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.

 

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.

Australia, Author, essays, memoir, Non-fiction, Tim Winton

‘Island Home: A Landscape Memoir’ by Tim Winton

Island Home UK edition
UK edition of Island Home

Non-fiction – hardcover; Picador; 256 pages; 2016. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

In the UK, nature writing is experiencing a renaissance. Walk into any bookshop and you’ll find a table adorned with attractive non-fiction books (like this one, for instance). You almost can’t move without running into a book about the seasons, or the landscape, or a particular species of plant or animal, or how someone has re-found themselves after spending some time alone in the natural world.

Last year I asked a judge on the Wainwright Prize, which was created in the wake of this new enthusiasm for nature writing, why this was the case. Why were people writing books about nature, and why were people choosing to read them? Her theory went something like this: modern life is so busy and everyone is so plugged in — to computers, to social media, to the digital world in general — that they’ve lost touch with nature and this was one way of rediscovering it.

In Australia, I suspect it’s a bit different. Sure, Australians are just as “plugged in” as the Brits, but I’ve always felt that there was something about the larger-than-life landscapes (and the too-weird-to-be-true wildlife) that infiltrates the Australian psyche, almost as if natural history was in our DNA. Of course, I grew up in the countryside, so I would say that, but I do think Australians are aware of the natural environment and the impacts that humans have on it more so than their British counterparts.

Australian writer Tim Winton puts it more eloquently than me in his new book Island Home: A Landscape Memoir:

We are in a place where the material facts of life must still be contended with. There is so much more of it than us. We are forever battling to come to terms. The encounter between ourselves and the land is a live concern. Elsewhere this story is largely done and dusted, with nature in stumbling retreat, but here our life in nature remains an open question and how we answer it will define not just our culture and politics but our very survival.

10 deeply personal essays

The book, which is made up of 10 essays, some of which have been published elsewhere (“The Island Seen and Felt” was first given as a talk at London’s Royal Academy in 2013, for instance), highlights Winton’s relationship to the land but also gives us a potted history of the environmental movement in Australia. Each deeply personal (and full of vivid imagery) essay is prefaced by a diary-like back story to explain how what follows came to be.

Perhaps my favourite essay (admittedly it’s hard to choose just one) is “The power of place” in which Winton explains his evolution as a writer (primarily of quintessential Australian novels, some of which are reviewed here).

From the get-go he says he always wanted to write about the landscape and the “music of the vernacular” around him, an idea that wasn’t always welcomed by city-based publishers who felt this would not go down well in places like Sydney or London. It seems so ludicrous now, given that it is these twin pillars that make Winton’s writing so unique, well-loved and, dare I say it, award-winning.

Times are a’changing

From this collection of essays it is clear that a lot of things have changed over the course of the past 30 or 40 years. Landscapes have been damaged and species lost as the march of suburbia has continued unabated; large areas of pristine wilderness have been ruined, or are under threat, thanks to mining, the construction of hydro-electric power schemes, and gas and oil exploration. Intensive agriculture has caused erosion, water pollution and soil salinity. I could go on, but I won’t.

It’s not all bad news though. As Winton points out, this ongoing destruction has also created a new awareness and a more positive attitude towards the environment. “Greenies”, once regarded as foolhardy lefties with nothing better to do with their time, have slowly become normalised — or at least the values they espouse have become “mainstreamed”. Winton explains this incredibly well in the essay entitled “The corner of his eye”:

In the 1980s “greenie” subculture began to broaden and become a social movement, though it was still fractious and hectic. With its unlikely national reach and surprising political consequences, Tasmania’s Franklin Dam blockade was evidence of how widely the thinking of those earlier prophetic figures had spread, and how potent it was when amplified by a new and more diverse generation of activists like Bob Brown. By the 1990s the erudition, discipline and strategic patience of advocacy groups meant that ideas once thought to be harmlessly eccentric were shaping the vernacular mood and framing public policy. And by the turn of the millennium, the status of a river, reef or forest could determine the outcome of an election.

