0

One From the Archive: ‘The Outrun’ by Amy Liptrot ****

Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun was my choice for the June edition of the Chai and Sheep Book Club.  I first found out about it after seeing a wonderful review, complete with sublime photographs of Orkney, on dovegreyreader’s blog.  Olivia Laing, whose own work I am incidentally desperate to get to, calls it ‘astonishingly beautiful… a luminous, life-affirming book’.

The Outrun is a memoir of Amy Liptrot’s struggles with alcohol when she moves, first to Edinburgh as a student, and then to London: ‘At eighteen I couldn’t wait to leave…  I wanted comfort, glamour and to be at the centre of things’.  In The Outrun, Liptrot writes that essentially, relocating back to her home island rescues her.  She ‘is drawn back to the Outrun on the sheep farm where she grew up.  Approaching the land that was once home, memories of her childhood merge with the recent events that have set her on this journey’.  She groups herself together with others she grew up with: ‘It’s a push and pull factor to many young people from the islands.  We ended up back here again and again, washed back, like the inevitable tide’.
9781782115472

Geographically, Orkney is the collective name for a group of seventy islands, many of them uninhabited, to the north of Scotland.  The whole area is ‘sea-scarred and wind-battered’.  As one would expect, The Outrun is filled with fascinating details regarding the history of the islands; these have been wonderfully interspersed with Liptrot’s own memories.  She details how paramount the weather is on such an exposed island group: ‘Sometimes the light picks out in fine detail the hills of Hoy, another island to the south beyond the headland, and on other days they disappear completely in the haar’.  The Outrun itself is wonderfully evoked: ‘The Outrun is tucked away behind a low hill and beside the coast, and in the right spot you can’t see any houses or be seen from the road.  Dad told me that when he was high, in a manic phase, he had slept out here.’

The prologue details Liptrot’s birth, and her father’s simultaneous relapse: ‘As I arrive into this island world, my father is taken outside of it.  My birth, three weeks early, has brought on a manic episode’.  As well as speaking about her present, Liptrot is, understandably, focused upon the past: ‘The rumblings of mental illness under my life were amplified by the presence of my mother’s extreme religion and by the landscape I was born into, the continual, perceptible crashing of the sea at the edges’.  This memoir is an incredibly honest one; I felt as though Liptrot had a no-holds-barred approach to her past.  She writes with such clarity, which really shows the hopelessness of her previous situation: ‘The alcohol I’d been pouring into myself for years was like the repeated action of the waves on the cliffs and it was beginning to cause physical damage.  Something was crumbling deep within my nervous system and shook my body in powerful pulses to the extent that I was frozen and drooling, until they eased off enough for me to pour another drink or rejoin the party’.

The disparities between city and island life have been so well evoked: ‘Another Sunday muffled and hungover in bed, makeup oily in my eyes, doors slamming somewhere, while up north the waves still curled dark and endless, and the aurora lit up the sky’.  Liptrot weaves this in with the panic mode which her drinking sends her into.  Alcohol becomes a constant in her life rather quickly, and she begins to suffer from memory lapses and mood swings.  She wakes with mysterious bruises all over her body; she is the victim of a crime.  In London, she describes some rather scary episodes: ‘I was dumbfounded and unable to make decisions about where to go, whom to see or what opinion to hold, filling the void with alcohol and anxiety’.  The London period is a gritty one for Liptrot, fraught with drugs, dependency and danger.

Aesthetically, this book is stunning, from its beautiful cover to its lovely illustrated maps.  A glossary has been included too, which is incredibly beneficial for non-Orcadian speakers such as myself; it details spellbinding words and terms, such as ‘clapshot’ (mixed neeps and tatties), ‘haar’ (sea fog), and ‘grimlins’ (a midsummer night’s sky).  Liptrot’s story has been so wonderfully – and often harrowingly – evoked that it will linger with the reader long after the final page has been read.  The Outrun is a very honest and very well written memoir, which has made me want to travel to Orkney as soon as I possibly can – perhaps an inevitable consequence of reading it.

