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‘Anne Frank: The Biography’ by Melissa Muller *****

I purchased a revised and expanded edition of Melissa Muller’s Anne Frank: The Biography on an affecting trip to the Anne Frank Huis in Amsterdam last year.  I have been so looking forward to reading it, but for some reason – emotional turmoil over Anne’s story, I expect, which never fails to bring me to tears – it took me some time to pick it up.  The Sunday Telegraph deems Muller’s biography ‘sensitive, serious and scrupulous’, and the Independent believes it to be an ‘accurate and honest portrait’.  The New York Times writes that Anne Frank: The Biography ‘acts as a supplement to the diary, filling in Anne’s fragmentary view of her own life’.

9781408842102I have read Anne’s own diary – which has sold more than thirty million copies in over seventy languages to date – countless times, as well as rather a few books about her, but Anne Frank: The Biography has become one of my absolute favourites.  It has been translated from its original German by Rita and Robert Kimber.  In this updated edition, Muller ‘details new theories surrounding the family’s betrayal, revelations about the pressure put on their helpers by the Nazi party and the startling discovery that the Franks had applied for a visa to the US.’

In her foreword, Muller writes of Anne’s importance: ‘Over the past sixty years, Anne Frank has become a universal symbol of the oppressed in a world of violence and tyranny.  Her name invokes humanity, tolerance, human rights, and democracy; her image is the epitome of optimism and the will to live.’  Upon her initial reading of Anne’s diary, Muller had many questions which were left unanswered; this inspired her to research and write Anne Frank: The Biography.  At this point, she says, ‘my search began – initially in the 1990s – to search for the person behind the legend, a search for the incidents and events that shaped the life and personality of Annelies Marie Frank.’  Her aim, she goes on, ‘was to gather as many fragments of the mosaic as possible and create as authentic a picture of Anne’s brief life as I could, illuminating the familial and social circumstances that provided the foundation of her life and left their mark on it.’

Anne Frank: The Biography opens with a copy of the Frank and Hollander family trees, which become useful to refer to when grandparents and great-grandparents are introduced into the narrative.  The initial chapter of the book opens on a scene in August 1944.  This, at first, seems like an ordinary day in the annexe in which Anne and her family, along with others, are hiding, but it proves to be the day on which they are discovered by the Dutch Nazis.  After they have been taken away, Muller describes how Miep and Bep, office workers who helped them to hide, retrieve Anne’s diary, not reading a single page so as to protect her privacy.  They hoped to be able to give it back to her after the war.

The second chapter then begins with Anne’s birth in Frankfurt, where her family lived on the outskirts of the city.  Of their new arrival, the Franks ‘had worried that Margot might be jealous of the baby, but Margot laughed with delight when she saw her.  Anne’s ears stuck out comically, and her wild black hair was silky and soft.’  A chronological timeline is followed from this chapter onward, and we are able to chart Anne’s progress as she grows, and becomes more independent.  Particular attention is paid to the craft of Anne’s writing, wishing as she did to become a novelist when she grew up.  ‘Her style,’ Muller writes, ‘improved rapidly, with astonishing speed considering her age…  The more she wrote, the sharper her observations became and the clearer her expression of those observations; the keener, too, her understanding of others and – as if she could step outside herself and look back in – of herself as well.  What she had begun in adolescent dreaminess ultimately achieved, in many passages, a maturity that was as convincing as it was astonishing.’

Political and social occurrences, particularly those which relate to the restrictions placed upon Jewish people, run alongside the lives of the Frank family.  This social context has been provided throughout, and adds depth and understanding.  Upon the German invasion of the Netherlands in May 1940, for instance, Muller states: ‘In one day the social structure of Holland had been transformed.  Where once there had been rich and poor, an upper and a lower class, a right wing and a left wing, and various religious blocs, now only one criterion distinguished good from bad, friend from enemy: was a person anti-German or pro-German?’  Along with historical facts, Muller weaves in the interested and intelligent Anne’s own opinions.  Upon the surrender of the Netherlands, ‘Anne was outraged…  Surrender was a concept she was hearing about for the first time, and she didn’t like the sound of it.  It didn’t suit her character.’