He goes on to say that though the battle is not yet won, “few on the right are completely unchanged by this development in thinking”.

Island Home Australian edition
Australian edition

An impassioned plea for the future

Admittedly, I’m a sucker for this kind of thing (I have a degree in environmental planning and spent my early 20s full of youthful idealism trying to save the planet), so there was never any doubt that I was not going to love this book. But what I found most surprising was how much resonated even though the author lives on the west coast, which is vastly different to the kind of Australian landscape with which I’m familiar. But I rather suspect that Winton, who is about a decade older than me, has noticed more environmental change in his lifetime than most people on the more populous east coast have seen. That’s why everything he says here should make people sit up and take notice.

If nothing else, Island Home is an impassioned and eloquent plea to save what’s left before it’s gone forever. And yet, for a collection of essays that could be so potentially negative and downhearted, it brims with a kind of hopefulness and optimism for the future. I really loved it.

If there’s a failing of the book it is not the author’s but his publishers, who have not provided a table of contents or an index. Something to bear in mind for a reprint, perhaps?

For another take on this book, please see Susan’s review at A Life in Books.

This is my 38th book for #ReadingAustralia2016.

2016 Stella Prize, Australia, Author, AWW2016, Book review, essays, Fiona Wright, Giramondo Publishing, Non-fiction, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Setting

‘Small Acts of Disappearance’ by Fiona Wright

Small Acts of Disappearance: Essays on Hunger by Fiona Wright

Non-fiction – Kindle edition; Giramondo Publishing; 188 pages; 2015.

It seemed slightly uncanny that in the week I finished reading Fiona Wright’s Small Acts of Disappearance: Essays on Hunger that anorexia was suddenly splashed all over the media here in the UK. That’s because Dame Joan Bakewell, a respected veteran broadcaster and this year’s judge of the Wellcome Book Prize, was reported as saying that eating disorders are due to narcissism.

She was rightly called out about this and then she issued an apology. It was clear that her views were outdated and I wanted to hand her a copy of this book to bring her up to speed. Wright’s collection of 10 essays, about her own struggle with an eating disorder, explodes a lot of the myths surrounding the disease. But this isn’t a dry text-book examination of anorexia; it’s an enlightening, easy-to-read memoir, filled with beautiful language and turns of phrase (as well as being a journalist, Wright is a celebrated poet), which puts the disease into a social, cultural, historical and medical context.

I admit to being rather reluctant to pick this one up when it was shortlisted for the 2016 Stella Prize. I expected a maudlin, introspective, self-indulgent set of essays. What I got was something entirely different. It’s totally free of self-pity. It’s informative, without being academic, and it’s unflinching in its honesty. There’s a raw power at its heart, which belies the eloquence and beauty of the prose. Indeed, I was so enamoured of the text that my Kindle indicates I highlighted more than 2,100 words of it.

Frank and brutally honest account

Perhaps the greatest strength of Small Acts of Disappearance: Essays on Hunger is Wright’s ability to talk about the disease in frank, brutally honest terms. That’s because, for so many years, she did not feel she was the same as other anorexic patients, for her condition developed not from a set of psychological issues but physical ones. Like Dame Joan Bakewell, this initially made her look down on other people with eating disorders — she thought it only happened to “women who are vain and selfish, shallow and somehow stupid”. But over time (the essays span a decade of Wright’s battle with the disease) she comes to realise she is no different:

I was nineteen years old, and suddenly I was vomiting without any volition after most of my meals. It took almost eighteen months for my specialists to find a diagnosis, the weight dropping off a body that rapidly came to alarm me. I was advised to cut out of my diet the foods that I thought triggered the vomiting, and I did, by ever-increasing increments, until the ground shifted somewhere, and hunger became my safest state. Because my illness started with a physical condition, because I recognised, and didn’t want and didn’t like my too-thin body, because I didn’t purge by conscious choice, because I was still eating, however limitedly, I thought that I was different. I realise now that this was partly because of my own misconceptions about the nature of anorexia, and the people who fall victim to it, but this is also the way the illness operates, by deception, by a long series of constraints that tighten so slowly that they’re barely noticeable at all. I thought, for so long, that I didn’t have anything in common with these women, and I sometimes think that’s the biggest tragedy of all. Because if I’d only recognised this earlier, before eight entire years of illness had gone by, I may have found the help I needed sooner. I may have been able to stave off my hunger before it managed to establish itself so fully and firmly in my life. I might, by now, be well.

