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Reading the World: ‘A Woman’s Story’ by Annie Ernaux ****

Annie Ernaux was one of the authors I wanted to get to during 2017, and what better than to tie her together with my Reading the World project?  I chose A Woman’s Story as my first Ernaux as I had previously heard of it, and because it sounded so powerful.  Kirkus Reviews writes that A Woman’s Story is ‘as much about Everywoman as one particular woman… [which] laconically describes the cruel realities of old age for a woman once vibrant and independent.’

The slim memoir chronicles the dementia and death of Ernaux’s mother, as well as weaving in aspects of her life and character.  Translated from its original French by Tanya Leslie, the prose throughout is measured and careful.  This renders some of the more harrowing and touching scenes which Ernaux depicts far more stark and raw than they perhaps would have been had the writing been frilly or overdone in any way.  This is particularly so when coming to terms with the death of her mother: ‘I would be sitting behind the wheel and suddenly it would hit me.  “She will never be alive anywhere in the world again.”  I couldn’t come to terms with the fact that other people behaved normally.’

9781583225752A Woman’s Story is a self-confessed writing exercise which Ernaux embarked upon in order to discover; to ‘capture the real woman, the one who existed independently from me’.  In her own words, she describes the different genres which can be found within her biographical work: ‘The more objective aspect of my writing will probably involve a cross between family history and sociology, reality and fiction’.

In depicting her mother, who lived in relative poverty in Normandy and was the fourth child in a family of six, Ernaux builds a fascinating portrait of a bygone age.  She writes: ‘My mother’s youth involved trying to escape the dull certainties of her fate: inevitable poverty, the threat of alcoholism and everything else that happened to a factory girl who had slipped into bad habits’.  The structure, made up as it is of fragmented memories, works incredibly well here.  Ernaux also renders her work achingly honest, and so personal: ‘As I write, I see her sometimes as a “good,” sometimes as a “bad” mother.  To get away from these contrasting views, which come from my earliest childhood, I try to describe and explain her life as if I were writing about someone else’s mother and a daughter who wasn’t me’.

Ernaux somehow manages to be both frank and heartfelt throughout, making A Woman’s Story both an important exercise in biography for its author, and a fascinating tome for the everyday reader.

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Really Underrated Books (Part Five)

The final part of this week’s Really Underrated Books brings with it a question – which is the book which has caught your attention the most this week?

1. The Unpossessed by Tess Slesinger 253668
Tess Slesinger’s 1934 novel, The Unpossessed details the ins and outs and ups and downs of left-wing New York intellectual life and features a cast of litterateurs, layabouts, lotharios, academic activists, and fur-clad patrons of protest and the arts. This cutting comedy about hard times, bad jobs, lousy marriages, little magazines, high principles, and the morning after bears comparison with the best work of Dawn Powell and Mary McCarthy.

 

2. Postmortem: How Medical Examiners Explain Suspicious Deaths by Stefan Timmermans
As elected coroners were replaced by medical examiners with scientific training, the American public became fascinated with their work. From the grisly investigations showcased on highly rated television shows like CSI to the bestselling mysteries that revolve around forensic science, medical examiners have never been so visible—or compelling. They, and they alone, solve the riddle of suspicious death and the existential questions that come with it. Why did someone die? Could it have been prevented? Should someone be held accountable? What are the implications of ruling a death a suicide, a homicide, or an accident? Can medical examiners unmask the perfect crime?  Postmortem goes deep inside the world of medical examiners to uncover the intricate web of social, legal, and moral issues in which they operate. Stefan Timmermans spent years in a medical examiner’s office following cases, interviewing examiners, and watching autopsies. While he relates fascinating cases here, he is also more broadly interested in the cultural authority and responsibilities that come with being a medical examiner. How medical examiners speak to the living on behalf of the dead is Timmermans’s subject, revealed here in the day-to-day lives of the examiners themselves.

 

3. The Devil’s Footprints by John Burnside 3057525
Once, on a winter’s night many years ago, after a heavy snow, the devil passed through the Scottish fishing town of Coldhaven, leaving a trail of dark hoofprints across the streets and roofs of the sleeping town.  Michael Gardiner has lived in Coldhaven all his life, but still feels like an outsider, a blow-in. When Moira Birnie decides that her abusive husband is the devil and then kills herself and her two young sons, a terrible chain of events begins. Michael’s infatuation with Moira’s teenage daughter takes him on a journey towards a defined fate, where he is forced to face his present and then, finally, his past…

 

4. Awake in the Dark by Shira Nayman
Bold and deeply affecting, “Awake in the Dark” is a provocative and haunting work of fiction about who we are and how we are formed by history. These luminous stories portray the contemporary lives of the children of Holocaust victims and perpetrators as they struggle with the legacy of their parents — their questions of identity, family, and faith. “Awake in the Dark” is peopled by characters embarking on journeys of self-discovery; they unearth the past and the secrets that shaped them. In “The House on Kronenstrasse,” a woman returns to Germany to find her childhood home; in “The Porcelain Monkey,” the shocking origins of an Orthodox Jewish woman’s faith are revealed; in “The Lamp,” the harrowing experiences of a young woman leave her with the perfect daughter and a strange light; and in “Dark Urgings of the Blood,” a patient is convinced that she shares a disturbing history with her psychiatrist.