Counter to its title, Anne Frank: The Biography is not simply a biographical account of Anne; it includes details of both her immediate and extended family members on both sides, as well as accounts of family friends, and her schoolmates.  Photographs have been dotted throughout, which adds to the narrative, and shows those around Anne, first in Germany, and then in Amsterdam, where her family moved when she was small.  Perhaps most moving in terms of these portraits is the impression we receive of her doting father, Otto.  When writing about Anne and Margot’s friends in Amsterdam, Muller says: ‘The greatest delight of all was Mr. Frank.  His wife was always there and always friendly, but the children hardly noticed her; they took such things for granted in mothers.  But Otto Frank, at almost six feet a tall man for those days, was special.  With Mr. Frank you could talk and joke about anything.  He made up games, told stories, always had a comforting word, and seemed to forgive Anne everything…  Otto’s high spirits were truly infectious.  And when he was at home he spent more time with his children than most other fathers did.’  Of course, Anne is always the central focus here, but more of an understanding of her character can be gained from seeing those around her.

Muller is so understanding of Anne’s character and qualities, and notes how great an effect being in the annexe had for her: ‘At a time when a young person is recalcitrant and restless, defiant and temperamental, full of questions and searching for answers, baffled, helpless, and often irritable, Anne had no outlets for her feelings, no way to let off steam…  Anne herself described the period from 1942 until well into 1943 as a difficult time.  In the long days of loneliness and despair and of conflict not only with her housemates but also and primarily with herself, Kitty and the diary became her closest confidants.’

Muller’s prose style makes Anne Frank: The Biography a very easy book to read; it is intelligent and measured, not to mention packed with detail, but it still feels readily accessible.  The biography is considerate and meticulously researched and, as one would expect, is both touching and harrowing throughout.  Anne Frank: The Biography is a moving and detailed tribute to a remarkable young woman, and works as the perfect companion to The Diary of a Young Girl.

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‘I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes With Death’ by Maggie O’Farrell *****

I very much enjoy Maggie O’Farrell’s fiction, and when I found out about her first foray into biography, I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes With Death, I wanted to read it immediately.  The book, which reflects upon seventeen times in which O’Farrell’s life was in danger, or appeared to be, has been split into seventeen distinct sections.  These give a brief biological positioning of the problem which follows, as well as the year of their occurrence; for instance, ‘Circulatory System (1991)’, ‘Baby and Bloodstream (2005)’, and ‘Whole Body (1993)’.  The book has been named after one of my favourite Sylvia Plath poems, which feels highly appropriate given the subject matter: ‘I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart.  I am, I am, I am.’

9781472240743In the first section of I Am, I Am, I Am, O’Farrell writes: ‘I could have said that I have an instinct for the onset of violence.  That, for a long time, I seemed to incite it in others for reasons I never quite understood.  If, as a child, you are struck or hit, you will never forget that sense of your own powerlessness and vulnerability, of how a situation can turn from benign to brutal in the blink of an eye, in the space of a breath.  That sensibility will run in your veins, like an antibody.’  In the chapters which follow, O’Farrell is consistently honest and very direct about her own experiences, detailing the quick thinking which has helped her to get out of terrible situations, as well as the recklessness which consumed her as a child and teenager, and led her into trouble.

Of course, the situations recounted here have differing degrees of seriousness; some have repercussions which express themselves upon O’Farrell’s interior world, rather than upon her physical body.  The content too is varied; she discusses, amongst other things, a car accident, a traumatic birth, and being held by the throat with a machete whilst on holiday in Chile.  The structure suits I Am, I Am, I Am incredibly well, as does their ordering into a random rather than a chronological timeline.  Each of the chapters is separate but interlinked.

O’Farrell has such an awareness of her own place in the world, and the sometimes slippery grip which we have on our lives.  She extends her own opinion of this to include the reader, making it feel like an incredibly personal account for us, too: ‘We are, all of us, wandering about in a state of oblivion, borrowing our time, seizing our days, escaping our fates, slipping through loopholes, unaware of when we may fall.’

