,” she writes, “I sat with Adina at the cash register as spurts of arriving customers alternated with lulls when the shop was almost empty.” She then charts every exchange, every customer’s weird and wonderful requests, and in doing so shows the inner-most working of a secondhand bookstore via the clientele it attracts. It’s this kind of journalistic research that can only be done face-to-face, by putting the hours in, as it were, that makes the pieces come alive.

That said, I found her essays on politics a little wearisome, perhaps because they were outdated — “The Art of Testifying”, for instance, is about the Senate Judiciary Committee’s machinations in 1990 and everything she states about the process has been somewhat eclipsed by Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination last year. Her essay “Special Needs”, on Sarah Palin’s nine-part documentary series, which was published in the New York Review of Books in 2011 seems similarly irrelevant.

Perhaps these old essays might have benefited from a short introduction putting things into context —  or at least the initial date of publication could have been listed at the top of the essay (instead of at the end) to act as a helpful signpost for the reader.

All up, I really only liked a third of this essay collection. I hazard to say it is probably one for completists only.

This is my 5th book for #TBR2020 in which I plan to read 20 books from my TBR between 1 January and 30 June. I bought it on Kindle late last year.

 

Alice Grundy (editor), Australia, Author, Book review, essays, Fiction, Non-fiction, Publisher, Seizure, Setting, short stories

‘Stories of Perth’ edited by Alice Grundy

Fiction and non-fiction – paperback; Brio Books; 185 pages; 2019.

Perth — the capital city of Western Australia — is one of the most isolated cities on earth, sandwiched between the great expanse of the Indian Ocean and the vast Australian outback. Until I visited the city on a short holiday in 2015, I had never even stepped foot in Western Australia — now I’ve chosen to call this part of the world home.

When I saw this anthology on the shelves at (my new) local independent bookshop (New Edition, in Fremantle, which I love) I couldn’t resist buying it. I hoped that reading it might give me some background to the city and perhaps tell me a few things I didn’t know, a kind of literary familiarisation for want of a better description.

Off the bat I have to say the collection is diverse — there’s fictional pieces and essays on a vast array of topics and themes by a series of new and emerging writers — so it’s not cohesive in that sense, but it does provide an interesting portrait of a city in flux, a city I understand has a long history of boom and bust, and which has gone through some enormous changes in the past decade thanks to a massive mining boom, which is now on the slide. (There’s a lot of wealth here, but I’ve also noticed a lot of rough sleepers, which is surprising given the relatively small population of 2.1 million people.)

Interestingly enough, there are no stories here about mining, but there are stories about immigrants moving here and finding their feet and tales about young people learning to stand on their own two feet for the first time. If I was to criticise it in any way, I’d say it feels slanted towards young voices rather than a broader mix of young, old and everything in between — but that’s a minor quibble and I expect it can’t be helped given its focus on new writers.

An introduction to the city

The opening piece, Split by Cassie Lynch, is a beautiful introduction to the city, showing how it has developed and grown — but at great cost. The author is a descendant of the Noongar people — whose ancestral lands comprise the south west and south coast of Western Australian — and she uses indigenous story-telling techniques that blend magic realism with vivid descriptions of the plants and birds and animals that once inhabited the area now home to the CBD. She looks at how the city has been altered by geography, by nature, by violence.

Settlers will say that they brought science, technology and worldly culture to the shores of this wild country. Marvels. Advancements. Shakespeare. The wheel. And they did.
But they also brought savagery to Noongar Country. Slavery. Poverty. Incarceration.

Another hard-hitting piece is a journalistic essay by Scott-Patrick Mitchell entitled Tales from Meth City, which looks at how a once silent epidemic was exposed by the media in 2014 and the impact the drug has had on the community.

The front page news hit Perth’s psyche pretty hard. With a chorus of fury and lament, anger and denial, people all across the state suddenly became armchair experts on the issue. Social media comment sections became an echo chamber of outrage. People openly pointed out addicts to their friends on public transport, talking loudly about how the government should just lock up all these junkies. One man in Hillarys — a very affluent suburb located in the Norther suburbs, filled with McMansions, clean parks and rich kids — even spray-painted his neighbour’s house with the phrase ‘JUNKIE DOGS’. They were mere casual users.

But it’s not all as heavy as this. There’s a few lighter pieces, such as Priya Chidambaranathan’s Tea, Cake and a Bit of Cleavage, a short story revolving around a child’s first birthday party and a bold dress her mother decides to wear, and Brunette Lenkic’s Featherlands, a short report about a neighbourhood terrorised by noisy peacocks.

