Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Books books books! Some thoughts on what I'm reading.

This past week I've been reading like a demon. I'd promised myself to keep reading fiction despite the demands of schoolwork, and at the same time I received a couple of books about drinking that I'd ordered. I didn't mean to read them all so quickly. Four books in just over eight days: does that count as a binge? Maybe, but there are worse ways to binge. In case anyone is looking for a great read, or is just curious, I thought I'd write a note about the books I just read.

First, the fiction: I read two wonderful, superbly written books about family, connection, and love.

Donal Ryan's The Spinning Heart won the Guardian First Book Award for 2013, and the win was well-deserved. The novel is set in post economic-crash Ireland, and it captured the bewilderment and despair of a community of people facing hardship after the brief promise of prosperity. That sounds depressing, but the book is beautiful. Each chapter is written from the point of view of a different person, so the reader feels the accumulation of the intertwined life of the community. These people don't exist in isolation. None of us do, even though our culture tells us otherwise. Ryan's language is simple and beautiful, and even when he's dark, he's often funny. (Of course he is. It's an Irish novel, and the Irish writers I've read sure know how to do dark and funny.) The novel brims with the strength of love and connection, and I can't think of a better recommendation than that.

Elizabeth Strout's The Burgess Boys deals with some similar themes, so I guess that says a bit about what I'm drawn to reading these days. It's about two brothers--the boys are middle aged men, long since moved away from their hometown in Maine, but still shouldering the weight of childhood tragedy and the lies and guilt left in its wake. There's a sister, still home in Maine, unloved and unlovely, deeply unhappy, and her awkward teenage son, Zach, who causes the spot of trouble that gets the plot rolling. That sounds grim, right? But the book is beautiful. Strout is very good at telescoping time, so while the novel is set in the present, segue's into the Burgess siblings' childhood are woven throughout, and they illuminate the story without dragging the reader into too much backstory. As in The Spinning Heart, the novel has it's fair share of despair and life gone wrong, but it is a testament to family love and human connection as the real fabric of life.  All that, plus it's an old-fashioned good story. Hooray for stories!

Along with the novels, I've read two great non-fiction books this week, both centred on the role alcohol plays in contemporary culture: Olivia Laing's The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Writing, and Ann Dowsett Johnston's Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol.

Laing's book investigates the role of alcohol in the lives of six famous American alcoholic writers, all now deceased. Well, they were alcoholic, so of course it played a role, right? Sure. But Laing is a great writer and researcher, and she does a marvellous job of showing their complicated reactions to alcohol. I was especially shaken to read about the multiple attempts to cut down, cut back, switch to different drinks, all to lessen the effects booze had on their writing. All the men at times admitted the problem (except Hemingway, but given his personal mythology of superhuman masculinity, it's hard to imagine Hemingway admitting to any weakness) and all suffered enormously from the drink. At the same time, the book shows the appeal alcohol held for these men, the longing they all had for something to take them out of themselves. Laing shows the appeal, and also the wreckage it left. A key strength of the book is that Laing herself is not an alcoholic, but she has experience with the damage alcoholism does, and she really wants to understand the pull of alcohol as well as the romantic myth of alcohol and creativity. She uses these writers' own words and lives, refusing to oversimplify as she tries to understand the complicated role of alcohol in the lives of these brilliant, self-destructive men. Reading this, I got to thinking how much I have often preferred the fruits of imagination to the reality of day to day life. Creating an alternate reality was important for these writers, but Laing shows at what cost this reality was reached.

Johnston's book was somewhat less enjoyable than Laing's, I think because it's more journalistic than poetic, but it's still well worth reading. (Not everything has to be poetry, and anyway there's a great Bukowski poem at the start of the book.) The book is part research about alcohol and women, and part memoir. Johnston herself is a middle aged, successful journalist, and an alcoholic in recovery, and she weaves plenty of research on addiction and women through her own story. The book shows the depth of pain endured even by someone who has a "high bottom." It also looks at the role of trauma in the lives of many (not all) women with drinking problems, and the importance of spirituality in coping with the existential thirst that alcohol never manages to quench. There's lots on the changing role of women in our society, the emphasis on perfectionism (ouch! I feel it!), and the cultural marketing of alcohol. I especially liked how unsparing Johnston is with her personal story, and yet the book is about so much more than her. By the time I finished reading, I wanted to have tea and a long heart to heart with her. Maybe someday.

OK, so that's this week in books. Now I really will have to buckle down with schoolwork, so I won't have nearly so much reading time. But I am loving (love love love!!!) reading in the evenings. Herbal tea and knitting while chatting with my partner, and then I read for two or three hours: it may be a kind of escapism, but if it is, I'll take it.

If you've read (or decide to read) any of these books, I'd love to know what you think. Now I'm off to face the reality of school deadlines. Thanks for reading.


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