I Am, I Am, I Am is, like O’Farrell’s fiction, measured, intelligent, and surprising.  Whilst its tone and approach makes it immersive and very easy to read, it is also extremely touching and thought-provoking throughout.  I feel as though I now have an awareness and understanding, and above all, such admiration of O’Farrell the person, rather than O’Farrell the author.  I Am, I Am, I Am is a beautifully, and often scarily, personal account of danger and the fragility of life, which never once resorts to melodrama or exaggeration; instead, it is life-affirming in the most beautiful and direct of ways.  I had high hopes for O’Farrell’s newest tome, and it proved to be even better than I was expecting.  I Am, I Am, I Am is a wonderful book, which I will be thinking about for years to come.

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Two Reviews: ‘Kadian Journal’ and ‘The Little Girls’

The Little Girls by Elizabeth Bowen ***
9780099287780I have found Elizabeth Bowen’s novels a little hit and miss in the past, but since absolutely adoring The House in Paris, I was eager to read more of her work. I selected The Little Girls as my next choice, and initially found it a little difficult to get into; Bowen’s writing is notoriously beautiful and complex, and it always takes me a chapter or two to feel entirely comfortable with the way in which she writes.

The plot of The Little Girls, with a mystery at its heart, appealed to me, and whilst I came away without loving it, it is definitely a novel which I admire. The novel, as with many of Bowen’s, is very character driven. I was not, however, pulled in enough to warrant a four or five star rating, and only found myself completely engaged with the section in which the three protagonists were ‘little girls’. Bowen, for me, creates far more believable child characters than she does adults, and I was struck by every character trait and peculiarity about them. The dialogue here is often meandering, and a few retorts were utterly nonsensical; this can make the novel feel a little confusing at times. Had The Little Girls contained very little dialogue, the chances are that I would have loved it.

 

 

Kadian Journal by Thomas Harding ***
Harding’s reflection on grief, after his only son, Kadian, is killed in a freak cycling 9780099591849accident, opens on that pivotal day. The family are cycling in the Wiltshire countryside, when he is killed; of witnessing the accident, Harding writes: ‘He’s suddenly way ahead of me. A hundred feet perhaps. He must have gathered speed. And then there’s a flash of a white van, moving fast from left to right, at the bottom of the slope. It shouldn’t be there. And the van hits Kadian. Driving him away from view, away from me.’

Much of the memoir uses this choppy narrative style, which works very well to describe the accident and its aftermath, but is not so effective at other times. For the most part, Harding’s prose is both heartfelt and very matter-of-fact; the latter made me feel rather detached from the whole. It felt, at times, as though I was intruding upon somebody’s personal diary, which I had no right to read. There was no real sense that Kadian Journal was meant for a general readership; it felt too raw, in many ways. Harding also uses rather a lot of repetition unnecessarily, which I did find wearing after a while. Kadian Journal is a nice tribute to a lost son, but it did not always plunge the depths or the despair which I would have expected from such a book.

 

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Waves of Woolf

I have read an awful lot of novels about aspects of Woolf’s life, as well as many biographies.  I have scoured library shelves, and thought that I’d made a real dent in reading reflections upon and criticisms about her work.  It seems that I was misled in this however, as whilst researching before Christmas, I came across an awful lot of wonderful looking tomes which view Woolf’s life in different ways, and from different angles.  Some are critical, and others not so much.  I thought that I would group these together in a single post, as a wishlist of sorts, as well as a resource for those I know also admire Woolf and her work.

 