Purchase from The Book Depository

0

Two Non-Fiction Reviews: ‘It’s Not Yet Dark’ and ‘The Diaries of Sylvia Townsend Warner’

It’s Not Yet Dark by Simon Fitzmaurice **** 22340465
The very fact that It’s Not Yet Dark exists is phenomenal, when one thinks about it; the entirety was written using an eye computer.  In his memoir, Simon Fitzmaurice charts his decline after being diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), a rare form of neurological disease, which is also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, and Motor Neurone Disease.

Fitzmaurice’s writing is beautiful, and he goes back and forth in time throughout, creating a wonderfully lucid, and incredibly touching reflection of a life well lived.  Never does one get the impression that Fitzmaurice is pitying himself; rather, he demonstrates that he has so much to live for.  It’s Not Yet Dark is heartfelt and brave, and really makes you think about what it means to be alive.  A lovely, thoughtful, poignant, and achingly sad musing upon life, and how drastically it can change.

 

The Diaries of Sylvia Townsend Warner, edited by Claire Harman ****
9781853818851“One need not write in a diary what one is to remember for ever.” (22nd September 1930)

The Diaries of Sylvia Townsend Warner, edited by Claire Harman, has been pared down from 38 distinctive diaries found after Townsend Warner’s death.  I adore what I have read of Townsend Warner’s prose to date (Lolly Willowes is a firm favourite of mine), and hoped that I would feel just the same when reading about her own life.

The original diaries span a fifty-year period, beginning in 1927, and stretching to 1972; throughout, Townsend Warner unsurprisingly writes about an England which is dated and archaic, but still ultimately recognisable.  Her writing is sometimes quite matter-of-fact, but at others it is beautifully poetic.  It begins to almost sparkle when her enduring relationship with Valentine Ackland is at first revealed; it feels almost as though a new Townsend Warner has been revealed.  She talks less about her writing than I had anticipated; she mentions her work largely in passing, and not all that often.

The Diaries of Sylvia Townsend Warner is a lovely tome to dip in and out of.  Each entry is rich and deftly crafted.  There is a frankness here which seems surprising when one considers the dates in which the entries were written; in the late 1920s, for instance, Townsend Warner mentions masturbating, and ‘rollicking in bed’ with her female lover, Valentine.  Her diaries provide a lens into the life of a fascinating woman, who was really rather ahead of her time.

Purchase from The Book Depository

0

One From the Archive: ‘The Iceberg’ by Marion Coutts *****

The Iceberg by Marion Coutts was my book of the year in 2015.  Never have I read an illness narrative which is so poignant, nor a reflection on life which sings with such beauty and sadness.  A recent presentation which I had to give on the book is below.

Winner_-_The_Icebe_3285478fMarion Coutts’ The Iceberg presents not just one story – that of her husband Tom Lubbock’s gradual decline after being diagnosed with a brain tumour in September 2008 – but three; her own, Tom’s, and their young son Ev’s.  She writes, ‘We will all be changed by this.  He [Ev] the most’.

Tom’s trip to the hospital, which led to his diagnosis, was brought on by a seizure suffered whilst at a friend’s; this was the trigger, the catalyst, for the next two and a bit years, dying, as he did, on the 9th of January 2011.  The way in which Tom relays the news of his cancer to Coutts is incredibly matter of fact: ‘Tom stops me.  He says he has had a phone call.  He has a brain tumour.  It is very likely malignant’.  This discovery comes on an already momentous day for the couple – that of Ev’s first day away from them at the childminder’s.  Initially, she is distraught, breaking down in tears, but she does show strength of character from the outset, acting in what she sees as her familial duty.  She realises that she has to adopt the position of proverbial rock for both her husband and son: ‘Right from the start see how I set myself up.  Let us see how this thing goes’.

