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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  The Iceberg is as much a historical document for she and her son to gain solace from, as it is a manual for those who are watching the suffering of a loved one to live by.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.

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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?

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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.

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‘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.

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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.

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One From the Archive: ‘One Pair of Feet’ by Monica Dickens ****

The introduction to Virago’s new reprint of Monica Dickens’ spirited One Pair of Feet has been written by acclaimed author Monica Lewycka, who states that the book ‘is a fascinating glimpse into a time and a culture so recent and yet so utterly changed’.  Because Dickens was ‘just twenty seven’ when she wrote this volume of her memoirs, Lewycka is of the opinion that she was ‘more interested in observing the personal habits, fashions and love-lives of her colleagues than in discussing the big political issues of the day’.  The introduction is marvellous at describing both Dickens and the social conditions in which she lived and worked.  As she does within her fiction, Lewycka writes so well.

‘One Pair of Feet’ by Monica Dickens (Virago)

Dickens was a prolific author who wrote over fifty books, including a beautiful novel, Mariana, which makes up part of the Persephone list.  One Pair of Feet, which was first published in 1942, is Dickens’ third book and second volume of memoirs.  It follows One Pair of Hands, which recounts her experiences as a cook and ‘general servant’.  The praise for her work is widespread.  John Betjeman hailed her as ‘one of the most affectionate and humorous observers of the English scene’.  Her wartime memoirs echo this sentiment rather wonderfully.

Lewycka describes Dickens’ tone marvellously when she says that she speaks as ‘a confiding and funny older sister letting us into her secrets; the scenes of ward life, gruesome medical procedures, snatched cigarettes… and ghastly food are horribly evocative’.  Dickens’ writing style is amusing from the very first page.  Indeed, One Pair of Feet begins in rather an endearing manner: ‘One had got to be something; that was obvious.  But what?  It seemed that women, having been surplus for twenty years, were suddenly wanted in a hundred different places at once’.  She chose to become a nurse after watching the film ‘Vigil in the Night’, explaining her romantic notions about what she envisaged nursing to be: ‘I was going to be a nurse in a pure white halo cap, and glide swiftly about with oxygen cylinders and, if necessary, give my life for a patient and have my name on a bronze plaque in the hospital corridor’.

The reality of nursing, she soon finds, is much different.  She is very shrewd about those she meets, both on duty and in the care of the medical staff, and her anecdotes are so sharply described that it often feels as though the reader is right beside her as she goes through the long list of daily duties expected of her.  When speaking about the outbreak of the Second World War and its effect upon women, she says, ‘The Suffragettes could have saved themselves a lot of trouble if they had seen this coming’, and in writing about the thought of joining the services, her comments go no further than, ‘I didn’t think my hips would stand the cut of the skirt and I wasn’t too sure about my legs in wool stockings’.

In One Pair of Feet, Dickens takes us from her frightened beginnings as a junior, to the moment at which she receives the first red felt star to adorn her apron.  Her frivolity and the little jokes which she throws in here and there are marvellous, and make the entirety so very entertaining, particularly to the modern reader.

One Pair of Feet is absorbing from the start, and is filled with Dickens’ own brand of acerbic wit.  When losing her way in the hospital before her initial interview, for example, she says, ‘I was beginning to wish I had pretended to be a cripple and made the porter take me up in the lift’.  In this way, her memoirs are very of their time, but to echo Lewycka’s sentiments in the introduction, it is this very detail which fills Dickens’ writing with such charm and warmth.

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‘The Road Beneath My Feet’ by Frank Turner ***

9781472222015I’m not going to lie.  When the postman delivered a review copy of Frank Turner’s The Road Beneath My Feet to me two weeks before its publication date, I was rather excited (to the point of almost squealing).  I have been a fan of Turner’s music for a good few years now, and have seen him live close to a dozen times.  I was also at the sellout Wembley gig which he charts as the pinnacle of his career to date.  I have always thought that Turner – and Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes fame – would write excellent books. Yes – it is fair to say that my excitement over this book was tangible.