1. Virginia Woolf’s Nose: Essays on Biography by Hermione Lee 785085
‘What choices must a biographer make when stitching the pieces of a life into one coherent whole? How do we best create an accurate likeness of a private life from the few articles that linger after death? How do we choose what gets left out? This intriguing and witty collection of essays by an internationally acclaimed biographer looks at how biography deals with myths and legends, what goes missing and what can’t be proved in the story of a life. Virginia Woolf’s Nose presents a variety of case-studies, in which literary biographers are faced with gaps and absences, unprovable stories and ambiguities surrounding their subjects. By looking at stories about Percy Bysshe Shelley’s shriveled, burnt heart found pressed between the pages of a book, Jane Austen’s fainting spell, Samuel Pepys’s lobsters, and the varied versions of Virginia Woolf’s life and death, preeminent biographer Hermione Lee considers how biographers deal with and often utilize these missing body parts, myths, and contested data to “fill in the gaps” of a life story.  In “Shelley’s Heart and Pepys’s Lobsters,” an essay dealing with missing parts and biographical legends, Hermione Lee discusses one of the most complicated and emotionally charged examples of the contested use of biographical sources. “Jane Austen Faints” takes five competing versions of the same dramatic moment in the writer’s life to ask how biography deals with the private lives of famous women. “Virginia Woolf’s Nose” looks at the way this legendary author’s life has been translated through successive transformations, from biography to fiction to film, and suggests there can be no such thing as a definitive version of a life. Finally, “How to End It All” analyzes the changing treatment of deathbed scenes in biography to show how biographical conventions have shifted, and asks why the narrators and readers of life-stories feel the need to give special meaning and emphasis to endings.  Virginia Woolf’s Nose sheds new light on the way biographers bring their subjects to life as physical beings, and offers captivating new insights into the drama of “life-writing.”  Virginia Woolf’s Nose is a witty, eloquent, and funny text by a renowned biographer whose sensitivity to the art of telling a story about a human life is unparalleled–and in creating it, Lee articulates and redefines the parameters of her craft.’

 

1160912. Virginia Woolf: The Common Ground by Gillian Beer
‘Eminent feminist critic Gillian Beer’s work on Woolf, George Eliot, and Victorian scientific discourse are well known and admired. As the essays in this collection affirm, Beer has an extraordinary command of British cultural history, a talent for interpretative prose, and a gift for pursuing genuinely rewarding questions. In Virginia Woolf: The Common Ground,Beer’s essays on Woolf are brought together for the first time in a single volume.  Through her close investigative textual readings, she demonstrates how Woolf’s conceptualizations of history and narrative are intimately bound up with her ways of thinking about women, writing, and social and sexual relations. This is demonstrated through precise, detailed configurations, setting Woolf alongside texts both contemporary and distant, scientific and literary, with the effect that Woolf’s writing is illuminated in entirely new and unexpected contexts.  Beer’s introduction pulls together the critical themes of her work, and renders Woolf accessible to the large audience of scholars interested in English Literature as well as women’s writing.’

 

3. Afterwords: Letters on the Death of Virginia Woolf, edited by Sybil Oldfield 108651
‘On 28 March, 1941, at the height of Hitler’s victories during the Second World War, Virginia Woolf filled her pockets with stones and drowned herself in the River Ouse near her home in Sussex. At the time of her death some voices in the press attacked her for showing cowardice in the face of the enemy and for setting a bad example to the general population. Woolf’s suicide has been the subject of controversy for the media, for literary scholars, and for her biographers ever since.  Just when it may seem that nothing else could be said about Virginia Woolf and the ambiguous details of her suicide, Afterwords provides an entirely fresh perspective. It makes available to a wide readership for the first time letters sent to Leonard Woolf and Vanessa Bell (Virginia Woolf’s sister) in the aftermath of the event. This unique volume brings together over two hundred letters from T. S. Eliot, H. G. Wells, May Sarton, Vita Sackville-West, Edith Sitwell, E. M. Forster, Radclyffe Hall, and many others, including political figures and religious leaders. In addition, informative annotations reveal the identities of many unexpected condolence-letter writers from among the general public.’

 

173470274. Virginia Woolf’s Garden: The Story of the Garden at Monk’s House by Caroline Zoob
‘A chronological account takes the reader through the key events in the lives of Virginia and Leonard Woolf, and their deaths. This is allied to an account of the garden and its development, and the creation and development of the key areas of the garden. A wonderful selection of full-colour contemporary photographs, archive photographs, illustrated maps and planting plans take the reader through the various garden ‘rooms’, including the Italian Garden, the  Millstone garden, the Orchard, the Vegetable Garden, the Terrace, the Walled Garden, the Fishpond Garden and the Greenhouses and Conservatories. Throughout there are quotations from Virginia and Leonard’s diaries, giving a vivid account of their plans for, views on and activities in the garden.’