The book was a pre-planned project of sorts.  As soon as Coutts realises that something is drastically wrong with her husband, and is faced with his mortality – and, indirectly, her own – she consciously thinks about documenting the process.  She opens The Iceberg with the following: ‘A book about the future must be written in advance.  Later I won’t have the energy to speak.  So I will do it now’.  There is no doubt that Tom’s decline will be draining for all involved, and she is already steeling herself for the rocky road ahead.  The Iceberg is as much a historical document for she and her son to gain solace from, as it is a manual for those who are watching the suffering of a loved one to live by.

Throughout, the loss of speech and endless rounds of chemotherapy are not happening directly to Coutts; she is a bystander in proceedings – Tom’s crutch, as it were.  Throughout, she is remarkably understanding and empathetic, continually thinking of the ways in which certain daily processes will affect Tom, and how she can better his quality of life.  This applies both to the daily routine at home, and Tom’s medical care: ‘Normality is gifted in the form of steroids, 2mg daily, and immediately he tightens his grip on language and on the connection of meaning to word’.  She tries to maintain a manageable balance between their old, ordinary family life, and the situation which they have been forced into; they still see friends, and go on walks, for instance, which perpetuates a sense of normalcy in the face of the unknown.  She is essentially a mediator in a time of what could easily descend into panic.  ‘On hearing the news, our instinct is to tell it’, she says.  There is rarely any deception here, and the need to be honest – both with one another, and with others who matter to the couple – is paramount.

coutts-tom-and-ev-011

Tom Lubbock and Ev on Hampstead Heath, December 2008 (Photograph by Marion Coutts)

Coutts’ is a diachronic account; there is historical reach, and a chronological structure.  The form which she has chosen to use is not so much a diary format, as an almost academic way of breaking up separate scenes.  She deals with one day at a time, but the ‘1.1’ and ‘1.2’ structure does take an element of reality away from the whole.  Whilst we do not know the exact dates in which the written accounts took place, the whole is still achingly personal.  There is hope here; very early on in the book, she writes: ‘… we carry on in many ways as before but crosswise to what might be expected, we are not plunged into night’.

The couple do, however, become less able to discuss what the future – or lack thereof – holds for them, and for Ev.  On page 163, Coutts explains that ‘… there is the Talking Issue, meaning talking about what is going on, articulating the disaster that coagulates around us.  Tom promised a while back to begin a conversation with Ev and he has not done this’.  How does one communicate to a toddler that soon his beloved father will no longer be in his life?  Words, however, still have the power to carry them through their ordeal.  Whilst undergoing chemotherapy, Coutts describes the way in which she tenderly whispers poetry ‘with my mouth close to Tom’s ear’ (p168).

The Iceberg is a beautiful, brave, and heartfelt account of a newly-discovered mortality, which shows how one can make every single second in life count for something.  Love is at the forefront of every entry, and every decision which the couple make.

Purchase from The Book Depository

0

The Book Trail: From The Lonely City to Lions

We begin this edition of The Book Trail with an incredibly thoughtful and well-written essay collection, Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City.  As always, I am using the Goodreads ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool to generate this list of fantastically intriguing tomes.

1. The Lonely City by Olivia Laing
28693032What does it mean to be lonely? How do we live, if we’re not intimately engaged with another human being? How do we connect with other people? When Olivia Laing moved to New York City in her mid-thirties, she found herself inhabiting loneliness on a daily basis. Fascinated by the experience, she began to explore the lonely city by way of art. Moving fluidly between works and lives – from Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks to Andy Warhol’s Time Capsules, from Henry Darger’s hoarding to David Wojnarowicz’s AIDS activism – Laing conducts an electric, dazzling investigation into what it means to be alone, illuminating not only the causes of loneliness but also how it might be resisted and redeemed. Humane, provocative and deeply moving, The Lonely City is about the spaces between people and the things that draw them together, about sexuality, mortality and the magical possibilities of art. It’s a celebration of a strange and lovely state, adrift from the larger continent of human experience, but intrinsic to the very act of being alive.

