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My name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

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My name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

Strout is an exemplary storyteller and having adored Olive Kitteridge so damn much, I trust her to tell a quietly unfussy and moving story. MNiLB is narrated by Lucy Barton who looks back at a long stay she had some time in the eighties in hospital recovering from a post-op infection. Her husband and children were largely absent while she recuperated, and her mother, who she hadn’t seen for many years, flew, for the first time, from her small rural home in Amgash to New York. Remaining by her bedside for several days and nights, her mother offers up anecdotes as conversation; tidbits of other’s lives, gossip about neighbours Lucy might recall. Morality tales in the main. Fragments are revealed, as they are in our actual memories, this happened, and this, do you remember? And the pieces of the puzzle are laid out until, oh, yes, we see the picture now. Lucy’s childhood, one of emotional deprivation as well as physical, is revealed. The agonies of not being a fit remaining throughout her life no matter how she learned to blend in with the help of money, husband, kids, a writing career, a New York life.

“Loneliness was the first flavour I tasted…”

Lucy finds a voice through writing, but can’t express herself to her mother. Theirs are conversations where what is not said matters more than what is. We learn obliquely about her father’s PTS and subsequent cruelty, the humiliation he heaped upon her brother, Lucy’s marital problems and her friendship with a neighbour who dies of AIDS.

“It turned out I wanted something else. I wanted my mother to ask about my life. I wanted to tell her about the life I was living now. Stupidly — it was just stupidity — I blurted out, ‘Mom, I got two stories published.’ She looked at me quickly and quizzically, as if I had said I had grown extra toes, then she looked out the window and said nothing. ‘Just dumb ones,’ I said, ‘in tiny magazines.’ Still she said nothing.”

The hopefulness that she can share and connect is calmly devastating.

Glowing at the centre is her relationship with author/teacher, Sarah, who instructs Lucy to write the pages we have read. “This is a story about a mother who loves her daughter,” Sarah says about the writing Lucy has shown her. “Imperfectly. Because we all love imperfectly. But if you find yourself protecting anyone as you write this piece, remember this: You are not doing it right.”

This slim novel’s layers peel back to reveal the lumpy truths of a life and its relationships and lays them out for us to examine and recognise. Superb.

The Way We Die Now by Seamus O’Mahony

The Way We Die Now by Seamus O’Mahony

 

My dad died on February 15th and my world transformed. I am grief-stricken. It’s no surprise that I have turned to books seeking solace, or at least some kind of understanding. The first book I read was “When Breath Becomes Air” which in retrospect I found unsatisfactory and unhelpful. “The Way We Die Now” though has been a strangely compelling read despite its rather stark message. Right from the introduction O’Mahony warns us, “This is not a book of consolation; death is simply affliction and the end of our days. We are frail and vulnerable animals.”

He argues persuasively and passionately against the over medicalisation of death. As a Consultant Gastroenterologist at Cork University Hospital Dr O’Mahony has seen many people die and he uses a mixture of personal anecdotes, patient anecdotes, and high profile celebrity deaths, to highlight how our society places faith in medicine and expects to live despite disease. He explains how many patients receive what he believes to be useless treatments; procedures that take place for the sake of the hospital being seen to do something, often at the expense of a patient’s comfort. CPR that takes place after death is common apparently (and he is clear that CPR is rarely successful as it is in medical dramas. It’s a brutal technique that can leave people permanently damaged if they do survive.) Speaking about the overuse of PEG feeding he says “The procedure became for me a symbol of the medicalisation of death, and of the failure of modern medicine to care humanely for those most in need of its help.”

He is wonderfully dismissive of Kugler-Ross’s famous five stages; denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. “The power and terror of death refuses to be tamed by workshops, by trite formulae.” The myth of a “good death” is exploded. It is likely we will die whilst sedated and pain-free thanks to a syringe driver. We won’t make profound death bed statements, we won’t even speak. We will be removed from our own death, but that saves us from dying in terror and pain. There is rarely a peaceful, stoic acceptance. That word terror catches me and makes me realise I had some fairy story death narrative in my head where gradually people slip away. Here’s my comfort, such as it is, my dad died unexpectedly. His heart stopped. He did not know he was dying. We did not have the agonies of having to decide for him what interventions he should endure so that we could keep him with us. I fear I would have insisted on all of them, though I hope I would not have.

