1

‘Don’t Go to Sleep in the Dark: Short Stories’ by Celia Fremlin *****

Having read two of Celia Fremlin’s books now, The Hours Before Dawn, and this rather wonderful and chilling short story collection, I feel that I can say with some compunction that she is an undeservedly neglected writer.  I have plans to read all of her books – and she was rather prolific, it must be said – over the next couple of years on the strength of just these two tomes, as what I have seen within both has impressed me no end.

Don’t Go to Sleep in the Dark: Short Stories, which has recently been reissued, along with the rest of Fremlin’s work, by Faber Finds, includes a fascinating and insightful introduction by Chris Simmons, which tells of the author’s life and inspiration: ‘Here was a middle-class woman who seemed to delight in re-inventing herself; and while all writers draw upon their own experiences to some existent, “reinvention” is the key to any artist’s longevity.’  He goes on to praise her writing, saying that Fremlin ‘succeeded in chilling and thrilling her readers without spilling so much as a drop of blood.’ 9780571312719

Simmons also states that Fremlin’s work in its entirety offers ‘authentic snapshots of how people lived at the time of her writing: how they interacted, what values they held…  Every interaction between her characters has a core of truth and should strike a resonant note.’  Indeed, that is very much the case with this collection of short fiction.  The tales here are variously described as ‘eclectic, delectable, perfectly formed nibbles’.

The overarching feeling one gets from Don’t Go to Sleep in the Dark is an unsettling one, with something sinister waiting just around the corner.  The first piece in the collection, ‘The Quiet Game’, for instance, has a second paragraph which begins thus: ‘But madness has a rhythm of its own up there so near to the clouds; a rhythm that at first you would not recognize, so near is it, in the beginning, to the rhythms of ordinary, cheerful life…’.

Fremlin’s writing throughout is strong.  In ‘The New House’, for example, she writes: ‘The hatred seemed to thicken round her – I could feel giant waves of it converging on her, mounting silently, silkily, till they hung poised above her head in ghostly, silent strength.’  The stories here come from a more mature point in Fremlin’s life, written as they were whilst the author was in her fifties.  There is, perhaps unsurprisingly with that in mind, an emphasis upon ageing, and the stories which deal with senility are the most chilling of all.

Each of the stories within Don’t Go to Sleep in the Dark is vivid and perfectly paced.  Some of them have otherworldly and fantastical elements to them, but the way in which they and their characters have been built and presented smacks of realism, which serves to make the whole even more unsettling.  Each story is filled to the brim with tension, suspense and intrigue, but at no point is anything overdone.  Rather, Fremlin’s writing is incredibly controlled, and every single one of her characters is startlingly realistic.  The tales veer off in unexpected directions, making Don’t Go to Sleep in the Dark both surprising and compelling.  Fremlin demonstrates on every page that she truly is a marvellous writer, one which deserves to be read far more widely.

Purchase from The Book Depository

Advertisements
0

‘This Close to Happy: A Reckoning with Depression’ by Daphne Merkin ****

This Close to Happy: A Reckoning with Depression is, says its blurb, Daphne Merkin’s ‘rare, vividly personal account of what it feels like to suffer from clinical depression.’  This Close to Happy is Merkin’s fourth book, following two works of non-fiction and a novel.  Memoirs and illness narratives such as this have been rather popular in recent years, and are, I feel, incredibly important tools for helping those who do not suffer with depression or linked mental illnesses to empathise with those who do.  I am in the former camp in this respect, but know a lot of people who have struggled, or are struggling, with various forms of depression and anxiety, and want to ensure that I can be as well informed as to what others are going through every day as is possible.

There is still a stigma and a taboo about mental illnesses such as depression, and Merkin sees the importance of being as transparent as she can in her account, in order to show that one cannot simply ‘man up’ or ‘pull oneself together’; depression is as serious and life-threatening a condition as a lot of physical ailments.  Of this, she writes: ‘In spite of our everything-goes, tell-all culture, so much of the social realm is closed against too much real personal disclosure…  We live in a society that is embarrassed by interiority…’.

9780374140366Merkin has been hospitalised numerous times, most poignantly in grade school for childhood depression, for the postpartum depression which she suffered when she had her daughter Zoe, and following the death of her mother, when she suffered with ‘obsessive suicidal thinking’.  From the very beginning, Merkin is as honest as she can possibly be about the tumultuous thoughts which tumble around in her mind on a daily basis, and the effects which this has upon her life.

Merkin continually compares herself, at least at first, to others, and how her mindset stops her from being able to cope in the world.  In her introduction, she writes the following, which gives one an insight into how she sees herself, and her place within society: ‘Now you can no longer figure out what it is that moves other people to bustle about out there in the world, doing errands, rushing to appointments, picking up a child from school.  You have lost the thread that pulled the circumstances of your life together, nothing adds up and all you can think about is the new nerve of pain that your mind has become…’.

