Reading Ireland Month 2023, A Wish List

Looking ahead, March is Reading Ireland month over at Cathy746Books, so I’m putting together what is currently on my shelf and what is lurking in the depths of my kindle, which I seem to have been more reluctant to read from lately, so a month of focusing on Irish literature should help.

Irish Literature Classic Contemporary Nonfiction
Cathy has set out a program below for the five weeks that focuses on classics, contemporary works (where most of my titles sit), short stories and non fiction.

Eager Anticipation

I had been looking forward to reading Sara Baume’s Seven Steeples, having read her excellent nonfiction title Handiwork, and two other novels, Spill Simmer Falter Wither and A Line Made by Walking – however I couldn’t wait and read it earlier this month. Highly recommended literary fiction, with a strong tendency toward poetic prose.

Intro Week:    1 – 5 March

I’m going to try and read the Edna O’Brien trilogy The Country Girls in the first week, which I have in one volume, but I will post as the three separate books. Originally published in 1960, 1962 and 1964, they are a portrait of youth, marriage, friendship, love and loss and I’m very excited to read this author for the first time and to begin here. She is hailed as one of the great chroniclers of the female experience in the twentieth century.

I managed to acquire a hardback of her 1994 novel, House of Splendid Isolation, which would be great to read if time allows.

Irish Classics Week: 6 -12 March

I have the novella A World of Love (1954) by Elisabeth Bowen, which should be possible to read in week 2.

I’m putting Brian Moore into this category, I have 3 of his novels on my shelf, a continuation, having read five of his novels for the 100th centenary in 2021.  A previously neglected Irish author, he lived most of his adult life in Canada and the U.S., thus his literary output was created from the perspective of an outsider, looking back at his own culture, and occasionally at other cultures where he spent time, such as The Statement (1995), a political thriller set in France and The Magician’s Wife (1997), historical fiction set in France and Algeria, both of which take an aspect of French history that he found fascinating, turning them into compelling stories.

I have The Temptation of Eileen Hughes (1981), a Belfast love triangle, Black Robe (1985), a Jesuit missionary in North America in the 17th century, and The Mangan Inheritance (1979), a recently widowed man in Canada journeys to track down an Irish ancestor.

Contemporary Irish Week: 13 – 19 March

In this 3rd week, I shall attempt one or two of these novels from the kindle.

Trespasses by Louise Kennedy – this novel has garnered much praise since publication, set in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, a shattering novel about a young woman caught between allegiance to community and a dangerous passion.

Factory Girls by Michelle Gallen – I loved her novel Big Girl, Small Town and this latest has just been shortlisted for the Comedy Women in Print Award 2022/23 UK/Ireland. This is a definite, she makes me laugh out loud!

The Quiet Whispers Never Stop Olivia Fitzsimons – a dual narrative set in 1982 & 1994 Ireland, exploring the mother-daughter relationship; described as “A story of love, obsession and escape, an uncompromising, lyrical tour-de-force that marks the arrival of an extraordinary new voice in Irish fiction”.

Listening Still Anne Griffin – her debut When All is Said was a runaway international success, a book I enjoyed about a man who toasts 5 friends of importance to him. Her second book is about a young woman who can hear the last words of the dead, though it hasn’t made the same impact on readers; she has a new book due out on 27 Apr 2023 The Island of Longing about the disappearance of a daughter and a mother’s difficulty in accepting her loss, not knowing whether she is alive or dead. This latest is getting many 5 star reviews (from those reading an advance copy), one to watch.

A Traveller at the Gates of Wisdom John Boyne – an unknown man leads the reader through 2000 years of human and family history, slipping through time and space with slightly different identities, continuing on the same path, from Palestine in AD 1 to the year 2080 in a space colony. An ambitious and epic concept, a story that has had mixed reviews.

#ReadingIreland2023

Short Story Week: 20 – 26 March

I have this one collection that I shall try to get to read:

Dance Move by Wendy Erskine – stories set in Northern Ireland, where we meet characters looking to wrest control of their lives, only to find themselves defined by a moment in their past that marked them. In these stories – as in real life – the funny, the tender and the devastating go hand in hand. Full of warmth, the familiar and the strange, they are about what it means to live in the world, how far you can end up from where you came from, and what it means to look back.

Non- Fiction Week: 27 – 31 March

Cacophony of Bone Kerri ni dochartaighI don’t have any Irish nonfiction left unread on my shelf, but I have noted that creative nonfiction author Kerri ní Dochartaigh, whose debut Thin Places I read in 2021 and enjoyed immensely, has a follow up book due out in April 2023, Cacophony of Bones.

It maps the circle of a year – a journey from one place to another, field notes of a life – from one winter, to the next. It is a telling of a changed life, in a changed world – and it is about all that does not change, that which simply keeps on – living and breathing, nesting and dying – in spite of it all.

I would also recommend in this category, the excellent collection of essays The Passenger Ireland – one of my Top Reads in 2022

Literary Inspiration

Dublin One City One Read Irish LiteratureIf you are looking for inspiration, check out Cathy’s blog, where she shares a list of 100 Irish Novels from Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift (1726) to Here Are The Young Men by Rob Doyle (2014) and 100 Novels by Irish Women Writers from the Memoirs of Miss Sidney Bidulph by Frances Sheridan (1761) to Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney (2017).

You can check out the One Dublin, One Book challenge – each year an invitation to read an Irish book in April. Last year, I joined in and read the excellent Nora, A Love Story of Nora and James Joyce by Nuala O’Connor.

In April 2023, they will be reading The Coroner’s Daughter by Andrew Hughes.

Alternatively, check out my posts:

My Year of Irish Literature – 2021 Highlights

My Top 5 Irish Fiction & Nonfiction Books

Have you read and enjoyed any of the titles here? Are you planning on reading any Irish literature in March? If so, what are you looking forward to reading? Do you have a favourite Irish author or book? Let me know in the comments below.

Happy Reading Ireland if you join in!

All My Wild Mothers by Victoria Bennett

Motherhood, Loss and an Apothecary Garden

I loved this book, a kind of hybrid memoir that combined a passion for herbal folklore and a creative project, the building of an apothecary garden in a location where there were many obstacles to overcome, environmental and human, while exploring and healing from the loss of a loved one.

It reminded me a little of the experience of reading Helen Macdonald’s H is For Hawk, another memoir where the author takes on challenging project while navigating the tumultuous waves of grief – in that case, training a goshawk.

grief nature writing memoir motherhood loss apothecary garden

The memoir began at a moment in the author’s life when there was an unexpected death in the family; grief and coping with it, learning how to manage its lingering presence, is one of the themes she reflects on throughout the book.

At the time of this initial event, she is pregnant with her first child and as the story continues, her son becomes as much a part of the narrative as the author herself.

Victoria Bennett grew up in a large family, one that due to her father’s career, relocated countries often, that fragmented when some of the children were sent to boarding school, and even when they did settle down, did not partake in community life. They were self contained.

Used to living in places where they were outsiders, it became a way of being, even in their country of origin, England. In a conservative rural community, her mother wore hot-pants and homemade kaftans, had an art studio in the shed and had once offered to liven up a craft show with an exhibition of nudes.

Due to circumstance, Bennett and her husband move to a new social housing estate in rural Cumbria, built over what was an industrial site, a barren, rubble-filled, now rule-restricted, wasteland.

