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Most Popular Books Published in 2020

I love a good book list.  Although I have tried my best not to look at any for quite some time as my TBR lists are bursting at the seams, I could not resist perusing the Goodreads list of the most popular books published during 2020.  Although I read a lot of contemporary fiction, I had read just three of the 149 which appear here at the time of compiling this list.  Rather than write about those, all of which I found underwhelming (My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell, One of Us is Next by Karen M. McManus, and Mr Nobody by Catherine Steadman), I thought I would pick out ten books which pique my interest.

1. The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett 51791252._sx318_sy475_
The Vignes twin sisters will always be identical. But after growing up together in a small, southern black community and running away at age sixteen, it’s not just the shape of their daily lives that is different as adults, it’s everything: their families, their communities, their racial identities. Ten years later, one sister lives with her black daughter in the same southern town she once tried to escape. The other secretly passes for white, and her white husband knows nothing of her past. Still, even separated by so many miles and just as many lies, the fates of the twins remain intertwined. What will happen to the next generation, when their own daughters’ storylines intersect?  Weaving together multiple strands and generations of this family, from the Deep South to California, from the 1950s to the 1990s, Brit Bennett produces a story that is at once a riveting, emotional family story and a brilliant exploration of the American history of passing. Looking well beyond issues of race, The Vanishing Half considers the lasting influence of the past as it shapes a person’s decisions, desires, and expectations, and explores some of the multiple reasons and realms in which people sometimes feel pulled to live as something other than their origins.  As with her New York Times-bestselling debut The Mothers, Brit Bennett offers an engrossing page-turner about family and relationships that is immersive and provocative, compassionate and wise.

438349092. Long Bright River by Liz Moore
In a Philadelphia neighborhood rocked by the opioid crisis, two once-inseparable sisters find themselves at odds. One, Kacey, lives on the streets in the vise of addiction. The other, Mickey, walks those same blocks on her police beat. They don’t speak anymore, but Mickey never stops worrying about her sibling.  Then Kacey disappears, suddenly, at the same time that a mysterious string of murders begins in Mickey’s district, and Mickey becomes dangerously obsessed with finding the culprit–and her sister–before it’s too late.  Alternating its present-day mystery with the story of the sisters’ childhood and adolescence, Long Bright River is at once heart-pounding and heart-wrenching: a gripping suspense novel that is also a moving story of sisters, addiction, and the formidable ties that persist between place, family, and fate.’

3. The Sun Down Motel by Simone St. James 45885644
The secrets lurking in a rundown roadside motel ensnare a young woman, just as they did her aunt thirty-five years before, in this new atmospheric suspense novel from the national bestselling and award-winning author of The Broken Girls.  Upstate NY, 1982. Every small town like Fell, New York, has a place like the Sun Down Motel. Some customers are from out of town, passing through on their way to someplace better. Some are locals, trying to hide their secrets. Viv Delaney works as the night clerk to pay for her move to New York City. But something isn’t right at the Sun Down, and before long she’s determined to uncover all of the secrets hidden…’

51907346._sy475_4. All Adults Here by Emma Straub
When Astrid Strick witnesses a school bus accident in the center of town, it jostles loose a repressed memory from her young parenting days decades earlier. Suddenly, Astrid realizes she was not quite the parent she thought she’d been to her three, now-grown children. But to what consequence?  Astrid’s youngest son is drifting and unfocused, making parenting mistakes of his own. Her daughter is intentionally pregnant yet struggling to give up her own adolescence. And her eldest seems to measure his adult life according to standards no one else shares. But who gets to decide, so many years later, which long-ago lapses were the ones that mattered? Who decides which apologies really count? It might be that only Astrid’s thirteen-year-old granddaughter and her new friend really understand the courage it takes to tell the truth to the people you love the most.  In All Adults Here, Emma Straub’s unique alchemy of wisdom, humor, and insight come together in a deeply satisfying story about adult siblings, aging parents, high school boyfriends, middle school mean girls, the lifelong effects of birth order, and all the other things that follow us into adulthood, whether we like them to or not.’

5. Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia 53152636._sx318_sy475_
After receiving a frantic letter from her newly-wed cousin begging for someone to save her from a mysterious doom, Noemí Taboada heads to High Place, a distant house in the Mexican countryside. She’s not sure what she will find—her cousin’s husband, a handsome Englishman, is a stranger, and Noemí knows little about the region.   Noemí is also an unlikely rescuer: She’s a glamorous debutante, and her chic gowns and perfect red lipstick are more suited for cocktail parties than amateur sleuthing. But she’s also tough and smart, with an indomitable will, and she is not afraid: Not of her cousin’s new husband, who is both menacing and alluring; not of his father, the ancient patriarch who seems to be fascinated by Noemí; and not even of the house itself, which begins to invade Noemi’s dreams with visions of blood and doom.  Her only ally in this inhospitable abode is the family’s youngest son. Shy and gentle, he seems to want to help Noemí, but might also be hiding dark knowledge of his family’s past. For there are many secrets behind the walls of High Place. The family’s once colossal wealth and faded mining empire kept them from prying eyes, but as Noemí digs deeper she unearths stories of violence and madness.   And Noemí, mesmerized by the terrifying yet seductive world of High Place, may soon find it impossible to ever leave this enigmatic house behind.’

375062286. Weather by Jenny Offill
Lizzie Benson slid into her job as a librarian without a traditional degree. But this gives her a vantage point from which to practice her other calling: she is a fake shrink. For years she has tended to her God-haunted mother and her recovering addict brother. They have both stabilized for the moment, but Lizzie has little chance to spend her new free time with husband and son before her old mentor, Sylvia Liller, makes a proposal. She’s become famous for her prescient podcast, Hell and High Water, and wants to hire Lizzie to answer the mail she receives: from left-wingers worried about climate change and right-wingers worried about the decline of western civilization. As Lizzie dives into this polarized world, she begins to wonder what it means to keep tending your own garden once you’ve seen the flames beyond its walls. When her brother becomes a father and Sylvia a recluse, Lizzie is forced to address the limits of her own experience–but still she tries to save everyone, using everything she’s learned about empathy and despair, conscience and collusion, from her years of wandering the library stacks . . . And all the while the voices of the city keep floating in–funny, disturbing, and increasingly mad.

7. Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas 51934838
‘Catherine House is a school of higher learning like no other. Hidden deep in the woods of rural Pennsylvania, this crucible of reformist liberal arts study with its experimental curriculum, wildly selective admissions policy, and formidable endowment, has produced some of the world’s best minds: prize-winning authors, artists, inventors, Supreme Court justices, presidents. For those lucky few selected, tuition, room, and board are free. But acceptance comes with a price. Students are required to give the House three years—summers included—completely removed from the outside world. Family, friends, television, music, even their clothing must be left behind. In return, the school promises its graduates a future of sublime power and prestige, and that they can become anything or anyone they desire.  Among this year’s incoming class is Ines, who expects to trade blurry nights of parties, pills, cruel friends, and dangerous men for rigorous intellectual discipline—only to discover an environment of sanctioned revelry. The school’s enigmatic director, Viktória, encourages the students to explore, to expand their minds, to find themselves and their place within the formidable black iron gates of Catherine.  For Ines, Catherine is the closest thing to a home she’s ever had, and her serious, timid roommate, Baby, soon becomes an unlikely friend. Yet the House’s strange protocols make this refuge, with its worn velvet and weathered leather, feel increasingly like a gilded prison. And when Baby’s obsessive desire for acceptance ends in tragedy, Ines begins to suspect that the school—in all its shabby splendor, hallowed history, advanced theories, and controlled decadence—might be hiding a dangerous agenda that is connected to a secretive, tightly knit group of students selected to study its most promising and mysterious curriculum.  Combining the haunting sophistication and dusky, atmospheric style of Sarah Waters with the unsettling isolation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, Catherine House is a devious, deliciously steamy, and suspenseful page-turner with shocking twists and sharp edges that is sure to leave readers breathless.’