 

5124915. Lucky in the Corner by Carol Anshaw
Nora and Fern’s relationship as mother and daughter is a tumble of love and distrust. To Nora, her daughter is an enigma — at the same time wonderful and unfindable. Fern sees her mother as treacherous — for busting up their family to move in with her lover, Jeanne. As their lives become complicated by the arrivals of a skateboarding boyfriend for Fern, a shadowy affair for Nora, a baby in need of a family, and by the failing health of Lucky, their beloved dog, this mother and daughter find their way onto a fresh footing with each other.

 

6. I Sweep the Sun Off Rooftops by Hanan Al-Shaykh
At the intersection of tradition and modernity, East and West, childhood and adulthood, the characters in this book find their way through the shifting and ambiguous power relationships that change the landscape of the modern Arab world.

 

7. Beside the Sea by Veronique Olmi (one of my personal favourites!) 7516243
A single mother takes her two sons on a trip to the seaside. They stay in a hotel, drink hot chocolate, and go to the funfair. She wants to protect them from an uncaring and uncomprehending world. She knows that it will be the last trip for her boys.  Beside the Sea is a haunting and thought-provoking story about how a mother’s love for her children can be more dangerous than the dark world she is seeking to keep at bay. It’s a hypnotizing look at an unhinged mind and the cold society that produced it. With language as captivating as the story that unfolds, Véronique Olmi creates an intimate portrait of madness and despair that won’t soon be forgotten

 

8. Focus by Ingrid Ricks
In her powerful memoir, Ingrid Ricks delves into the shock of discovering at age thirty-seven that she was in the advanced stages of Retinitis Pigmentosa, a devastating degenerative eye disease that doctors said would eventually steal her remaining eyesight. Focus takes readers into Ingrid’s world as she faces the crippling fear of not being able to see her two young daughters grow up, of becoming a burden to her husband, of losing the career she loves, and of being robbed of the independence that defines her.  Ultimately, Focus is about Ingrid’s quest to fix her eyes that ends up fixing her life. Through an eight-year journey marked by a trip to South Africa to write about AIDS orphans, a four-day visit with a doctor who focuses on whole-body health, a relationship-changing confrontation with her husband and a life-changing lesson from her daughters, Ingrid learns to embrace the moment and see what counts—something no amount of vision loss can take from her.

 

831719. America’s Boy by Wade Rouse
‘Wade didn’t quite fit in. While schoolmates had crewcuts and wore Wrangler jeans, Wade styled his hair in imitation of Robbie Benson circa Ice Castles and shopped in the Sears husky section. Wade’s father insisted on calling everyone “honey”—even male gas station attendants. His mother punctuated her conversations with “WHAT?!” and constantly answered herself as though she was being cross-examined. He goes to school with a pack of kids called goat ropers who make the boys from Deliverance look like honor students. And he both loved and hated his perfect older brother.  While other families traveled to Florida and Hawaii for vacation, Wade’s family packed their clothes in garbage bags and drove to their log cabin on Sugar Creek in the Missouri Ozarks. And it is here that Wade found refuge from his everyday struggle to fit in—until a sudden, terrible accident on the Fourth of July took his brother’s life and changed everything.  Equally nostalgic, poignant, funny, and compelling, this is a story of what it is to be normal, what it means to fit in, and what it means to be yourself.’

 

10. The Debut by Anita Brookner
Since childhood Ruth Weiss has been escaping from life into books, and from the hothouse attentions of her tyrannical and eccentric parents into the gentler warmth of lovers and friends. Now Dr. Weiss, at forty, a quiet scholar devoted to the study of Balzac, is convinced that her life has been ruined by literature, and that once again she must make a new start in life.

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Really Underrated Books (Part Four)

The penultimate post of this week’s Really Underrated Books showcase brought a lot of gems to my attention which I’m going to scour secondhand bookshops for for the foreseeable.