Mother and son slowly repurpose their backyard, building an apothecary garden – a construction of permaculture beauty, an appreciation of nature, an alternative education – yet encounter resistance, judgement, complaint and obstacle as subscribers to a more authoritarian rule, attempt to oppress or stamp out their initiative, unable to see the bigger picture of a more sustainable, kinder way of living in the shared world we inhabit.

wildflowers weeds apothecary garden

Photo E. BolovtsovaPexels.com

Bennett’s quest, to build an apothecary garden and educate (home-school) her son, was in part, an effort to integrate into the community, to overcome an inherited sense of not belonging, a deconditioning of learned ways. She overcomes anxiety, often lead by her son’s enthusiasm, to become more participative.

Despite her reticence, she had been raised by a feminist, ‘my mother was fierce about being fair,’ her sisters were outspoken, when Bennett discovers that her efforts to create something sustainable are being undermined by neighbours, she sets out to inform and educate them all.

“When we first moved onto the estate, the garden was a patch of newly sown grass, a thin layer of topsoil, and several metres of rock, rubble, and industrial hardcore. With no money, and only the weeds we found growing on the building site, my young son and I set out to see what we could grow. What was once a wasteland, became a haven for wildlife, and a balm for the body and soul. “

For a memoir that  navigated emotions, it had a good solid structure within which to contain the outpourings – each chapter began with a different plant, starting with the intriguing medieval, magical perception of it, including stunning yet simple black & white woodcut illustrations, the medicinal properties, a bit of folklore and where it might be found.  There followed a meandering through events, memories and reflections from Bennett’s life, that often ventured off from an aspect of the plant’s curative powers.

ALL My Wild Mothers

Photo Yan Krukau Pexels.com

Sow Thistle, Sonchus Oleraceus

Milkweed, swine thistle, turn sole, hare’s colewort, soft thistle

Hang sow thistle in the home to drive out melancholy…

Sow thistle grows abundantly on rubbish dumps, wasteland and roadsides.

All My Wild Mothers is also a reflection on motherhood, of one woman’s experience, given her own inclinations, personality and the effect of being the youngest in a family of six children. It is a celebration of the power and reward of maternal nurturing, of focusing on the development of a child according to their individual needs,

It is sensitively narrated, introspective and a tribute in particular to her sisters and her mother and a celebration of her son, for all that he teaches her, that he reflects back to her, due to the way she parents him and the way he in turn reminds her what it is to be a child, the gifts they offer having been nurtured, loved and allowed to grow into themselves authentically. He is a less conditioned mini human than most and Bennett’s articulate expression and capturing of his innocent yet profound utterances are a gift to all who read her prose.

Children can teach and remind us of so much that is simple and good in life, sadly conditioned out of us by the effect of a societal system that squashes it before it can have enough of a chance to flourish.

I absolutely loved this quiet book, that celebrates the wisdom of small children, nurtured through the early years and the symbiosis of mother and child.

Highly Recommended.

“What is grief, if not love persevering.” WandaVision

Victoria Bennett, Author

Victoria Bennet AuthorVictoria Bennett was born in Oxfordshire in 1971. A poet and author, her writing has previously received a Northern Debut Award, a Northern Promise Award, the Andrew Waterhouse Award, and has been longlisted for the Penguin WriteNow programme and the inaugural Nan Shepherd Prize for under-represented voices.

She founded Wild Women Press in 1999 to support rural women writers in her community, and since 2018 has curated the global Wild Woman Web project, an inclusive online space focusing on nature, connection, and creativity. When not juggling writing, full-time care, and genetic illness, she can be found where the wild weeds grow.  All My Wild Mothers is her debut memoir.

In 2022, her family made the difficult decision to leave the garden and follow a long-held dream of moving to Orkney, where they will discover anew what wildness will grow in a new soil.

Further Reading

For a Peek Inside the Garden + some of Victoria Bennett’s herbal potion recipes

N.B. Thank you to the publisher for the ARC (Advance Reader Copy) ebook provided via NetGalley.

Best Books Read in 2021 Part 3: Top 10 Non Fiction

Paris Hotel de Ville Christmas 2021

Sisters in Paris

I had hoped to issue Part 3 of My Top Reads of 2021 in December, however that didn’t happen. I put my books and blog aside for a month while my sister was visiting, to just enjoy each other’s company and the beauty of the local environment where I live.

Given the times we are currently living through, it has been a humbling gift to combine those two things, to re-connect and enjoy our surroundings, albeit mid-winter.

2022 Reading Plans of a Mood Reader

Today my friend Deidre at Brown Girl Reading called and it was like a sign from the book world, a reminder that this post was sitting here, as are the many piles of unread books. Before speaking to her I had no idea what I might read next, or in 2022.

Musée Carnavalet Me Marais Paris History Madame Sévigné de Seve

History of Paris, Musée Carnavalet

As a mood reader, I don’t tend to make plans, but as I stood in front of the shelves, I noticed that I have already accumulated some little piles of books by authors I want to read more of, like Buchi Emecheta, Gayl Jones, Mary Costello, Janet Frame; more books by Northern Irish authors, including a few more by Brian Moore.

There’s a French history written by women pile, inspired by a recent visit to the History of Paris, Musée Carnavalet. It seems something in my subconscious had indeed been planning!

Best NonFiction Reads of 2021

So, to complete there three part series, following on from Part 1: The Stats + One Outstanding Read of the Year and Part 2: Best Fiction Reads, here is my Part 3: Best NonFiction Books of 2021 and at the end, I’ve tagged on 4 books from my Spiritual Well-being collection that I read in 2021, each of them equally inspiring and nourishing.

In 2021 I read 28 works of nonfiction, so many of them were were excellent, below is a selection of those that I really enjoyed, that have stayed with me, in no particular order:

Autobiography/Memoir

To My Childresn Children Sindiwe Magona1. To My Children’s Children (1990) + Forced to Grow (1992) by Sindiwe Magona (South Africa) – discovering Sindiwe Magona was one of my reading highlights of 2021. Tired of her people being written about and misrepresented by others, she decided for the sake of generations to come, and especially for girls, to share her experience, of an enriching, loving childhood, of growing up under apartheid and overcoming racist and patriarchal challenges.

The first volume covers her life up to the age of 23, when she encounters the most challenging circumstance ever and then in Forced to Grow, from age 23-40 we learn how she finds a way not only to survive but to grow, develop and thrive, overcoming poverty, pursuing education, collaborating with empowered women, spending over 20 years serving in the United Nations. These two books are like nothing else I’ve ever read coming out of South Africa, more than a gift to her grandchildren, they are a treasure and a lesson in humility to all humanity. I’m hoping there is a third volume in the making.

The Cost of LIving Deborah Levy memoir2. Real Estate (2021) + The Cost of Living (2018) by Deborah Levy (Creative Nonfiction) (South Africa/UK) – An author who left South Africa at the age of 9, Levy’s life and reminiscences are a world away from her birthplace and from the life of her compatriot above, though they have left a barely discernible imprint. While Magona embraces the entirety of her experience, Levy in titling her opening memoir Things I Don’t Want to Know (2013), struggles to talk about what she doesn’t want to talk about, using humour, her observation of others and a feminist lens to deflect her existentialism.

In three volumes, as she begins a new phase, unravelling from marriage into mature, independent woman, she reflects on life, her influences, her frustrations, critiquing the roles society assigns us, the way literature and cinema perpetuate them and considers the effect of disrupting them, breaking free. She observes what is going on around her while considering the wisdom of writers who came before, liberates herself from convention, while longing still for aspects of a distorted dream. Slim volumes, entertaining to read, they both inform and obscure, a life in fragments.

autobiography memoir australia indigenous3. My Place by Sally Morgan (1987) (Australia) (Biography/Memoir) – a classic of Australian aboriginal literature, Morgan writes about her childhood when her identity was hidden from her, uncovering her Aboriginal ancestry and understanding why her grandmother was so fearful of talking about the past.

