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I think some of the greatest feminist dystopian fiction includes Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale”, Angela Carter’s “The Passion of New Eve”, Sandra Newman’s "The Country of Ice Cream Star" and Naomi Alderman’s “The Power”. They don’t just speculate about terrifying ways that humanity can go wrong for women, but also powerfully comment upon the continued subjugation of women today. Lidia Yuknavitch has created an utterly original and wildly imaginative take on this narrative in her new novel “The Book of Joan”. This novel takes readers to the near-future 2049 when a series of cataclysmic events have reduced our planet to a “dirt ball” around which orbits a slipshod repurposed satellite. Upon this resides the mutant elite of humankind who survive on the scarce resources they can suck out of the decimated planet Earth. This will most certainly be the end of the human race as these mutants’ genitals have dropped off or sealed up and people’s skin has turned so (ugly) white they are nearly transparent. They are led by a powerful former self-help guru Jean de Men who organizes trials and executions of “offending” citizens as entertainment. But there is a resistance to this tyranny in the form of a strike branding artist Christine who tattoos poetry on the grafted skin covering her body. She mythologizes the story of Joan who created chaos across the planet and was ritually burned like her 15th century French-warrior namesake. The ensuing conflict is not only a mesmerizing and grisly adventure but makes striking observations about gender, genetics and the meaning of story-telling.

So I couldn’t help thinking that Yuknavitch was speaking directly about today when Christine comments: “We are what happens when the seemingly unthinkable celebrity rises to power. Our existence makes my eyes hurt.” It’s difficult not to read this as a reference to the current American president. It’s interesting how she engages with the way that popularity and power intermingle and the compromises and resolutions such a leader must make to either maintain their image as a beloved celebrity or flagrantly abuse their power to ensure the general population falls into line. This is shown differently in both of the figures of Jean de Men and Joan. Notably, she does so not just in these characters’ actions but in the way their bodies are radically transformed and mutate as they utilize previously untapped elements from both nature and technology.

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It’s difficult in dystopian fiction to maintain a balance between explaining the conditions of an imagined future reality and developing characters that readers can really connect with. There were sections of this novel which flew over my head. Yuknavitch ambitiously builds this distorted future by playing upon many elements of philosophy and science such as subatomic physics. She also hints at bands of rebels and subservient robots. To fully flesh out this future would have taken thousands of pages, yet there could have been ways to briefly round out her fantastical reality to help me fully picture it. Unfortunately, I couldn’t always clearly see it so parts of the novel felt too chaotic to me. But she makes up for it with some fantastic characters whose very bodies carry the scars of what they’ve gone through. There is Christine’s gay friend Trinculo who affectionately and relentlessly spouts antiquated bawdy insults at her. There’s also the love affair between Joan and Leone who is a Vietnamese-French girl that fights alongside her in battles across the world.

One of the most striking things in this novel is the way that poetry and verse becomes an adornment that symbolizes privilege. Christine emphasizes that tattooing text is an art and since their group of mutant beings keep grafting on layers of skin it’s like parchment which they carry with them everywhere. She emphatically holds onto the importance of storytelling because “To have a story was to have a self.” The difficulty with real historical tales like that of Joan of Arc is that her story can be shaped into whatever its tellers need it to be. She could be portrayed as a saint or a heretic. Yuknavitch poses the question “What if, for once in history, a woman’s story could be untethered from what we need it to be in order to feel better about ourselves?” In the character of Joan she creates a woman that untethers herself from the script which is assigned to her and becomes fiercely individual – someone that can only be defined by what she loves. 

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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Rarely have the social pressures to produce children been conveyed with such intensity as in Adébáyọ̀'s debut novel “Stay With Me”. Yejide and Akin are an intelligent, beautiful and prosperous couple living in modern day Nigeria. In the year 1985 it looks like they are set for a promising future, but no matter how hard the couple try they cannot conceive a child. The narrative alternates between the points of view of Yejide and Akin. They convey the multi-faceted strains on their relationship as their family and society demand that they produce children. They go to extreme measures to do so and there are multiple shocking plot twists along the way. Amidst the personal crisis that this couple experience, the political leadership of the country is in a precarious state forcing them to make choices which they wouldn't in more stable circumstances. This well-paced drama skilfully conveys the different dilemmas faced by women and men when the importance of conceiving children is placed above all else.

