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Tom Malmquist – In Every Moment We Are Still Alive

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Sudden changes.

Publisher: Sceptre (Hodder)
Pages: 277
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-473-64000-9
First Published: August 2015; 1st June 2017 in English
Date Reviewed: 25th May 2017
Rating: 4/5

Original language: Swedish
Original title: I Varje Ögonblick Är Vi Fortfarande Vid Liv (In Every Moment We Are Still Alive)
Translated by: Henning Koch

When poet Tom Malmquist’s fiancée became very ill late in her pregnancy, the couple thought it was flu. But when her breathing starts to become affected, Karin is taken to the ward. In the horror of the idea of loosing his lover, Tom must get to grips with the idea that he will be bringing up his daughter on his own.

In Every Moment We Are Still Alive is a sobering memoir told in a rush of words that communicates the effect of the events on a person’s mental state. I have termed it non-fiction but it’s also considered fiction – the events are real but the style of writing, beyond the words themselves, means the book is somewhere between the two.

Looking at the words and the style together, Malmquist has opted for stream of consciousness and a sort of distancing. In view of the communication of his mental state, both the lack of full stops and the lack of quotation marks mean that you, the reader, are inundated with the information Malmquist received in the same way he received it, putting you in his shoes. Sometimes it’s fairly easy to see what is happening – fairly, not completely – and other times it’s almost impossible but in this book your incomprehension is paramount to your understanding of the way Malmquist is feeling. It is frustrating to read on a literary level, especially considering the text never stops rushing towards you, but it plays its part – it might seem to be a book with a lot of telling but actually, it’s all about showing.

The length of the book is part of this display of showing, too; it’s fairly short – just like the few weeks that pass – but feeling longer than that – again just like the few weeks that pass. In terms of the action of reading it’s a swift one, easily read in a few hours, but it will feel longer.

Karin is going to miss so much, Livia was a black-and-white ultrasound photo, Karin only knew her something that moved inside her.

One can’t really review the story itself; suffice to say it’s told very well and Malmquist often looks back on his life with Karin. There are no clear time changes so sometimes it’s difficult to work out when a scene slots into the timeline but that doesn’t take much away from the overall experience.

Something that must be touched on, however, is the bureaucracy Malmquist details. Because the author was not married and because Karin was too ill and everyone too busy to so much as think about any paperwork, despite the obviousness of the author’s paternity he has to go through Tax lines – yes, makes no sense – in regards to his baby daughter. He has to call Social Services and courts and various other places to try and change her surname to his, to get reports, all that sort of stuff; you don’t get to hear the result, how it ends up, but suffice to say Malmquist now has custody of his daughter, however, according to what is written in the book, he has to check in often until she reaches her majority. The author’s writing style, that deluge of information, further shows just how bizarre the whole thing is. And this all happens whilst he’s reeling from the death, making it even worse. As far as the book goes, Malmquist’s examination and peeling back the layers for all to see, is brilliant.

This is a difficult book in many ways, and a bit more so when you know you’re dealing with a translation. The translation is okay but there are some grammatical choices and turns of phrase that are so English (language) it’s hard to forget you’re reading a translation. But the heart of the story, or, rather, hearts – that communication and fight for parental rights – is very good and well worth your time.

There have been books that have dealt with similar topics before, but In Every Moment We Are Still Alive puts you in the author’s head in a very different and meaningful way.

I received this book for review.

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Magda Szubanski – Reckoning

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Baa ram ewe.

Publisher: Text Publishing
Pages: 371
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-925-24043-6
First Published: 30th September 2013
Date Reviewed: 22nd November 2016
Rating: 4.5/5

British-born, Polish and Scottish rooted, Australian household name Magda Szubanski writes about growing up as the daughter of a man who rebelled against the Nazis – leading him to want the best for his children – finding herself as a comedian after years of academia, working through her sexuality, and the stories of her ancestors.

As the purposefully long heritage-detailed sentence hopefully shows, Reckoning is a book of both Szubanski’s own life, and the life of her Polish relatives living during World War Two. It’s a stunning book that is all the more poignant for the historical information Szubanski includes and it’s a bit of a literary experience to boot.