459927178. The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel
England, May 1536. Anne Boleyn is dead, decapitated in the space of a heartbeat by a hired French executioner. As her remains are bundled into oblivion, Thomas Cromwell breakfasts with the victors. The blacksmith’s son from Putney emerges from the spring’s bloodbath to continue his climb to power and wealth, while his formidable master, Henry VIII, settles to short-lived happiness with his third queen before Jane dies giving birth to the male heir he most craves.  Cromwell is a man with only his wits to rely on; he has no great family to back him, no private army. Despite rebellion at home, traitors plotting abroad and the threat of invasion testing Henry’s regime to the breaking point, Cromwell’s robust imagination sees a new country in the mirror of the future. But can a nation, or a person, shed the past like a skin? Do the dead continually unbury themselves? What will you do, the Spanish ambassador asks Cromwell, when the king turns on you, as sooner or later he turns on everyone close to him?  With The Mirror & the Light, Hilary Mantel brings to a triumphant close the trilogy she began with Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. She traces the final years of Thomas Cromwell, the boy from nowhere who climbs to the heights of power, offering a defining portrait of predator and prey, of a ferocious contest between present and past, between royal will and a common man’s vision: of a modern nation making itself through conflict, passion, and courage.’

9. If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha 52696537._sy475_
Kyuri is a heartbreakingly beautiful woman with a hard-won job at a “room salon,” an exclusive bar where she entertains businessmen while they drink. Though she prides herself on her cold, clear-eyed approach to life, an impulsive mistake with a client may come to threaten her livelihood.  Her roomate, Miho, is a talented artist who grew up in an orphanage but won a scholarship to study art in New York. Returning to Korea after college, she finds herself in a precarious relationship with the super-wealthy heir to one of Korea’s biggest companies.  Down the hall in their apartment building lives Ara, a hair stylist for whom two preoccupations sustain her: obsession with a boy-band pop star, and a best friend who is saving up for the extreme plastic surgery that is commonplace.  And Wonna, one floor below, is a newlywed trying to get pregnant with a child that she and her husband have no idea how they can afford to raise and educate in the cutthroat economy.  Together, their stories tell a gripping tale that’s seemingly unfamiliar, yet unmistakably universal in the way that their tentative friendships may have to be their saving grace.’

5017541910. Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan
Ava moved to Hong Kong to find happiness, but so far, it isn’t working out. Since she left Dublin, she’s been spending her days teaching English to rich children—she’s been assigned the grammar classes because she lacks warmth—and her nights avoiding petulant roommates in her cramped apartment.  When Ava befriends Julian, a witty British banker, he offers a shortcut into a lavish life her meager salary could never allow. Ignoring her feminist leanings and her better instincts, Ava finds herself moving into Julian’s apartment, letting him buy her clothes, and, eventually, striking up a sexual relationship with him. When Julian’s job takes him back to London, she stays put, unsure where their relationship stands.  Enter Edith. A Hong Kong–born lawyer, striking and ambitious, Edith takes Ava to the theater and leaves her tulips in the hallway. Ava wants to be her—and wants her. Ava has been carefully pretending that Julian is nothing more than an absentee roommate, so when Julian announces that he’s returning to Hong Kong, she faces a fork in the road. Should she return to the easy compatibility of her life with Julian or take a leap into the unknown with Edith?  Politically alert, heartbreakingly raw, and dryly funny, Exciting Times is thrillingly attuned to the great freedoms and greater uncertainties of modern love. In stylish, uncluttered prose, Naoise Dolan dissects the personal and financial transactions that make up a life—and announces herself as a singular new voice.

Which of these books have you read, and which 2020 release was your favourite?

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Around the World in 80 Books: My Top Ten

I officially completed my Around the World in 80 Books challenge back in April, having started on the first of January this year.  The project has been both delightful and enlightening, and I have so enjoyed immersing myself in so many portrayals of countries and their very diverse cultures.  Whilst I have no plans to repeat the challenge in coming years (particularly as I found it rather difficult to find a single tome which I was interested in from several of my previously chosen countries), I have found the process to be a wonderful one.

