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‘The Lonely City’ by Olivia Laing ****

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

9781782111238Laing is one of the authors whom I wanted to focus upon reading during 2017.  The Lonely City is the book of hers which I’ve heard the most about, so it seemed a good choice with which to begin.  The entirety of the essay collection, woven around the central theme of loneliness at play within the city, is beautifully written.

I’m not personally somebody who suffers with loneliness, but having recently moved to the centre of a big city, I’m conscious that mixing with neighbours and the like is something which seems rare.  It’s astounding that people can be so lonely within the bustle of the city, when so many people live and work close by, but I have a fuller understanding of the reasons which drive one to feel alone since reading this.

Well-measured, and with a series of great examples given, Laing, who focuses upon a lot of famous people as well as her own story within New York City, is rather enlightening upon the subject.  In taking into account art, the homeless, and feeling acutely alone whilst using the Internet, for instance, Laing really makes her readers think, and reconsider those around them.

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An Update: ‘Girl, Interrupted’ by Susanna Kaysen ****

At the end of 2016, I reread Susanna Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted; I thought it would be an interesting idea to present my previous review, which probably dates from around 2013, along with my current thoughts.

Girl, Interrupted, which was first published in 1993, is a highly acclaimed autobiographical work.  It tells of its author, Susanna Kaysen, who, as an eighteen-year-old in 1967, was sent to McLean Hospital to be treated for depression.  She spent two years on the teenage psychiatric ward, which had previously treated such patients as Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton and Ray Charles.  The information within the pages of Girl, Interrupted was found within her patient file, which she obtained from the hospital after she had been released. 9781860497926

I find books which deal with mental illness and recuperation fascinating, and I love being able to see so far into the human condition, reading about things which I have thankfully never personally experienced.  Here, Kaysen has interspersed her short chapters with photocopies of documents from her file, some of which contain some rather shocking and unsettling information.  One cannot imagine how awful it must have been to read the views of the nurses and doctors upon these sheets, even a long while after they were written.  Each chapter is an episode; a memory fragment, of sorts.  There is no real order to them, and that is what makes Girl, Interrupted so eminently readable.

Throughout, Kaysen writes both wisely and beautifully.  As well as outlining her own experiences – she and her roommate were deemed the ‘healthiest’ people in the hospital – she tells of other patients: ‘We watched a lot of things.  We watched Cynthia come back crying from electroshock once a week.  We watched Polly shiver after being wrapped in ice-cold sheets’.  She writes bravely of force-feedings, medication which could turn friends to zombie-like beings in just a few hours, and the horrific electroshock therapy which some of the patients were regularly subjected to.  Kaysen informs the reader of the gradations of ‘craziness’ which existed in McLean.

Girl, Interrupted is a fascinating and heart-wrenching account of living one’s formative years in such an institution as McLean.  Unlike that of some of her peers within the hospital, Kaysen’s story has relatively happy elements to it, in that she came out of the other side and was brave enough to share her story.  Her self-awareness and the use of retrospective, along with the power which every single word holds, makes <i>Girl, Interrupted</i> a truly stunning memoir, and one which I urge everyone to read.

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Update:

I reread Girl, Interrupted for my Goodreads book group in December 2016.  The work was far more fragmented than I remembered, and at times, Kaysen’s own condition and diagnosis felt a little overshadowed by those she was living in close confinement with.  This approach, and her choice to use others in her own journey of mental illness, was fascinating.  The scenes which she presents are almost disjointed on the face of it, but one soon gets the impression that the piece has been well structured.  The introspective sections which discussed Kaysen’s own health, and her place within the world, were those which I found of the most interest.

The historical and social context which Kaysen presents, from the Vietnam War to Kennedy’s assassination, firmly anchors the whole within the mid- to late-1960s.  What is surprising about the piece is both how different treatment appears to be in the twenty-first century, and the similarities which we can still recognise within our own societal treatment of the mentally unwell.  Scotland, for instance, still uses electroshock therapy, which sounds old-fashioned even in Kaysen’s account.  The smoke and mirrors which often surrounded which treatments were being given was surprising to me; there appears to be very little honesty with the patients, and little understanding of their own conditions at times.  The gender distinctions here are fascinating – for instance, musings of experiences which have occurred to Kaysen within the workplace – particularly from a standpoint almost fifty years in the future; again, similarities can be recognised within our own global society.  Upon my second reading, the camaraderie of those around Kaysen surprised me too; rather than being separated, the patients are encouraged to be together, from their leisure time down to their rooming.