Sharing what she discovered of the life stories of her mother, grandmother and great Uncle to understand why it was deemed necessary to be protected from the knowledge of who she was, she uncovers a heritage and her place in it, in this extraordinary and valuable account. An absolute must read.

Maggie O'Farrell Memoir Near Death Experiences4. I Am, I Am, I Am, Seventeen Brushes With Death (2017) by Maggie O’Farrell (Northern Ireland/British) (memoir) – a unique memoir told through 17 encounters with death that range from the terrifying to the mundane, the memorable to the repressed.

O’Farrell finds meaning in these experiences, initially cultivating a state of fearlessness followed by the magical effect and shift in perspective that giving birth to a child brings about. A remarkable and thought provoking work using a unique structure, I thought it was brilliant.

Nature Writing

Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants5. Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer (2013) (Creative Non Fiction) (US) – In this remarkable collection of 32 essays, organised into 5 sections that follow the life cycle of sweetgrass, we learn about the philosophy of nature from the perspective of Native American Indigenous Wisdom, shared by a woman of native origin who is a scientist, botanist, teacher, mother.

Sharing scientific knowledge and going out into the forest and field, she demonstrates how close and quiet observation of plants in their habitat teach us. The most crucial lessons being learning how to give back, reciprocity and gift giving, using our imagination and intuition to reconnect with nature and understand the connection between them and us. Just stunning.

nature writing Wainwright prize6. Diary of a Young Naturalist by Dara McAnulty (2020) (Northern Ireland) – an inspired account of a year in the life of a 15 year old boy with a passion for nature and all forms of wildlife and how his connection to them assists him to navigate life mitigating the intensity and challenges of autism.

His observations are a pleasure to read, his use of language evocative and resonant in bringing the natural world he loves to life for the reader. A writer to watch, inspirational.

Justice/Social Science/History

The Fire Next Time James Baldwin7. The Fire Next Time James Baldwin (1963) (Letters) (Social Justice) (US) – a short book of just two letters, one written to his young nephew, a kind of preparation for what lies ahead of him as he will become a young black man in America and a tender description of who he sees in him, his heritage, his family connection and that he is loved, a beautiful literary gift to a young boy.

The second letter he writes to himself, Letter From a Region of My Mind – like a journal entry, he writes of his own development of his self-awareness, of the experiences that moulded him, of his choices to seek refuge and revenge in the same calling, his assessment of meeting Elijah Muhammed, leader of the Nation of Islam. Baldwin’s message is one of love, of standing up for one’s rights, of dignity and the health of one’s soul, of our responsibility to life. A gem of a book, as relevant now as when he wrote it.

Nurturing Humanity8. Nurturing Our Humanity, Riane Eisler, Douglas Fry (Austria/US) (Social Science/Cultural History/Anthropology) (2019) – The long awaited sequel to her brilliant The Chalice and The Blade (1987) which introduced Eisler’s theory on domination versus partnership models of society, this new book written in collaboration with Anthropologist Douglas Fry, explores how domination and partnership have shaped our brains, lives and futures.

They demonstrate through decades of research how we have been influenced by a system of domination that favours hierarchical structures, ranking of one over another, authoritarian parenting and leadership, fueled by fear, tamed by punishment, sustained by conditioning. They argue that the path to human survival and well-being hinges on our human capacities to cooperate and promote social equality, through empathy, equity, helping, caring and various other prosocial acts. A riveting, essential read on understanding human nature and where we are headed.

Sea People In Search of Ancient Navigators of the Pacific9. Sea People Christina Thompson (2019) (Australia/US) (History)  – I loved and was fascinated by this book, a woman curious about her husband and son’s cultural heritage, looks back at what has been written by various/mostly male historians about these ancient navigators of the Pacific and according to their own paradigm and biases, their theories on how they arrived there.

What she discovers are non-instrument navigation techniques that Europeans weren’t aware of, abilities developed by these ancient mariners that are fascinating to imagine, and that a small group seek to emulate, challenging themselves to go back in time, to think and understand the sea, the stars and nature, as their ancestors did. Fascinating and insightful.

Cut From the Same Cloth Sabeena Akhtar10. Cut From the Same Cloth, Muslim Women on Life in Britain (2021) Edited Sabeena Akhtar (UK) (Essays) – this was a long awaited volume of essays, crowdfunded by many supporters, brings together the voices of 21 Muslim women of different ages, races and backgrounds, allowing them to explore their experience and spiritual perspectives, expressing them creatively.

More than mere essays, collectively, their words bust the all too common stereotypic myths of the hijab wearing woman and introduce us to a bright, humorous, passionate group of women, whose honesty and thoughts are both empowering and insightful. Though they are writing for themselves and each other, anyone interested in understanding the many diverse views of British Muslim women today, will enjoy reading this anthology.

Spiritual Well-being Reads

Finally, one of the genres I like to read is Spiritual Well-being and there is a page dedicated to those books at the top of this blog, for easy reference. They tend to be winter reads, corresponding to that time when we tend to go within and might benefit from a revisiting of inspirational words and an alternative perspective on how to co-exist with whatever it is we are dealing with in the external world.

Sensitives and Soul Purpose

The Power of Empaths in an Increasingly Harsh WorldThis year I found inspiration from two of my favourites in this field, and two new authors, all of them coming from renowned publisher Hay House.

“Every thought we think is creating our future.” Louise Hay

Anita Moorjani’s Sensitive is the New Strong (2021) (India/Hong Kong/US) is written in particular for highly sensitive empaths, with information about recognising this in oneself, learning to develop it as a strength, while understanding the importance of  how to protect your energetic body from the negative effects of the kind of world we live in today.

Rebecca Campbell What is a Soul WLetters to a Starseed (2021) by Australian intuitive and creative, now based in Glastonbury, Rebecca Campbell, who previously wrote Light is the New Black(2015) and Rise Sister Rise (2016). This latest book is for those interested in understanding more about soul purpose.

She considers the big questions that mystics and philosophers through the ages have been asking about our cosmic origins, in a much lighter way: What is the soul, where did it originate and why have we chosen to come here at this time? You’ll know if this is meant for you or not.

Archangel Guidance and Self-Worth

the female archangels Claire StoneAnother new author I picked up this year was Claire Stone and her book The Female Archangels (2021) (UK) having already read quite a few books by Kyle Gray, which I’ve found hugely beneficial in previous years to carry with me and read whenever I had to deal with stressful hospital environments, unhelpful bureaucracy, anxiety producing school meetings – an alternative to pharmaceuticals I guess!

I enjoyed reading her book, although it might be more suited to practitioners or those already in the habit of ritual, as many of her suggestions require props.

Inspirational memoir of belongingFinally, Worth by Bharti Dhir (2021) (UK/Uganda) – Bharti Dhir was abandoned as a newborn in a fruit box on the side of the road in the Uganda countryside. To this day she doesn’t know who her birth mother was, though rumours created a version of the story and the imagination of the author and reader contribute to what might have happened.

Throughout her childhood there are numerous events, situations, heath problems and challenges that Bharti and her family live through, address and overcome, some of which contribute (at the time) to diminishing her sense of self-worth. With each situation, she shares how she is able to look back with compassion and forgiveness and describe how she was able to turn all that around.