Although Yejide is an educated woman who runs a successful beauty salon it's the perception of her husband's family that Akin financially supports her. No matter how capable she is the fact that she's a woman will always place her at a lower status to that of the man. The overwhelming impression over the course of the novel is that according to the family Yejide's body is not her own, but merely an instrument to bring in the next generation. It's typical for couples to feel under strain from the previous generation to produce children, but the interference here is so much greater where Yejide is subjected to physical examinations from the family and they arrange for Akin to have a second wife when she doesn't become pregnant quickly enough. The worst challenges Yejide faces to her relationship are from Akin's mother and Funmilayo, the woman selected as Akin's second wife. It's a sad consequence of a patriarchal social system that women begin to oppress each other and feel that they must compete with one another.

Even when a woman has a child her body and life are not her own. It's perceived that “a mother does not do what she wants, she does what is best for her child.” So whether she has a child or not, Yejide never feels like she fully controls her own destiny. Matters are not helped when Yejide's own family line is uncertain because her mother died early in her life. She states “the point was that when there was no identifiable lineage for a child, that child could be descended from anything. Even dogs, witches or strange tribes with bad blood.” Yejide's own father had multiple wives and no matter how much she's favoured by the man, the fact that her mother's lineage is unclear makes her a rogue element in this family line. When social status is such an important factor it doesn't matter how capable an individual is; without a strong family tree to support you you will always be condemned.

While the challenges for a woman in this society are manifold, the author equally shows the enormous expectations and problems faced by men. Akin is fiercely in love with Yejide and truly only desires her, but he's pressured to accept Funmilayo as a second wife whether he wants to or not. This compels him to treat her badly and although Funmilayo is presented as a scheming individual, I felt sympathetic to her precarious position. The author also dramatically shows the depths a man will sink to in order to conceal his vulnerability. The demand that he produce a child compels Akin to plot against and lie to his wife. Gradually the levels of deception and self-deception are revealed over the course of the story. The characters are under such strain to perform correctly in their social roles they begin to convince themselves that the reality of the situation is different from what it is. It's observed how “the biggest lies are often the ones we tell ourselves.”

When reading this novel I was reminded of Lisa McInerney's novel “The Glorious Heresies” which also has a tragic romance at its centre. Although these two novels are set in very different societies, they both show the insidious way the dominant ideologies of their countries put undo pressure on personal relationships. “Stay With Me” contains a gripping story that intelligently portrays the longterm destruction of a relationship from choices made under pressure from the family and community that surround Yejide and Akin. Although it contains a lot of serious and compelling themes, the story is full of such vibrant characters and fascinating surprises it's a very pleasurable read.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesAyobami Adebayo
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New novel “Dirt Road” is the first book I’ve read by Scottish writer James Kelman. It may not be representative of his usual work as I believe he has a reputation for writing novels that invoke Glaswegian patterns of speech which make it difficult for people unfamiliar with this dialect to understand. His Booker Prize winning novel “How Late It Was, How Late” was surrounded by controversy for its frequent use of bad language, but Kelman responded to these objections saying he was honouring and representing how working class people in Glasgow actually speak. “Dirt Road” features both Scottish and American Southern dialect because the story is about a US road trip, but it’s very readable and easy to understand. This emotionally affecting story closely follows the experiences of Scottish teenager Murdo as he and his father visit relatives in Alabama shortly after his mother died of cancer.  

I’ve find it can take a while to get into novels that are so embedded in the moment to moment thoughts and feelings of their protagonists. It can feel at times like a chaotic accumulation of superfluous detail and tedious observations. It’s a testament to the skill of Kelman’s writing that I was surprised to find after fifty pages or so how mesmerising this narrative became and how close I felt to Murdo as he navigates a country that is bewildering and foreign to him. What’s more, his position of naivety gives a fresh perspective on social, national, racial and economic divisions within society highlighting their ridiculousness. In the middle of the novel, Murdo and his father Tom travel with an aunt and uncle to an American Scottish festival. The dress and activities on display here are a strange simulacrum of outdated traditions and are out of sync with modern Scottish sensibilities. It makes for funny scenes but it also feels like this contrast between the idea of a unified national character and actual Scottish characters make a poignant and timely statement about how national identity is porous and changeable. Kelman isn’t mocking the sense of community that festivals like this give, but he shows how they are more about the idea of a nation rather than truly representing the evolving complex reality of a nation.