Szubanski, known best outside Australia for her role as Esme Hoggett in the film Babe as well as Sharon in Kath & Kim, details her life as her family made the move from gloomy Britain to brighter Australia right up until recent professional work. Weather differences, A-grade tennis, convent school. The author sports an open, easy writing style that shows off all her influences. It’s a text full of general cultural and more specific references – films old and new, classical literature – that help to bring clarity to what she says and makes it very readable. Brontë spars with black and white Polish cinema and the book is soaked in philosophical references, the latter in particular owing to Szubanski’s educational choices.

One of the themes is sexuality; in Szubanski’s telling of her life story you see the contention and confusion of a lesbian woman – or, as she puts it, ‘gay gay gay gay gay not gay gay’ – growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, the way Szubanski came to understand her feelings and the changes in society’s views. It’s a constant element that looks right back to childhood and right up to her coming out during which she details what was going on in her head, the confusion, her discomfort and later embrace of terminology. Another theme is Szubanski’s weight, as she talks openly about the way her size has often corresponded to the goings on in her life and also the way she has and is happy with her weight, indeed feels more like herself. Szubanski’s career in comedy lends the book a certain slant; the way the humour is written, opinions conveyed.

The book is also harrowing. One of the most important aspects of it is the look at the German occupation of Poland. Szubanski’s Polish heritage and in particular her father’s life, means that her work is full of information of the sort that is often forgotten.

We arranged to meet up again and I rejoined my family. As we shuffled through the cemetery, something caught my eye. A long line of wonky headstones, uniform and yet misaligned.
‘What does it say? Who are they?’ I asked Uncle Andrzej.
‘Girl scouts,’ he replied. ‘Among the first to be killed by the Nazis. Enemies of the Reich. This is how they frighten people. Killing girl scouts.’

Szubanski’s telling of the occupation and her father’s role in the Polish resistance is hard-hitting and superbly told. She leaves out nothing; there is a lot of shocking violence in this book that puts the spotlight on things that get lost in amongst the publication of the larger scale happenings. The killing of children, the choice to kill or be killed, the constant acting required of young people delivering anti-German information. To see this solely as a memoir of a modern day icon would be a mistake.

‘…a very evil man put this number on me.’
‘Why?’
‘Because he wanted to kill me.’
‘Why?’
‘Because I am a Jew.’
I didn’t really understand what a Jew was. Or why anyone would want to kill such a nice lady. Was she related to the Little Jewish boy Dad was always going on about?
‘I am telling you this, Magda, because it must never happen again.’
I nodded. I felt bad that this had happened to the nice woman. And I agreed it should never happen again. And I remember now – as I looked up, the other women all held out their arms and showed me their numbers.

At least on the face of it, Reckoning is bound to appeal more to Australian readers and those outside Australia who are familiar and interested in its popular culture, but if there’s one memoir you should read this year regardless of whether or not you know the author, it’s this one.

I received this book for review from FMCM Associates.

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Amy Liptrot – The Outrun

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Running to rather than from.

Publisher: Canongate
Pages: 278
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-782-11547-2
First Published: 31st December 2015
Date Reviewed: 25th April 2016
Rating: 4/5

Understanding she has become dependent on alcohol and that despite earlier thoughts it’s not making her feel better, rather it’s making her feel worse, Amy Liptrot enrolls at a treatment centre and then decides to move back home to Orkney from London to see if bettering her location can help her recover from her addiction. In moving back she becomes in tune with nature, enjoying all the things she’d left, helping her father on the farm, taking long coastal walks, and helping the RSPB in their research.

The Outrun is part memoir, part nature book, that Liptrot wrote whilst back in Orkney. It’s got a lovely atmosphere to it and it’s full of information both historical and natural, about addiction and the journey to sobriety with all its struggles.

The first thing you notice is that Liptrot can really write. Whilst writing was therapeutic for her in her time of upheaval, in its publication it could be said to have become therapeutic for the reader too. There’s nothing particular about it – one can’t say she uses big or small words or the work is peppered with such and such – it’s more the general feel of it. The book’s written atmosphere is shaped in part by its theme – flocks of birds, windy but beautiful days, talk of old stones and cliffs and everything of the sort the Brontës would have championed, which of course play a big role – as it is by Liptrot’s sheer raw talent. The text ebbs and flows, never gaining a momentum it could lose, and at many points you’d think you were reading an award-winning novel.

