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‘Survival Lessons’ by Alice Hoffman ****

I purchased Alice Hoffman’s only non-fiction work to date, Survival Lessons, after spotting it on Goodreads.  I very much enjoy her fiction, and find her writing style both immersive and not at all taxing to read.  Survival Lessons is markedly different in its content to her novels; it charts her struggle with breast cancer, and the ensuing feeling which it left about trying to enjoy life in all of its splendour, as well as in heartbreak.

Its blurb says, ‘Wise, gentle, and wry, Alice Hoffman teaches all of us how to choose what matters most’.  I find this description a little disingenuous, sounding, as it does, as though Hoffman is trying to preach to her readers.  What I found in Survival Lessons is something quite different; it is a meditation on life, and all of the tiny pleasures which can be found in our days, despite the adversity we may face on a wider scale.

9781616203146Hoffman immediately begins with an introduction which describes her initial denial at the betrayal of her own body, and the later diagnosis of cancer.  This introduction, whilst brief, feels honest, and is insightful as to both her situation and reasoning.  Her plight gave her, with almost a decade and a half of retrospect added into the mix, the inspiration to write this slim volume: ‘When I found the lump I was convinced I had imagined it.  These things didn’t happen to me.’

At the time of her discovery, Hoffman’s mother was undergoing treatment for breast cancer, and her sister-in-law had just passed away from brain cancer.  Of her own diagnosis, she speaks rather honestly of her previous position as caregiver: ‘I was not someone who got cancer.  In fact, I was the person who sat by bedsides, accompanied friends to doctor’s appointments, researched family members’ diseases until I became an expert, went to meetings with lawyers when divorce was the only option, found therapists for depressed teenagers, bought plots at cemeteries, arranged funerals, babysat children and pets.’

It took Hoffman a while to come to terms with her own disease; eventually, she came to recognise that ‘When it comes to sorrow, no one is immune.’  The writing process which Survival Lessons gave her was in itself a form of healing.  Unable to find such a book herself, she decided to put pen to paper in order to try and help others through similar situations, envisaging her work as a ‘guidebook’ or ‘manual’ for trauma survival.

Fifteen years ensued between her diagnosis and the publication of Survival Lessons.  Of the interim, Hoffman states: ‘It took all this time for me to figure out what I would have most wanted to hear when I was newly diagnosed, when I lost the people I loved, when I was deeply disappointed in myself and the turns my life had taken.  In many ways I wrote this book to remind myself of the beauty of life, something that’s all too easy to overlook during the crisis of illness or loss.’

Survival Lessons is varied in terms of its content.  Amongst other things, Hoffman writes about Anne Frank, her childhood hero; the notion of personal tragedy; her parents’ divorce; the loss of her mother; recipes; ageing; grief; and reading.  She urges her readers to ‘read the greats – they’re great for a reason.  They know how to chart the human soul.’  Survival Lessons is made up of a series of short essays and musings, and is therefore easy to dip in and out of.  There are quotes, extracts from poems, illustrations, and accompanying photographs, and this mixed media blends in a lovely and fitting way.  I read Survival Lessons merely because I was curious about its content, but I imagine that it will bring comfort to those in similar situations to Hoffman’s.  Regardless, it is a worthwhile read for everyone; it is so human in its approach, and not exclusive to those who are suffering with anything.  Survival Lessons is a really lovely little book, which I will definitely not be forgetting in a hurry.

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Three Novels: ‘Winter’, ‘War Crimes for the Home’, and ‘Turtles All the Way Down’

Winter by Ali Smith ***** 9780241207024
Anybody who knows me will not be surprised in the slightest to hear that Ali Smith’s Winter, the second novel in her seasonal quartet, was one of my most highly anticipated reads of 2017. I received a signed copy for Christmas, and read it just three days afterwards. The novel is, again unsurprisingly, startlingly brilliant; I was swept in immediately, and was once again blown away by the quality and clarity of Smith’s writing. Winter is searing, and so clever; it is once incredibly topical, informed, and important. I cannot speak highly enough of the novel in my review; I shall merely end by saying that it is an absolutely brilliant literary offering from Smith, as per.

 

9780747561460War Crimes for the Home by Liz Jensen ****
I have very much enjoyed most of Liz Jensen’s novels to date, and the storyline of War Crimes for the Home would have piqued my interest even if I had not already been acquainted with her work. This is, I believe, my first foray into her historical fiction, and I found it very enjoyable. This takes place on the Home Front in Britain during the Second World War, and the battles fought on British soil, along with the effects which they brought, have been well captured. I liked the use of retrospect, and the memory loss which present-day Gloria suffers with has been handled well. Not at all a nostalgic portrayal of times gone by, War Crimes for the Home is sure to appeal to every fan of historical fiction that likes to be surprised a little in their reading.