Her reflections on compassion and empathy are enlightening and model a nurturing way to embrace our humanity and practice them as acts of self-care.

 * * * * *

That’s it for 2021 nonfiction reads. Share with me your recent nonfiction favourites or thoughts on any of the above.

Happy Reading for 2022 and thank you for reading!

Claire

Real Estate by Deborah Levy

I read the three volumes that make up Deborah Levy’s Living Autobiography over the year, beginning with the slim Things I Don’t Want to Know, a writer in the cocoon stage of transformation, the threads wound tight. A confrontation with denial, it is equally enticing as it is uncomfortable, it reveals as it obscures trying to fit into George Orwell’s framework from his essay ‘Why I Write’.

In The Cost of Living, a more expansive narrative, the threads unravel and insights are plentiful, though some of the thinking that created the earlier restrictiveness remain.

Real Estate Deborah Levy Memoir AutobiographyAnd now the final volume, Real Estate, which might as easily have been called UnReal Estate, in tumeric coloured silk, Levy has shed the cocoon, ready to embrace a new decade, the nest empty.

I became obsessed with silk. I wanted to sleep in it and wear it and somehow knew it had healing properties. It started when a royalty cheque came in and I took it literally and began to sleep by royalty.

With marriage and motherhood behind her, she dreams of a home with a fountain in the garden, a mimosa tree, a place to welcome friends, unencumbered by practicalities or marital vows.

Yet in my unreal estate dreams my nest was not empty.

If anything the walls had expanded. My real estate had become bigger, there were many rooms, a breeze blew through every window, all the doors were open, the gate was unlatched. Outside in the unreal grounds, butterflies landed on bushes of purple lavender, my rowing boat was full of things people had left behind: a sandal, a hat, a book, a fishing net. I had recently added light green shutters to the window of the house.

Deborah Levy Real Estate Paris

Photo by alleksana on Pexels.com

As with the previous book, there are recurrent themes, there is a sense of humour and a search for something elusive in the idea of an appealing mature woman character. Deconstructing the stereotype of these persona, she ponders why no scripted female characters had full lives of their own.

It occurred to me that what was wrong with the scripts was that the mothers and grandmothers were always there to police the the more interesting desires of others, or to comfort them, or to be wise and dull.

Accepting a fellowship at the same time her younger daughter leaves home, she prepares to spend some months in a bare apartment in Paris, a new source of inspiration and insight, rereading and reflecting on the works of Simone de Beauvoir, Marguerite Duras and Katherine Mansfield, researching the subject of the doppelgänger.

My empty nest in Montmartre was really a version of my two writing sheds, except I could cook and sleep in it. I worked through the night on my new novel, while the sculptor downstairs worked through the night with her electric saw.

Approaching her sixth decade, somewhat in isolation brings on a melancholic reckoning, a party and as the mimosa blooms, the mood lifts.

mimosa Paris Deborah Levy Creative nonfiction

Photo Larysa Charnakal Pexels.com

It’s not easy to describe the book, being a circular narrative that moves forward at the same time revisiting themes, turning back on itself, considering different perspectives.

The combination of grit, pearls of wisdom and humour, combine in a rollicking read of interconnected thoughts and observations, the searching for and letting go of ideas, those that promise an experience and the outdated that no longer serve the purpose of finding contentedness as a mature woman.

I loved it, finishing it in two days, and all the more for having struggled through the first volume, been both delighted and frustrated by the second and arrived here, at the evolution of an observation and examination of what it means to live, to love, let go and just be.

Best Books Read in 2021 Part 1: The Stats + One Outstanding Read of the Year

In 2021 I read approximately 80 books. Less than in 2020 which was an exceptional year, when reading basically replaced external social activity and travel.

This year I’m sharing the best reads of the year over three separate posts; the overview and bigger picture seen from the stats here in Part 1 + My One Outstanding Read of the Year, Top Fiction Reads in Part 2 and Top Nonfiction in Part 3. And a few special mentions along the way.

Christmas reads literature in translationMy habit and ritual is to read a book a week, to read half an hour every morning and every evening, without fail. Now that I’m no longer required to fulfill the needs of little people in the early morning, a few pages accompanies my hot beverage to start the day and is like a reliable sedative that ensures I fall into easy sleep at night.

This year, it turns out I read a book and a half a week.

This change in rhythm and habit may explain why I’m reading more nonfiction, less escapism and imagination, more contemplative immersion.

Writing about reading is not only a pure joy it’s a way of decluttering; write a review, get rid of a book off the shelf, donate to the vide grenier!

So thank you to those who read and share the fun with me and apologies for email subscribers if I fill up your inboxes too rapidly at times.

The Stats

Over the years, I’ve made a conscious effort to read more women authors, to reverse a subconscious trend that had been occurring based on the exposure to reviews in traditional types of media. So now you could say I have a conscious bias towards women authors, this year representing 86%.

I know I’m missing out on some great storytelling, but I’ve become a little bit of a literary activist in this respect, so while Dalmon Galgut, the South African writer won the Booker Prize this year, I’m less likely to read The Promise, instead favouring another South African author Sindiwe Magona and her twin autobiographies, To My Children’s Children and Forced to Grow, two exceptional titles that deserve to be more widely known and read.

Reading Around the World

In 2021, I read books from 28 different countries, 87% of them were written in English and 13% translated from other languages. As you can see from the pie chart above, the Anglo-Saxon countries continue to dominate, although there was a much greater focus on Ireland than the UK, due to participating in the Brian Moore 100 read along.

The countries where authors originated from were US, Ireland, UK, South Africa, Australia, Uganda, New Zealand, Argentina, France, Canada, Uruguay, Italy, Cameroon, Nigeria, Lebanon, Jamaica, Zambia, Haiti, Chile, Antigua, Iran, Guadeloupe, Mexico, Kuwait, Hong Kong, Trinidad, Colombia, Japan.

Women In Translation

Best Reads of 2021At 13%, this was down on 2020 when 32% of my reads were in translation. This year I spent July/August focusing on a personal writing project so I didn’t participate in the usual Women in Translation August reading challenge.

Below, the breakdown by region.

Read Around the World 2021

Fiction Rules, Nonfiction Rises

Being a big fan of fiction, I was surprised to see this year that my nonfiction reads increased from 30% to 35%. It’s been a struggle to come up with a limited shortlist of favourites, as there were so many!

I read more multiple books by the same authors this year, for example in Nonfiction Sindiwe Magona (South Africa) and Deborah Levy (South Africa/UK), while in Fiction Brian Moore (Northern Ireland) and Sara Baume (Ireland).

Audio Books, E-Books, Paperback or Hardbacks

This year 78% of my reading came from off my bookshelf while 21% were e-books I read on a kindle.

Best Reads of 2021

There has been a significant upward trend in the reading/listening world towards audio books, a change I have not jumped into. I do have a daily half hour commute, but it’s through the countryside of Provence and being present to the local landscape is a pleasurable, mindful lead-up to the work I do.

I think it is interesting and encouraging though, that many are rediscovering literature through having someone read to them aloud, something that each generation has valued, from the radio listening days before television, to podcasts to audiobooks, not to mention the nostalgia of childhood, having stories read to us. I can still remember the excited anticipation of sitting on the mat in primary school, at that hour of the day that the teacher would continue with a longer story that was being read to the class.

What Mood of Book Do We Gravitate Towards?

There’s a new app for storing your reading library called The Storygraph. It’s interesting though I don’t think it matches what I get from Goodreads yet, but one thing it does is analyse your reading by mood and pace. So I have discovered that I tend to read more slow and medium paced books, only 2% are fast paced! So it appears I’m fast at reading slow paced books and slow at reading fast paced? Here’s the breakdown for 2021.