In the first chapter, Merkin writes of “Everywoman”, describing certain scenarios and obvious reactions to them.  After her creative and insightful passages which are written in this way, she posits herself, ‘of course’, as the person within the example which she gives, and then says, ‘but she might be anyone suffering from an affliction that haunts women almost twice as much as men, even though it is, curiously, mostly men who write about it.’  She goes on to say that the solidarity one finds when discovering that the “Everywoman” exists is comforting to her, as ‘there is solace in the knowledge that company can be found, even in the dark.’

Merkin discusses the difficulties of diagnosing mental illnesses, honing in on her own experiences with depression when she writes the following: ‘If there is something intangible about mental illness generally, depression is all the harder to define because it tends to creep in rather than announce itself, manifesting itself as an absence – of appetite, energy, sociability – rather than as a presence.’  She also talks quite candidly about her experience of writing such an account, and the length of time which it took – fifteen years in all – from a publisher first asking her to put down her own actuality onto paper, following an article which she wrote for the New York Times.  Her depression acted as a block in this process.  ‘The slaying of ghosts,’ writes Merkin, ‘is never easy, and my ghosts are particularly authoritative, reminding me to keep my head down and my saga to myself.’

I read This Close to Happy directly after finishing Joan Didion’s Blue Nights, which deals with the death of her daughter.  It proved a marvellous continuation in many ways; whilst Merkin and Didion have approached the topic of mental illness differently, and their prose styles are quite unlike one another’s, the continuation of themes certainly brought some cohesion to my reading.  In her introduction, as in Didion’s, Merkin discusses colour and its influence upon her moods, which was one of the most striking discussions within the book for me: ‘They come on, such suicidally colored periods, at times like this – I am writing this in the winter, at my desk in New York City – when the days are short, evening starts early, the sky lacks light, and you have ceased admiring your own efforts to keep going.  Although they can also come on when the day is long and the light never-ending, in early spring or ripest summer.’

Merkin demonstrates, through a series of memories and reflections upon her moods, that she can never be free of her depression, despite peaks in her life, and that she can be struck by symptoms at any point, without the slightest warning.  She examines her past to see whether being the child of Jewish-German immigrants of the Second World War generation altered her character, or whether she would have exhibited such feelings regardless.

This Close to Happy is not the easiest of books to read at times due to its content, but it is a determined and brave memoir, and one which I found very insightful.  To conclude, I admired the way in which Merkin includes rather startling facts about depression, which she prefaces some of her own experiences with.  For instance, 350 million people suffer with depression worldwide, and that, to me, is why books like this should be read by wide audiences; we all need to make an effort to understand one another in our chaotic world.

Purchase from The Book Depository

1

Book Haul: 2017

I have vowed not to buy any books whatsoever in 2017, choosing instead to read everything on my to-read shelves, and all of those tomes which I optimistically downloaded onto my Kindle a couple of years ago and have yet to get to.  Of course, if I do manage to finish everything, I will begin to replenish my shelves, but it looks highly unlikely at this juncture.

With that said, there are many books which I bought or received at the end of 2017 which I have yet to include in a haul post such as this.  Without further ado, I shall therefore detail every book which has come into my possession since my last haul post.

9781447294894I shall begin with my new Kindle books.  I saw a very favourable review of Lionel Shriver‘s The Standing Chandelier: A Novella on Goodreads, and ended up buying myself a copy for around £1; I’m very glad I did, as the idea is both original and inventive, and I certainly enjoyed the reading experience.  I took advantage of one of the daily deals, and got myself a copy of A Manual for Cleaning Women, a short story collection by Lucia Berlin which I have had my eye on for ages.

On Instagram, a fellow reader whom I follow had hauled a copy of Otto Prenzler‘s The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries, which they found in The Works for just £4.  Whilst I was unable to find a copy in store, I ordered it and picked it up the next day, along with a copy of Ghost: 100 Stories to Read with the Lights On, which is edited by Louise Welsh.  I also couldn’t resist ordering a copy of The Morlo by L.A. Knight, a travelogue about seals, which I randomly came across on a vintage bookshop on Etsy.

I took a trip to a local charity shop which sells four books for 99p, and chose a few to add 9780099478980to my to-read shelf at University.  I ended up getting 12 Days by Shelly Silas, which was a collection of rather mediocre Christmas stories; Birds Without Wings by Louis de Bernieres in a lovely hardback edition, which I will be reading during my Around the World in 80 Books challenge this year; A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, which I enjoyed, but not as much as most others seem to have; the very enjoyable, and very quick to read, The Girls by Emma Cline; and The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios by Yann Martel.

9781786573353Another travel guide also made its way onto my to-read list.  My boyfriend and I have booked a holiday to Canada at the end of January, and so it was exciting to order a copy of Lonely Planet Canada.  They are definitely my favourite range of travel guides, and I’m very excited to dip in and see what Toronto has to offer.