909053.jpg1. The Furies by Janet Hobhouse
An exhilarating, fiercely honest, ultimately devastating book, The Furies confronts the claims of family and the lure of desire, the difficulties of independence, and the approach of death.  Janet Hobhouse’s final testament is beautifully written, deeply felt, and above all utterly alive.

 

2. Swallow by Sefi Atta
‘In the 1980s in Lagos, the government’s War Against Indiscipline and austerity measures are in full swing. A succession of unfortunate events leads Tolani, a bank secretary, to be persuaded by her roommate Rose to consider drug trafficking as a way to make a living. Tolani’s subsequent struggle with temptation forces her to reconsider her morality—and that of her mother Arikes—as she embarks on a turbulent journey of self-discovery.’

 

3. Burn Lake by Carrie Fountain 7734078
Set in southern New Mexico, where her family’s multi­cultural history is deeply rooted, the poems in Carrie Fountain’s first collection explore issues of progress, history, violence, sexuality, and the self. Burn Lake weaves together the experience of life in the rapidly changing American Southwest with the peculiar journey of Don Juan de Oñate, who was dispatched from Mexico City in the late sixteenth- century by Spanish royalty to settle the so-called New Mexico Province, of which little was known. A letter that was sent to Oñate by the Viceroy of New Spain, asking that should he come upon the North Sea in New Mexico, he should give a detailed report of “the configuration of the coast and the capacity of each harbor” becomes the inspiration for many of the poems in this artfully composed debut.

 

4. Stone Virgin by Barry Unsworth
A mysterious sculpture of a beautiful and erotic Madonna holds the key to the Fornarini family’s secrets. When Raikes, a conservation expert, tries to restore her, he is swept under the statue’s spell and swept under the spell of the seductive Chiara Litsov, a member of the Fornarini family now married to a famous sculptor. Raikes finds himself losing all moral grounding as his love for statue and woman intertwine in lust and murder.

 

2187700.jpg5. In the Shadow of the Magic Mountain: The Erika and Klaus Mann Story by Andrea Weiss
Thomas Mann’s two eldest children, Erika and Klaus, were unconventional, rebellious, and fiercely devoted to each other. Empowered by their close bond, they espoused vehemently anti-Nazi views in a Europe swept up in fascism and were openly, even defiantly, gay in an age of secrecy and repression. Although their father’s fame has unfairly overshadowed their legacy, Erika and Klaus were serious authors, performance artists before the medium existed, and political visionaries whose searing essays and lectures are still relevant today. And, as Andrea Weiss reveals in this dual biography, their story offers a fascinating view of the literary and intellectual life, political turmoil, and shifting sexual mores of their times.  In the Shadow of the Magic Mountain begins with an account of the make-believe world the Manns created together as children—an early sign of their talents as well as the intensity of their relationship. Weiss documents the lifelong artistic collaboration that followed, showing how, as the Nazis took power, Erika and Klaus infused their work with a shared sense of political commitment. Their views earned them exile, and after escaping Germany they eventually moved to the United States, where both served as members of the U.S. armed forces. Abroad, they enjoyed a wide circle of famous friends, including Andre Gide, Christopher Isherwood, Jean Cocteau, and W. H. Auden, whom Erika married in 1935. But the demands of life in exile, Klaus’s heroin addiction, and Erika’s new allegiance to their father strained their mutual devotion, and in 1949 Klaus committed suicide.  Beautiful never-before-seen photographs illustrate Weiss’s riveting tale of two brave nonconformists whose dramatic lives open up new perspectives on the history of the twentieth century.

 

6. The Shadow-Boxing Woman by Inka Parei
In The Shadow-Boxing Woman, a novel from German writer Inka Parei, a decaying apartment building in post-Wall Berlin is home to Hell, a young woman with a passion for martial arts. When Hell’s neighbor disappears she sets out across the city in search of her. In the course of her quest, she falls in love with a bank robber, confronts her own dark memories, and ends up saving more than just her missing neighbor.  What is on the surface a crime novel is actually a haunting dual portrait of a city and a woman caught up in times of change and transition. This debut novel in English combines Parei’s tight prose with a compulsive delight in detail that dynamically evokes many lost and overlooked corners of Berlin.

 

7. Yesterday, at the Hotel Clarendon by Nicole Brossard 1806153
Carla Carlson is at the Hotel Clarendon in Quebec City trying to finish a novel. Nearby, a woman, preoccupied with sadness and infatuated with her boss, catalogues antiquities at the Museum of Civilization. Every night, the two women meet at the hotel bar and talk – about childhood and parents and landscapes, about time and art, about Descartes and Francis Bacon and writing.  When Yesterday, at the Hotel Clarendon appeared in French (as Hier), the media called it the pinnacle of Brossard’s remarkable forty-year literary career. From its intersection of four women emerges a kind of art installation, a lively read in which life and death and the vertigo of ruins tangle themselves together to say something about history and desire and art.