The Road Beneath My Feet presents, says its blurb, ‘a searingly honest and brilliantly written account of Frank Turner’s journey from the pub circuit to selling out Wembley Arena’.   The premise of the book poses instant appeal for all Turner fans (of which there are many): ‘Told through his tour reminiscences this is the blisteringly honest story of Frank’s career from drug-fuelled house parties and the grimy club scene to filling out arenas, fans roaring every word back at him.  But more than that, it is an intimate account of what it’s like to spend your life constantly on the road, sleeping on floors, invariably jet lagged, all for the love of playing live music’.

After Frank Turner’s last gig as frontman with his hardcore band Million Dead in 2005, he returned to his Hampshire hometown, ‘jaded and hungover’, with no plans for the future.  All he knew is that he wanted to continue to play music.  Rather aptly, the book begins with this juncture in his career: ‘It was the defining experience of my late adolescence, my early twenties – it was my formative musical experience.  But we were also just another jobbing underground hardcore band that made some small ripples and fell apart’.

In his Introduction/Disclaimer, Turner muses about his reasoning for publishing his biography, something which he largely attributes to his admiration of Black Flag’s Henry Rollins: ‘You hold in your hands a book, a book that I wrote, all by myself…  One reason I was not expecting this book to exist is that I’m not generally much keen on autobiography as a genre.  There are, of course, notable exceptions to this – Ben Franklin for example, or Churchill’s – but I feel like you either need to have won a war or be knocking on death’s door to justify the exercise…  It was also suggested that the book need not be an autobiography in the strict sense, starting with birth and ending in the nursing home; it could be a specific set of recollections about a certain period of time’.  Each of Turner’s recollections is split into a particular numbered show, of which he has kept a record since he started performing.  This record has actually been included at the end of the book, which is a lovely touch.

In some ways, Turner comes across as rather a humbled man: ‘I’m aware, painfully so, that I’m incredibly fortunate to do what I do for a living; I’m also not under the impression that it’s death-shakingly significant, in the grand scheme of things.  Hopefully I don’t come off as overly self-pitying or self-important’.

As with his lyrics, Turner’s prose writing is intelligent, and one gets the impression that a lot of thought has been put into many of his sentences: ‘Like most youthful, Arcadian ideals, the bald facts of the denouement are mundane rather than monumental’.  In places, the book is rather amusing and filled with Turner’s dry humour: ‘There’s a bleak, failed romanticism to the idea Valentine’s Day alone in Ipswich’, for example.  He also recounts amusing episodes; in Russia, for instance, after a few too many drinks, the following happens: ‘On hearing that I had been left alone by my compadre, I jumped to my feet, rushed into the club, leaped up on to the bar and shouted “Communist bastards!  I’ll fight you all!” while rather pathetically waving a plastic cup’.  The characters whom he meets along the way have been vividly evoked; Karlis, for example, ‘a formidable, hulking Latvian’ whose ‘favourite king was Charles I and [who] liked trampolining very much, but, alarmingly, was minded to shoot gypsies with his “double-barrelled shooting gun”.’

In The Road Beneath My Feet, one can see quite clearly how Turner’s style, both musically and as a performer, has evolved over time: ‘I felt like I was pretty much done with (post-) hardcore as a style…  After years of self-conscious musical awkwardness and trying to be dark and angular all the time, hearing simple chords and simple words was immensely refreshing and I felt like the music told me deeper truths…  I’m always more interested in music when it breaks out of the mould and becomes a dialogue, an interaction, rather than just a lecture from “artist” to “punter”‘.  The positives as well as the negatives have been considered throughout, from habitual drug use and sleeping on uncomfortable sofas, to barely scraping together enough money to eat each night.  Turner relates his experiences to the songs which they influenced: ‘It’s reasonably fair to say that Sleep is For the Week is, in some senses, an album about doing too much cocaine’.

There is a slightly repetitive air to the whole, but that is to be expected due to the nature of the book.  The format which has been used works well, and in consequence, The Road Beneath My Feet is eminently readable.  There is a ‘woe-is-me’ air which pervades at times, but again, one can easily believe that this goes with the territory.  Sadly, parts of the book do feel like something of a plugging exercise in places, but overall, it is a well written and well-developed account of how to make it the hard way in the music industry, and it is sure to captivate and satisfy his fans.

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