TRUTH & BEAUTY

 

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Sometimes I borrow a book from a library, or order it on amazon, and much time passes before I actually attend to reading the book. Usually my reason for acquiring the book is fairly obvious, but in the case of Ann Patchett’s Truth & Beauty the reason was ambigious. I think I recall hearing a talk between Elizabeth Gilbert and Ann Patchett, and deciding to embark on Patchett through her memoir rather than her fiction – Bel Canto should have been the obvious first choice. But my interest in memoir, which has always been a great love, is now almost academic research for my own book of personal essays.

Truth & Beauty sat propped up against one wall or another for the longest time. I liked the eggshell blue of the cover, and the speckled egg in a box with the words ‘a friendship’ carved into it. Finally, knowing I really ought to return the book to the library, I took it with me to hospital the morning of my appointment with an oral surgeon. Waiting to be seen, I began. Ann is being driven by her sister from scorching Tennessee to Iowa to attend the acclaimed Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She had already been once to Iowa City to scout out a rental for her, and her friend Lucy Grealy. I had some dim assumption that this would be a book about two young writers, and their summer in Iowa. And then, the arrival of Lucy Grealy on page 2.

‘everyone knew Lucy and everyone knew her story: she had had a Ewing’s sarcoma at the age of nine, had lived through five years of the most brutal radiation and chemotherapy, and then undergone a series of reconstructive surgeries that were largely unsuccessful. The drama of her life, combined with her reputation for being the smartest student in all of her classes, made her the campus mascot, the favourite pet in her dirty jeans and oversized Irish sweaters. She kept her head tipped down so that her long dark blond hair fell over her face to hide the fact that part of her lower jaw was missing. From a distance you would have thought she had lost something, money or keys, and that she was vigilantly searching the ground trying to find it.’

Yeah. Exactly. I don’t think it is possible to imagine a creation like Lucy Grealy. She was real and unreal even to those who knew her, let alone this reader finding her fourteen years after her death. I was gripped. And not least because after my own minor surgery, major trauma took hold of me. The loss of my tooth suddenly connected me to other losses, other griefs and I clung to Ann and Lucy for the next twenty-four hours which is all it took to finish the book. I slept in between, and woke to read the last chapters. In between, I also ate and watched every interview Lucy gave. Three are available online.

Lucy was an award winning poet and the author of a memoir called Autobiography of a Face, which I shall read, although I feel I may need to be stronger when I do. 38 reconstructive surgeries in 39 years. Lucy died at the same age as my other writer-comrade in the illness battles, Flannery O’Connor. I am not being prescient about my own death, I promise you, but it is all a little close to the bone. To the jaw, to the teeth.

Lucy’s preoccupation with beauty as a prerequisite to being loved is an excruciating repetition throughout her life. You never think ‘poor Lucy’ because she was too fiercely intelligent for that. You just bear witness to a life, a vivid hungry life of a beautiful mind, which is just as Ann Patchett intended us to.

 

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THE ART OF ASKING

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I have just returned from a week in the Algarve, Portugal – I am slightly woozy with exhaustion and the particular effects of intense sun on a lupus body. I feel parched and floaty at the same time; also satisfied and enriched with love and learning. It was a family holiday. Our first grown-up sibling holiday, with four children. It was hectic. And as with all the best holidays, I had a book to retire with, to curl inside, every night.

My favourite thing is the discovery of a book written by a person whose human life is one you can delve into in real time. The accessibility of it. Amanda Palmer is Real and Now and I simultaneously read her memoir, listened to her read it to me on audible, watched youtube clips of her sing and talk; she is the most energising and authentic woman.

Do you have a family member who believes in This Is Meant To Be? Or maybe you yourself think along fatalistic lines? I like how intriguing and teasing the fates can be. The love story between Palmer, the wild over-sharing body-and-heart exposing rock star and Neil Gaiman, the deeply private polite curly-mop-haired world famous writer of fantasy worlds is endlessly fascinating, but also magically hopeful to the unmarried, still-waiting-for-the-One-but-not-impatiently battered romantic like me.

The Art of Asking is relevant to all of us, artists and non-artists (if any of us are non-artists, which I suspect we aren’t – everyone makes art and beauty somehow, in some way) because we are all afraid of rejection, of being turned down, or most poignantly, because we simply don’t know or can’t imagine what we can ask for. We want, but we don’t know how to ask for it, whom to ask, where to look for help. In my life, dependent as I am on so many people for love and support, worrying about how I will finance myself in some future universe where I am alone and hoping The Books will manifest themselves, I am learning to ask. To be unafraid. To Take The Donuts. Palmer tells us of the recent literary anecdote that has ‘rocked’ the lovers of Henry David Thoreau – the magic of Walden has been dimmed for some because of the discovery that Thoreau was not quite as alone and self-sufficient as his book implies. On Sundays, his mother and sister brought him a  basket of freshly baked goods, including doughnuts. He took the donuts (American word, American spelling).

Take the Donuts, Palmer pleads with her readers. Take the help. Ask for the help. And then watch the dots connect themselves in your life. Watch the net of loyalty, trust, compassion, understanding, love, tighten. We need each other. Especially when we think we don’t. Especially when we are writers, and the expectation of our imaginary audience is that The Book will simply write itself while we are on an island, locked away in a shed or disconnected from the pulse of human chaos. Artists need help: food, shelter, money, hugs, perspective, inspiration, friends. Asking for help is part of the art. Offering the help is part of the art. One cannot exist without the other.