 

8. Mycophilia: Revelations from the Weird World of Mushrooms by Eugenia Bone
An incredibly versatile cooking ingredient containing an abundance of vitamins, minerals, and possibly cancer-fighting properties, mushrooms are among the most expensive and sought-after foods on the planet. Yet when it comes to fungi, culinary uses are only the tip of the iceberg. Throughout history fungus has been prized for its diverse properties—medicinal, ecological, even recreational—and has spawned its own quirky subculture dedicated to exploring the weird biology and celebrating the unique role it plays on earth. In Mycophilia, accomplished food writer and cookbook author Eugenia Bone examines the role of fungi as exotic delicacy, curative, poison, and hallucinogen, and ultimately discovers that a greater understanding of fungi is key to facing many challenges of the 21st century.  Engrossing, surprising, and packed with up-to-date science and cultural exploration, Mycophilia is part narrative and part primer for foodies, science buffs, environmental advocates, and anyone interested in learning a lot about one of the least understood and most curious organisms in nature.

 

3281869. The Tiger in the House: A Cultural History of the Cat by Carl van Vechten
“A god, a companion to sorceresses at the Witches’ Sabbath, a beast who is royal in Siam, who in Japan is called ‘the tiger that eats from the hand,’ the adored of Mohammed, Laura’s rival with Petrarch, the friend of Richelieu, the favorite of poets”—such are just a few of the feline distinctions that Carl Van Vechten records in this glorious historical overview of humanity’s long love affair with the cat. As delightful as it is learned, Tiger in the House explores science, art, and history to assemble a treasury of cat lore, while Van Vechten’s sumptuous baroque prose makes the book’s every page an inexhaustible pleasure.

 

10. The Perfect Prince: The Mystery of Perkin Warbeck and His Quest for the Throne of England by Ann Wroe
In 1491, as Machiavelli advised popes and princes and Leonardo da Vinci astonished the art world, a young man boarded a ship in Portugal bound for Ireland. He would be greeted upon arrival as the rightful heir to the throne of England. The trouble was, England already had a king.   The most intriguing and ambitious pretender in history, this elegant young man was celebrated throughout Europe as the prince he claimed to be: Richard, Duke of York, the younger of the “Princes in the Tower” who were presumed to have been murdered almost a decade earlier. Handsome, well-mannered, and charismatic, he behaved like the perfect prince, and many believed he was one. The greatest European rulers of the age—among them the emperor Maximilian, Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, and Charles VIII of France—used him as a diplomatic pawn to their own advantage. As such, he tormented Henry VII for eight years, attempting to invade England three times. Eventually, defeated and captured, he admitted to being Perkin Warbeck, the son of a common boatman from Flanders. But was this really the truth?  Ann Wroe, a historian and storyteller of the first rank, delves into the secret corners of the late medieval world to explore both the elusive nature of identity and the human propensity for deception. In uncovering the mystery of Perkin Warbeck, Wroe illuminates not only a life but an entire world trembling on the verge of discovery.

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Really Underrated Books (Part One)

Welcome to another week where I showcase fifty more Really Underrated Books. These is an enjoyable post for me to put together; it makes a nice break from researching, and still feels constructive, but also brings some books I’ve never heard of to my attention.  What could be better?

1. Totempole by Sanford Friedman 9781590177617
Totempole is Sanford Friedman’s radical coming-of-age novel, featuring Stephen Wolfe, a young Jewish boy growing up in New York City and its environs during the Depression and war years. In eight discrete chapters, which trace Stephen’s evolution from a two-year-old boy to a twenty-two-year-old man, Friedman describes with psychological acuity and great empathy Stephen’s intellectual, moral, and sexual maturation. Taught to abhor his body for the sake of his soul, Stephen finds salvation in the eventual unification of the two, the recognition that body and soul should not be partitioned but treated as one being, one complete man.

 

2. Mascara by Ariel Dorfman
Mascara delves into the dark terrain of identity and disguise when the lives of three people collide. A nameless man with a face no one remembers has the devastating ability to see and capture on film the brutal truths lurking inside each person he encounters. Oriana, a beautiful woman with the memory of an innocent child, is relentlessly pursued by mysterious figures from her past. Doctor Mavirelli is a brilliant and power-hungry plastic surgeon who controls society’s most prominent figures by shaping their faces. The twining of these three fates plays out in a climactic unmasking.