I chose to travel to one continent at a time, beginning with my home country, and sweeping through each of them in turn.  If you wish to see a full itinerary of this year’s ‘travels’, then please click here.

I thought that it would be a nice idea to gather together my favourite books which I encountered during my challenge.  They are in no particular order, but I thoroughly enjoyed each and every one of them, and highly recommend them.  Included alongside them are snippets of my reviews.

 

1. Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart (France)
I really enjoy Mary Stewart’s fiction; all of her books are markedly different, despite sharing similarities in terms of traits and characterisation. As ever, Stewart’s real strengths here come with setting the scene, and building her protagonists. Nine Coaches Waiting, which takes place just a few miles away from the Swiss border, has a wonderfully Gothic feel to it.

2. The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas (Norway) cover-jpg-rendition-460-707
Much of Vesaas’ writing is given over to the landscape within the more pivotal moments of The Ice Palace. His descriptions of ice and snow are varied, and startlingly beautiful. When she reaches the ice palace, he writes, for instance, ‘Unn looked down into an enchanting world of small pinnacles, gables, frosted domes. Soft curves and confused tracery. All of it was ice, and the water spurted between, building it up continually. Branches of the waterfall had been diverted and rushed into new channels, creating new forms. Everything shone.’

3. Please Look After Mother by Kyung-Sook Shin (South Korea)
So-nyo’s complex character is pieced together fragment by fragment. This technique gives a real depth to her, and is a very revealing and effective manner in which to tell such a story. So-nyo’s family begin to realise just how important she is to them, and the many ways they have taken advantage of her, or taken her for granted over the years. Their own mistakes, both collective and individual, glare out at them: ‘You don’t understand why it took you so long to realise something so obvious. To you, Mother was always Mother. It never occurred to you that she had once taken her first step, or had once been three or twelve or twenty years old. Mother was Mother. She was born as Mother. Until you saw her running to your uncle like that, it hadn’t dawned on you that she was a human being who harboured the exact same feeling you had for your own brothers, and this realisation led to the awareness that she, too, had had a childhood. From then on, you sometimes thought of Mother as a child, as a girl, as a young woman, as a newly-wed, as a mother who had just given birth to you.’

97818702068084. Dew on the Grass by Eiluned Lewis (Wales)
Movement, particularly with regard to the younger characters, has been captured beautifully: ‘Released at length from the spell of Louise’s eye and the cool, leafshadowed nursery, they danced out on the lawn, shouting, hopping with excitement, ready for something adventurous, scarcely able to contain their glee.’ The natural world of Lewis’ novel has been romanticised in the gentlest and loveliest of manners; it never feels overdone or repetitive, and is largely filled with purity and charm.

5. The Colour by Rose Tremain (New Zealand)
‘Tremain gives a marked consideration to colour in her novel from its very beginning.  She writes: ‘It was their first winter.  The earth under their boots was grey.  The yellow tussock-grass was salty with hail.  In the violet clouds of afternoon lay the promise of a great winding-sheet of snow.’  I was struck by Tremain’s writing immediately.  She has such a gift for seamlessly blending her vivid descriptions with her characters, and the actions which they take.  There is a timelessness to Tremain’s prose, despite the effective rooting of her novel in a very particular period and setting.  She uses her chosen framework in order to explore many different themes relating to expatriation, nature, and human nature, particularly with regard to the ways in which changing conditions alter the relationships between husband and wife, and son and mother.’

6. Guiltless by Viveca Sten (Sweden)
I had not read the first or second novels in the series, but that did not seem to matter at all. I found that it worked very well indeed as a standalone novel. Guiltless takes part on a small island in the Swedish archipelago named Sandhamn, and is engaging from its very first page. Throughout, the novel is really well plotted and structured, and its translation is fluid. The sense of place and characters are well built, and I found Guiltless overall to be so easy to read, and so absorbing.