O’Mahony writes he was “…deeply impressed by how Catholic ritual – after the deaths of my great-uncle and father in-law – guided the bereaved during the days immediately following their deaths.” The issue in a secular society where “Evangelical atheism has accelerated the flight from religion” is how to find this kind of comfort, and he suggests we worry less about believing and be content with simply belonging. This really chimed with me. Dad had a full Catholic funeral; his body was received into church the night before and his priest led us gently through the rituals and beliefs. During the funeral he took the same care to explain. It felt unimportant I don’t share those beliefs. I was immensely grateful for this acknowledgement of loss and grief, this solemnity, this tribute to my dad.

The book explores “deluded optimism” where patients, doctors, and family and friends collude in a pretence there is hope where there is none. What bloody fools we are that we think we can tame death. There is so much that is interesting here; the fact that patients who have combined oncology/palliative care live on average 25% longer than those who forge on with treatment (seeing hospices as an admission of failure), and that doctors apparently often choose not to undergo extensive treatment themselves. The idea that doctors offer treatment because they don’t know what else to do and need to be seen as doing something is troubling, yet the instinct is to want them to do every possible thing to save the lives of those we love.

How afraid we are, of course, and we are right to be. There’s no magic here, but this is a cool, intelligent look at death, right in its ghastly, deathy face.

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

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Paul Kalanithi spent years training to be a neurosurgeon. He was one of those dazzling people who could have followed any number of paths, studying literature, philosophy and medicine with equal vigour. He trained in neurological surgery at Stanford University, believing brain surgery was his calling. The ridiculous workload (100 hour work weeks) and literal life and death operations, his striving for compassion and excellence in everything he did, his relationship with his girlfriend, Lucy, also a doctor, are all examined in the first half of this book. Kalanithi’s love of literature shines as brightly as his love of medicine.

When he began to suffer with excruciating back pains he wondered if he had cancer, then tried to push that concern away after an x-ray came back clear. He got weaker and the pain intensified. Eventually he had a CT scan, “I flipped through the CT scan images, the diagnosis obvious: the lungs were matted with innumerable tumors, the spine deformed, a full lobe of the liver obliterated. Cancer, widely disseminated. I was a neurosurgical resident entering my final year of training. Over the last six years, I’d examined scores of such scans, on the off chance that some procedure might benefit the patient. But this scan was different: it was my own.”

Where the first half of the book is concerned with his striving to be the best surgeon he can and to help others deal with unthinkable disease and their fragility as humans, their lives literally in his hands as he operates on their brains, the second half is him looking frankly at his own situation as he makes the transformation from expert doctor to needy patient.

“Once I had been diagnosed with a terminal illness, I began to view the world through two perspectives; I was starting to see death as both doctor an patient. As a doctor, I knew not to to declare “Cancer is a battle I am going to win!” or ask “Why me?” (Answer: Why not me?)”

“Like my own patients, I had to face my mortality and try to understand what made my life worth living…”

It’s his clear thinking that engages the reader so fully. We, and everyone we know, will die. It is the awful truth we spend our days not looking at and here is someone who has studied the brain extensively, who knows what it is to look right at death, someone who writes with zinging clarity, preparing to share his wisdom with us so that we may go forwards in our own lives in a more meaningful way.

“The physician’s duty is not to stave off death or return patients to their old lives, but to take into our arms a patient and family whose lives have disintegrated and work until they can stand back up and face, and make sense of, their own existence.”

Everything Kalanithi had worked so hard to achieve in his future, his ambitions and hopes, were lost with diagnosis. He had to examine what was most important to him. As he wrestled with choosing between literature and medicine before specialising, he wrestled again. He returned to surgery for a while, completing his residency with customary excellence despite everything. Offered his dream job he briefly allowed himself the fantasy of accepting it, before turning it down. He and Lucy decided to have a baby. He wrote most of this book. In the end it all boiled down to the deeply personal, as it does for us all. The things that matter are the relationships we have. It’s family and friends and love that count.

This is why When Breath Becomes Air is successful. We are desperate for clues how to live, how to die, how to cope. It’s unfair to expect so much from a book. Its unfair that Kalanithi died when he was 37. Life, and death, is not fair.

Smash Lits with Janice Galloway

Smash Lits with Janice Galloway

Janice Galloway is my favourite writer so I was thrilled when we were able to launch The Forge Literary Magazine with her superb story, peak. She recently published a new collection, Jellyfish, available from Freight Books, which showcases her incredible talent. If you’re a fan of short stories I really must ask you to buy/read a copy of this. It’s a masterclass.