 

97805780705993. Burnings by Ocean Vuong
“I was born because someone was starving…” ends one of Ocean Vuong’s poems, and in that poem, as in every other of his poems, Ocean manages to imbue the desperation of his being alive, with a savage beauty. It is not just that Ocean can render pain as a kind of loveliness, but that his poetic line will not let you forget the hurt or the garish brilliance of your triumph; will not let you look away. These poems shatter us detail by detail because Ocean leaves nothing unturned, because every lived thing in his poems demands to be fed by you; to nourish you in turn. You will not leave these poems dissatisfied. They will fill you utterly.

 

4. The Illustrated Virago Book of Women Travellers, edited by Mary Morris
In this newly illustrated edition, 300 years of wanderlust are captured as women travel the world for pleasure and peril. Among the extraordinary women whose writing is included here are Gertrude Bell, Rose Macaulay, Mary McCarthy, Vita Sackville-West, Freya Stark, Edith Wharton, and Mary Wollstonecraft. Whether it is curiosity about the world, a thirst for adventure, or escape from personal tragedy, all these women are united in approaching their journeys with wit, intelligence, and compassion for those encountered along the way.

 

5. A Voice from the South by Anna Julia Cooper 9780195063233
At the close of the 19th century, a black woman of the South presents womanhood as a vital element in the regeneration and progress of her race.

 

6. Red Juice: Poems by Hoa Nguyen
Red Juice represents a decade of poems written roughly between 1998 and 2008, previously only available in small-run handmade chapbooks, journals, and out-of-print books. This collection of early poems by Vietnamese American poet Hoa Nguyen showcases her feminist ecopoetics and unique style, all lyrical in the post-modern tradition.

 

91226537. Romantic Moderns: English Writers, Artists and the Imagination from Virginia Woolf to John Piper by Alexandra Harris
‘n the 1930s and 1940s, while the battles for modern art and modern society were being fought in Paris and Spain, it seemed to some a betrayal that John Betjeman and John Piper were in love with a provincial world of old churches and tea shops.  Alexandra Harris tells a different story: eclectically, passionately,wittily, urgently, English artists were exploring what it meant to be alive at that moment and in England. They showed that “the modern”
need not be at war with the past: constructivists and conservatives could work together, and even the Bauhaus émigré László Moholy-Nagy was beguiled into taking photos for Betjeman’s nostalgic An Oxford University Chest.  A rich network of personal and cultural encounters was the backdrop for a modern English renaissance. This great imaginative project was shared by writers, painters, gardeners, architects, critics, and composers. Piper abandoned purist abstracts to make collages on the blustery coast; Virginia Woolf wrote in her last novel about a village pageant on a showery summer day. Evelyn Waugh, Elizabeth Bowen, and the Sitwells are also part of the story, along with Bill Brandt and Graham Sutherland, Eric Ravilious and Cecil Beaton.’

 

8. Of Africa by Wole Soyinka
A member of the unique generation of African writers and intellectuals who came of age in the last days of colonialism, Wole Soyinka has witnessed the promise of independence and lived through postcolonial failure. He deeply comprehends the pressing problems of Africa, and, an irrepressible essayist and a staunch critic of the oppressive boot, he unhesitatingly speaks out.  In this magnificent new work, Soyinka offers a wide-ranging inquiry into Africa’s culture, religion, history, imagination, and identity. He seeks to understand how the continent’s history is entwined with the histories of others, while exploring Africa’s truest assets: “its humanity, the quality and valuation of its own existence, and modes of managing its environment—both physical and intangible (which includes the spiritual).

 

9. The Penguin Book of Irish Fiction, edited by Colm Toibin 1980450
This extraordinary volume presents the entire canon of Irish fiction in English from Jonathan Swift, born in 1667, to Emma Donoghue, born in 1969. In between are selections from almost 100 renowned writers including Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Iris Murdoch, William Trevor, and Roddy Doyle. Colm Tóibín-one of Ireland’s most accomplished writers-has carefully chosen the selections and gives fascinating background information in a provocative introduction. His commentary combines with the inspired selections from Ireland’s greatest writers to provide an authoritative and enlightening exploration of Irish fiction.

 

10. The Embroidered Shoes by Can Xue
Written by the true heir to Kafka, Borges, and Angela Carter, The Embroidered Shoes is a magical collection of hallucinatory tales set in a world where anything can happen, and everything does. Constructed like a set of graduated Chinese boxes, these postmodern ghost stories build into philosophical and psychological conundrums that leave the reader pondering long past the last page.