Kaysen’s telling of her story is brave and heartfelt, and the insight which she gives into the institution of McLean and its treatments is fascinating.  She is essentially laying herself bare for the world to see.  I was left wondering whether any of the information which she relays has been partially or fully fictionalised, and whether the names of patients and nurses were changed due to anonymity.  This does not matter on the whole, I suppose – we must remember that I absolutely adored James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, and the furore surrounding its fictionalised scenes didn’t bother me at all – but I do like to think of Girl, Interrupted as a brutally honest account.  It has been highly well-styled, and intelligently written.  The advantage of hindsight, and her discovery of her patient notes detailing her Borderline Personality Disorder twenty-five years after she was released, are startling, and demonstrate how much treatments had moved on just in that relatively short space of time.  Kaysen’s ability to talk in a relatively removed and understanding way about her experience was a fantastic asset to the whole, and definitely one of the strengths of the whole piece for me.

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‘Faces in the Water’ by Janet Frame *****

Janet Frame’s Faces in the Water was a book club pick for January, and a book which I had not expected to love quite as much as I did.  Whilst I have wanted to read it for years, it is a tome which has so far evaded me in bookshops and the like; I had to resort to the Internet to find a copy of it.

From the outset, I was immediately captivated.  We are effectively living inside protagonist Istina Mavet’s head, as she negotiates the mental hospital in which she is incarcerated.  As this account is based upon Frame’s own experiences, there is an added edge of horror to the whole.  Frame’s writing is striking and beguiling, and every sentence is memorable: ‘I will write about the season of peril.  I was put in hospital because a great gap opened in the ice floe between myself and the other people whom I watched, with their world, drifting away through a violet-coloured sea where hammerhead sharks in tropical ease swam side by side with the seals and the polar bears’.  Istina’s voice is sharp, and her ideas verge upon the theatrical: ‘I was not yet civilized; I traded my safety for the glass beads of fantasy’, and ‘9781844084616I swallowed a stream of stars; it was easy…’.

Frame’s account is vividly appealing particularly when she discusses the outside world, which is barred to Istina and her peers, and the whole is so well paced – for instance, the passage in which Istina discusses the dangers left behind ‘all the doors which lead to and from the world’.  There is a dreamlike element ever-present within, and one can pick out nods to various fairytales and other childhood stories too: ‘… I dream and cannot wake, and I am cast over the cliff and hang there by two fingers that are danced and trampled on by the Giant unreality’.

Despite this, Istina is still poignant and to the point – as well as unarguably chilling – when discussing the doctors and nurses who walk the corridors of the hospital: ‘Every morning I woke in dread, waiting for the day nurse to go on her rounds and announce from the list of names in her hand whether or not I was for shock treatment, the new and fashionable means of quieting people and of making them realize that orders are to be obeyed and floors are to be polished without anyone protesting and faces are made to be fixed into smiles and weeping is a crime’.

As readers, we are immediately aware of the never-ending, and frankly terrifying, cycle of waiting for Electroshock Therapy every day.  Frame really pulls the innards of the institution out to be looked at by us, the outsiders, who do not have to live with the consequences of being deemed unsafe within the wide society.  She lays the life of the mental hospital bare; yes, there is an element of retrospect and historical contextualisation at play here, but it does not serve to make the scenes which Istina describes any less appalling.

The stream-of-consciousness style of narration, as well as the use of fragmented prose and fractured memories, allow the story to come through in all of its horror.  Istina is fascinatingly complex, and oh-so-real.  The novel itself is stunning and hard-hitting, and not one which can be read lightly, or without dedication from the reader.  Faces in the Water is undeniably intense, and reading it is, at points, decidedly exhausting, but when an author reminds you this much of the utterly wonderful Shirley Jackson, you know that you really should read her entire back catalogue as soon as you are able to get your hands on it.

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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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Reading the World 2017: ‘The Leech’ by Cora Sandel ****

I chose to purchase Cora Sandel’s The Leech for my Reading the World project, as she is an author whom has been on my radar for an awfully long time, but whose books appear to be few and far between.  I had originally thought that I would start with the Alberta trilogy which Sandel is arguably most famous for, but  The Leech was the most easily available of her books to me through Abebooks, and so I plumped for it as what I hoped would be a good introduction to her work.  The only other person who has reviewed it on Goodreads also compared it to Virginia Woolf, so of course it was almost inevitable that I was going to begin with this one.

The Leech was first published in Norway in 1958, and in the United Kingdom two years later.  This particular translation has been wonderfully rendered by Elizabeth Rakkan, and printed by The Women’s Press.  Interestingly, we do not meet the woman, Dondi, whom the story revolves around until almost the end of the work.  She is relatively young, and left her home in southern Norway to head to a small town within the Arctic Circle in order to marry.  The Leech begins ten years after Dondi’s decision has been made, and things have not turned out quite as she was expecting them to.  Her writer husband, Gregor, is less than famous, her twin children Bella and Beppo are rebellious, and she is ‘miserable to the point of hysteria’.  Added to this, Gregor’s extended family see Dondi as the reason why he has not quite realised his full potential as a writer; they believe that she has sapped his talent pool dry. 9780704340053-us