7. The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna (Croatia) 17237713
From the outset, the male narrative voice which Forna has crafted is engaging, and I was immediately pulled in. There is such a sense of place here, and it has definitely made me long to go back to Croatia. Another real strength of The Hired Man is that quite a lot is left unsaid at times; these careful omissions make the story even more powerful.

8. Ways of Going Home by Alejandro Zambra (Chile)
Ways of Going Home uses a structure of very short, and often quite poignant, vignettes. These are made up at first of retrospective memories and memorials from the narrator’s childhood, and then from his adulthood. This structure works wonderfully; I often find that books made up of vignettes build a wonderful story, allowing us to learn about the characters, as well as the conditions under which they live, piece by piece. Zambra’s writing style is gripping from the very first page; it begins in the following manner: ‘Once, I got lost. I was six or seven. I got distracted, and all of a sudden I couldn’t see my parents anymore. I was scared, but I immediately found the way home and got there before they did. They kept looking for me, desperate, but I thought they were lost. That I knew how to get home and they didn’t.’

97800071729179. Eight Months on Ghazzah Street by Hilary Mantel (Saudi Arabia)
Well written, as Mantel’s work always is, Eight Months on Ghazzah Street is culturally fascinating. It gives one a feeling for the city of Jeddah, where Frances and Andrew settle, immediately, as well as Frances’ position within it. Her life soon feels very claustrophobic, largely unable, as she is, to leave the block of flats in which the couple live; this is due to the incredibly subservient position of women in the male-dominated society, which leaves her – a trained cartographer – unable to work, as well as the stifling heat which grips the city for most of the year. Frances has been made almost a prisoner in her own home, and has to rely on the friendship of the other women in the building to wile away those long, hot hours in which Andrew is working.

10. Two Under the Indian Sun by Jon and Rumer Godden (India)
I have read quite a few of Rumer Godden’s books, many of which have been reissued by Virago in the last few years, but I have never come across anything of Jon’s before. I loved the idea of a collaborative memoir, particularly one which focuses almost exclusively upon their childhood, which was largely spent in India. Two Under the Indian Sun covers several years, in which the girls were taken back to their parents in East Bengal, now a part of Pakistan, after the outbreak of the First World War.

 

Have you taken part in this project before?  If not, have you been inspired to?  Which are your favourite reads from around the world?

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‘Eight Months on Ghazzah Street’ by Hilary Mantel ****

I read one of Hilary Mantel’s earliest works, Eight Months on Ghazzah Street, as part of my Around the World in 80 Books challenge. I love how varied her books are; rather than deal with a historical setting here, as she does in the much-lauded Wolf Hall and A Place of Greater Safety, this is a contemporary story of Saudi Arabia. Whilst it has not been favourably reviewed on the whole on Goodreads, Time Out calls it ‘A Middle Eastern Turn of the Screw with an insidious power to grip’, and Literary Review heralds it a ‘stunning Orwellian nightmare’. 9780007172917

The novel feels rather autobiographical, in that Mantel herself lived in Saudi Arabia, and Africa before that, as her protagonists here do. Mantel is most involved with the story of Frances here, a British woman who has moved to the country with her husband Andrew, who has found work on a large and well-paid project as an architect.

Well written, as Mantel’s work always is, Eight Months on Ghazzah Street is culturally fascinating. It gives one a feeling for the city of Jeddah, where Frances and Andrew settle, immediately, as well as Frances’ position within it. Her life soon feels very claustrophobic, largely unable, as she is, to leave the block of flats in which the couple live; this is due to the incredibly subservient position of women in the male-dominated society, which leaves her – a trained cartographer – unable to work, as well as the stifling heat which grips the city for most of the year. Frances has been made almost a prisoner in her own home, and has to rely on the friendship of the other women in the building to wile away those long, hot hours in which Andrew is working.

