Help Me! by Marianne Power: A Self-Help Quest
Outwardly Marianne Power’s life was fine, but deep down she felt unhappy and unfulfilled. An Irish freelance journalist living in London, she was 36 and single. “There has to be more than just working and paying bills and buying crap we don’t need,” she felt. She’d been an obsessive reader of self-help books for years – Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway inspired her to leave her temp job at age 24 – but she realized that she’d never implemented most of the books’ lessons. So instead of just reading self-help, she set out to do self-help, one book per month, for a year (though it ended up being longer) to see if she could truly change her life.
January was a baptism of fire. Jumping in with that old favorite, Jeffers’s Feel the Fear, Power listed things she was afraid of and then did one per day: an outdoor swim on New Year’s Day, nude modeling for an art class, parallel parking, standup comedy, and skydiving. In subsequent months she tackled her disastrous finances (Money, A Love Story), tested out the law of attraction (The Secret), practiced lots of rejection therapy, worked on relinquishing control (F**k It), attended a Tony Robbins “Unleash the Power Within” seminar, and imagined what she’d want said at her funeral (The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People).
There came a point in the year when Power had to admit she was physically rundown and emotionally shattered. Months spent focusing on herself had alienated her from friends and family – even her mum, a wonderfully matter-of-fact character who believes in just getting on with life instead of moaning about it. A trio of truly useful books (The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle, Daring Greatly by Brené Brown and You Can Heal Your Life by Louise Hay) started to turn the tide, helping Power counter negative thoughts with positive affirmations and reminding her that self-help is futile because you can never go it alone. Being with other people who understand you, volunteering and exercise: these are the things that really help.
I have a particular weakness for year-challenge books, and Power’s is written in an easy, chatty style, as if Bridget Jones had given over her diary to testing self-help books for 16 months (“Do a budget, make a plan. Two phrases that made me break into a cold sweat”). If I have one tiny complaint, it’s that I might have liked a little more context on the books she chose. Help Me! is self-deprecating and relatable, with some sweary Irish swagger thrown in. I can recommend it to self-help junkies and skeptics alike.
“The dangerous expectation that can be created by self-help books is that if you’re not walking around like a cross between Mary Poppins, Buddha and Jesus every day you’re doing it wrong. You must try harder. … The higher I was setting my standards the more I was feeling like a failure.”
(I also loved the pep talk from a taxi driver who got depressed when doing a PhD on Thomas Hardy!)
Full disclosure: Marianne and I are Facebook friends and she arranged for me to be sent a proof copy of Help Me! The finished book was released by Picador on September 6th.
Recent Nonfiction Reads, in 200 Words Each: Black, Fee, Gaw
I’ve let months pass between receiving these books from the kindly publishers and following through with a review, so in an attempt to clear the decks I’m putting up just a short response to each, along with some favorite quotes.
All that Remains: A Life in Death by Sue Black
Black, a world-leading forensic anthropologist, was part of the war crimes investigation in Kosovo and the recovery effort in Thailand after the 2004 tsunami. She is frequently called into trials to give evidence, has advised the U.K. government on disaster preparedness, and is a co-author of the textbook Developmental Juvenile Osteology (2000). Whether working in a butcher’s shop as a teenager or exploring a cadaver for an anatomy class at the University of Aberdeen, she’s always been comfortable with death. “I never had any desire to work with the living,” she confesses; “The dead are much more predictable and co-operative.”
The book considers death in its clinical and personal aspects: the seven stages of postmortem alteration and the challenges of identifying the sex and age of remains; versus her own experiences with losing her grandmother, uncle and parents. Black wants her skeleton to go to Dundee University’s teaching collection. It doesn’t creep her out to think of that, no more than it did to meet her future cadaver, a matter-of-fact, curious elderly gentleman named Arthur. My favorite chapter was on Kosovo; elsewhere I found the mixture of science and memoir slightly off, and the voice never fully drew me in.
Favorite line: “Perhaps forensic anthropologists are the sin-eaters of our day, addressing the unpleasant and unimaginable so that others don’t have to.”