All up there are 12 stories in this collection, which have been chosen to “tell us stories we wouldn’t expect” (as per the blurb on my edition). It follows on from a similar collection, published in 2013, called Stories of Sydney.

I hope the publisher plans to extend the franchise to other capital cities, such as Brisbane and Melbourne, as it’s an interesting exercise to read an anthology focused on a particular place. I’m not sure I learned that much about Perth from this one, but I certainly enjoyed reading it.

The book is available in paperback and ebook formats in Australia, and in eBook only in the UK and North America.

Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2019, Book review, essays, Lily Brett, New York, Non-fiction, Picador, Publisher, Setting

‘New York’ by Lily Brett

Non-fiction – paperback; Picador; 156 pages; 2001.

I appear to be going through a bit of a phase reading essay collections (and memoirs) of late, so when I saw Lily Brett’s New York in a second-hand store I couldn’t resist buying it.

Brett was born in Germany but grew up in Australia where her parents, both Auschwitz survivors, had fled as refugees after the war. She moved to New York in 1989 and is married to the British-born Australian artist David Rankin. She began her career as a rock journalist (she fictionalised this experience in her semi-autobiographical novel Lola Bensky, which I read last year and really loved) but is now better known as a fiction writer, essayist and poet.

This collection, published in 2001, comprises 52 short articles, no longer than three pages apiece, which are largely about what it is like to live in New York, though she does tackle other subjects as varied as dress sizes, matchmaking, motherhood and her frustration at being unable to buy non-fat yoghurt in Germany.

They are all largely honest accounts of her own insecurities, anxieties and dislikes, a bit like a collection of confessionals. Her fixation with food and her weight, her distrust of relentlessly cheerful people — “they frighten me” — and her hatred of day spas — “Spas make me tense. I’m suspicious of what they are selling” — come in for a drubbing here. But regardless of what she’s writing about, all of them feature her trademark dry, biting wit, much of it self-deprecating. Here’s but one example:

Motherhood is a thankless job. Children never remember what you did for them. What they never forget is what you failed to do.

My elder daughter has said that I never drove her to parties. All the other mothers drove their daughters, she said. My strongest memories of those years are of driving children. To parties, to ballet classes and drama lessons. Driving them to tae kwon do and piano teachers. Driving them to their friends’ houses. Driving them to school and back. I was always in the car. Driving myself crazy. (‘Children’, p69)

In another example, she confesses that while she loves New York — the shopping, the food, the curious things she sees on a daily basis — she does, occasionally, like to escape it. Yet, no sooner is she out in the countryside than she wants to go back to the city because she has next to no tolerance for greenery — “I don’t like trees that much” — and hates flying insects because every “gnat, wasp, mosquito, fly or flea that can bites me”:

Last summer, on Shelter Island, a small island two hours east of New York, I wore an insect repellent bracelet. The bracelet was supposed to ward off all insects in the vicinity for thirty hours. I was bitten after two minutes. I put on more bracelets. One around each wrist, two on each ankle and one in my hair. The bracelets looked like hospital identification tags. I looked like an escapee from a lunatic asylum. I wore the tags all summer. (‘The Country’, p12)

Yet, for all her urbanity, she struggles with modern life and is suspicious of new technology. (This collection was written pre-social media, and the internet was still in its infancy, so some pieces appear slightly dated.) Case in point:  ‘A Cellular Phone’ is uproariously funny, particularly when she mistakes birdsong for her phone buzzing and then wonders why no one is on the other end of the line. (I also laughed out loud in another piece, ‘Father’, in which she phones her elderly father in Australia and works herself into a terrible lather because he does not sound like himself and she fears he’s ill or losing his marbles, only to discover at the end of the conversation that it’s not her dad she’s talking to — she phoned the wrong number!)

I really enjoyed this collection. Brett’s prose style is clean and effortless, making for an easy read. And while the setting is mainly New York, the topics she covers are essentially universal — though her attitudes are, occasionally, a little outdated and references (there are several) to Monica Lewinsky suggest it was written at the time of President Bill Clinton’s impeachment in 1998.

That said, these breezy pieces are fun and frivolous, the kinds of articles you might expect to find in a newspaper column or weekend colour supplement. I’m now keen to explore more of her work.

This is my 11th book for #AWW2019.

Author, Book review, essays, Ireland, Non-fiction, Picador, Publisher, Setting, Sinéad Gleeson

‘Constellations: Reflections from Life’ by Sinéad Gleeson

Constellations book cover

Non-fiction – hardcover; Picador; 304 pages; 2019. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Irish essay collections reviewed on this blog are like London buses — none for ages, then two come along at once. Yesterday I wrote about Ian Maleleny’s Minor Monuments; today I want to tell you about Sinéad Gleeson’s Constellations: Reflections from Life.