On her first morning in Jeddah, after an exhausting journey the previous day, Frances is accidentally trapped within the flat: ‘When Andrew locked me in, I thought, it doesn’t matter, because I won’t be going out today. As if not going out would be unusual. I didn’t know that on that first day I was setting into a pattern, a routine, drifting around the flat alone, maybe reading for a bit, doing this and that, and daydreaming. I can see now that it will need a great effort not to let my whole life fall into this pattern.’ She writes later that the regime in Saudi Arabia, which so suppresses females, ‘is like being under house arrest. Or a banned person.’

Incredibly enlightening, Eight Months on Ghazzah Street is told from two perspectives – that of the omniscient third person, as well as Frances’ diary entries. A lot of people have mentioned in their reviews that barely anything happens within the novel, but I think that this works well; there is a mystery at its heart, but this is very much a secondary storyline. Rather, Mantel is more concerned with demonstrating what life is like in Saudi Arabia for a woman, and a European one at that. I found the novel engaging and engrossing, and felt that it is just as valid now as it was when it was published thirty years ago. Very little seems to have changed, in fact. Eight Months on Ghazzah Street is a tense and chilling novel, despite the fact that one can feel the claustrophobic, searing heat of Jeddah throughout.

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Flash Reviews: ‘A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius’, ‘Sisterland’, and ‘A Place of Greater Safety’

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers ***
9780330456715I was unsure what to except from A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. The only Eggers which I have read to date is his take on Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, and I very much enjoyed that.

The prose here was well written, even taut in places, but I found the dialogue deliberately rather dull. I did admire the many different prose styles employed throughout the book, but didn’t enjoy reading some of the reflections – of the magazine which Eggers set up, for instance. I felt that such an inclusion, whilst evidently important in his memoir, was drawn out, and made the whole lose some of its originality, and some of its personable nature. Both the interview transcript section and some of the conversations were drawn up to the point of tediousness.

On the basis of this, I’m not sure whether I’ll rush to pick up another of Eggers’ books, or another memoir like this. I did enjoy the familial aspect of it, especially in its unusualness, and it did keep me entertained for the most part, but there were whole sections which felt dull and superfluous, and which I had to stop myself from skipping through entirely.

 

Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld *** 9780552776592
I purchased Sisterland on a whim during Oxfam’s Scorching Summer Reads campaign. Sittenfeld is an author I’ve seen in various bookshops, but have never picked up; the blurb appealed to me, so I thought I’d give it a go. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. I had hoped that it would be a great read; its publication by Black Swan certainly prodded me toward this conclusion (publishing, as they have, the work of favourite author Kate Atkinson).

Considering its length, Sisterland is a quick and easy read. There were elements of chick-lit to it, and far too much was involved with rather mundane parenting for my liking, but I wanted to see it through to the end to see what would happen. It was actually really absorbing in places; more so than I thought it would be on the basis of the initial two chapters, anyway.

Sisterland is well written; whilst the prose wasn’t beautiful, it was tight. The pacing was very close to perfect throughout too. I enjoyed the simple structure, where alternating chapters were set in the past and present. Kate, the novel’s narrator, was very realistic. I got the feeling whilst reading that Sittenfeld is a very perceptive author, and on this basis, I will definitely read another of her books in future. Only the ending let it down for me, hence its three-star rating.

 

A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel ***
9780007250554Disclaimer: this novel really, really hurt my hands, it is so heavy.

I thought that if I didn’t take this on holiday to read before my PhD begins, I would probably wait for years to pass before reading it. I very much enjoy Mantel’s work on the whole, and a holiday in France seemed rather a good place in which to read a novel of the French Revolution. Funny, that.

I absolutely love the way in which the plot unfolded here, and Mantel’s introductions of the different characters. The whole is so well written, as I knew it would be from reading some of her other books. A Place of Greater Safety is really well done on the whole, but it feels as though less attention to detail has been placed upon it than in works such as Wolf Hall. At times it feels as though Mantel has either completely forgotten, or completely disregarded, the rudimentary elements of both history and the like of scientific discoveries. A shame, I think. Other readers could get past this, I imagine, but I am a self-confessed history geek, and the details which did not conform, both in terms of this and the far too modern phrasings, did disappoint. (Correct me if I’m wrong, but I cannot imagine many people in 1791 saying ‘Oh, fuck this!’, for instance.)