Mood of Book 2021

The three main moods of the books I read according to this are Reflective, Emotional and Challenging!

Outstanding Book of the Year 2021

Best Books of 2021 Autofiction Forough FarrokhzadAnd so to my One Outstanding Read of the Year, which thinking about it, combines a little of everything that appeals to me.

It is fiction, but based on the real life of a woman, so it has the best of what fiction offers through being able to reimagine a voice and the authenticity of nonfiction in using the life, the achievements, the poetry and self expression of a woman to channel her story. And it takes me to another country and culture, to open the mind and yet observe the universal.

Beyond Black There is No Colour : The Story of Forough Farrokhzad by Maryam Diener not only is my favourite and One Outstanding Read of 2021, but surely it is one of the least publicized and underrated books of the year.

Forough Farrokhzad, poet, mother, feminist, film-maker, radical, was one of the most iconic dissenting voices in modern Iranian history.

Maryam Diener reimagines the life of the young revolutionary poet in this heart-felt novella, portraying a young woman who desired to be authentic and write from the core of her being about her emotional life, loves and losses, in a way that no woman in her country before her had ever dared.

At only 150 pages, Diener has chosen certain events in Farrokhzad’s life from her childhood, marriage, her success with poetry and its contribution to the dissolution of her family life, her love for her son and the way she pours herself into her creative output, including film.

“What sets [Farrokhzad] apart from her predecessors and even her contemporary women writers is her rendering of quotidian experience with no intention to guide, to educate, to lead…(her) poetry is an accurate portrayal of the pain and pleasure of a whole generation undergoing radical change.” Iranian Scholar, Farzaneh Milani

It’s Outstanding and like nothing else I have read this year. This is the one slim book that rises to the top of the pile for me, one that haunts the reader, that leaves a legacy, that cuts a path for other women to step in to and follow.

And so next up My Top Fiction so 2021…

Did you have one book that stood out from all the rest this year? If so, share it in the comments below.

Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong

A Reckoning On Race and The Asian Condition

Essays Race Asian AmericanMinor Feelings is a collection of creative nonfiction essays that invites the reader to view aspects of the life experience of artist and writer Cathy Park Hong, from a little observed and known viewpoint, that of an Asian American woman pursuing her own authentic form of expression, while looking for other role models, disrupting the silence that is expected, through a polemic on race, ethnic origins and art.

There have been a few books published in recent years, on the subject of race and intersectionality, where race intersects with other characteristics such as feminism, gender, class and civil rights.

Cathy Park Hong’s contribution moves between different subjects in seven compelling essays that begin with a memory of her own depression, anger and growing realisation at what was at the core of her disturbance.

In her essays, she deconstructs aspects of life that have contributed to a feeling of oppression and her discovery of artists, comediens and writers, who have overcome something, their example like a stepping stone to her own liberation.

It is a thought provoking exploration of both her own personal experiences and opinions and the examples of other artists, citizens, friends and family that have inspired her to delve into the subject and express a truth.

United

In the opening essay she searches for a therapist, having described what lead her to that moment and then her difficulty in being able to engage with the one she selected.

I wanted a Korean American therapist because then I wouldn’t have to explain myself so much. She’d look at me and just know where I as coming from.

connection race Minor feelings

Photo by DS stories on Pexels.com

Her inability to get what she wants or an adequate explanation, followed by a thought provoking conversation with a friend, prove to be defining moments, as she experiences a moment of equanimity, seeing herself from outside of herself, raising her awareness. Her determination and vulnerability fight it out against each other. Intelligence finally wins.

Racial self-hatred is seeing yourself the way the whites see you, which turns you into your own worst enemy. Your only defense is to be hard on yourself, which becomes compulsive, and therefore a comfort, to peck yourself to death.

Her enterprising and persevering father, who studied his way successfully out of rural poverty, immigrated to the US in 1965 when the ban was lifted. The little detail of the hard working father and the frustrated mother provide a barely visible backdrop to the narrative, yet illuminate a strength, highlight contradictions and suggest future avenues not unexplored by this collection.

Stand Up

In this essay she finds inspiration listening to and watching Richard Pryor’s 1979 classic concert film Live in Concert, leading to an epiphany, a brief career in comedy and a deeper understanding of her world.

Pryor told lies – by spinning stories, ranting, boasting, and impersonating everything from a bowling pin to an orgasming hillbilly. And by telling lies, Pryor was more honest about race than most poems and novels I was reading at the time.

The transparency she finds in stand up comedy is like an apprenticeship in opening up and practicing in front of an audience. Comedians can’t pretend they don’t have an identity. They can’t hide behind words, they stand inside them.

It is here she defines for us what ‘minor feelings’ are, acknowledging a debt to cultural theorist Sianne Ngai who wrote extensively on non-cathartic  ‘ugly feelings‘ – negative emotions such as envy, irritation and boredom.

Minor feelings occur when American optimism is enforced upon you, which contradicts your own racialized reality, thereby creating a static of cognitive dissonance. You are told, “Things are so much better,” while you think, Things are the same. You are told, “Asian Americans are so successful,” while you feel like a failure. This optimism sets up false expectations that increase this feeling of dysphoria.

The End of White Innocence

Here Park Hong looks sideways at childhood, finding her own definition for what that means, dissecting Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, set in 1965 – a violent, landmark year for the civil rights movement, the assassination of Malcom X – yet manages to avoid everything outside the nostalgic memories it recreates.

Moonrise Kingdom is just one of countless contemporary films, works of literature, pieces of music, and lifestyle choices where wishing for innocent times means fetishizing an era when the nation was violently hostile to anyone different.

She writes of innocence and shame, of power dynamics, disobedience and indignity.

The alignment of childhood with innocence is an Anglo-American invention that wasn’t popularised until the nineteenth century. Before that in the West, children were treated like little adults who were, if they were raised Calvinist, damned to hell unless they found salvation.

Bad English

Recalling her early school education and affinity with bad English, her fascination with stationery.

It was once a source of shame, but now I say it proudly: bad English is my heritage. I share a literary lineage with writers who make the unmastering of English their rallying cry – who queer it, twerk it, Calibanize it, other it by hijacking English and and warping it to a fugitive tongue.

An Education

The final essays focus on her university years, her influential friendships and the path of being an artist and eventually moving away from painting and sketching towards poetry and narrative.

The greatest gift my parents gave me was making it possible for me to choose my education and career, which I can’t say for the kids I knew in Koreatown who felt bound to lift their parents out of debt and grueling seven-day workweeks.

Her focus is on her friendship with two friends in particular, unapologetically ambitious artists Erin and Helen, deflecting interest in her mother. The poet Hoa Nguyen persevered:

“You have an Asian mother,” she said. “She has to be interesting.”

I must defer, at least for now. I’d rather write about my friendship with Asian women first. My mother would take over, breaching the walls of these essays, until it is only her.

Portrait of an Artist

Asian American visual artist poetA tribute to thirty one year old artist and poet Theresa Hak Kyung  Cha visual artist and poet who on the day she hand delivered an envelope of photographs of hands, for an upcoming group show at Artists Space Gallery, whose book Dictée had just been published, was raped and murdered on her way to join her husband, by a security guard, who knew her.

Cathy Park Hong comes across Dictée when it is assigned by a visiting professor, ‘a bricolage of memoir, poetry, essay, diagrams and photography.’