This said there’s a great deal of repetition in the book. Writing for herself, it makes sense that there would be rambling and repetition, but as a publication the book could’ve done with being a bit shorter, more linear (it’s very easy to become confused as to where you are in time). The self-absorbed feel to the book is more a case of this repetition than Liptrot’s feelings, or at least it certainly seems that way. (Some self-absorption is of course par for the course.) For this repetition the book can be easy to put down and difficult to resume.

To the subjects, then, and as said, the nature writing is lovely. In many ways this book seems more about the nature and history of Orkney than Liptrot’s addiction which, given what I’ve said about self-absorption, works in its favour, though by no means does the recovery take a back seat. Liptrot is adept at blending her personal life with the nature of Orkney; they become one and the same when she can find a way to speak in metaphors, but equally there are times when it all just seems so natural to blend them together. Liptrot’s focus is on the wildlife of the islands, specifically the birds – there is less on farming than you might expect though she does talk at length about methods and the journey from bog-standard farming to organic. (Any lamb you happen to buy from the north of Britain may well have come from Liptrot’s family farm.)

The hill is studded with craters from when it was used by the Royal Navy for target practice in the Second World War and test shells were fired from ships onto the island. The holes are filled with rainwater in the winter and range from the size of a paddling pool to that of a jacuzzi. It is said that one bomb came further south than intended and just missed a farmer’s wife but killed her cow. After the war, a sailor from one of the launch ships
could not believe their target island had been inhabited.

In focus, too, is astronomy. Perhaps inevitably given the location, Liptrot becomes a connoisseur of the night sky, speaking of stars, the planets, and also cloud formations and the Northern Lights. And then there’s the Neolithic history all over the isles: Skara Brae, a settlement of stone-built homes under the earth to protect from the harsh weather, ancient tombs, standing stones. Tragedies at sea, wherein ships crash against the cliffs, result in their own historic stories and findings. There is so much to this book, something for most people, and because of Liptrot’s determination to make her book as informative as it is personal, you learn a lot.

Lately I’ve noticed a gradual reprogramming. In the past when I was under stress, my first impulse was to drink, to get into the pub or the off-license. A house-moving day years ago once ended a month-long attempt at sobriety. Now, sometimes, I’m not just fighting against these urges but have developed new ones. Even back in the summer, set free after a frustrating day in the RSPB office, my first thought was sometimes not a pint but ‘Get in the sea’. Swimming shakes out my tension and provides refreshment and change. I am finding new priorities and pleasures for my free time. I’ve known this was possible but it takes a while for emotions to catch up with intellect. I am getting stronger.

I wanted to focus on the wider aspects before dealing with the alcohol side of the book. Liptrot details her time as an alcoholic with a fierce openness; she discusses parties and a break-up that haunts her for years, and also an attack, sexual encounters, and other incredibly personal details. There’s a picking apart of right and wrong, missteps, but never any self-pity beyond a few what ifs. This isn’t to say that any other way of speaking is wrong, it isn’t, but Liptrot’s manner means her book may interest people who might not be otherwise interested. The recovery is spoken of in detail, too, so this could be considered both a self-help aid without the negative associations often levied on self-help books, and a book with a wealth of information for those who want to know what it’s like. The book may well aid another’s recovery as well as help a person who knows someone with addiction develop more empathy and an understanding to help them assist and show support.

The Outrun is an impressive work in many ways for many reasons, its beauty slipping out from every crevice. It may lose its way textually at times but never errs in its wonder.

I received this book at the Wellcome Book Prize blogger’s brunch.

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Cheryl Strayed – Wild

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Climb every mountain.

Publisher: Knopf (Random House)
Pages: 309
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-307-59273-6
First Published: 20th March 2012
Date Reviewed: 12th January 2016
Rating: 3.5/5

By 26, Cheryl Strayed had lost her mother, had multiple affairs as a result of the pain and confusion, and divorced her husband who she still loved, knowing that separating was the right thing to do. Looking back on a random shopping trip she’d taken, when she’d seen a guidebook about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, Strayed decided to up sticks and take up the challenge of travelling a large portion of it (without any preparation), hoping it would help her get back to herself and work out how to move on.