 

I’m really chuffed that Janice agreed to take part in Smash Lits and answer my daft questions.

1. Do you have any recurring dreams?

1) Being in an institution or school and trying to pass for a natural member of that institution (one version of this was living in a sauna with only a towel for belongings);

2) Being on a bus heading somewhere very determinedly and realising it has no driver or other passengers after five minutes of just looking out of the window thinking I was safe;

3) Being alone in the dusk and looking out over low-lit moorland with a road winding through it, and someone waiting at the bus stop who may or may not be my mother –

Can I stop now? They go on forever.

2. Do you believe human beings can spontaneously combust?

Yes. Indeed, there have been times I wished I could.

3. You have to swap places with one other writer for a week. Who and why?

Balzac, because he wrote (longhand, obviously) very fast indeed and I can’t write anything fast by any means whatever.

4. Did you have an invisible friend when you were younger?

No. Another loss.

5. What’s your favourite sweet?

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High quality – violet cream. Common or garden – Highland Toffee. I hope my dentist doesn’t see this.

6. Have you ever read someone else’s diary?

No. But my big sister read mine out loud at tea-time when I was 13.

7. Your writing is music, what style is it?

Varies. I can confidently say it’s never pub singalongs.

8. Bacon VS Tofu – who wins? Why?

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Tofu because it is honourable and bacon kills things and I want to say the right thing instead of reveal my weakness.

9. What was the last text you sent?

Get onions. Get lots of onions.

10. What is the oldest piece of clothing in your wardrobe?

A cardigan that was knitted by my sister and belonged to my mother. It’s TINY.

11. Have you ever had your fortune told?

Yes. I lived in a seaside town and the travelling fair (funfair, that is) came with a built-on fortune teller.

12. Who is your favourite Neighbours character?

I have never seen Neighbours. If there was a dog in it I would have liked that.

13. What’s your favourite swear?

Bugger McFucketty

14. What sandwiches would you have made for a picnic with George Orwell?

Boiled cabbage.

15. You obviously love words, do you have a favourite?

Succulent.

16. What’s the best thing ever?

A wild animal coming to give you a sniff and examine what you are out of curiosity. NB It must not be a spider.

17. Have you ever had a nickname?

No. At home as a child, I answered to “Here, you” more than anything else if that counts.

18. Do you have any writing rituals?

Other than occasionally weeping with rage and frustration, no.

19. Your character in “burning love” calls Sylvia Plath “the Boston Harpie” – what would they call you?

The character in the story would probably call me “Who?”.

20. What question should I have asked you?

Can we send you a cheque?

Janice, you’re amazing. Thank you for supporting our new magazine and thank you for writing your words. Dear everyone, please buy Jellyfish, you won’t be disappointed. 

Exciting new literary magazine

I am very excited to tell you about a new online literary magazine that launches tomorrow. It’s called The Forge and it’s pretty blooming special. I am one of the editors so yeah, I’m bound to think that, but seriously, it really is going to be good. We launch with a story by Janice Galloway – that’s how fucking cool we are. We have pieces by Roxane Gay, Emma Jane Unsworth, Kevin Barry and other superb writers coming your way. We want your submissions too. It’s free to sub to us and we pay. Didn’t I tell you we’re amazing?

We are an international group of literary writers who work together in an online writing group (The Fiction Forge – natch). Our leader is John Haggerty, a writer who makes me laugh more than any other. Twelve of us are going to rotate in pairs as editors and each of us will choose our favourite stories. John and I are first up. I was asked to write a wishlist of what I would most like to read which I’m sharing here:

Please send me the writing you are proudest of. I don’t want to read the piece that might do, I want the one you know means you are a bloody brilliant writer.

I like fiction that rings with truth and non-fiction that reads like it’s made-up.
I like stories that surprise, but don’t hinge on a twist.
I like darkly funny and dislike punchlines.
I like flash and longer form.
I love words and look forward to reading yours.

So, read us, love us, sub to us, “like” our Facebook page, follow us on Twitter, share us, enjoy us.

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Beautiful Trees by Nik Perring

Roast Books have just published another of Nik Perring’s intriguing fictions.

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It’s the second in a trilogy of stories following the lives of Alexander, Lucy and Lily. Just like the first, Beautiful Words, it resembles a children’s book. (The third will be Beautiful Shapes.)

