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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.

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.

Pulpy goodness

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A new edition of the ever fabulous Pulp Net is now up. I have written reviews of Janice Galloway’s “This is Not About Me” and Chris Killen’s “The Bird Room”.

Also, for London dwelling peeps, there is a Pulp Net Short Story Cafe on tonight, which looks well worth going to.

Two real reviews, and one fake!

Two reviews of mine have just gone live at Pulp Net. Kuzhali Manickavel and Tania Hershman have written very different debut story collections, but I can whole heartedly recommend both, and its not often I can say that!

I contributed a fake review to Jenn Ashworth’s collaboration with Tolu Ogunlesi. You can read the whole online dual blog story at Adore Adorna and here.

Reviews – what should I do?

Reviewing is taking up a fair bit of my time lately. I think I should probably spend more time writing my own stuff than writing about others, but I love reading, and when I find something brilliant I really want to share.
Anyway, I pride myself on integrity and honesty and all that good stuff.
But.
Yes, but.
I am not putting up reviews of books I don’t like.
I feel concerned for the author; they may be offended, they spent time writing the book, who the fuck am I to trample on their words?
And yet…

A lot of the books I recently read were proof copies. I read 9 proofs in the last few months, and of the 9 I thought that 1 was good. Not my kind of book, but good. I expect it to do well and I will be glad when it does. The other 8 were varying degrees of not good. From disappointing to utterly shite. Now they are appearing in the bookshop, being reviewed in the papers and online. I am feeling a wee bit disgruntled actually. There is definitely a jealousy thing going on. A “this crap is published whilst I struggle” feeling.

I read a review on a respected blog yesterday that said one was ‘a cracker’. I found it trite, obvious, dull. I was going to post a reply to that effect, but then the publisher posted, said how pleased they were with it, how hopeful they were for its success. I’d be wrong to damn it, not that I think loads of people listen to me, but…

What if that was my book? What if finally I finished my novel, and it was published, and someone influential said it was ace, and then someone else said, no, actually I though it was caca? How would I feel?

So. What do you think? Is it best just to keep my mouth shut?

Reviews, proofs, and marketing untruths

I began putting short reviews of books I had read here on my blog so that when I inevitably forget what I thought of such and such a title I can check! Yup, I really am that vague. Now I review for several different places, which is kinda a mixed blessing.

When buying books I am careful, I know what I will probably like, I avoid what I’ll probably loathe. One of the reasons I signed up to read and review proofs for work was to force myself to read outside of my usual range. Most times my impulses are right and I have to force myself to grind on through, hating it, and yes, frankly resenting the fact that somehow the author has managed to get a book deal. Once so far, out of say 15 books, I have read something that I would never have picked, and I thought it was okay, good even. I can see there will be a market for it. Big whoop.

What is fascinating to me though is the marketing that goes with these as yet unpublished books. They come with covering letters and blurbs hailing the author as a fresh, new talent, the next [add name of famous author], an exciting voice etcetera. I usually roll my eyes and ignore. However this latest made me really quite grr.

“This is a true word-of-mouth bestseller and a classic bookclub read.”

Now call me pedantic, but to be a ‘true word of mouth bestseller’ I would have thought that the book would have had to be published, no? And talked about? And to be a ‘bestseller’ erm, wouldn’t it have had to have sold a lot?

Reviews

This months edition of the fabulous Short Review is now ‘live’. And you can read my review of Fifteen Modern Tales of Attraction by Alison MacLeod over there:
http://www.theshortreview.com/reviews/15moderntalesofattraction.htm
plus reviews of many other delicious collections.