 

5. Travels With Virginia Woolf by Jan Morris 3176787
‘Virginia Woolf had a lively sense of place and delighted in `lighting accidentally. . . upon scenes which would have gone on, have always gone on, will go on, unrecorded, save for this chance glimpse. Following Virginia’s footprints from her beloved Sussex and Cornwall to wartime London, Italy and the Riviera to Greek mountains and the wilds of Spain, Jan Morris intersperses swift verbal sketches of a Greek peasant wedding, a fenland sky, an elderly spinster in a hotel dining room in Italy, or Bognor pier in the rain with her own brief, telling comments on both writer and subject’

 

188436. Women and Writing by Virginia Woolf and Michele Barrett
‘Known for her novels, and for the dubious fame of being a doyenne of the ‘Bloomsbury Set’, in her time Virginia Woolf was highly respected as a major essayist and critic with a special interest and commitment to contemporary literature, and women’s writing in particular. This spectacular collection of essays and other writings does justice to those efforts, offering unique appraisals of Aphra Behn, Mary Wollstonecraft, the Duchess of Newcastle, Dorothy Richardson, Charlotte Bronte, and Katherine Mansfield, amongst many others. Gathered too, and using previously unpublished (sometimes even unsigned) journal extracts, are what will now become timeless commentaries on ‘Women and Fiction’, ‘Professions for Women’ and ‘The Intellectual Status of Women’. More than half a century after the publication of A Room Of One’s Own, distinguished scholar Michele Barrett cohesively brings together work which, throughout the years, has been scattered throughout many texts and many volumes. . . affording these very valuable writings the collective distinction they deserve at last.’

 

7. The White Garden: A Novel of Virginia Woolf by Stephanie Barron 6561286
‘In March 1941, Virginia Woolf filled her pockets with stones and drowned herself in England’s River Ouse. Her body was found three weeks later. What seemed like a tragic ending at the time was, in fact, just the beginning of a mystery. . . .  Six decades after Virginia Woolf’s death, landscape designer Jo Bellamy has come to Sissinghurst Castle for two reasons: to study the celebrated White Garden created by Woolf’s lover Vita Sackville-West and to recover from the terrible wound of her grandfather’s unexplained suicide. In the shadow of one of England’s most famous castles, Jo makes a shocking find: Woolf’s last diary, its first entry dated the day after she allegedly killed herself.  If authenticated, Jo’s discovery could shatter everything historians believe about Woolf’s final hours. But when the Woolf diary is suddenly stolen, Jo’s quest to uncover the truth will lead her on a perilous journey into the tumultuous inner life of a literary icon whose connection to the White Garden ultimately proved devastating.   Rich with historical detail, The White Garden is an enthralling novel of literary suspense that explores the many ways the past haunts the present–and the dark secrets that lurk beneath the surface of the most carefully tended garden.’

 

Which are your favourite books about Woolf?  Have you read any of these?

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‘How Not to be a Boy’ by Robert Webb ****

‘”RULES FOR BEING A MAN: Don’t Cry; Love Sport; Play Rough; Drink Beer; Don’t Talk About Feelings”

But Robert Webb has been wondering for some time now: are those rules actually any use? To anyone? Looking back over his life, from schoolboy crushes (on girls and boys) to discovering the power of making people laugh (in the Cambridge Footlights with David Mitchell), and from losing his beloved mother to becoming a husband and father, Robert Webb considers the absurd expectations boys and men have thrust upon them at every stage of life. Hilarious and heartbreaking, How Not To Be a Boy explores the relationships that made Robert who he is as a man, the lessons we learn as sons and daughters, and the understanding that sometimes you aren’t the Luke Skywalker of your life – you’re actually Darth Vader.’

9781786890085Robert Webb’s How Not to be a Boy was one of my most highly anticipated releases of 2017. Stephen Fry writes in his review ‘I enjoyed every page’, and without sounding like a suck-up, I very much did too. Webb is one of my favourite comedians, and I still return to binging on the Peep Show box set every year with my boyfriend.

How Not to be a Boy is unlike a conventional memoir, in that Webb has placed his own experiences and memories within the broader framework of what it means to be a boy and a man in our society. He tackles widespread beliefs in a series of different chapters, and shows that ultimately, men can be sensitive too, and should be able to express themselves as they wish, rather than conform to the pressures of societal expectations. Of course – and this sounds incredibly obvious, but does not seem to be much acknowledged – it’s not just women who are affected by these. Men are expected to be macho and in control, things which Webb, throughout his life, is honest about having not been.