 

2. The Dead Ladies Project: Exiles, Expats, and Ex-Countries by Jessa Crispin 24000166
When Jessa Crispin was thirty, she burned her settled Chicago life to the ground and took off for Berlin with a pair of suitcases and no plan beyond leaving. Half a decade later, she’s still on the road, in search not so much of a home as of understanding, a way of being in the world that demands neither constant struggle nor complete surrender.  The Dead Ladies Project is an account of that journey—but it’s also much, much more. Fascinated by exile, Crispin travels an itinerary of key locations in its literary map, of places that have drawn writers who needed to break free from their origins and start afresh. As she reflects on William James struggling through despair in Berlin, Nora Barnacle dependant on and dependable for James Joyce in Trieste, Maud Gonne fomenting revolution and fostering myth in Dublin, or Igor Stravinsky starting over from nothing in Switzerland, Crispin interweaves biography, incisive literary analysis, and personal experience into a rich meditation on the complicated interactions of place, personality, and society that can make escape and reinvention such an attractive, even intoxicating proposition.  Personal and profane, funny and fervent, The Dead Ladies Project ranges from the nineteenth century to the present, from historical figures to brand-new hangovers, in search, ultimately, of an answer to a bedrock question: How does a person decide how to live their life?

 

3. The Bad Mother by Marguerite Andersen
27969969Translated from the award-winning French novel La mauvaise mère, prolific author Marguerite Andersen fictionalizes the important moments of her life resulting in this unflinching account of her relationship with her three children and her years spent following her caprices and lovers, trying to regain the agency she lost when she became a mother.  Born in Germany, Marguerite was just into her twenties when she moved to Tunisia with her French lover. She thought she was choosing a life of adventure and freedom, but what she got was children and a marriage that quickly became abusive. Constrained by the minutiae of everyday life, Marguerite longs for the agency to make her own choices. Eventually she flees, leaving her children behind for a year and a half.  As the world labels her a wife, a mother, and eventually a bad mother, Marguerite wrestles with her own definition of personhood. Can you love your children and want your own life at the same time?  A half-century later, this fictionalized account of Andersen’s life is written with brutal honesty, in spare, pithy, and often poetic prose, as she expresses her own conflicted feelings concerning a difficult time and the impact it had on her sense of self. Andersen confronts the large and small choices that she made—the times she stayed and the times she didn’t—all the while asking, “What kind of mother am I?”

 

4. Fifty Days of Solitude by Doris Grumbach 394346
Faced with a rare opportunity to experiment with solitude, Doris Grumbach decided to live in her coastal Maine home without speaking to anyone for fifty days. The result is a beautiful meditation about what it means to write, to be alone, and to come to terms with mortality.

 

5. Mad in Pursuit by Violette Leduc
99088‘In the second remarkable volume of her life story, Mad In Pursuit, the war is finally over. A new generation of writers has appeared in Paris, among them Camus, Genet, Startre, and Cocteau, and every day, they can be seen writing at the marble-topped of the Cafe de Flore. Already in her thirties. Leduc burns with hero-worship and an obsession to become a celebrated writer herself. When she finds a mentor in none other than Simone de Beauvoir, she is pulled into the center of Parisian literary life — “a beehive gone mad. “In the no-holds-barred style that made her a legend, Leduc paints a vibrant picture of the brilliant minds around her — and the dark passions and insecurities that drove her to write.

 

6. Genet by Edmund White 53011
Bastard, thief, prostitute, jailbird, Jean Genet was one of French literature’s sacred monsters. in works from Our Lady of the Flowers to The Screens, he created a scandalous personal mythology while savaging the conventions of his society. His career was a series of calculated shocks marked by feuds, rootlessness, and the embrace of unpopular causes and outcast peoples. Now this most enigmatic of writers has found his ideal biographer in novelist Edmund White, whose eloquent and often poignant chronicle does justice to the unruly narrative of Genet’s life even as it maps the various worlds in which he lived and the perverse landscape of his imagination.