Before I begin, I also want to tell you a bit about how I first came to know Sinéad. Back in 2007, when my blog had been going for about three years, I decided to challenge myself to read 12 classic works of Irish literature based on this poster, which anyone who’s ever visited Dublin will have seen in all the tourist shops.

Sinéad, who had a very successful arts blog I had been following for a while, left a comment, politely pointing out that that poster annoyed her because there were no women writers on it. This was something I hadn’t even noticed  — at the time I never considered the gender of the authors I read — and it was a bit of an eye-opener.

As it turns out I never did complete my challenge, and Sinéad and I became firm online friends, both on this blog, her (now defunct) blog and on Twitter (and, much later, Instagram).

Since then she’s become a broadcaster, reviewer and editor — no surprise that the first book she edited, The Long Gaze Back, was an anthology of stories by Irish women writers, followed up by The Glass Shore: Short Stories by Women Writers from the North of Ireland.

In March this year we got to meet face to face for the first time when her debut essay collection was featured as part of a Picador Showcase event. She was as delightful and as enthusiastic and as friendly and as warm as I had come to expect from our online exchanges.

Life-affirming essays

Constellations: Reflections from Life gathers together 14 extraordinary, life-affirming essays, some of which have been published elsewhere (for example, Blue Hills and Chalk Bones, about Sinéad’s childhood illness and visit to Lourdes, was published in the online edition of Granta magazine in 2016, and an edited extract of Our Mutual Friend, about the death of an ex-boyfriend, was published in The Guardian a couple of months ago) with which I was familiar.

I have come to think of all the metal in my body as artificial stars, glistening beneath the skin, a constellation of old and new metal. A map, a tracing of connections and a guide to looking at things from different angles.

It might be stretching it a bit to say the essays are inter-linked, but they definitely share common themes — the body, illness and how the relationship between the two shapes our identity — and all are highly personal accounts of issues and events Sinéad herself has experienced, including adolescent arthritis, leukaemia, hip replacement, motherhood, love, grief — and the disdain of male doctors.

The body – its presence, its weight – is both an unignorable entity and routinely taken for granted. I started paying particular attention to mine in the months after turning thirteen.

Her prose throughout is eloquent, lyrical and, occasionally, visceral. It is moving, often poignant, but free from self-pity. She knows how to craft a story — most essays in this collection have a powerful punch, the sort that makes you feel bereft or emotionally wrung out or simply reeling by the time you get to the end.

Unputdownable book

I actually read Constellations in one sitting, unable to put it down (though, to be fair, it was a rather wonderful distraction from painting my hallway, a DIY task I regretted as soon as I started). By the final page I was a bit of a wreck, the cumulative effect of reading about so many potent experiences, of what it is to live with illness and the battles to be endured when you are a woman struggling to be heard.

It is fair to say I loved every essay in this book, but my two favourites are right at the end. Second Mother, about Sinéad’s godmother, is a devastating account about the impact of dementia on a person and their loved ones; A Non-Letter to My Daughter, is an eloquent poem, fierce in nature but wise and brilliant, too, about being a woman in this world, the kind of message I wish I’d been given as a teenager about to embark on an independent life.

I write this to you daughter,
Place these words in your hands,
To help you understand
The way the world will be
Because you are a girl

In essence, I’m not sure this review can ever do justice to such a fine, wide-ranging collection of essays. All I can do is urge you to read it. But I’m not the only one saying this. Booker Prize-winner and Irish writer extraordinaire Anne Enright, who describes Sinéad as an “absolute force”, says “If you want to know where passion and tenacity are born, read this book.”

If next year’s Wellcome Prize wasn’t paused I’m sure it’d be a shoo-in!

Author, Book review, essays, Ian Maleney, Ireland, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, Tramp Press

‘Minor Monuments’ by Ian Maleney

Non-fiction – paperback; Tramp Press; 237 pages; 2019.

Minor Monuments is a collection of 12 elegantly written, highly personal essays by Ian Maleney, a journalist based in Dublin.

These thoughtful pieces are largely focused on the Irish Midlands, where Maleney grew up in an isolated rural farming community, and the ways in which his paternal grandfather’s Alzheimer’s disease impacted his family.

There are common themes throughout — memory, sound, loss, the meaning of “home” and our connections to place — which lends the volume a strong coherence, but it is the recurring mentions of his grandfather, John Joe, a presence that looms large in almost every essay in this collection, which provides a cumulative power that is deeply affecting.