Published in 1982..Dictée is about mothers and martyrs, revolutionaries and uprisings. Divided into nine chapters named after the Greek muses, Dictée documents the violence of Korean history through the personal stories of Cha’s mother and the seventeen-year-old Yu Guan Soon, who led the protest against the Japanese occupation of Korea and then died from being tortured by Japanese soldiers in prison.

Struggling to find much out about her, she brings the life of this exceptional artist out of the silence she has been buried, back into focus. What she finds is extraordinary.

The problem with silence is that it can’t speak up and say why it is silent. And so silence collects, becomes amplified, takes on a life outside our intentions, in that silence can get misread as indifference, or avoidance, or even shame, and eventually this silence passes over into forgetting.

The Indebted

The final essay looks back at those to whom she is indebted and discusses this trait as a concept, the weight of it, the gift of it. The difference between indebtedness and gratitude.

Further Listening Reading

Podcast New York Times: Still Processing – The Asian-American poet wants to help women and people of color find healing — and clarity — in their rage. Culture Writers Jenna Wortham & Wesley Moram discuss Minor Feelings & talk to Cathy Park Hong, April 2021

Article The New Yorker: “Minor Feelings” and the Possibilities of Asian-American Identity – Cathy Park Hong’s book of essays bled a dormant discomfort out of me with surgical precision by Jia Tolentino

Interviews – NPR, Goop, Kirkus, NY Times, The Atlantic, Vox, The Yale Review, Medium, Glamour and more.

Cathy Park Hong, Poet, Author

Cathy Park Hong has written three books of poetry Translating Mo’um (2002), Dance, Dance, Revolution (2007) chosen by Adrienne Rich for the Barnard Women Poets Prize, Engine Empire (2012). She is the recipient of the Windham-Campbell Prize and fellowships from Guggenheim, the Fulbright Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the New York Foundation for the Arts. Her writing on politics and her prose and poetry have appeared in the Village Voice, the Guardian, New Republic, Paris Review, Poetry,  Salon, Christian Science Monitor, and New York Times Magazine.

Minor Feelings was a Pulitzer Prize finalist, won the National Book Critics Circle Award for autobiography, and earned her recognition on TIME’s 100 Most Influential People of 2021 list.

She is the poetry editor of the New Republic and is a full professor at Rutgers-Newark University. 

“Cathy Park Hong’s brilliant, penetrating and unforgettable Minor Feelings is what was missing on our shelf of classics….To read this book is to become more human.” –Claudia Rankine, author of Citizen

The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy

This second volume of Deborah Levy’s Living Autobiography trilogy has a completely different feel to the first Things I Don’t Want to Know, stuck as that first volume was, between the parameters of George Orwell’s four motivations in Why I Write and Levy’s own resistance to engaging with aspects of her subject that were rearing up to confront her.

Things I Didn’t Want to Know But Have Discovered

The Cost of LIving Deborah Levy memoirSo we now know a little of her motivation, however now comes the struggle, as she must balance writing with the cost of living; her circumstances have changed and we are going to learn how she manages as a single, independent mother.

This time she creates her own structure, using a series of 14 interlinked vignettes, episodes within the journey of releasing herself from a life lived within what were once deemed the acceptable parameters of a societal construct “marriage”, into the undoing of and reconstruction of something like “the pursuit of” but not quite, freedom.

In the opening, a 19 year old woman character is being chatted up by a man referred to as ‘Big Silver’, he is the wrong audience for the young woman’s story, however Levy decides she is the right reader for this one:

“To speak our life as we feel it is a freedom we mostly choose not to take”.

The young woman has the audacity to interrupt the man’s narrative sharing her own poignant story, as Levy introduces us to one of the recurring themes of her book, minor and major characters.

It had not occurred to him that she might not consider herself to be a minor character and him the major character. In this sense she had unsettled a boundary, collapsed a social hierarchy, broken with usual rituals.

Using the Master’s Tools

Levy’s observations are astute, comical and laced with self-irony, questioning the role and discovering the tenacity of the woman writer, though her verse is peppered with an abundance of references hailing from the tradition of well documented and taught, dead white men.

In the opening sentence she reminds us that Orson Welles once said, if we want a happy ending, it depends on where we stop the story. His words will frame the book and are thought provoking sure, but he was also known for saying there were three intolerable things in life, cold coffee, lukewarm champagne and overexcited women.

Was this irony ?

Or was it the result of a slanted education of a certain era/affiliation. It speaks to what is being read and consumed and to an old monopoly on ideas, that rendered a canon of white men the originators of knowledge.

louise_bourgeois_maman

Louise Bourgeois ‘Maman’

For this reader, it was taken too far when redecorating her bedroom, upon rejecting the bright yellow, embraced too soon (overexcited), she repainted the walls white and chose to hang a portrait of Oscar Wilde, while on the same page, looked at photos of British sculptor Barbara Hepworth and French artist Louise Bourgeois that graced her fridge and wrote of them “the forms they were inventing gave them beauty without measure,” additionally sharing that the moths seem to like landing on those two.

Bourgeois had unfashionably declared that she made art because her emotions were bigger than herself.

Unable to relate to the women, it is towards Proust she inclined, when he said:

Ideas come to us as the successors to griefs, and griefs at the moment when they change into ideas, lose some part of their power to injure the heart.

Sister Outsider Speaks to Me

As I let this frustration percolate, trying to understand it, I wondered about the difference between gender politics and feminism. I admit that my annoyance has much to do with a decision to address an imbalance in my own reading when I started counting and analysing what I read and discovered too much of the same thing by the same type of people. So forgive me for projecting.

Sister OutsiderA voice repeated in my mind, ‘the master’s tools, the master’s house’ – you know when you recall a fragment of a quote but can’t quite remember it. It was the passionate sage wisdom of Audre Lorde reminding me of her essay, The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House in Sister Outsider (1984). Four pages of thought provoking, mind opening courageous speech.

“For women, the need and desire to nurture each other is not pathological but redemptive, and it is within that knowledge that our real power is rediscovered. It is this real connection that is feared by the patriarchal world.”

Audre Lorde speaks too of those standing outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women and suggests that it is learning how to stand alone, unpopular, sometimes reviled, and to make common cause with others identified as outside the structures, that we can create a world in which we can all flourish.

“It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.”

Freedom Hurts

Freedom is not to be pursued lightly, as she discovers when she exits her marriage and Victorian home as she enters her 50’s and a 6th floor apartment with her two daughters, soon developing the physical and energetic strength to endure it.

Freedom is never free. Anyone who has struggled to be free knows how much it costs.

Each vignette explores this struggle to cope and live with this new freedom, through a series of anecdotes that allow certain themes to repeat and by the time we read Gravity, she has been loaned a shed in the bottom of a garden in which to write and is kept to task by random apples that fall on the roof.

As I begin to read The Body Electric the writing energy and pace picks up a notch, we are out of the apartment and the shed, out of her head and on the road and what a hazardous place it is, but what energy and humour it brings to the narrative. Cycling became an obsession and kept her rage off the page.

I cursed and shouted at drivers when they opened their front doors in a way that toppled me on to the road. I had road rage. Yes, I had graduated to road rage on my electric bicycle. That is to say, I had a lot of rage from my old life and it expressed itself on the road.

There is the tiresome neighbour who waits for her to arrive to tell her off about temporary parking, intent on making her life more difficult, a situation various friends are keen to advise her on. But Jean is essential to the narrative, her ability to irritate prompts the author to ponder on what a woman is, on what she should be, or not be, a question she has no time to ask Jean.