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Nik is a flash fiction magician conjuring whole lives with small, careful details. He goes back and forth in Alexander, Lucy and Lily’s timelines and whilst describing various trees gently relates moments to it. For a book so brief it’s surprisingly moving, but that’s because Perring is extraordinarily good at this. A written review can’t quite explain how this all works. Suffice to say it is all very uniquely Perring. His words are accompanied and enhanced by illustrations by Miranda Sofroniou, and you should probably buy a copy for yourself and one for your favourite person too.

Smash Lits with Stuart Evers

1 What would your superhero power be?

I would like to be able to make people laugh even though it’s the last thing they could ever imagine doing.

2 What was the last text you sent?

It was the number of the taxi company through which I’d booked my wife a cab. All of my texts are brutally factual.

3 You are wallpaper. What is your pattern?

My father loves wallpaper; I have never seen its point. I do love a diagonal stripe though, so diagonal stripes in black and white. A bit Bridget Riley-ish, I suppose.

4 Who is your favourite TV dad?

Joe DuBois from I-see-dead-people crime show Medium. Joe is the moral centre of the DuBois family: he loves his wife and three kids, holds down a job and has to deal with Alison’s gift – she solves murders via clues presented by murder victims – while rarely complaining that he and the rest of the family are merely adjuncts to her working life. It’s a strange show in lots of ways: on the face of it, it’s a lurid repoint of the traditional cop show; but it’s actually quite an astute examination of family life when one member of that family perpetually puts those outside of the family first. That the show manages to present this in a subtle way is why it is one of the best popular crime shows of the last thirty years.

5 Bacon VS Tofu – who wins? Why?

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Bacon is essential in coq au vin. A world without coq au vin is not worth living for.

6 Have you ever had a nickname?

Before I came to London sixteen years ago, I had never had a nickname. I now have lots, none of which I particularly love or loathe. I won’t say what they are. I can’t imagine Samuel Beckett telling anyone that he’s known as Becky by the blokes down at the chess boards in the park; or Virginia Woolf admitting that Vita Sackville-West always called her Foxy, and you should always aspire to follow the lessons of the greats.

7 You have to swap places with one other writer for a week. Who and why?

AS Byatt. I hear she has an excellent swimming pool.

8 What is the oldest piece of clothing in your wardrobe?

I have a suit that is comfortably twice my age. The cut and material of old suits are vastly superior to contemporary counterparts. Even old suits from Burtons make you feel like Terence Stamp waiting for Julie Christie.

9 Did you find Bob Monkhouse funny?

Monkhouse wrote the best clean joke I know – When I said I was going to become a comedian, they all laughed. Well, they’re not laughing now – and often he had a gift for piercing self-laceration. But I always found him slightly sinister, slightly sad, rather than really funny.

10 What’s your favourite swear?

At the moment I like piss-wristed.

11 What’s your favourite thing from childhood that you’ve still got?

Crippling self-doubt and a colossal ego.

12 Who is your favourite Neighbours character?

I think it was Jim Robinson’s sister who on arriving for Scott and Charlene’s wedding gave them a gift of baby clothes. Everyone looked shocked and she said, well what did you expect me to think? Whoever she was, she was a highlight whenever she cropped back into it.

13 Have you ever seen a ghost?

No. They do, however, tend to crop up in my fiction a lot.

14 What would your motto for life be?

The same as is embroidered on Malcom Tucker’s tea-towel.

15 Do you have any writing rituals?

I don’t have the time for rituals, which is a shame. I’d love to be able to say I can only write after eating a nectarine, or walking through mulchy fields, but it’s more of a case of where- and whenever.

16 What sandwiches would you make for a picnic with Dave Eggers?

I tend to avoid making sandwiches for picnics, what I’d really like is some garlic roast chicken thighs and some cold sausages. If Dave is unhappy with that, he can provide his own.

17 What colour is fatherhood?

It’s the same shade of blue I see as I listen to side two of the Beatles’ Abbey Road LP.

18 What is your default pub drink?

I like pale ales, so will order one of those. Guinness if not.

19 Do you talk to yourself?

All the time. It is an ongoing narrative of increasing desperation.

20 What question should I have asked you?
Why do you love Columbo? One day I will answer this question in over 40,000 words.

Thank you so much for taking part in Smash Lits. I now want to watch Medium and read your Columbo essay more than you could guess. Those of you who’d like to know more can head over to Twitter @StuartEvers

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