Interestingly, Maleny studied sound engineering at university, so there is a continual focus on recording every day sounds — people talking, urban noise, crackling fires — and discovering “aural landscapes” in places where people are absent. He is interested in the idea that what we might hear isn’t necessarily what is picked up on a sound recording. Likewise, he believes it is the voice that brings a person “back to life” after they have died, perhaps because it is true and “honest”, not images of them in photographs.

I have always been more comfortable recording someone than taking their photo. To record someone’s voice, with or without permission, doesn’t really feel like stealing — it doesn’t feel like I’m taking anything from anyone, or putting anyone in a compromising position. If they know I’m doing it, I feel like they don’t act all that different, and neither do I.

Occasionally, the essays, such as “Machine learning”, about Hungarian professor John van Neumann’s research into mathematics, game theory, geometry and quantum mechanics (among other subjects), which then led him to collaborating with British mathematician Alan Turing on the philosophy of artificial intelligence, seems hugely out of place. But Maleney cleverly shows how this work is aligned with memory and the human brain, drawing links to Alzheimer’s and dementia.

I think he’s best, though, when writing about his own lived experiences, whether that be attending Seamus Heaney’s funeral (“A kind of closing cadence”) or his own grandfather’s wake (“See ye in church”). There are other essays about his grandmother succumbing to the flu (“pneumonia”), his first summer as an undergrad (“Season of migration”) and the love he has for his grandparent’s modest farm house (“Below”).

I like the way threads of an idea may reappear in later essays, giving the collection the feeling of unity and logic. Regardless, it’s clear that Maleney is a deep thinker, yet the prose, free from clutter, polished and simple, belies a mind hard at work. Yet it’s not heavy going: it feels almost effortlessly light — and there’s plenty of self-deprecating humour to soften the often sad subjects discussed here.

In essence, there’s nothing minor about Minor Monuments. I really loved it.

 

2019 Stella Prize, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2019, Book review, Brow Books, essays, Literary prizes, Maria Tumarkin, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Axiomatic’ by Maria Tumarkin

Non-fiction – Kindle edition; Brow Books; 244 pages; 2018.

Writer and cultural historian Maria Tumarkin claims her latest book, Axiomatic, is NOT a collection of essays. “It is a book with chapters that are just a little unorthodox in the way they are structured and sit next to each other,” she says in an interview with the Stella Prize, for which she has been shortlisted. (You can read that full interview here.)

However you choose to describe Axiomatic, I think it’s fair to say it is not easy to box in: it doesn’t fit a genre, seeing as it’s a heady mix of storytelling and reportage. To my mind, these pieces (or chapters) wouldn’t be out of place in a “high-brow” magazine — for instance, a colour supplement that comes with a weekend broadsheet — and as such I’d class them as journalistic features.

Content-wise, each piece looks at an axiom — an accepted truth — and examines, often in great detail and with much intellectual rigour and anecdotal evidence, as to whether it holds or can be debunked.

These five axioms are:

  • ‘Time Heals All Wounds’;
  • ‘Those Who Forget the Past are Condemned to Repeat It’;
  • ‘History Repeats Itself’;
  • Give Me a Child Before the Age of 7 and I’ll Give You the (Wo)Man’; and
  • ‘You Can’t Enter The Same River Twice’

I’m not going to review each chapter other than to say there are common themes running throughout Tumarkin’s work. She is very much focussed on time and how its passing can shape the past, present and future. She looks at its impact on the personal and the political, how it shapes our understanding of ourselves, our families, our popular culture and our institutions.

‘There is chronological time,’ Valent tells me, ‘and there is experiential, cyclical time. This time has an emotional meaning. Existential. It is like the way peasants think about harvest: time to reap and time to sow. Time to live and time to die.’

But she looks at very dark and disturbing subjects to do this — from secondary school students who commit suicide in the brilliant opening chapter, which is one of the most thought-provoking pieces I’ve read in a long while, to a child holocaust survivor accused of abducting her grandson and hiding him in a makeshift dungeon, which reads like something that fell out of a literary crime novel — and always with a keen eye on intergenerational trauma, the moral necessity of protecting children, love, grief and survival.

This is the story sentenced to constant retelling, about how people are born into things, and fate thinks intergenerationally. Parental pain, sadness, abuse (be it suffered or inflicted), indifference, withheld love, riding and exploding over children’s lives, like tanks.

All the while Tumarkin writes in gleaming, silky prose, using a mix of short sentences and longer ones, creating a rhythm that is both hypnotic and alluring. In all cases, she inserts herself in the story, and while she’s clearly her own person, with her own style and her own voice, there are echoes of Janet Malcolm and Helen Garner in her work.