The Leech takes place over two days in Midsummer, and from the beginning, Sandel sets the scene perfectly: ‘The veranda doors were open to the radiant North Norwegian summer: a summer which heaps light upon light, shining and brittle, only to fade too soon’.  The majority of the prose takes place within conversations; it opens with Lagerta speaking to her grandmother, who is berating everything modern, from jazz music to motorcycles.  She is grimly comic and belligerent, most fulfilled when she has something to complain about, and somebody to argue her points against.  She is shrewd, and notices everything, telling her granddaughter the following in the opening passage: ‘”But you Lagerta, are over-nervous, my dear.  You must have something in your hands all the time.  You can’t rest any more, don’t think I haven’t noticed it.  One can simply get too tired.”‘

Gregor’s brother, Jonas, acts with his aunt Lagerta and his great-grandmother as a voice of reason in the novel.  We learn an awful lot about Dondi, and her relationship with Gregor, but our view of her is always through their disapproving eyes until she appears in the flesh.  She has very little agency; until she is given a voice of her own, our interpretation of her is negatively biased, and when she is allowed her say, she is forever being fussed over and ordered around somewhat by those around her.  Whilst Dondi is always the focus of their speech, the characters do become protagonists in the piece through Sandel’s clever and effective prose techniques.  Lagerta particularly describes how she has had to live through and adapt to a changing world; she is a thoroughly three-dimensional being, and the most realistic character in the book.

The geographical isolation of the family is best described by Lagerta, when she states: ‘”Coming up here was a violent experience…  I don’t know what to compare it with – being killed and slowly coming alive again.  I was not myself for a while…”‘.  The relationships which Sandel draws are complex and interesting, and the homestead in the middle of nowhere exacerbates the fact that they have few other people for company outside of the familial base.

Sadly, and undeservedly, The Leech has fallen by the wayside.  Using Goodreads as a marker, it has had only a few ratings, and one review other than mine.  There is a marvellous flow to the whole thanks to Rakkan’s translation.  The Leech is a wonderful read, full of interesting and important points about the state of the world and a woman’s place within it, and great writing.  If you can get your hands on a copy, it’s a book which I would certainly recommend.

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‘The PowerBook’ by Jeanette Winterson *****

‘The PowerBook is twenty-first century fiction that uses past, present and future as shifting dimensions of a multiple reality. The story is simple. An e-writer called Ali or Alix will write to order anything you like, provided that you are prepared to enter the story as yourself and take the risk of leaving it as someone else. You can be the hero of your own life. You can have freedom just for one night. But there is a price to pay.’

9780099598299My last outstanding Winterson, The PowerBook was as superbly written as I have come to expect.  Winterson says some absolutely wonderful things about the craft of writing throughout, and weaves together so many narrative strands to give the novel an almost bottomless depth.  Her prose is exquisite: ‘I was the place where you anchored.  I was the deep water where you could be weightless.  I was the surface where you saw your own reflection.  You scooped me up in your hands.’

As with several of Winterson’s other works of fiction, we do not always know a great deal about our narrator, or even who is speaking in parts.  This makes the whole even more captivating, however; the details which are not concretely defined become even more beguiling than they perhaps would be otherwise.  Here, there is mystery, myth, fairytale, and realism.  The PowerBook is rather an intense read, which has been masterfully structured.  It is wild, vivid, and enchanting, and I shall be recommending it to everyone.

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‘Where Am I Now?: True Stories of Girlhood and Accidental Fame’ by Mara Wilson *****

‘Mara Wilson has always felt a little young and a little out of place: as the only child on a film set full of adults, the first daughter in a house full of boys, the sole clinically depressed member of the cheerleading squad, a valley girl in New York and a neurotic in California, and one of the few former child actors who has never been in jail or rehab. Tackling everything from how she first learned about sex on the set ofMelrose Place, to losing her mother at a young age, to getting her first kiss (or was it kisses?) on a celebrity canoe trip, to not being “cute” enough to make it in Hollywood, these essays tell the story of one young woman’s journey from accidental fame to relative (but happy) obscurity. But they also illuminate a universal struggle: learning to accept yourself, and figuring out who you are and where you belong.’

9780143128229Mara Wilson’s Where Am I Now? was one of my most anticipated Christmas reads.  Wilson is just wonderful; I found myself wanting to be best friends with her when I saw her in both Matilda and Miracle on 34th Street as a small child, and was a little sad when I noticed years later that she seemed to have faded from the limelight.

Wilson is a witty and original writer, and comes across just as I thought it would.  Her narrative voice is engaging, and this renders the book rather difficult to put down from the very beginning.  Wilson is candid about her childhood struggles with continued acting and her mother’s death from cancer; she is intelligent, warm, and eye-opening in many respects.  Her letter to Matilda is insightful and almost tear-inducing.  Where Am I Now? is a poignant and meaningful memoir, and I for one cannot wait to see what she turns her hand to next.

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