 

7. Love in a Dark Time: and Other Explorations of Gay Lives and Literature by Colm Toibin
43705Colm Tóibín knows the languages of the outsider, the secret keeper, the gay man or woman. He knows the covert and overt language of homosexuality in literature. In Love in a Dark Time, he also describes the solace of finding like-minded companions through reading.  Tóibín examines the life and work of some of the greatest and most influential writers of the past two centuries, figures whose homosexuality remained hidden or oblique for much of their lives, either by choice or necessity. The larger world couldn’t know about their sexuality, but in their private lives, and in the spirit of their work, the laws of desire defined their expression.  This is an intimate encounter with Mann, Baldwin, Bishop, and with the contemporary poets Thom Gunn and Mark Doty. Through their work, Tóibín is able to come to terms with his own inner desires — his interest in secret erotic energy, his admiration for courageous figures, and his abiding fascination with sadness and tragedy. Tóibín looks both at writers forced to disguise their true experience on the page and at readers who find solace and sexual identity by reading between the lines.

 

8. Lions and Shadows: An Education in the Twenties by Christopher Isherwood
In 1938 the legendary Hogarth Press published the first of Christopher Isherwood’s autobiographical writings, Lions and Shadows. The book evokes the atmosphere of Cambridge as Isherwood knew it and describes his life as a tutor, a medical student, and a struggling writer. Above all, Lions and Shadows is a captivating account of a young novelist’s development in the literary culture of 1920s Cambridge and London and of his experiences as he forged lifelong friendships with his peers W. H. Auden, Stephen Spender, and Edward Upward.

 

Which of these books whets your appetite the most?  Have you read any of them?

Purchase from The Book Depository

0

One From the Archive: ‘The Bucket: Memories of an Inattentive Childhood’ by Allan Ahlberg ****

From ‘The Bucket’

I couldn’t wait to read The Bucket: Memories of an Inattentive Childhood after I spotted three copies in Waterstone’s Piccadilly.  I was fully set to purchase one until I noticed that they were so grubby and bent that I didn’t in the end.  Instead, I checked a copy out of the Cambridge Central Library on a trip there in April.

As I am sure they did with many children, Allan and Janet Ahlberg formed a large part of my early bookishness.  When I saw that Allan had written an autobiography of sorts therefore, I was so very excited.  He is the author of such treasures as Each Peach Pear Plum, Peepo! and Burglar Bill, as well as Please Mrs Butler! and the stunningly adorable The Jolly Postman and The Jolly Christmas Postman, all of which I adore.  The work also begins with a quote from William Maxwell, another author whom I love. 

The Bucket is Ahlberg’s recollection of his childhood, a memoir told in both prose and verse.  It details his ‘early enchanted childhod [which was] lived out in a Black Country town in the 1940s’.  His little introduction to the volume is darling.

Each memory which he presents is vivid; he writes of such things as sheltering beneath the kitchen table during bomb raids, of the butcher who dealt ‘in meat and menace’, searching for worms to sell on to fisherman in compost heaps, playing games beneath the clothes horse, his Christmas presents being presented to him in a pillowcase, reminiscences of going to the barber’s, and childhood pageants which he attended.  Each memory is presented as a random fragment, and each little essay is interspersed with a poem.  Ahlberg writes so earnestly.  His prose is lovely, and it continually feels as though he is personally telling each of his readers each story.  The retrospective wisdom which he has made use of works wonderfully.

The book, as one might expect, is filled with the most wonderful illustrations by Janet and Allan Ahlberg and their daughter Jessica, and it also features photographs, photocopies of school reports and documents.  The Bucket is absolutely lovely, and it has made me want to go and revisit all of the Ahlbergs’ work once more.  (Incidentally, I met up with one of my University friends in early April and we read Each Peach Pear Plum together in Waterstone’s, which was great fun!).  Any fan of Allan Ahlberg’s should rush out and purchase (or borrow!) this book, curl up in a comfortable place and enjoy its charm.