Murdo is a talented accordion player and his teenage passion for this musical art form is poignantly rendered. He tries to explain to his father how he’s not academically gifted in the traditional sense, but gets a sensory education from listening to music: “Just hearing it the way I’m hearing it, it’s like learning, although I’m just listening like I hear it and I learn it. It’s just the way I do it Dad so I mean that’s just how it is.” When Murdo encounters attractive girl Sarah and her grandmother Queen Monzee-ay who is locally famous for her Zydeco music, the impressionable boy is strongly drawn to playing alongside them and joining this charismatic group of performers. Naturally, his father is protective and wary of his son setting out with bands of musicians when he’s still only sixteen and not an American citizen.

At the heart of the novel is how Murdo and his father Tom’s relationship changes as they learn how to live without the mother and Murdo’s sister Eilidh who died many years ago. I can’t help but feel Kelman must have been inspired by Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” in some way because of the novel’s title and the emotionally fragile father-son relationship it portrays as they travel together without a mother. When I think of McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel I’m immediately reminded of the chilling horror it portrays, but my more lasting impression is the bond shown between a man and his son. It’s a tricky thing to do especially because many men conform to their gender roles and don’t often openly discuss emotion. The same is true in “Dirt Road” where Tom spends a lot of time reading on his own while Murdo likes to escape to his aunt’s basement to listen to music in solitude. Conversations between them are short and to the point. Details about the emotional discord created by the mother’s death are gradually revealed, especially how Murdo was placed in a caring position for his father. He thinks with resentment: “The son shouldn’t have to feel sorry for the father. Jesus didn’t feel sorry for God.” But their experiences together during their journey create a more harmonious bond and mutual respect for each other.

Kelman is attentive to small differences in customs and behaviour making America strange to this Scottish boy such as the way tax is only added at the point of sale, the way many Americans use fork and knives differently from Europeans and the social separation between racial groups that exists in parts of the American south. It makes for atmospheric reading as it is so finely filtered through the sharply observed perspective of a sensitive teenage boy. Equally strong is the way Murdo is bewildered by his own changing identity as he builds a sense of self out of his interactions with other people: “Ye look in the mirror and see other people. Because they are seeing you.” This is an impactful story about a damaged father and son building a connection and respect for each other amidst their lingering grief, but it is also about how artificial lines of division break down when real connections are formed.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesJames Kelman
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It's been an emotional week. On Friday when the result of the UK referendum about whether to remain in the EU came out as leave I felt an enormous sense of grief and worry. Like many people who wanted us to remain, I could do little but spend the day watching the depressing news unfold in the press and scrolling through the outcry on twitter. The consequences of this are so uncertain with theories and predictions running wild it gets to a point where it feels too maddening to continue following. So I decided to turn off the news and pick up a book I've been meaning to get to since it came out in April. Annie Dillard is a writer I've always adored, admired and read for inspiration. “The Abundance” is exactly what I needed. Reading this book now isn't hiding from reality; it's a way of facing the complexity and mystery of it more fully.

It turns out Annie Dillard has something very sensible to say about calamitous events. She writes: “It’s been a stunning time for us adults. It always is. Nothing is new, but it’s fresh for every new crop of people. What is eternally fresh is our grief. What is eternally fresh is out astonishment. What is eternally fresh is our question: What the Sam Hill is going on here?” Her cool gaze at the perpetually surprising turn of disastrous events in the world is tempered by an acknowledgement of our very human response to cry, shake our heads in wonder and react. What's important to remember is that there are lives of individuals like you and me at stake no matter how far removed we might feel from tragic events reported in the news.

Dillard's subjects are wide-ranging and idiosyncratic. She writes about on occasion when Allen Ginsberg and journalist/political dissident Liu Binyan took a stroll in Disneyland, a restrained deer in the Ecuadorian jungle and the life of the French palaeontologist Teilhard de Chardin. Several of her essays explore poignant autobiographical moments from her childhood and adolescence. There are endearing recollections such as her parents' fondness for jokes and more touching moments such as her break with the church, a romantic obsession or dancing to loud music with her father and sisters after reading “On the Road”. Her sense of growing rebellion is described as “I was a dog barking between my own ears, a barking dog who wouldn’t hush.” And also “I was an intercontinental ballistic missile with an atomic warhead. They don’t cry.” These descriptions of the heightened emotion of adolescence are as strong as any metaphors you find in fiction. Although the story of her upbringing is particular it is easy to identify with her universal stages of development. She has a special way of articulating a burgeoning awareness and engagement “as though my focus were a brush painting the world.”