 

Turtles All the Way Down by John Green **** 9780525555360
As with many readers, John Green’s Turtles All the Way Down was a highly anticipated read for me. I really enjoy his writing, particularly with regard to the dialogue which he sculpts; it is not always entirely authentic, in that I cannot imagine many teenagers speaking as articulately as he clearly can, but it is stuffed with original ideas, and beautiful turns of phrase. Green’s portrayal of anxiety is not a stereotypical one, such as I have read before; rather, it has depth. The plot is not a predictable, and it certainly throws up some surprises along the way. Whilst not my favourite of his novels, I still found it markedly difficult to put Turtles All the Way Down well… all the way down.

 

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Reading Ireland Month 2018

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March is almost upon us and for many people of the bookish community March is synonymous with Reading Ireland Month, organised by Cathy and Niall. I couldn’t participate last year due to the incredible amount of studying, essay writing and dissertation proposal preparing I had to do for my Master’s, but I definitely want to return to it this year and contribute even a little bit.

As usual, I don’t really want to make a long list of books I plan to read and films I plan to watch, because, we all know it by now, I will not stick to it. I do have some Irish cultural goodies in mind that I would definitely like to post about, though.

As far as books are concerned, I really want to finally get to In the Woods by Tana French, the first book in the Dublin Murder Squad mystery/crime series. I’ve been meaning to read this for the longest time and the Ireland Month event seems like the perfect incentive for me to finally do so. In December, I read a short story, ‘Mr. Salary’ by Sally Rooney and I really enjoyed her writing (much more than the ‘Cat Person’ for which everyone raved about..), so perhaps I will try to read her novel, Conversations with Friends. Emma Donoghue and Elizabeth Bowen are two more authors I’ve been meaning to read more of, so I will try to include them in my March reading, as well as one more play by my favourite Oscar Wilde – perhaps Vera; or, The Nihilists or An Ideal Husband.

I haven’t yet done all my research for Irish films I might watch, but one I definitely want to get to this year is Song of the Sea, since I loved The Secret of Kells so much when I watched it for the first Ireland Month 3 years ago (time flies so fast…). Other than that I plan to try and watch one classic and one contemporary film, for both of which I am open to recommendations 🙂

Are you participating in Reading Ireland Month this year? What are your plans for it? Let me know in the comments below 🙂

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One From the Archive: ‘Peony in Love’ by Lisa See ***

I have wanted to read more of See’s work since finishing her gorgeous Snow Flower and The Secret Fan. I was expecting something along the same lines if I’m honest, with constantly beautiful writing, characters I felt sympathy for, and a wonderfully crafted sense of times past in the fascinating country of China. 9780812975222

When beginning Peony in Love however, I found that it did not pull me in as much as the aforementioned novel, and I even began to get a little discontented with it as I reached the second part. The writing was relatively nice – an insipid word, but sadly I can pay no higher compliment – but something about the narrative voice made it feel a lot more modern on the whole than it should have. It was supposed to be the account of a young girl living in 16th century China, and on occasion it read like an overexcited and thoroughly modern teenager had penned it. I did not like Peony, our narrator and protagonist, at all. She was incredibly self-important, and whilst she acted as though she was so grown up, she was in reality very naive. Peony had the kind of youthful arrogance which really puts me off in novels (though I do adore Holden Caulfield – go figure). I suppose we can put See’s portrayal of Peony partly down to the teenage condition, but she very much overdid this element of the plot in my eyes.

The period of history which See addresses in Peony in Love is fascinating, but I do not feel that it is explored as well as it could have been. As in Snow Flower, the foot-binding scenes made me feel rather sick. With regard to the history presented, I felt that some of the characters clashed a little with their social backdrop. We are told why several of the protagonists act in the ways in which they do after a while, but I still struggle to believe that someone in 16th century China would be so unfailingly rude to her husband as Peony’s mother is.

Overall, I found Peony in Love to be rather an odd tale, and a thoroughly unexpected one. On the face of it, it is a love story, but elements of it are rather creepy. The cultural history which See portrays is fascinating but horrendously brutal, and I only wish See had made more of it within the novel.

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Snapshots: Toronto [2] (January 2018)

The second part of my clip video from my fantastic trip to beautiful Toronto.

Featuring: The CN Tower | Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) | Thomas Fisher Rare Books Library | University of Toronto | Casa Loma | Niagara Falls (Canada and USA) | Toronto Music Garden | Harbourfront | Lacrosse (Toronto Rock vs. New England Black Wolves)

Music: ‘Float On’ by Modest Mouse | ‘Little Bribes’ by Death Cab for Cutie