Wild is a memoir, a hybrid of travel report and spiritual (not religious) journey that includes both the day to day of Strayed’s literal journey and flashbacks to the past. Written up around 18 years after the events it rests on memory and diary notes.

I’ve written that last sentence now so we can deal with this part first – it’s best to know before going into Strayed’s memoir that a lot of time has passed since her journey and thus when something doesn’t sound quite true or realistic, it’s not necessarily made up, though of course it could be. There are a lot of anecdotes and repeated information, a lot of detail that is difficult to believe considering Strayed never mentions writing in her journal (instead falling asleep exhausted many times) and some things sound a little too… cute. It’s fair, in this book’s case, to say that Strayed probably isn’t lying – she has most likely forgotten a lot of details and had to rely on sketchy memories and other people’s memories to form conversations. Because she’s detailed a lot of conversations in great, well, detail.

It’s obviously a pity from this perspective that the journey happened so long ago, but the dubious quality of the book is not, at least, a drawback. Strayed doesn’t exactly impress upon you the fact she’s writing so late, but it’s not been hidden either. Who knows, perhaps some of it was written up and no one wanted to publish it at the time. Suffice to say it’s worth keeping all this mind, accepting that your doubts may be warranted, and then getting on with the book.

Because it’s a good book. Strayed is open about the fact she’s no seasoned hiker (and you’re not going to find Bill Bryson or the like here) but that’s part of the journey. Strayed learns to hike as she goes along, detailing plainly her silly, rash, decisions, her embarrassing moments, the times she was worried and wanted to quit, and this lack of knowledge means that the book is accessible to anyone who is interested in hiking, whatever their own experience. (It’s worth noting that Strayed doesn’t hike all of the trail, and a few times she hitch-hikes to bypass certain sections which can be a bit disappointing as a reader.)

Less humble is Strayed’s discussion of her family. There is an element of self-absorption in the book that’s pretty tolerable during the hiking sections but less so in flashbacks. Strayed casts herself as the golden child, putting herself on a pedestal and detailing the lack of time her siblings put into the event of their mother’s illness and the aftermath of her death. It could well be true, and certainly Strayed talks more objectively about her siblings later on, but it doesn’t do Strayed any favours. Most other people are given more thrift. Strayed’s ex-husband is blameless, indeed Strayed makes it clear it was her fault without going into apologies – it’s a fact, it happened, and now she’s got to move on. Fellow travellers fare differently depending on how they appeared and how they treated Strayed, quite naturally. For all this book is about solo hiking, there are meetings with many other people, too.

It’s true that whilst open and humble about her lack of hiking ability, Strayed has a lot of good luck on her journey and writes a lot of me-me-me paragraphs. This is where you have to know that this isn’t simply a travel memoir – the whole point of Strayed’s journey, whilst, yes, she certainly wants to be able to say she managed to hike the trail and celebrate such an accomplishment, is to move on from her mother’s death. But yes, it can at times become a bit much.

Now the prose itself is far from perfect but as an overall product, Wild is a good, easy, read. Strayed succeeds in taking you along with her to the point that you’ll likely feel as daunted, yes daunted, once the end is nigh – physical exertion aside, you’ll feel you’ve joined Strayed on the trail. As much as she looks back on her life she describes the landscape and offers an image clear enough that the lack of photography in the book is no drawback. What’s the landscape? Forest, desert, snow, sun, heavy rain – pretty much everything. There’s even a crater formally known as a volcano. And throughout Strayed carries her monstrous backpack, the shoes on her feet causing her no end of problems. (She’s pretty graphic about those problems; beware if you plan to read this book over lunch.)

Strayed discusses abortion, her affairs, her drug use, openly – almost to a fault. She swears casually. This is a book full of heart, full of personal truth, but it must be said there’s no big resolution, in fact the book ends quite suddenly with a purchased reward, a glimpse of what hindsight could have told her about the future, and nothing else. Clearly the takeaway is the journey, the journey on foot and the journey in mind.