Webb is candid with his revelations, and one warms to his narrative voice immediately. It is distinctive; he writes with much the same wit, verve, and humour displayed in his work with the equally great David Mitchell. The imagined conversations which take place between Webb’s present self, and the figure of him as a child or young man are an interesting, and quite funny, touch.

Webb, throughout, is shrewd and wise. He writes: ‘But more often, when we tell a boy to “act like a man”, we’re effectively saying, “Stop expressing those feelings.” And if the boy hears that often enough, it actually starts to sound uncannily like, “Stop feeling those feelings.”‘ The preconceptions which Webb writes so eloquently about, and explores so well, form the backbone of How Not to be a Boy. His memoir has been almost perfectly balanced with its sadness and humour, and its execution feels very natural.

I shall end this review with rather a profound observation of Webb’s: ‘I want the same thing for boys, men, girls, women and anyone who grew up feeling that none of these worlds held any meaning for them. I want them all to have the freedom to express their individual and contradictory selves with confidence and humility.’

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‘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.

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‘Blue Nights’ by Joan Didion ****

I very much enjoyed Joan Didion’s A Year of Magical Thinking when I read it a couple of years ago, but had strangely not sought out more of her work in the intervening months.  I finally requested a copy of the markedly poignant Blue Nights from the library, and ended up reading it in one sitting.

9780007432905The blurb of Blue Nights describes the way in which Didion has used writing as a tool to try and make sense of a traumatic event in her life; it is a work which displays ‘a stunning frankness about losing a daughter…  [It] examines her thoughts, fears, and doubts regarding loving children, illness, and growing old.’  Didion also uses Blue Nights in order to explore ‘her role as a parent… [and] asks the candid questions any parent might about how she feels she failed either because cues were not taken or perhaps displaced.’  The book proper begins in July 2010, on a date which would have marked her daughter’s wedding anniversary.

Quintana Roo, the adopted daughter of Didion and her husband, fell ill with a mysterious virus, and was soon in a coma.  Whilst very little – in fact, next to nothing – is written about this, or the process of Quintana’s death, Didion details, with an almost matter-of-factness, Quintana’s mental health as a young woman: ‘Of course they were eventually assigned names, a “diagnosis.”  The names kept changing.  Manic depression for example became OCD…  and obsessive-compulsive disorder became something else…’.  Eventually, it is pinpointed that Quintana suffers from Borderline Personality Disorder, its effects of which Didion captures in the most beautiful and startling way: ‘Her depths and shallows, her quicksilver changes.’

In her introductory chapter, Didion writes candidly about why she selected Blue Nights as the title of her memoir.  She says: ‘During the blue nights you think the end of the day will never come.  As the blue nights draw to a close (and they will, and they do) you experience an actual chill, an apprehension of illness, at the moment you first notice: the blue light is going, the days are already shortening, the summer is gone.  This book is called Blue Nights because at the time I began it I found my mind turning increasingly to illness, to the end of promise, the dwindling of the days, the inevitability of the fading, the dying of the brightness.’  Metaphorically, this fading of the summer is something upon which Didion is able to project feelings of her grief.  On a more base level, she feels blue without her daughter and husband, and the position of retrospect in which she is writing, as well as the death of two beloveds, unsurprisingly makes her mood drop all the more.

Throughout Blue Nights, Didion recalls a stream of memories from her life, of family and friends, and relates them to us using almost a stream-of-consciousness style.  For instance, she writes: ‘Time passes. / Memory fades, memory adjusts, memory conforms to what we think we remember.’  She is tough upon herself and past decisions which she has made in places, particularly when thinking about her daughter’s childhood: ‘She was already a person.  I could never afford to see that.’

Blue Nights is both a wonderful work of love, and a showcase of the heartbreak which Didion has gone through, after first the death of her husband, and then of her only daughter.  To those who are grieving, comfort can be found within its pages.  The ‘incisive and electric honesty’ which the blurb details can be found throughout; it feels as though Didion is writing as a form of self-therapy, using her voice to expel her doubts, and keep her memories of Quintana alive.  Blue Nights is searingly honest, and its non-linear style really gives a feel for how jumbled a mind with grief in can become.  Touching and sad, Blue Nights feels like a moving tribute to a lost daughter.

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