Of course, I received some wonderful Christmas books this year, three of which were signed, which was very exciting.  My parents got me copies of Pablo Picasso’s Noel, Carol Ann Duffy‘s festive poem for 2017; Turtles All the Way Down by John Green; Winter by Ali Smith; Here Is New York by E.B. White; and I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death by Maggie O’Farrell.  I have 9780241207024already read and loved all of these.  Those which I have outstanding are Mythos by the wonderful Stephen Fry, and a random choice from one of my dearest friends, The Seven Noses of Soho by Jamie Manners, as she knows how much I am currently missing London.

I made the decision to order the 34 books which I needed for my Around the World in 80 Books challenge from AbeBooks.  I have scoured my Kindle and bookshelves for tomes which I could include, but there were many which I did not personally own, and which I was unable to find in either of my local library systems.  I ordered so many books, in fact, that the poor postman had to deliver them using a crate.  Whilst this enormous order sounds very greedy, I thought that ordering all of the books which I needed during 2017 would help me stick to my book-buying ban (fingers crossed!).  I shall detail them, along with the countries which they will be included for, in a bullet pointed list below, as this seemed the easiest way to organise such a big list of books!

  • Mrs Hemingway by Naomi Wood (Cuba) 9781447226888
  • The Informers by Juan Gabriel Vasquez (Colombia)
  • Broken April by Ismail Kadare (Albania)
  • The Sojourn by Andre Krivak (Slovakia)
  • Kaddish for an Unborn Child by Imre Kertesz (Hungary)
  • The Quiet American by Graham Greene (Vietnam)
  • The Bondmaid by Catherine Lim (China)
  • Resistance by Anita Shreve (Belgium)
  • Bitter Lemons by Lawrence Durrell (Cyprus)
  • First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung (Cambodia)
  • The Night Buffalo by Guillermo Arriago (Mexico)
  • Train to Trieste by Domnica Radulescu 9780307388360(Romania)
  • Solo by Rana Dasgupta (Bulgaria)
  • Mosquito by Roma Tearne (Sri Lanka)
  • Blood-Drenched Beard by Daniel Galera (Brazil)
  • The Silence and the Roar by Nihad Sirees (Syria)
  • The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas (Norway)
  • The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann (Switzerland)
  • Ways of Going Home by Alejandro Zambra (Chile)
  • Kamchatka by Marcelo Figueras (Argentina)
  • Death of a Prima Donna by Brina Svit (Slovenia)
  • The Colour by Rose Tremain (New Zealand)
  • The Diviners by Margaret Laurence (Canada)
  • A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov (Georgia) 9781408843161
  • The Bridge on the Drina by Ivo Andric (Bosnia-Herzegovina)
  • Lies by Enrique de Heriz (Guatemala)
  • The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna (Croatia)
  • Ours are the Streets by Sunjeev Sahota (Pakistan)
  • Burmese Days by George Orwell (Myanmar)
  • The Beach by Alex Garland (Thailand)
  • The Hacienda by Lisa St. Aubin de Teran (Venezuela)
  • Landfalls by Naomi J. Williams (Pacific Islands)
  • Ali and Nino by Kurban Said (Azerbaijan)
  • Eight Months on Ghazzah Street by Hilary Mantel (Saudi Arabia)

 

Have you read any of these?  Which were the last books that you bought?

Purchase from The Book Depository

0

One From the Archive: ‘The Long, Long Life of Trees’ by Fiona Stafford ****

Whilst it is a genre which I perhaps do not read much, I love nature writing, and Fiona Stafford’s The Long, Long Life of Trees felt to me like the perfect read.  Here, the Oxford University lecturer presents ‘a lyrical tribute to the diversity of trees, their physical beauty, their special characteristics and uses, and their ever-evolving meanings’.  I had never read a book which was purely about trees before I came to this one, aside from, I suppose, Sarah Maitland’s Gossip from the Forest.

9780300207330The book’s introduction is far-reaching, and Stafford’s passion for the natural world certainly shines through.  Each chapter focuses on one particular species of tree, from the yew and oak to the cherry and apple.  The historically rich pasts of the trees, and how they have been treated by humans throughout the ages, was striking.  I love her descriptions too; on describing the formation of the gardens at Cumbria’s Leven Hall in the 1690s, for instance, she writes that the topiary has ‘gradually grown into a looking-glass world of fantastic forms: giant top hats and helter-skelters, startled mushrooms and stacking rings, birds and beehives, pyramids and chess pieces, an evergreen tea party of cups, cones, dark doughnuts and irregular jellies’.

The breadth of Stafford’s research is breathtaking; she covers everything from the Renaissance to Sylvia Plath.  All of the photographs and illustrations which accompany each chapter were a lovely touch, and made for quite a delightful read.  The Long, Long Life of Trees is not a book which I absolutely adored and will find invaluable for the rest of my life, as I am sure others will, but I feel as though I have learnt a lot, and would definitely recommend it to green-fingered friends.

Purchase from The Book Depository