It was possible that femininity, as I had been taught it was coming to an end. Femininity as a cultural personality, was no longer expressive for me. It was obvious that femininity, as written by men and performed by women, was the exhausted phantom that still haunted the twenty-first century. What would it cost to step out of character and stop the story?

yellow flowers in brown woven basket on bicycle

Photo by Valeriia Miller on Pexels.com

And in the middle of The Black and Bluish Darkness as she is riding up the hill in the rain, comes the most tender and humorous moment, we can afford to laugh reading in the comfort of home, but imagining the scene (no spoilers) and the reminder of the underlying reality, feels a little heart-breaking – except we know she does not indulge in self-pity, and has wonderful friends to call on. She recovers well, reaching out to one of them, who arrives with a box of strawberries and runs a bath for her. There it is, that redemptive power, those good, reliable female friends that no woman can do without.

Levy further explores the lives of other role models and how they managed to write, love, being woman and further reflects on her own role model, her mother, who even after she has passed, whose loss results in Levy sometimes literally getting lost, severed from her origins, somehow manages to remain present, symbolically.

It is certainly the case that there are fewer references and tomes written by women in previous centuries that analyse the sacrifices they make to pursue their art and ideas. That freer life a writer desires comes with a cost of living and women have long been making it easier for others to manifest their dreams while either sacrificing their own, or sacrificing something else in their determination to attain them.

Making her lived experience the lens through which she observes the role of the woman writer, Levy provokes us all to think more about the choices and sacrifices we make and the balancing act required to pursue our creativity and passions.

Next Up : Real Estate!

Further Reading

Guardian Review: The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy review – a memoir and feminist manifesto

Article: Why Not Ask a Powerful Man What He’s Doing to Help Women? By Stella Bugbee

Article France Culture: Louise Bourgeois, “une femme enragée et agrippée” (1911-2010)

Review: Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde

Diary of a Young Naturalist by Dara McAnulty

A stunning reflection by a 15 year old boy, over the course of a year, season by season into how nature provides him with a breathing space, a remedy to his own being.

nature writing Wainwright prizeDara McAnulty is autistic, as are his mother and two siblings, a beautiful advantage, because the family seem to understand exactly how to mitigate the intensity and lived experience of this characteristic.

As a result, they often escape their suburban habitat for the slightly wilder places within reach, places where whatever constraints they might be feeling inside, that might otherwise result in some kind of behavioural impulse, can be released into the conducive expanse of a living outdoors, an ecosystem, they feel at one with.

He reflects on the influence of both parents:

“Many people attribute my love of nature on him He’s definitely contributed deeply to my knowledge and appreciation, but I also feel the connection was forged while I was in Mum’s womb the umbilical still nourishing. Nature and nurture – it’s got to be a mix of both. It may be innate, something I was born with, but without encouragement from parents and teachers and access to the wilder places, it can’t bind to everyday life.”

Dara channels his passion for wildlife and nature into a series of journal entries, written with language that is beautifully descriptive and resonant, that conjures up exactly how it might feel like to be this young man, whose five senses are so intense, who wants to understand more, to do what he can to improve the state of our planet, its nature.

On dandelions:

yellow dandelion flower

Photo by Daniel Absi on Pexels.com

“…I love dandelions. They make me feel like sunshine itself, and you will always see some creature resting on an open bloom, if you have a little patience to wait. This vital source for all emerging pollinators is a blast of uplifting yellow to brighten even the  greyest of days. It stands tall and proud, unlike all  the others opening and swaying in the breeze. The odd one out.”

Spring ends with the announcement that the family will move to another village to be closer to a different school and for their father to be in closer proximity to Belfast. At first disillusioned, Dara soon learns there is a forest nearby and a whole new ecosystem to explore and learn. The move marks a significant change in his experience of the school system, he begins to thrive.

“Many people accuse me of ‘not looking autistic’. I have no idea what that means. I know lots of ‘autistics’ and we all look different. We’re not some recognisable breed. We are human beings. If we’re not out of the ordinary, it’s because we’re fighting to mask our real selves. We’re holding back and holding in. It’s a lot of effort. What’s a lot more effort, though, is the work Mum did and does still, so light-heartedly. She tells us it’s because she knows. She knows the confusion. That’s why she and Dad will be doing the worrying about moving, and why Mum will be doing all the planning and mind-mapping, and will somehow know how everything fits together. I’m lucky, very lucky.”

He asks himself constantly, is this enough; to observe, to spend time in nature, to speak, to write?

If this was all he ever did, it is already enough, but it is clear he is destined to do more.

Silverbar, the Sanderling

A sanderling shore bird

Observing the sanderling, I am reminded of Rachel Carson’s excellent Under the Sea-Wind, where she too brings this bird to life:

I reach for my binoculars and see them: sanderlings, about thirty, moving erratically yet with powerful purpose. Blurred black legs. A flash of beak prodding the sand. Sand ploughman. They whirl with the waves, never stopping. Scurrying. Rushing. Every movement too fast for me to focus on. Dazzlers of the shore.

Sanderling plumage is snow-white and pewter-black, the crown darted with linear black-among-white. They come to winter in Ireland from the high Arctic, travelling nonstop for over 3,000 miles. Their movements are completely hypnotic, especially as I focus in one bird and observe how it moves relentlessly at speed between the waves and shoreline, sandpeckering as it goes, and repeating it all over again as the waves recede, over and over, over and over. What tenacity. I’m not sure how productive it all is, as they never stop for a second and must spend so much energy making each tack from wave to shoreline.

When he begins to doubt himself or feel overwhelmed by what he understands is happening to the environment, his ever patient, wise, knowing mother is there:

She also tells me that I need to hold on to grace and gratitude. ‘Hold them close’ she says. ‘And remember by writing down all the good things in life.’ She’s right of course, but it takes every muscle to agree.

A wonderful, inspirational book and journey to a few of the wildish places of Northern Ireland.

Loved it.

Constellations by Sinéad Gleeson

Reflections From Life

constellations-sinead-gleesonAn excellent collection of essays, of life writing with a particular connection to the body and how women negotiate life when part(s) of it malform and interrupt the ordinary course of a life, making it something extraordinary.

Extraordinary it is, that Gleeson went through all she has until now and managed to create a family and birth this wonderful book, not to mention curating The Glass Shore and The Long Gaze Back, two anthologies that celebrate Irish women writers.

Just as the cover displays the image of a body with numbered sections, inside the book the chapters are labelled with small diagrams that represent a key to the constellations, adding another layer of metaphor and meaning for the reader to ponder.

The Many Diagnoses and A Commitment

As a young girl, the author was diagnosed with monoarticular arthritis, rare to discover in a young person, it would mark the beginning of a lifetime of interventions, all of which might have had more devastating consequences, but Gleeson possesses a remarkable ability to rally, recover and live life on her own terms, despite the heavy price her body puts upon her.

The essays share the struggles, the shame, the hopes and disappointments, of bones, of blood, of hair, of children, of grief, of witness to a deteriorating mind, the many varied experiences that might represent weakness in the body, however they have all contributed to creating and moulding a psyche of great strength and perseverance. An activist. A voice. A woman standing in the light, seen, heard, inspiring.

On the night of her leukemia diagnosis, not being able to face telling her parents she asked the nurse to break the news and then prepared herself to see them.