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‘The Quiet Room: A Journey Out of the Torment of Madness’ by Lori Schiller ****

The Quiet Room by Lori Schiller, which was first published in 1994, was February’s choice for my Mad Woman’s Book Club.  It sounded incredibly intriguing to me, and created quite a lot of buzz with other members.  Schiller’s account of her schizo-affective disorder, which contains elements of both schizophrenia and manic depression, has been written with the guidance of Amanda Bennett, a Wall Street journalist.

Schiller’s diagnosis was not reached until she was twenty-three years old, and a graduate of Tufts University in Massachusetts.  Prior to this, she is in an almost constant state of turmoil; she wakes up hearing voices whilst at a summer camp when she is seventeen, and they remain with her.  To her strength, she does not let anything interfere with her education, but soon after she has finished her degree and is looking at beginning a career in a shared apartment in New York City that she is immersed within the mental care system.  ‘Along the way,’ writes Schiller, ‘I have lost many things: the career I might have pursued, the husband I might have married, the children I might have had.  During the years when my friends were marrying, having their babies and moving into the houses I once dreamed of living in, I have been behind locked doors, battling the Voices who took over my life without even asking my permission.’  Schiller’s description of these voices is often chilling.9780446671330

We are given Schiller’s opinion of events throughout, as well as those of her parents, brothers, friends, and psychiatrist – pretty much everyone who experienced the worst of it with her.  This use of multiple perspectives helps to fill those memory gaps which Schiller has about some of her darkest points, and gives a fuller picture of the disease and its effects.  The position of retrospect which Schiller, of course, has to take, is fascinating to draw out here.  It comes in a sort of double dose, I suppose; the book was written with several years of distance, but reading it in the 21st century allows one to see just how much things have altered with regard to  treatments being tailored to individuals rather than the mass.  The same can be said for the diagnostic process.  Those I know who have suffered with mental illness suggest that diagnoses are not made in such a trial-and-error manner as they appear to have been in Schiller’s case.

At the beginning of The Quiet Room, I felt quite distanced and wasn’t overly engaged with it.  It changed dramatically at around the fifty page point for me though, after which I could barely put it down.  Schiller’s case is harrowing; it takes an awfully long time for a diagnosis to be reached, and many treatments fail to work for her, either exacerbating her symptoms or making her withdraw further into herself.  One feels an awful lot of empathy for her.

The Quiet Room presents enlightening and scary details about firsthand drug use, which Schiller turns to when the more traditional treatments fail to work for her.  It is certainly a no-holds-barred memoir.  Throughout her ordeal, Schiller shows great bravery; when released after one of her earliest hospitalisations, she applies for a job in a psychiatric hospital.  The reading process involved here is intense, and rather draining at times.  It is difficult to really enjoy a book of this sort, but it is not difficult to admire the writer and her courage in making such a horrific story publicly available.  The Quiet Room is honest and powerful, and a must-read if you are at all interested in mental illness and its effects.

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Two Non-Fiction Reviews: Elizabeth McCracken and Margaret Atwood

An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken *****

‘”This is the happiest story in the world with the saddest ending,” writes Elizabeth McCracken in her powerful, inspiring memoir. A prize-winning, successful novelist in her 30s, McCracken was happy to be an itinerant writer and self-proclaimed spinster. But suddenly she fell in love, got married, and two years ago was living in a remote part of France, working on her novel, and waiting for the birth of her first child.This book is about what happened next. In her ninth month of pregnancy, she learned that her baby boy had died. How do you deal with and recover from this kind of loss? Of course you don’t–but you go on. And if you have ever experienced loss or love someone who has, the company of this remarkable book will help you go on.With humor and warmth and unfailing generosity, McCracken considers the nature of love and grief. She opens her heart and leaves all of ours the richer for it.’

9780316027663I reread An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination for my Reading France project this year.  McCracken, whom I first discovered back in 2007 when a kind human in Waterstone’s recommended the fantastic The Giant’s House to me, is one of my favourite contemporary authors.  She is consistent, thoughtful, and striking in her prose.  This is the only piece of non-fiction which she has released to date, and it is a heartbreakingly honest work which details the stillbirth of her first son, Pudding.  The fragmented prose style, with its many short chapters made up of different memories, hopes, and dreams, is incredibly fitting, whilst giving the whole such depth.  An Exact Replica… is a beautiful and brave memorial to a lost son.