All that Remains was published by Doubleday on April 19th. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
Places I Stopped on the Way Home: A Memoir of Chaos and Grace by Meg Fee
Fee came to New York City to study drama at Julliard. Her short essays, most of them titled after New York locations (plus a few set further afield), are about the uncertainty of her twenties: falling in and out of love, having an eating disorder, and searching for her purpose. She calls herself “a mess of disparate wants, a small universe in bloom.” New York is where she has an awful job she hates, can’t get the man she’s in love with to really notice her, and hops between terrible apartments – including one with bedbugs, the subject of my favorite essay – and yet the City continues to lure her with its endless opportunities.
I think this book could mean a lot to women who are younger than me or have had experiences similar to the author’s. I found the essays slightly repetitive, and rather unkindly wondered what this privileged young woman had to whine about. It’s got the same American, generically spiritual self-help vibe that you get from authors like Brené Brown and Elizabeth Gilbert. Despite her loneliness, Fee retains a romantic view of things, and the way she writes about her crushes and boyfriends never truly connected with me.
Some favorite lines:
“Writing felt like wrangling storm clouds, which is to say, impossible. But so did life. Writing became a way to make peace with that which was flawed.”
“I have let go of the idea of permanency and roots and What Comes Next.”
Places I Stopped on the Way Home was published by Icon Books on May 3rd. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
The Pull of the River: A journey into the wild and watery heart of Britain by Matt Gaw
A watery travelogue in the same vein as works by Roger Deakin and Alys Fowler, this jolly yet reflective book traces Gaw’s canoe trips down Britain’s rivers. His vessel was “the Pipe,” a red canoe built by his friend James Treadaway, who also served as his companion for many of the jaunts. Starting with his local river, the Waveney in East Anglia, and finishing with Scotland’s Great Glen Way, the quest was a way of (re)discovering his country by sensing the currents of history and escaping to the edge of danger.
Access issues, outdoor toileting, getting stuck on mudflats, and going under in the winter – it wasn’t always a comfortable method of travel. But Gaw’s expressive writing renders even rubbish- and sewage-strewn landscapes beautiful in their own way: “grim bunting made from discarded bags of dog poo,” “a savannah of quivering, moussey mud” and “cormorants hunched together like sinister penguins, some holding ragged wings to the wind in taxidermic poses.”
My favorite chapters were about pollution and invasive species, as seen at the Lark, and about the beaver reintroduction project in Devon (we have friends who live near it). I’m rooting for this to make next year’s Wainwright Prize longlist.
A favorite passage:
“I feel like I’ve shed the rust gathered from being landlocked and lazy. The habits and responsibilities of modern life can be hard to shake off, the white noise difficult to muffle. But the water has returned me to my senses. I’ve been reborn in a baptism of the Waveney [et al.]”
The Pull of the River was published by Elliott & Thompson on April 5th. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
Have you read any stand-out nonfiction recently?
Reviews Roundup, September–October
One of my goals with this blog is to have one convenient place where I can gather together all my writing that has appeared in disparate online locations. To that end, once a month I’ll provide links to all the book reviews I’ve published elsewhere, with a rating (below each description) and a short taster so you can decide whether to click to read more. A couple of exceptions: I won’t point out my Kirkus Indie, BlueInk or Publishers Weekly reviews since I don’t get a byline.
Rising Strong by Brené Brown: Brown, a qualitative researcher in the field of social work, encourages readers to embrace vulnerability and transform failure and shame through a simple process of re-evaluating the stories we tell ourselves. The gimmicky terminology and frequent self-referencing grated on me a bit, but I appreciated how the book made me reconsider events from my own life. It’s the ideas that carry Rising Strong, so as long as you come to it expecting a useful tool rather than a literary experience you shouldn’t be disappointed. Genuinely helpful self-help.
Life After You by Lucie Brownlee: With honesty and humor, Brownlee reconstructs the two years following her husband’s sudden death. My sister is still a new widow, so I read this expecting it to resonate with her situation, and it certainly does. I had an issue with the title and marketing, though. When originally published last year, the book had the title Me After You. That’s been changed to sound a little less like a Jojo Moyes novel, but the cover is more chick lit than ever, which doesn’t really match the contents of the book.
The Glass Girl by Sandy Hogarth (& interview): Moving between Australia and England and spanning several decades of Ruth Bishop’s life, this debut novel explores the psychological effects of sexual trauma and betrayal. The middle of the book feels a little meandering, and the chronology is sometimes over-complicated. However, Ruth’s is a warm first-person voice, and the ending hints at welcome resolution to unanswered questions. My favorite aspect of the novel, though, is the frequent observations of the natural world.