There are moments when Dillard begins to sound like the best kind of preacher. She's someone who describes the world and makes it feel utterly fresh so that you see more clearly how you fit into and interact with it: “You were made and set here to give voice to this, your own astonishment.” It's easy in life to become complacent but Dillard urges “You must go at your life with a broadaxe” and to be present and committed: “you have to fling yourself at what you’re doing, you have to point yourself, forget yourself, aim, dive.” Imagery such as diving is repeated over a number of essays: “The diver wraps herself in her reflection wholly, sealing it at the toes, and wears it as she climbs rising from the pool, and ever after.” This is a beautiful way of describing how we can wed the reality of our lives and the way we imagine it. Other moments describe a terrifying confrontation with the abrupt end of life such as an instance where she comes upon the deflated skin of a frog or the screams people emit when the landscape is consumed by darkness during a total eclipse.

"I would like to live as I should, as the weasel lives as he should: open to time and death painlessly, noticing everything, remembering nothing, choosing the given with the fierce and pointed will."

"I would like to live as I should, as the weasel lives as he should: open to time and death painlessly, noticing everything, remembering nothing, choosing the given with the fierce and pointed will."

The final essay is one of the most sustained and ambitious pieces in the whole collection. Here she alternates between passages about expeditions to the poles of the earth and attending services at a church. She describes arduous journeys of the 19th century when ships became trapped in ice, but the expedition continued on sled or on foot: “They man-hauled their sweet human absurdity to the Poles.” At one point in the essay the line between religious experience and the hunt for the ends of the earth blurs. The churchgoers become the explores trudging through snow. She explains how “Wherever we go, there seems to be only one business at hand – that of finding a workable compromise between the sublimity of our ideas and the absurdity of the fact of us.”

I've read many of the essays included in this book before. It was somewhat of a surprise to discover that there isn't any newly written material in “The Abundance.” This is work that has been taken from past books and rearranged. It hardly matters because it's Annie Dillard. If you haven't read her before this is a wonderful introduction to how her endlessly-insightful mind works and even if you've previously read everything she's written her writing bears endless revisiting. Certainly any writer should read and pay close attention to her classic essay ‘A Writer in the World’ where she describes the importance of reading as much as writing: “Why are we reading, if not in hope of beauty laid bare, life heightened, and its deepest mystery probed?” There is a satisfying arc to how these essays flow from the first to the last. An excellent forward by Geoff Dyer proceeds them where he describes what she does in her writing better than I ever could. Dillard's gaze focuses both on the minute and the infinite. Unanswerable questions are posed and she suggestions ways of looking. She gets at the way we as conscious bodies blunder through life eager to know, experience and understand.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesAnnie Dillard
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It’s difficult to write about books that affect me the most. Of course I was drawn to this non-fiction book because the title is so in line with my blog’s title. As well as being a platform for me to ponder what I’m reading, I like to think of this blog as an ongoing exploration on the conflicted relationship I have to literature – how it can make me feel so connected to our larger shared humanity. At the same time, it makes me physically alone and reading itself can serve as a self-imposed barrier to social interaction. Therefore, “The Lonely City” is exactly the kind of extended meditation on loneliness I crave to better inform me and expand my understanding of this condition. It’s a heavily researched book focusing on a choice selection of artists’ work and biographies to enhance Olivia Laing’s arguments about why we might frequently feel lonely, what loneliness means and how it’s a manifestation of living in society. This book is also highly personal with sections which are startlingly candid and touchingly vulnerable. In the same way that Helen Macdonald used an electric range of sources and personal experiences to broaden our understanding of grief in “H is for Hawk”, Laing uses fascinating research to inform a dynamic portrait of her intimate reality and make strong observations about loneliness. This made reading “The Lonely City” a deeply meaningful experience for me and made it a riveting book.

Laing concentrates on multiple visual artists such as Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, Henry Darger and David Wojnarowicz to formulate a nuanced and compelling understanding of what loneliness means. Her interpretations of these artists’ creations is heavily informed from biographical information and how expressions of loneliness are reflected in the physical forms of their work. She conducted an extensive amount of research going through archives and conducting interviews to gain deeper insight into the struggles they faced. In doing so she makes a number of compelling connections between how similar difficulties can manifest differently through artistic expression. She also references studies from psychologists such as Frieda Fromm-Reichmann to inform her arguments and deepen an understanding of the feelings these artists processed and formulated into art.