Axiomatic is the kind of book that deserves a wide audience, not only because it deals with challenging subjects in a thoughtful, considered and wholly original way, but also because it is a timely reminder of our own humanity and our own resilience. This is a five-star read for me.

This is my 7th book for #AWW2019  and my 6th for the 2019 Stella Prize shortlist. This one is currently available as an ebook in the UK.

Australia, Author, AWW2016, Book review, essays, Helen Garner, Non-fiction, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Setting, Text

‘Everywhere I Look’ by Helen Garner

Everywhere I Look by Helen Garner

Non-fiction – paperback; Text; 240 pages; 2016.

I was so excited about the impending publication of Helen Garner’s latest essay collection that I thought, “damn the postage costs”,  and ordered it all the way from Australia.

Garner is one of Australia’s finest writers (you can find many of her books reviewed here). Most Brits will know her from her sharply caustic 2008 novel The Spare Room in which a woman, caring for a friend dying of bowel cancer, finds herself caught between kindness and honesty: how should she deal with the fact that her friend is relying on quackery for a cure that will never happen?

But in her native Australia, Garner is widely respected (and occasionally vilified) for her journalism, a journalism that she practises with the same dilemma as the narrator in The Spare Room: when to be kind, and when to be blatantly honest? Her reportage style is deeply personal for she often inserts herself into the story, a technique that allows her to capture heartfelt reactions without the so-called veneer of “objectivity”.

In her last non-fiction book (she has five to her name, primarily about true crime cases), This House of Grief looked at a criminal case involving the deaths of three young boys at the hands of their father. Published in Australia last year and the UK earlier this year, it was critically acclaimed and won a literary prize, but there were some who would not read it because it did not condemn the man as a “monster”.

In her latest collection of essays, Everywhere I Look, which has just been published in the UK, Garner answers this criticism robustly in an essay called “On Darkness”:

“If he had been a monster, I wouldn’t have been interested in writing about him. The sorts of crimes that interest me are not the ones committed by psychopaths. I’m interested in apparently ordinary people who, under life’s unbearable pressure, burst through the very fine membrane that separates our daylight selves from the secret darkness that lives in every one of us.”

This is typical of Garner’s style. She’s not interested in dividing the world into black and white; she’s most happy – and effective – when she’s delving in to the margins, fleshing out the grey that no one else ever seems to report on. She appreciates the moral complexities of the world, an attitude that not only makes her work especially perceptive but incredibly powerful too.

And that’s a good word to describe the 33 short essays collected here: powerful. Garner turns her sharp, perceptive and sometimes painfully honest eye to a wide range of issues including a court case involving a 17-year-old charged with infanticide (“Punishing Karen”) and criminal proceedings against a man accused of pushing a refugee into Melbourne’s Yarra River, where he drowned (“The Man in the Dock”).

The power of the personal

But she’s no less powerful when writing about herself. For instance, her friendship with fellow Australian writer Tim Winton (“Eight Views of Tim Winton”) is depicted with wit and warmth – “It’s an unlikely friendship-I’m almost as old as his mother” – and she’s self-deprecating when she writes about her love of playing the ukulele (“Whisper and Hum”), an instrument she once regarded as a “cop-out for the lazy and talentless”.

Her personal diary extracts (“While Not Writing a Book”, “Funk Paradise” and “Before Whatever Else Happens”) are particular highlights, for not only do they give a glimpse of Garner’s life as a daughter, mother and grandmother, they are all written with the elegance and undiminished wonder of a true writer who revels in the extraordinariness of the every day. Some of them are also very funny.

“At two in the morning, Ted [her four-year-old grandson], sleeping in the spare room, has a bad dream and creeps into my bed. He flings himself about diagonally for the rest of the night, cramming me into a tiny corner. God damn it, I think at 5am, this is worse than being married.”

But it is her heartbreaking and oh-so candid essay about her late mother (“Dreams of Her Real Self”) that is the standout of this exceptional collection. In it Garner writes that her mother was timid and unsure of herself, that she always lived in the shadow of her larger-than-life husband and did not know how to express emotion. Their relationship was always slightly at arm’s length and they never really got to know each other.

“When, in the street, I see a mother walking with her grown-up daughter, I can hardly bear to witness the mother’s pride, the softening of her face, her incredulous joy at being granted her daughter’s company; and the iron discipline she imposes on herself, to muffle and conceal this joy.”

This is my 40th book for #ReadingAustralia2016 and my 26th for #AWW2016.