The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota: With multilingual slang and several Sikh characters, Sahota’s second novel illuminates aspects of the South Asian experience that might be unfamiliar. Daily life is a struggle for Tochi, Randeep and Avtar: they work multiple jobs to make ends meet, serving at Crunchy Fried Chicken, cleaning sewers, or building a luxury hotel in Leeds. The fourth protagonist is Randeep’s visa-wife, Narinder. Through flashbacks we discover each one’s past. It’s a harrowing read, but you can’t help but sympathize with the four runaways as they make and dissolve connections over the year.
The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson: This contemporary ‘cover version’ of The Winter’s Tale links a London financier, a Parisian singer, and a blended family in New Orleans. Winterson creates clear counterparts for each Shakespeare characters, often tweaking names so they are recognizable but more modern. Inventive and true to the themes and imagery (time, adoption; angels, bears, statues) of the original, but ultimately adds little to one’s experience of Shakespeare. I’ll hope for better things from the rest of the Hogarth Shakespeare series. (Still to come: Margaret Atwood on The Tempest, Howard Jacobson on The Merchant of Venice and Anne Tyler on The Taming of the Shrew, among others.)
After the Parade by Lori Ostlund [subscription service, but the full text of my review will be available for free during the week of October 20th as part of Editor’s Choice]: Ostlund’s debut novel explores trauma and loneliness through the past and present of the protagonist, an ESL teacher who has just left his long-term partner, as well as the stories of those he meets. Although set over a six-month period, the novel is so full of flashbacks that it feels dense with the weight of the past. At times this can seem more like a set of short stories, only loosely connected through Aaron. Still, the overarching theme is strong and resonant: “after the parade,” after everything has changed irrevocably, you must keep going, pushing past the sadness to build a new life.
The Best Small Fictions 2015, ed. by Tara L. Masih and Robert Olen Butler: In this very strong anthology of flash fiction, stories range from Tweet length to a few pages, but are always under 1,000 words. Titles and first lines carry a lot of weight. One of the best openers is “I didn’t recognize her without her head” (“Before She Was a Memory,” Emma Bolden). In genre the stories run the gamut from historical fiction to whimsical fantasy. You’ll be introduced to a wealth of fresh and existing talent. There are literally dozens of stand-outs here, but if I had to choose a top 3, they’d be “A Notice from the Office of Reclamation” by J. Duncan Wiley, “The Lunar Deep” by David Mellerick Lynch, and (overall favorite) “Something Overheard” by Yennie Cheung.
For Books’ Sake
Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff: An incisive study of a marriage, beautifully written and rich with allusions to Shakespeare and Greek mythology. Short, verbless sentences pile up to create exquisite descriptions, as in “Sunset. House on the dunes like a sun-tossed conch. Pelicans thumb-tacked in the wind.” However, I was less sure about the necessity of the bracketed phrases, which seem to represent a Greek chorus giving omniscient commentary, and the use of slang and nicknames can grate. Groff makes it onto a short list of women I expect to produce the Great American Novel.
When All Goes Quiet by Augustinus F. Lodewyks: This religious memoir should interest those who are curious about how spiritual experience can infiltrate everyday life. “When all goes quiet, I know that Heaven is trying to show me its glory,” Lodewyks writes. In autobiographical vignettes, he vividly expresses his mystical visions, particularly those featuring Jesus, the Virgin Mary and angels, who tend to appear in times of crisis and during events of ritual significance like weddings, funerals and religious pilgrimages. Some will still object to the overt proselytizing, especially in the book’s last quarter.
The Blessing of Movement by Deborah Konrad: Konrad’s story is an inspirational memoir about life with disability and caring for dying relatives. Her sister Sandra became a quadriplegic in her twenties. Throughout the book, Konrad investigates the secret strength that underlay “the sunny disposition of the pretty paralyzed woman.” She concludes that it was all about thankfulness, as proven by Sandra’s gratitude journal. Konrad’s own life undeniably gets sidelined, though; more self-reflection would provide a good match for her insights into her sister’s character.