Read the book! But if not, here is the book condensed into a thirteen minute TED talk that rightfully went viral…

THE LIFE-CHANGING MAGIC OF TIDYING: KON MARI METHOD

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I have just finished reading Marie Kondo’s bestselling ‘The Life Changing Magic of Tidying’. It is a book with a buzz. The in thing (in the world of tidying). The sort of book you strongly believe arrived just when you needed it. Just as you were knocking objects off table edges, tiny flower pots for example… My eyes have been deviously difficult this year and so I fall into this category of believing the Kon Mari method has arrived in the nick of time.

The essence of the book is this: pick up an object. Ask the question – ‘does this spark joy?’ If the answer is yes, keep it. If the answer is no, or non-commital, sayonara it. And then tear your hair out when you discover just how complicated your non-committal responses can be. Add into this equation being a writer, loving books, and sometimes not necessarily loving a book, but needing it. At some future date. When your future self will remember you once had that book and you GAVE IT AWAY.

And then there’s all the ghastly paperwork that must be dealt with… do you have a paperwork situation?

I think I have learnt a certain measure of detachment from Marie Kondo, which is another essential teaching of her book. It is a humiliation to be the possessor of more things than you need when garbage dumps and slum heaps grow. And upon their festering mounds, children. Making a scavenger’s living. Kondo never says this explicitly, but it is part of the secret of joy. Things can bring us temporary joy, perhaps even save our lives – and therefore things must also be tended to, thanked, seen and given due credit. When objects, even books, pile up (tsundoku) we commit the crime of ignoring them, even destroying them. Japanese homes are built differently to English homes: space and functionality are entwined in a much more visceral way. Storage is of utmost importance. And yet, Marie Kondo’s book has become an international bestseller. I hope I am able to implement these tidying skills into my life – but as for my books? That’s a tough racquet.

HISTORY OF THE RAIN

‘When it comes to Clare, when it passes our house, the river knows it is nearly free. I am plain Ruth Swain. See me, nineteen, narrow face, MacCarroll eyes, thin lips, dull hazelnut hair, gleamy Swain skin, pale untanable oddment, bony, book-lover, reader of so many nineteenth-century novels before the age of fifteen that I became exactly too clever by half, sufferer of Smart Girl Syndrome, possessor of opinions and good marks, student of pure English, Fresher, Trinity College Dublin, the poet’s daughter.’ My friend Kate recommended Niall Williams’ History of the Rain a while ago and I have been listening to it on audiobook. The first part is called ‘The Salmon in Ireland’ and the narration is very much an experience of meandering down river with a fellow poet, a fellow sufferer of the mystery of illness. I love Ireland, as anyone who follows me on Twitter knows because I have made so many friends though our mutual love affair with Marian Keyes – and listening to the Clare accent unfold the story of Ruth Swain is a perfect accompaniment to a tired, bruised soul. IMAG0107 ‘We are our stories. We tell them to stay alive or keep alive those who only live now in the telling. That’s how it seems to me, being alive for a little while, the teller and the told.’ Niall Williams has written a beautiful book – get it out on audio if you can for the truly Irish experience – the narrator is Jennifer McGrath – or read it, because you love attic rooms with skylights, leaping salmon, poetry and the possibility of reading three thousand, nine hundred and fifty-eight books before you die… 27.Niall Williams-History Of The Rain-jacket

H IS FOR HAWK

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Many books are heaped with praise on their covers before a reader has a chance to gauge their own opinion. Sometimes the reviews are almost too awe-inspiring. Can make a reader nervous. Can make a book unapproachable. In the case of Helen McDonald’s H is for Hawk no praise seems too much. I know this because I don’t often feel like rushing out and buying a copy for everyone I know. This book I want to share, extravagantly. I have bought a copy for my medical ophthalmologist Dr Paul Meyer, a man renowned for his precise attention to detail and excruciating patience with every vulnerable being sitting before him. We share a love for the life and writings of Primo Levi, poet, chemist, Holocaust survivor, writer of the extraordinary If This Is A Man, which deserves its own post.

If you haven’t come across this book – part memoir on grief, part hawking encyclopaedia, part biography of TH White, author of The Sword in the Stone – rush out to buy it, download it on your kindle. You won’t regret it. Helen trained Mabel very near to the part of Cambridge I call home. Quite exciting to think I might bump into her one day out in the fens…

Helen and her hawk...
Helen and her hawk…

VANESSA AND HER SISTER

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Delicious. Cloudsitting. Dust motes in August evening light flurrying around bookshelves in Charing Cross Road approaches the sense a reader gets from the very first pages of Priya Parmar’s Vanessa and her Sister – a historical novel about the Bloomsbury set that reimagines and realigns the most famous sisters. No longer Virginia who holds the centre of gravity; it is the quieter ‘bell that rings true’.

I attended the Cambridge Literary Festival for only one event – Philippa Gregory, author of The Other Boleyn Girl and The White Queen (among many others) in conversation with Priya Parmar (also author of Exit the Actress). Two friends of longstanding having the kind of conversation they would normally have over cups of tea; the only difference being they were in a public room – the Cambridge Union Chamber – and there were many pairs of ears snuggling in.

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I’m an English literature graduate. It is impossible to be unaware of the legacy of Woolf. On my own bookshelf, just behind my Mac, I currently have six Woolfian books. So it is a true delight, a relaxing delight, to listen to Bloomsbury told through the painterly soul of the gentler sister.

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