Klaus Nomi - Simple Man

"Come now and take my hand
Now and forever, never to be lonely
Yes, I'm a simple man!
I do the best I can"

There’s a mesmerising way in which Laing’s engagement with art and artists leads on to more research and related research into other fascinating figures/artists such as Valerie Solanas, Peter Hujar, Billie Holiday, Klaus Nomi, Zoe Leonard, Jean-Michel Basquiat. They all reflect back on her focal subject and cast a different perspective on the sensation of being an outsider. The queer or racial minority status of many of her subjects and the way in which broader society has rejected them makes their deep-set feelings of aloneness and alienation highly understandable. They also serve as touchstones for Laing’s own feelings of not fitting into the majority or any neat classification of gender or sexuality: “I inhabited a space in the centre, which didn’t exist, except there I was.” Examples such as the famous gay cruising grounds of the piers in 1970s NYC serve as vibrant displays of freedom from social pressure to be in a monogamous couple or “to cuddle up, to couple off, to go like Noah’s animals two by two into a permanent container, sealed from the world.” Although men are frequently made to measure themselves against impossible masculine standards, women experience differently intense stresses to fit into a certain type leading Laing to state “God I was sick of carrying around a woman’s body, or rather everything that attaches to it.” Her observations about the general pressure towards conformity make her conclude that multiple forms of “structural injustice” induce feelings of loneliness and that loneliness is a collective experience rather than a singular one. In some form we all inhabit this state of mind, this city.

Growing up as a queer boy in the relatively rural state of Maine, I always had a keen sense of being outside the norm and often felt lonely. Moving to the city of Boston in my teenage years did little to assuage these feelings. While I met many like-minded people and had a range of experiences to broaden my sense of identity, I was made to feel more intensely isolated during a short period where I had nowhere to live. Bundling up against the cold and hunkering under a closed shopping centre’s light throughout the night, I read constantly to distract myself from the sleeplessness caused by living rough.

I always remember one evening when a guard patrolling the centre’s perimeter came upon me at 3am. Nervous I’d be ushered to move along I started to get up, but he just raised his hand and asked with genuine concern if I was alright. I huddled further into my coat and raised my book again assuring him I was fine. He lingered a moment and I could tell he wanted to ask more or offer some assistance, but I concentrated on my book deflecting any potential connection. There is a similar moment that Laing recounts when she’s reading at a train station and is approached by a man who is obviously desperate to strike up a friendly conversation. She avoided this contact and subsequently felt guilty about it. In the same way, although I was the one in need, I feel a lingering guilt that this man offered a connection in a lonely city and I shied away from it.

Reading can be a deeply enriching experience providing knowledge and extending our empathy to see the world through another individual’s perspective. However, it can also serve as a shield to avoid engaging with others even when a connection is what we desperately want. It’s also why participating in online interactions can be so much more seductive than making real life contact. As Laing writes about time she spent mostly online: “I wanted to be in contact and I wanted to retain my privacy, my private space.” It’s particularly fascinating how she concentrates upon examples from the rapidly changing landscape of the internet for how loneliness is both expressed and perpetuated through this medium. It proves how loneliness isn’t simply a question of being by yourself as opposed to being surrounded by others, but how the internal life become despondent, detached or separated from the external reality.

“The Lonely City” is a book that raises many deeply embedded and probably hidden feelings. It’s admirable not only for the sustained and studious lengths to which Laing probes the mystery of the common state of loneliness, but the way in which she bravely inserts herself into the question itself. Reading this book felt to me like engaging in the most personal and intense internal conversation – the kind you might only have with yourself sitting alone in a diner late at night staring through a window at all the distant lights.

 

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesOlivia Laing
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The premise of Kevin Barry’s novel “Beatlebone” is irresistible. In 1978 John Lennon travels across Ireland trying to reach an island so he can scream. This is an island he purchased years ago hoping to establish an arts community there, but which has remained nothing but a weather-beaten desolate pile of rocks. Now the artistically-frustrated famous singer wants nothing more than to spend a few days there to practice his primal scream therapy he learned in California. But there’s a problem; Ireland gets in his way. His well-meaning philosophical driver takes him on his journey, but Lennon is diverted by the press which hounds him, drunken nights at the pub, a dog he dubs with the name Brian Wilson and a small new-age group living in an island’s dilapidated hotel who engage in a disturbingly confrontational practice called “the rants.” All the while Lennon craves nothing but solitude and to escape the newly popular sound of Kate Bush singing about her wily, windy moors. The sensational aspect of this tale gradually moves aside to reveal a deeply-effective meditation on the search for meaning. It’s also full of gutsy-good humour and some of the snappiest profanity-ridden dialogue you’ll ever read.