As well as examining the physical impact of the disease on her body — and the psychological pursuit of “perfection” in which “anorexia is driven, at least in part, by a desire for control or predictability”— Wright also examines how hunger is politicised when it is abnormal, unusual and strange, and how it marked her out as “wasteful” and “distasteful”.

My hunger, singular and self-circling, was a crisis in my hometown. It marked me out. […] A car with wound-down windows once shot past me on the street, someone shouting from the backseat: ‘Eat a hamburger, you bitch!’

In Colombo, where she lived for a short stint as a fledgling newspaper reporter, her hunger was “obscene”.

It was not predicated on need, on poverty or parentlessness or war, corruption or greed. It was something feeding on and off itself, something always leading back into itself – the starving brain turned inwards to survive. My hunger was not, and could not, be equated with the hunger that I saw around me. Amongst so much need, my own denial was something as incomprehensible to my local friends as the hunger they lived alongside was to me. Something irreconcilable here made my world grow bigger and more disparate, and all the while, I shrank. And I shrank away as well.

Studies in starvation

Perhaps my favourite essay in the collection is In Berlin, in which Wright writes about her love affair with Germany (she was an exchange student there and speaks the language). But, interestingly, the country has an indirect connection with what we know medically about hunger. That’s because “the two most notorious – and most thorough – studies of hunger came about because of the Second World War”.

The first was the study of the starving population living in the Warsaw Ghetto during the Nazi occupation of Poland:

In the two years that the studies ran, before the final liquidation of the Ghetto, almost thirty malnourished Jewish doctors living within its limits studied growth rate, weight, organ size, dermatology, immunology, circulation, fluid retention, bone density, body temperature, vitamin retention, the functioning of the senses, of hormones, of digestion. In two years, they conducted 3658 autopsies. Only seven of the doctors survived the war. One, a pathologist, Theodosia Goliborska, emigrated to Australia in 1946, and continued to practise at least until the 1980s, in this country that has never had to understand such desperate, widespread hunger.

The second was the Minnesota Experiment, in which healthy volunteers were deliberately starved so that scientists could determine the best way to rehabilitate them, the idea being that they could use what was learned to help civilians who had endured famine-like conditions during the war (this was before the Nazi concentration camps were known about). As it turns out:

The Minnesota Experiment was less successful around the question of rehabilitation – it wasn’t until the sweeping crises across Africa in the 1980s and 90s that scientists finally got a handle on the delicate processes of refeeding the starving body without causing it to shut down completely in shock.

The language of anorexia

Another couple of essays I particularly liked was In Books I and In Books II, both of which look at the language of anorexia and the way the disease is depicted in certain novels. Wright once studied Australian literature, so her insights are based on Australian novels. The first essay largely looks at Christina Stead’s For Love Alone in which the heroine, Teresa, starves herself to save money so that she can travel abroad; the second analyses Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet, in which 16-yer-old Rose Pickles starts vomiting after meals, and Carmel Bird’s The Bluebird Cafe, which features a character who is a recovered anorexic.

In reading about these literary characters, Wright comes to realise that hunger can have many faces: it can be wielded like a weapon; it can perversely provide comfort and succour; it can only thrive in secret; and that it is possible to recover.