DNA of Mathematics by Mehran Basti: Drawing on his academic specialty in mathematics, Basti explores how scientific theories have been used and misused through history. The book lacks focus due to frequent unrelated asides. It may be difficult to grant credibility to a scientist who dismisses the big bang because it was theorized through “semi-broken scientific methods” and seems to have a personal vendetta against Stephen Hawking. Most importantly, the mathematics that forms the book’s basis is never fully explained.
From Hell to Heaven, One Man’s Journey by Gustav Daffy: This book was inspired by an acrimonious divorce and other family troubles; although Christian faith helped Gustav adjust his thinking, many of the poems still feel like the angry outpourings of a man with an ax to grind. Moreover, formulaic rhyming and poor spelling and grammar mar this overlong collection. It would take a professional copyeditor to hone this into a concise set of linguistically and stylistically acute poems. However, the author’s in-the-moment reactions are easy to relate to.
Shiny New Books
Grief Is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter: It may seem perverse to twist Emily Dickinson’s words about hope into a reflection on bereavement, but Porter’s exceptional debut does just that: tweak poetic forebears – chiefly Poe’s “The Raven” and Ted Hughes’s Crow – to create a hybrid response to loss. The novella is composed of three first-person voices: Dad, Boys and Crow (the soul of the book: witty, onomatopoeic, often macabre). Dad and his two young sons are adrift in mourning; the boys’ mum died after an unspecified accident in their London flat. The three narratives resemble monologues in a play, with short lines laid out on the page more like stanzas of a poem.
We Love This Book
A Slanting of the Sun by Donal Ryan: The Irish author of the novels The Spinning Heart (winner of the Guardian First Book Award in 2013) and The Thing About December, returns with 20 jolting, voice-driven short stories suffused with loneliness and anger. Nineteen of the 20 are in the first person, echoing the chorus of voices that made The Spinning Heart so effective. Many of the narrators speak in thick dialect and run-on sentences, which helps to immerse you in the rhythms of Irish speech. In a book full of lonely people, it is the moments of connection – however fleeting – that matter. For example, in “Long Puck,” one of the best stories, a Catholic priest posted to Syria initiates interfaith hurling matches that temporarily lift everyone’s spirits.
I also post reviews of most of my casual reading and skimming on Goodreads.
The River by Helen Humphreys: Humphreys has lived along Ontario’s Napanee River for over a decade. I was expecting a blend of personal reflection and natural observations, but instead the book is mostly composed of brief fictional passages illuminating a handful of species. I liked the passages about the heron best – Humphreys successfully imagines the life of a plume hunter and contrasts it with the excitement of two women involved in the foundation of a bird conservation charity. However, much of the book felt like unconnected vignettes, not building to any kind of grander picture of a location.
The Mountain Can Wait by Sarah Leipciger: The novel opens and closes with a hit-and-run, but in between those momentous peaks it’s a quieter tale of a single father trying to guide his son and daughter into young adulthood in the wilds of Canada’s west and islands. Tom Berry’s work is not cutting trees down but planting them – an interesting adaptation of a traditional woodsman’s activity to a new eco age. I found the story a little sleepy but loved Leipciger’s writing, especially her account of the daily drudgery of manual labor and her descriptions of wilderness scenery.
Decline of the Animal Kingdom by Laura Clarke: Bizarre, in-your-face poetry from a 30-year-old Canadian: business jargon, YouTube videos, fast food…and, yes, animals. Many of the poems feature mules and lions, including weird dialogues between a mule and its supervisor / domestic partner / psychiatrist. With plays on words and sexualized vocabulary, Clarke considers inter-species altruism and the inevitable slide towards extinction. Two favorite lines: “You forget you live parallel to violence” (from “Carnivora”); “The Tasmanian tiger live-tweets its extinction from the Hobart zoo in 1933” (from “Extirpation”).
Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery by Henry Marsh: “Terrible job, neurosurgery. Don’t do it.” Lucky for us, Henry Marsh reports back from the frontlines of brain surgery so we don’t have to. He’s nearing retirement age after a career divided between a London hospital and medical missions to Ukraine. The punchy chapters are named after conditions he has treated or observed. Marsh comes across as having a hot temper, exhibiting extreme frustration with NHS bureaucracy. At the same time, he gets very emotional over his patients declining and dying, and experiences profound guilt over operations that go wrong or were ultimately unnecessary.