Some of the sections were overdone, given their length and the little that consequently happened within them. On the whole, Mantel has done a grand job in bringing a pivotal period of French history to the fore, but silly inconsistencies let it down. This is a long book to be even momentarily peeved by, after all.

 

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Illness Narratives: Getting Started

Whilst I did not enjoy my Illness Narratives as Life Writing class anywhere near as much as I thought I would, I still read some incredibly good memoirs in preparation for it.  There are a few here which I read prior to the course too.  The following books have all been selected to feature on the blog today because I feel that they are all important; they are poignant, tender, thought-provoking and, above all, life-affirming.  For each, I have copied the official blurb, as the majority of them describe the conditions written about in a far more comprehensive way than I could without doing some research.

  1. Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen 9781860497926
    ‘In 1967, after a session with a psychiatrist she’d never seen before, eighteen-year-old Susanna Kaysen was put in a taxi and sent to McLean Hospital to be treated for depression. She spent most of the next two years on the ward for teenage girls in a psychiatric hospital renowned for its famous clientele – Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, James Taylor and Ray Charles. A clear-sighted, unflinching work that provokes questions about our definitions of sane and insane, Kaysen’s extraordinary memoir encompasses horror and razor-edged perception while providing vivid portraits of her fellow patients and their keepers.’
  2. On Being Ill by Virginia Woolf
    ‘The essay seeks to establish illness as a serious subject of literature along the lines of love, jealousy and battle. Woolf writes, “Considering how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed, what wastes and deserts of the soul a slight attack of influenza brings to light…it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love, battle, and jealousy among the prime themes of literature.”‘
  3. Giving Up the Ghost by Hilary Mantel
    ‘From the double Man Booker Prize-winning author of ‘Wolf Hall’, a wry, shocking and beautiful memoir of childhood, ghosts, hauntings, illness and family. ‘Giving up the Ghost’ is award-winning novelist Hilary Mantel’s uniquely unusual five-part autobiography. Opening in 1995 with ‘A Second Home’, Mantel describes the death of her stepfather which leaves her deeply troubled by the unresolved events of her childhood. In ‘Now Geoffrey Don’t Torment Her’ Mantel takes the reader into the muffled consciousness of her early childhood, culminating in the birth of a younger brother and the strange candlelight ceremony of her mother’s ‘churching’. In ‘Smile’, an account of teenage perplexity, Mantel describes a household where the keeping of secrets has become a way of life. Finally, at the memoir’s conclusion, Mantel explains how through a series of medical misunderstandings and neglect she came to be childless and how the ghosts of the unborn like chances missed or pages unturned, have come to haunt her life as a writer.’
  4. 9781783781461Until Further Notice, I Am Alive by Tom Lubbock
    ‘In 2008, Tom Lubbock was diagnosed with a brain tumour, and told he had only one or two years to live. In this remarkable record of those years, lived out in three-month intervals between scans, he examines the question of how to live with death in sight. As the tumour progressed, Tom engaged intensely and imaginatively with work, art, friends, and his wife and their young son, while trying to remain focused on the fact of his impending death. His tumour was located in the area of the brain associated with language, and he describes losing control over the spoken and written word and the resources he drew on to keep communicating; a struggle which brought him ever closer to the mysteries of the origin of speech. As the Independent’s chief art critic, he was renowned for the clarity and unconventionality of his writing, and the same fierce intelligence permeates this extraordinary memoir. This is a book written by a man wholly engaged with life even as it ends.’
  5. The Iceberg by Marion Coutts
    ‘Winner of the Wellcome Book Prize, and finalist for every major nonfiction award in the UK, including the Samuel Johnson Prize and the Costa Award, The Iceberg is artist and writer Marion Coutts’ astonishing memoir; an adventure of being and dying and a compelling, poetic meditation on family, love, and language. In 2008, Tom Lubbach, the chief art critic for The Independent was diagnosed with a brain tumor. The Iceberg is his wife, Marion Coutts, fierce, exquisite account of the two years leading up to his death. In spare, breathtaking prose, Coutts conveys the intolerable and, alongside their two year old son Ev, whose language is developing as Tom’s is disappearing/  Marion and Tom lovingly weather the storm together. In short bursts of exquisitely textured prose, The Iceberg becomes a singular work of art and an uplifting and universal story of endurance in the face of loss.’