It’s fantastic the way Barry uses language to evoke place and the lives of his characters. His descriptive writing is so precise in conveying a particular mood. So, as Lennon and his driver are travelling along the coast at one point, we’re given the line “The seabirds hover watchfully with their mad eyes, all wingspan and homicide.” Its lines like this which heighten the mood and imaginatively draw the reader into a scene. The tone of the book also swings in sync with the emotional state of the characters so the narrative can go from stark realistic descriptions of Lennon’s quest to more fragmented parts when he comes under extreme distress. At one point the language breaks into a synesthetic rush matching Lennon’s state of mind: “the scent of the girls’ voices is on the air – their voices are coloured yellow and racing green.” There are many vibrant characters ranging from a drunken woman hilariously ranting in a pub to an emphatic guru trying to get John to emotionally open up. The dialogue is pitched so well that I felt like I could hear the characters in my head and picture the expressions on their faces perfectly.

John Lennon performing ‘Mother’ live

Amidst John’s quest to get to his island, Barry does something quite unusual a little over halfway through the book. He breaks for a while to speak directly to the reader about his research writing this novel and how he himself tried to emulate the experience he creates for Lennon in a cave. Patricia Duncker’s recent novel “Sophie & the Sibyl” uses a similar sort of authorial intrusion in her fictional narrative. It works differently in “Beatlebone” making Barry into more of a fictional character himself, but they both produce the similar effects of playfully breaking the fictional illusion and mixing the emotional tribulations of the author with the characters that they are writing about. Here Lennon’s artistic crisis in trying to produce meaningful new music is reflected in Barry’s struggle to write the novel he wants to. So towards the end it feels as if John’s speech about his new album could be coming from the author himself: “What’s it about? Fucking ultimately? It’s about what you’ve got to put yourself through to make anything worthwhile. It’s about going to the dark places and using what you find there.” The struggles of the artistic process are felt all the more dearly knowing Barry’s thoughts. I found that the interjection came at the perfect point in the narrative where the momentum of the journey was waning and it was enhanced by this dramatic shift.

I think any reader can empathize with Lennon’s drive for some solitude to reflect and make sense of how to progress further in the work he wants to do. The physical reality of the island isn’t ultimately what matters. It’s the emotional state of the person who journeys there and the radical confrontation with himself he must make in a lonely place where there is no one to answer to, no one to perform for and no reason to proceed other than to get out of the trap of his mind. Barry states with characteristic blunt humour: “The examined life turns out to be a pain in the stones. The only escape from yourself is to scream and fuck and make and do.” Sometimes we lose our momentum and purpose to continue forward in life. “Beatlebone” brilliantly and entertainingly explores a quest to find the way back to what we really want.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesKevin Barry

Reading a celebrity’s memoir isn’t usually my sort of thing. But this book actually has very little to do with being a celebrity. Alan Cumming’s extraordinarily complex and difficult family story is reason enough to read this memoir without the need for salacious Hollywood gossip (of which there is very little in this book). “Not My Father’s Son” is primarily about Cumming’s incredibly problematic relationship with his estranged father and overcoming the horrendous abuse he and his brother experienced as children. However, it is because of his fame that he was able to participate in the program Who do you think you are? where celebrities get to trace their heritage and uncover hidden facts about their family. In this book we’re given his personal take on discovering more information about his mysterious maternal grandfather who was a war hero and whose life came to a shocking end. What was going on between his immediate family while this was being filmed is even more extraordinary than what happened in this television program. There are events and revelations in Cumming’s life happening simultaneously while the show is made with bizarre connections linking the past and present.

This memoir turns into a kind of thriller as it progresses because of the anticipation of what family details will be revealed. It moves back and forth in time from Cumming’s childhood and budding acting career to the time of filming the TV show. Interspersed are family photographs which become particularly poignant as more of the story is revealed. Cumming’s complex story naturally raises questions about the meaning of family and how much genetics determines who we are. It also meaningfully conveys strategies for dealing with the aftermath of abuse. I found the story in “Not My Father’s Son” extremely moving. It’s about survival, identity and what really makes people family.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesAlan Cumming
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