In the Flesh by Adam O’Riordan: My favorite poems in O’Riordan’s debut collection were about Victorian Manchester, 1910s suffragettes and the Wordsworths, this last based on the author’s year in residence at their Lake District cottage. I also liked “The Corpse Garden” – about the outdoor forensic lab in Knoxville, Tennessee – and a couple of multi-part poems that seem to enliven family history. It’s the vocabulary and alliteration that make these poems; there are only a handful of rhyming couplets.
A Circle of Quiet by Madeleine L’Engle: If, like me, you only knew L’Engle through her Wrinkle in Time children’s series, this journal should come as a revelation. I didn’t know she wrote any nonfiction for adults. The Crosswicks books cannot be called simple memoirs, however; there’s so much more going on. In this journal (published 1972) of a summer spent at their Connecticut farmhouse, L’Engle muses on theology, purpose, children’s education, the writing life, the difference between creating stories for children and adults, neighbors and fitting into a community, and much besides.
A View of the Harbour by Elizabeth Taylor: My third Taylor – not as good as Mrs. Palfrey, but better than Angel. It’s about the everyday family and romantic entanglements of a small English harbor village in the 1940s. Beth is a preoccupied writer who doesn’t notice that her husband, the local doctor, is carrying on an affair with her best friend, the divorcée Tory, who is also their next-door neighbor. As always, Taylor has great insight into the human psyche and unlikely relationships. The plot is low on thrills for sure, but it’s pleasant reading, especially if you’re on holiday at the seaside (I started reading it on the coast near Dublin).
Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith by Kathleen Norris: This makes the shortlist of books I would hand to skeptics to show them there might be something to this Christianity nonsense after all. Norris spent 20 years away from the faith but gradually made her way back, via the simple Presbyterianism of her Dakota relatives but also through becoming an oblate at a Benedictine monastery – two completely different expressions of the same faith. In few-page essays, she gives each word or phrase a rich backstory through anecdote, scripture and lived philosophy, ensuring that it’s not just religious jargon anymore.
Undermajordomo Minor by Patrick deWitt: What The Sisters Brothers did for the Western, this does for the Gothic fairytale. It’s not quite as fun or successful as the previous book, but has a nicely campy Dracula or Jane Eyre feel. Lucien “Lucy” Minor, a compulsive liar, sets out to find adventure and romance as undermajordomo of a castle in the quaint German countryside. Here he meets pickpockets, a periodically insane baron, a randy maiden, and a strapping rival who’s a soldier in the absurdist local conflict. DeWitt’s understated humor is not as clearly on display here; there’s also, strangely, quite a bit of sex.
Sentenced to Life by Clive James: James, an Australian critic and all-round man of letters, was first diagnosed with leukemia in 2010. After a setback in 2013, he’s rallied, but these poems are certainly infused with a sense of imminent mortality. The incessant ABAB rhyming in the early poems set up a jaunty rhythm I didn’t find appropriate to the subject matter; I much prefer the later unrhymed poems. “Plot Points” is my favorite, artfully linking disparate historical moments.
Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins: Gold, fame, citrus: reasons people once came to California. Now, only a desperate remnant remains in this waterless wasteland. Luz and Ray squat in a starlet’s abandoned mansion and live off of Luz’s modeling money – she was once the environmental movement’s poster child, “Baby Dunn.” When they take charge of a baby called Ig, however, their priorities change. They set off for the strangely beautiful sea of dunes, the Amargosa, leaving behind the ‘frying pan’ of exposure to the elements for the ‘fire’ of a desert cult. There is some absolutely beautiful prose. This is the book that California (Edan Lepucki) wanted to be.
Satin Island by Tom McCarthy: U. is a corporate anthropologist in London, coming off the success of the Koob–Sassen contract and facing the blank page of the Great Report he’s tasked with writing. Not much happens here; the book is more about his anthropological observations and the things he fixates on, like oil spills, a sabotaged parachutist, and Satin Island – a place he encounters in a dream and then, by word association, likens to Staten Island, a destination he doesn’t quite make it to. For me the most interesting parts were about narrative. I found this too clever for its own good; not Booker Prize material.