 

Strange Things by Margaret Atwood ****

‘Margaret Atwood’s witty and informative book focuses on the imaginative mystique of the wilderness of the Canadian North. She discusses the ‘Grey Owl Syndrome’ of white writers going native; the folklore arising from the mysterious– and disastrous — Franklin expedition of the nineteenth century; the myth of the dreaded snow monster, the Wendigo; the relations between nature writing and new forms of Gothic; and how a fresh generation of women writers in Canada have adapted the imagery of the Canadian North for the exploration of contemporary themes of gender, the family and sexuality. Writers discussed include Robert Service, Robertson Davies, Alice Munro, E.J. Pratt, Marian Engel, Margaret Laurence, and Gwendolyn MacEwan. This superbly written and compelling portrait of the mysterious North is at once a fascinating insight into the Canadian imagination, and an exciting new work from an outstanding literary presence.’ 9781844080823

I found out about Margaret Atwood’s Strange Things whilst reading through Kirsty Logan’s blog, and noting down all of those books which she has loved.  I have read – and largely enjoyed – several Atwood books to date, but this marked my first taste of her non-fiction.  I am rather obsessed at present with accounts of northerly snow-covered spaces, in which barely anyone lives.

Strange Things, which is subtitled ‘The Malevolent North in Canadian Literature’ therefore seemed a perfect tome for me.  It is comprised of four essays, which were originally given at the University of Oxford.  Her rendering of these essays is incredibly readable, and each, as anyone who is at all familiar with Atwood’s work, is so intelligently written.  The essays, which focus upon four core stereotypical representations of Canadian life and literature, are varied and memorable, and this is a volume which I would recommend to any world traveller.

 

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Really Underrated Books (Part Four)

Here is the penultimate post of this week’s Really Underrated Books series.  As ever, I hope something here piques your interest, or inspires you to go and find some underrated books of your own!

1. Bleakly Hall by Elaine di Rollo 9613541
Monty and Ada are old friends. They worked together on the frontline in Belgium, where Monty was a nurse and Ada drove ambulances – like the devil. And now, Bleakly Hall hydropathic has brought them together again.  Monty has just arrived to look after the gouty residents – there to take the Hall’s curative waters via nozzle, douche and jet – and Ada is the maid and driver. For all those at Bleakly, the end of the Great War has brought changes. Not all of them good.  Monty has a score to settle with the elusive Captain Foxley; Ada misses her wartime sense of purpose; the Blackwood brothers must reinvigorate Bleakly for a new era; Foxley has his own particular ways of keeping his ghosts at bay. But with the crumbling, rumbling hydropathic threatening to blow its top, what will become of the folk thrown together in its bilious embrace?  This wonderfully original novel brings together an irresistible cast of characters – including Bleakly Hall itself – in the wake of one of history’s great tragedies. To powerful effect, it combines fizzing comedy with a deeply moving look at the aftermath of war.

 

2. Arctic Labyrinth: The Quest for the Northwest Passage by Glyn Williams
The elusive dream of locating the Northwest Passage—an ocean route over the top of North America that promised a shortcut to the fabulous wealth of Asia—obsessed explorers for centuries. While global warming has brought several such routes into existence, until recently these channels were hopelessly choked by impassible ice. Voyagers faced unimaginable horrors—entire ships crushed, mass starvation, disabling frostbite, even cannibalism—in pursuit of a futile goal. In Arctic Labyrinth, Glyn Williams charts the entire sweep of this extraordinary history, from the tiny, woefully equipped vessels of the first Tudor expeditions to the twentieth-century ventures that finally opened the Passage. Williams’s thrilling narrative delves into private letters and journals to expose the gritty reality behind the often self-serving accounts of those in charge. An important work of maritime history and exploration—and as exciting a tale of heroism and fortitude as readers will find—Arctic Labyrinth is also a remarkable study in human delusion.

 

33742493. A School in South Uist: Reminiscences of a Hebridean Schoolmaster, 1890-1913 by F.G. Rea
These are the memories of Frederick Rea, an English teacher who became headmaster of Garrynamonie School in South Uist in the 1890s. At that time, the Hebrides were as remote and forbidding to mainlanders as the Antarctic is to us today, and South Uist was one of the poorer districts. Roads were often no more than rough tracks across the mountain moorland or over the storm-swept machair. His Gaelic-speaking pupils were often frozen and starving, and fever epidemics were frequent. Rea’s memoirs show how he strove to meet these difficulties. His pupils remember him as a sincere, conscientious man and an excellent teacher. This book also reveals his keen powers of observation, and his interest in the unfamiliar scenes and events he witnessed and recorded. His lack of city comforts was more that compensated for by the wonders of the natural world and the uncommon kindness and generosity of the islanders. Dr. Rea treasured his memories of South Uist for the rest of his life, and his love and respect for the islands is wonderfully conveyed in this vivid testament.