“I will never forget their faces, their incomprehension and tears. Amid all the wrongness of that moment, I knew something was required of me. To hide my fear and offer them a glimpse of a future none of us knew had any certainty. I have no memory of this but my mother told me years later that I looked into her face and said, ‘I’m not going to die, I’m going to write a book.’ To commit to writing, or art, is to commit to living. A self imposed deadline as a means of continued existence. It has taken me a long time to write that book and here I am, so very far from that awful night.”

A Wound Gives Off Its Own Light

The essay I found the most moving comes near the end is named after an Anne Carson poem ‘ A Wound Gives Off Its Own Light’ which explores the relationship with art and creativity as a way to channel or express what is being felt. She is moved by the work and motivations of Frida Kahlo, Jo Spence, Lucy Grealy.

“Kahlo, Grealy and Spence were lights in the dark for me, a form of guidance. A triangular constellation. To me, they showed that it was possible to live a parallel creative life, one that overshadows the patient life, nudging it off centre stage…That in taking all the pieces of the self, fractured by surgery, there is a rearrangement: making wounds the source of inspiration, not the end of it.”

Art Creativity The Body Compromised.jpg

The Body Compromised by Allia Jen Yousef (2001-2019)

Spence’s medium was photography; an ageing, sick, working class woman, she sought representation, visibility, her series Phototherapy, focused on the intersection between arts, health and well-being, combining comic and feminist ideas, outward expressions to promote inner healing or peace, disruptive to the viewer, soothing to the artist.

“Representing a diagnosis – in art, words or photos – is an attempt to explain to ourselves what has happened, to deconstruct the world and rebuild it in our way. Perhaps articulating a life-changing illness is part of recovery. But so is finding the kind of articulation that is personal to you.”

I was reminded while reading of Maggie O’Farrell’s I Am, I Am, I Am memoir that I read in January, it similarly tracks events (seventeen brushes with death) and turning points in a life that invite pause and reflection, some more dramatic than others.

I read Constellations as part of #ReadingIrelandMonth21. Have you read any good Irish non fiction this month?

Sinéad Gleeson

A writer of essays, criticism and fiction, her writings have appeared in Granta, Winter Papers and Gorse. Constellations won Non Fiction Book of the Year at the Irish Book Awards in 2019.

Further Reading Irish Nonfiction

A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ni Ghriofa

Handiwork by Sara Baume

An Affair With My Mother by Catriona Palmer

I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes With Death by Maggie O’Farrell

This memoir is told using the unique narrative structure of seventeen brushes with death, each chapter heading shows an anatomical sketch of an organ of the body and the year it was affronted, a pattern that isn’t chronological, more like a jigsaw puzzle, that as we read, begins to reveal more of itself as each experience is understood.

Warnings and Wake Up Calls

Maggie O'Farrell Memoir Near Death ExperiencesI thought it was brilliant and I Am as much in awe of how it’s been put together, as I Am of the insights she shares as each brush has its impact and adds to her knowledge of the body, mind and her own purpose in being here.

The first encounter is thriller-like and anyone who’s ever felt their inner warning system go off when in the presence of a would-be predator, will recognise the signs and shake their heads at the response she gets when trying to report the event to the police.

That going over the conversation afterwards thing, wondering what else she could have said for there to have been a different outcome.

How could I have articulated to this policeman that I could sense the urge for violence radiating off the man, like heat off a stone?

It occurs to me that we humans have more lives than cats, these brushes with death can occur without us even realising. It will make you pause and think back to some of those near misses you too might have had.

Others, like the first one she shares are pushed down so deep, never again mentioned, except that one time, when it was necessary to make someone understand, to accept a necessary attitude and behaviour change.

It is a story difficult to put into words, this. I never tell it, in fact, or never have before. I told no one at the time, not my friends, not my family: there seemed no way to translate what had happened into grammar and syntax.

Some stories/brushes forewarn of another that is still to come in the narrative, so that in this way, there is an invisible thread connecting them, we come to an encounter later in the text, having already been made aware of some of the underlying facts that have formed this life.

Drowning In Life, Travel An Escape

Drowning Maggie O'Farrell Memoir I Am I Am

Photo by Hernan Pauccara on Pexels.com

A near drowning at sixteen is as much about the inclinations, boredom and despondency of adolescence, as it is about the consequence of having lost a sense of direction underwater.

It is all these things and more that propel me to my feet. At sixteen you can be so restless, so frustrated, so disgusted by everything that surrounds you that you are willing to leap off what is probably a fifteen-metre drop, in the dark, into a turning tide.

A Latin class school trip to Rome and Pompeii at seventeen was a turning point O’Farrell describes as being like receiving a blood transfusion, the assault on all the senses of the sights, sounds, tastes, the contrast to what was familiar so great, it was painful to consider leaving.

It was the beginning of a love affair with travel and gave a focus to her innate restlessness, a way to satisfy it, the only thing besides writing that can meet and relieve it.

A Cure For Prejudice, Bigotry and Narrow-Mindedness

Maggie O'Farrell Feather Death Angels

Photo by Erik Mclean on Pexels.com

She quotes Mark Twain, who after travelling around the Mediterranean said that travel was ‘fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness’ and tells us that neuroscientists have for years been trying to understand what it is about travel that alters us, effects mental change.

Professor Adam Galinsky, an American social psychologist who has studied the connection between creativity and international travel, says that ‘Foreign experiences increase both cognitive flexibility and depth and integrativeness of thought, the ability to make deep connections between disparate forms.

One of the most gripping chapters for me was the second to last, CEREBELLUM 1980, when a headache that becomes a significant marker on her life path, a period of hospitalisation and subsequent rehabilitation and re-education as she recovers from encephalitis, a debilitating inflammation of the brain probably caused by a virus resulting in muscular atrophy, a long period of immobility and several ongoing, invisible side-effects.

Apart from the more obvious physical issues, enduring a chronic condition also had a kind of mystical quality. The way she writes of convalescence, where weeks slide by without your participation, ironically, has some resonance with what we are experiencing with lockdowns/confinement.

Fever, pain, medicine, immobility: all these things give you both clarity and also distance, depending on which is riding in the ascendant.

A Fear Of Fearlessness

Near death experience fearless recklessness Maggie O'Farrell Memoir

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The insight that really stood out though, was the development of, and her living in a state, of fearlessness.

Coming so close to death as a young child, only to resurface again into your life, imbued in me for a long time a brand of recklessness, a cavalier or even crazed attitude to risk. It could, I can see, have gone the other way, and made me into a person hindered by fear, hobbled by caution. Instead, I leapt off harbour walls. I walked alone in remote mountains. I took night trains through Europe on my own, arriving in capital cities in the middle of the night with nowhere to stay.

These insights were so remarkable and familiar to me, when I reflect on the way my daughter lived her life, that they help me understand something I was so fearful of myself, her fearlessness and familiarity with death, and her artistic conversation with it.

It was not so much that I didn’t value my existence but more that I had an insatiable desire to push myself to embrace all that it could offer. Nearly losing my life at the age of eight made me sanguine – perhaps to a fault – about death. I knew it would happen, at some point, and the idea didn’t scare me; its proximity felt instead almost familiar. The knowledge that I was lucky to be alive, that it so easily could have been otherwise, skewed my thinking.

Fortunately for us Maggie O’Farrell lived far enough into her life for this thinking to change, the birth of a child is magical in so many ways, her indifference stopped the minute she became a mother. And then even greater challenges would arrive, situations that the life she had lived until then, unwittingly had been preparing her for.

If you are aware of these moments, they will alter you. You can try to forget them, to turn away from them, to shrug them off, but they will have infiltrated you, whether you like it or not.

A work of incredible merit, highly recommended.

And then there is Hamnet.