  6. Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy 9780060569662
    ‘”I spent five years of my life being treated for cancer, but since then I’ve spent fifteen years being treated for nothing other than looking different from everyone else. It was the pain from that, from feeling ugly, that I always viewed as the great tragedy of my life. The fact that I had cancer seemed minor in comparison.”At age nine, Lucy Grealy was diagnosed with a potentially terminal cancer. When she returned to school with a third of her jaw removed, she faced the cruel taunts of classmates. In this strikingly candid memoir, Grealy tells her story of great suffering and remarkable strength without sentimentality and with considerable wit. Vividly portraying the pain of peer rejection and the guilty pleasures of wanting to be special, Grealy captures with unique insight what it is like as a child and young adult to be torn between two warring impulses: to feel that more than anything else we want to be loved for who we are, while wishing desperately and secretly to be perfect.’
  7. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby
    ‘The diary of Jean-Dominique Bauby who, with his left eyelid (the only surviving muscle after a massive stroke) dictated a remarkable book about his experiences locked inside his body. A masterpiece and a bestseller in France, it is now a major motion picture directed by Julian Schnabel. On 8 December 1995, Jean-Dominique Bauby suffered a massive stroke and slipped into a coma. When he regained consciousness three weeks later, the only muscle left functioning was in his left eyelid although his mind remained as active and alert as it had ever been. He spent most of 1996 writing this book, letter by letter, blinking as an alphabet was repeatedly read out to him.’
  8. 9780099556091Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson
    ‘Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is a memoir about a life’s work to find happiness. It’s a book full of stories: about a girl locked out of her home, sitting on the doorstep all night; about a religious zealot disguised as a mother who has two sets of false teeth and a revolver in the dresser, waiting for Armageddon; about growing up in a north England industrial town now changed beyond recognition; about the universe as a cosmic dustbin. It is the story of how a painful past, which Winterson thought she had written over and repainted, rose to haunt her later in life, sending her on a journey into madness and out again, in search of her biological mother. It’s also a book about other people’s literature, one that shows how fiction and poetry can form a string of guiding lights, a life raft that supports us when we are sinking.’
  9. Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs
    ‘This is the true story of a boy who wanted to grow up with the Brady Bunch, but ended up living with the Addams Family. Augusten Burroughs’s mother gave him away to be raised by her psychiatrist, a dead ringer for Santa Claus and a certifiable lunatic into the bargain. The doctor’s bizarre family, a few patients and a sinister man living in the garden shed completed the tableau. The perfect squalor of their dilapidated Victorian house, there were no rules and there was no school. The Christmas tree stayed up until summer and Valium was chomped down like sweets. And when things got a bit slow, there was always the ancient electroshock therapy machine under the stairs.’
  10. Before I Say Goodbye by Ruth Picardie 9780805066128
    ‘By turns humorous and heart-rending, an unforgettable account of a young woman’s spiritual triumphs over breast cancer in the last year of her life Ruth Picardie was only thirty-three when she died, a month after her twins’ second birthday and just under a year after she was first diagnosed with breast cancer. For Ruth, a journalist, it seemed natural to write about her illness. She published only five columns for Observer Life magazine before she became too sick to continue, but her moving, funny, and very human account drew a huge response from readers all over England. Before I Say Goodbye juxtaposes these columns with correspondence from readers, e-mails to her friends, letters to her children, and reflections by her husband and her sister. The result is a courageous and moving book, entirely devoid of self-pity, that celebrates the triumph of a brave and wonderful woman’s spirit. An international bestseller in England, Picardie’s sobering yet ultimately life-affirming book is destined to become a classic.’

 

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