Purchase from The Book Depository

0

‘Comfort: A Journey Through Grief’ by Ann Hood *****

I hadn’t heard a lot about Comfort: A Journey Through Grief before I decided to buy it; I did so because as far as retrospective illness narratives go, it was unlike anything I’d read before.  I have come across and loved a couple of accounts of women who sadly miscarry, and those who have lost adults (husbands or sisters, for instance) to terrible diseases, but I haven’t read anything about the loss of a child.  In Comfort, Hood writes about the death and its aftermath of her five-year-old daughter Grace, who passed away from a virulent form of strep throat.  In doing so, she also encompasses Grace’s short but worthy life; she writes of her daughter’s favourite activities, and the little quirks which were already such a part of her. 9780393336597

From the outset, I knew it would be honest and heartbreaking.  Hood launches the reader, and herself, into the deep end at the book’s very outset; in the harrowing prologue of Comfort, she runs through the supposed ‘coping techniques’ which have been recommended to her, from drinking single malt whisky and taking regular courses of drugs such as Prozac, to reading memoirs about the grief of others.  As she writes of this last course of action, ‘But none of them lost Grace.  They do not know what it is to lose Grace’.

Comfort is, of course, incredibly emotional; one can feel Hood’s pain and anguish from its opening paragraph.  Some of the details were repetitive, but there was a therapeutic element to this; it seemed crucial for Hood to mention different elements or happenings at intervals, just in order to convince herself that everything had happened, and to reinforce the impact which her young daughter had had on people, both in terms of Hood’s nuclear family, and in the wider world.

I very rarely cry whilst reading (yes, I’m one of those people), but Comfort brought me to tears on several occasions.  Hood’s work is so candid, so honest; it felt like a real privilege to read.  I can only hope that the writing process gave Hood some comfort, and that my paltry review will encourage others to read it whilst also putting across how important this book was to me.

Purchase from The Book Depository

0

One From the Archive: ‘Speak, Memory’ by Vladimir Nabokov ***

‘Speak, Memory’ (Everyman’s Library Edition)

I have never read any of Nabokov’s fiction before, but when I saw this book on a ReadItSwapIt list and read its blurb, I thought that it sounded too good to miss.  I think that it is an interesting idea to begin reading a particular author’s oeuvre with a volume of autobiography, and it has certainly made me intrigued to read some of his fiction in future.

Speak, Memory covers the period between 1903 and 1940.  I make no bones about the fact that the book is written intelligently, but at first this style does feel as though it has been rather overdone. Some of Nabokov’s writing is stunning, but at times it did sound rather pretentious.  I have formed the general idea from reading reviews of his novels (mainly those of Ada and Lolita) that this is a general element of his style.  I felt that Nabokov’s prose did even out as it went along, and once I was used to his turns of phrase, it became eminently more readable.

At first, it felt as though Nabokov has essentially crafted a series of memory fragments, none of which are really connected, into a book.  For me, this gave the entirety rather a fractured feel.  After the first couple of chapters had passed, however, I did find that some of the later memories were connected – on rather a fragile string at times, it must be said.  Some of them were incredibly memorable – never, for example, will I be able to forget the rather disgusting way in which he talks about killing moths and butterflies for his collection – but sadly, not all of the fragments were.

I had rather an issue with the way in which the book was not sorted into chronological order.  It jumps back and forth so that Nabokov is a whole host of different ages in quick succession – three, six and three again.  Whilst I suppose it didn’t matter on the whole, it made it rather difficult to gauge how the author had grown into his own character. The format was an interesting one, but I can’t help thinking that I would have enjoyed it more had it had more of a structured and traditional manner about it.

Perhaps I should have mentioned at the outset that I am a self-confessed Russian history nerd.  It goes without saying really, then, that I found the social history – Russia’s military campaigns abroad, the forming of the First Parliament, and the vast divide between poverty and wealth, for example – fascinating.  The sense of place which Nabokov captured throughout was stunning.  He has made me want to go rushing back to beautiful St Petersburg on the first plane, which can only be a positive thing.

Purchase from The Book Depository