 

4. Painted Shadow by Carole Seymour-Jones
By the time she was committed to an asylum in 1938, five years after T. S. Eliot deserted her, Vivienne Eliot was a lonely, distraught figure. Shunned by literary London, she was the “neurotic” wife whom Eliot had left behind. In The Family Reunion, he described a wife who was a “restless shivering painted shadow,” and so she had become: a phantomlike shape on the fringe of Eliot’s life, written out of his biography and literary history.  This astonishing portrait of Vivienne Eliot, first wife of poet T.S. Eliot, gives a voice to the woman who, for seventeen years, had shared a unique literary partnership with Eliot but who was scapegoated for the failure of the marriage and all but obliterated from historical record. In so doing, Painted Shadow opens the way to a new understanding of Eliot’s poetry.  Vivienne longed to tell her whole story; she wrote in her diary: “You who in later years will read these very words of mine will be able to trace a true history of this epoch.” She believed (as did Virginia Woolf) that she was Eliot’s muse, the woman through whom he transmuted life into art. Yet Vivienne knew the secrets of his separate and secret life — which contributed to her own deepening hysteria, drug addiction, and final abandonment: the tragedy of a marriage that paired a repressed yet sensual man with an extroverted woman who longed for a full sexual relationship with her husband.  Out of this emotional turbulence came one of the most important English poems of the twentieth century: The Waste Land, which Carole Seymour-Jones convincingly shows cannot be fully understood without reference to the relationship of the poet and his first wife. Drawing on papers both privately owned and in university library archives and, most importantly, on Vivienne Eliot’s own journals left to the Bodleian Library, Oxford, Carole Seymour-Jones uses many hitherto unpublished sources and opens the way to a new understanding of Eliot’s poetry.

 

5. The Sing-Song Girls of Shanghai by Han Bangwing 407756
Desire, virtue, courtesans (also known as sing-song girls), and the denizens of Shanghai’s pleasure quarters are just some of the elements that constitute Han Bangqing’s extraordinary novel of late imperial China. Han’s richly textured, panoramic view of late-nineteenth-century Shanghai follows a range of characters from beautiful sing-song girls to lower-class prostitutes and from men in positions of social authority to criminals and ambitious young men recently arrived from the country. Considered one of the greatest works of Chinese fiction, The Sing-song Girls of Shanghai is now available for the first time in English.

 

6. Once Upon a Time by John Barth
From master storyteller and National Book Award winner John Barth comes a bravura performance: a memoir wrapped in a novel and launched on a sea voyage. A cutter-rigged sloop sets sail for an end-of-season cruise down into the “Chesapeake Triangle.” Our captain: a middle-aged writer of some repute. The sole crewmate: his lover, friend, editor, and wife. The journey turns out to be not the modest three-day cruise it at first seems. As we sail through sun and storm, our skipper spins (and is spun by) the Story of His Life – an operatic saga that’s part Verdi, part Puccini, and more than a dollop of bouffe, a compound narrative voyaging through the imagination. Crisscrossing the past, mixing memory with desire, our narrator navigates among the waypoints of his life, beguiling us with tales of adventure and despair, love and marriage, selves and counterselves, aging and sailing, teaching and writing – steering always by the polestar of Vocation, the storyteller’s call.

 

2684457. The Butcher’s Wife and Other Stories by Li Ang
Li Ang’s highly charged fiction has made her one of the most widely known Taiwanese authors of her time. This new anthology begins with the internationally acclaimed “The Butcher’s Wife,” a novella that evoked shock and outrage in Taiwan when it first appeared in 1983. The shorter stories that follow range from Li Ang’s first story, “Flower Season” (1968), through “A Love Letter Never Sent” (1986), and include stories that are erotic, thought provoking, and cautionary.

 

8. The Tower of Glass by Ivan Angelo
The five interlocking stories in The Tower Of Glass create a singular, powerful account of a nation in turmoil – and a prophetic warning about an oppressive government’s need to control not just the society but the mind. Through symbolism, wry humour, and outrageous sexual frankness, Ivan Angelo tells of businessmen and whores, poor working people and Death Squads, truth and illusion, and methods of political manipulation and terror. From the gritty, bawdy story of “Bete the Streetwalker” to the Kafkaesque portrait of a prison made of glass, the fictional pieces demonstrate Angelo’s masterful wordplay, and his ability to take formal and structural risks without a false step.

 

9. What’s Become of Waring by Anthony Powell 6977196
This fascinating catalog of the comic relates the ironic and ludicrous adventures of a noted (but mysterious) English travel-book writer whose reported “death” throws the London literary world into a tizzy.’

 

10. Herculaneum: Italy’s Buried Treasure by Joseph Jay Deiss
A vivid portrayal of life in Pompeii’s sister city, this book includes a detailed description of the ancient Villa dei Papiri, on which the present Getty Museum in Malibu is modeled.

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