A special mention must be made for the literary details. Strayed reports on the books she read during her trip, their subject matter, what she likes about them, and then their unfortunate end as she turns their extra pack weight into ashes. There’s a nice variety here and to show that books are important despite their sorry ends, there’s even a list of them at the back of the book in case you want to be well-read in a particular Cheryl Strayed manner.

Wild offers the chance to go on a long hike without moving a muscle. It offers a story of personal growth and redemption that’s earnest and unashamed, even inspiring. Should you read it? Yes; even after all the problems discussed, I still think you should.

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James Rhodes – Instrumental

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Instru, mental (health), and music.

Publisher: Canongate
Pages: 264
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-782-11337-9
First Published: 28th May 2015
Date Reviewed: 20th October 2015
Rating: 5/5

On paper, James Rhodes had a privileged childhood. He went to posh prep schools and later to Harrow. In reality, his first years were marred by sexual abuse. Now a fairly successful pianist, Rhodes looks back on his past, the multiple mental illnesses he developed that stifled any happiness and success for a long while and saw him hospitalised, and at the way classical music saved him.

How much can a 38 year old say that is worthy of a memoir? In this case, a lot. Rhodes’ book is one of suffering, of healing (somewhat – this book is realistic), of music, and in many ways advice, all compiled into chapters that begin with a look at the mental health of a particular composer and a suggestion for a musical interlude.

Rhodes is modest, very humble, and what makes the book so successful is that whilst he is privileged and can name drop like the best (he went to school with Benedict Cumberbatch, for example) there is a very true feeling throughout that he believes it. This is not to say that it’s good to read about someone who had everything and is suffering – do not take my meaning the wrong way – it is to say that Rhodes’ place in the world means he’s truly in the middle, having had a lot but being right on a level with your average Joe. And he has had advantages, that’s true, but his has not been a simple journey of boom, healed, and then success.

And he writes with a particular honesty. There is the frankness in what Rhodes says; he speaks openly and harshly without going into too much detail for his own piece of mind. His prose is casual and welcoming, simple yet literary. He swears as he talks, casually, often, but sometimes because it is an effective way to explain a feeling.

Rhodes gives advice on some subjects, for example his advice on relationships (which I’ll point out is short in case it sounds like this is a self-help book – it’s not) that he has learned from the way he sees and deals with his own. He offers a lot of his opinion on how the classical music industry should change (this part is a little preachy but no less worthy). What he doesn’t advise on, however, is self-harm, drug use, suicide. Rhodes, though still falling back occasionally, has made his peace with many of the things he’s done in his life but says that people need to be careful with their support. In fact what he says is that we need to stop judging and worrying about and medicating those who self-harm and think of suicide. He shows how what others saw as support hindered him from healing. As far as the book’s importance in a general sense, this information is perhaps the most compelling reason for reading it.

Rhodes writes as much for those who haven’t had his experience as for those who have. He’s showing hope whilst remaining realistic, he shows that there are amazing ways out whilst showing that some are just average. And all through it is his self-effacing view of himself that wins you over because you can see how much good he is doing and you hope that he sees it himself.

I said above that Rhodes is preachy on the subject of music. His opinions themselves aren’t but do seem so when he speaks about music being the last art to have a strict classic genre and forgets books, and one hopes he knows of a previous attempt (successful in many cases) to bring children to classical music – The Magical Music Box magazine of the 90s. Rhodes makes a strong case that is absolutely fair – one hopes he succeeds in bridging the divide between the general populous and the elitism in the genre. Just one nitpick: he rules out contemporary classical music, stating that by all means a musician should play a new piece of music but that it won’t ever rival the old masters. The issue is that in making people, young people who don’t fit the stereotype of hoity toity classical music rah rahs, interested in it, is going to result in some of those people being inspired to create some themselves. To restrict such growth would be to come full circle and limit classical music to the old posh listeners.

Instrumental is important; it should to be read, it needs to be discussed. It needs to be read all the more so because of the ridiculous law suit raised to attempt to stop it being published which led to Rhodes being unable to talk about his abuse, just as he was unable to as a child. Writing it might just be the most important thing the pianist has ever done.

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