It also shows her that writing about hunger can be healing in itself:

I know that writing has always been the only thing, besides my hunger, that helps me make sense of the world, to find patterns and connections and with them, some kind of solidity or definition; it is also a kind of striving, a reaching for something more. Writing has always been the thing that allows me to voice what is too difficult to speak. But even so, I resisted, for a very long time, ever writing about my illness – although my doctors had been encouraging me to do so, even from the outset of my treatment. I didn’t want to write about myself, least of all about my vulnerabilities, I didn’t want to be exposed or to expose the thing I thought was ugliest within me, I didn’t want to show it to myself. Even the poems I wrote while I was ill are sometimes strangely disembodied – my writing group often pointed out that there was no self within them, but I didn’t know how to do things otherwise, didn’t want to show too much. What there was, instead, was detail, and other peoples’ voices, a focus on the world around me, but never my place within it.

Profound and intriguing read

Small Acts of Disappearance: Essays on Hunger is not a collection of essays simply thrown together: there’s a subtle story being played out as the reader works through them in chronological order. And that makes it such a profound and intriguing read. In treading a fine balance between the analysis of an illness and its emotional impact on its victim, Wright has crafted a vital, gently nuanced read on the nature of a disease so often dismissed as narcissistic or psychosomatic.

For another take on this book, please see Sue’s review at Whispering Gums.

Please note that in the UK, US and Canada, Small Acts of Disappearance is only available to download in Kindle format.

This is my 20th book for #ReadingAustralia2016 and my 16th for #AWW2016.

Author, Book review, essays, George Orwell, Non-fiction, Penguin, Publisher

‘Books v. cigarettes’ by George Orwell

BooksvsCigarettes

Non-fiction – paperback; Penguin; 144 pages; 2008.

Books v. cigarettes is a small collection of essays by George Orwell brought together as part of Penguin’s Great Ideas Series 3. The title of the book comes from an essay of the same name in which Orwell considers how much money he spends on his two vices, reading and smoking. This particular essay, first published in the Tribune on 8 February 1946, will resonate with book lovers the world over, because how many of us have foregone some other pleasure (or necessity) in favour of a good book?

To prove that reading is not an expensive hobby out of the reach of ordinary citizens, Orwell counts all the books he owns (this sounds remarkably like what I have done in recent weeks, tackling my TBR piles) and adds up their total price to work out how much money he has spent on reading over a 15-year period. He discovers he has some 900 books and that it has cost him a little more than £11 per year.

He also includes his newspaper and periodicals intake, which is quite impressive: £8 per year on “two daily papers, one evening paper, two Sunday papers, one weekly review and one or two monthly magazines”.  (I suspect if Orwell was around today he’d be a complete internet junkie, reading all the news sites, book blogs, Twitter feeds and so on.)

He also spends roughly £6 per year on library subscriptions and cheap paperbacks, chiefly Penguins, “which one buys and then loses or throws away”.

All up, he estimates reading costs him £25 per year, which, according to this calculator, is the equivalent of £648 in today’s money. By comparison, he spends £20 a year on cigarettes and beer.

In the grand scheme of things, he thinks this is quite reasonable, though he points out that it is difficult to establish “any relationship between the price of books and the value one gets out of them”.

His second essay, Bookshop Memories, recalls his time spent working in a second-hand bookshop. His observations are both slightly snobby (“I doubt whether 10 per cent of our customers knew a good book from a bad one”) and acutely funny:

Many of the people who came to us were of the kind who would be a nuisance anywhere but have special opportunities in a bookshop. For example, the dear old lady who ‘wants a book for an invalid’ (a very common demand, that), and the other dear old lady who read such a nice book in 1897 and wonders whether you can find her a copy. Unfortunately she doesn’t remember the title or the author’s name or what the book was about, but she does remember that it had a red cover.

This quote made me laugh out loud because I spent six years working in bookshops and used to get vague requests like this all the time!

Books v. cigarettes also includes a wonderful essay about reviewing books and another on the state of literature, which will appeal to bibliophiles. The rest of this slim volume tackles other non-bookish subjects: patriotism, the relationship between doctors and patients, and Orwell’s childhood memoirs spent at an exclusive boarding school for which he obtained a scholarship.

All up, this is a perfect, effortless read, highly personable and quite bookish, if you like that sort of thing.