Book Review: “Big Magic: creative living beyond fear” by Elizabeth Gilbert

I don’t fully subscribe to the idea that the universe has a plan and we simply have to ask for what we want in order to achieve our goals. A friend lent me a copy of The Secret a year or so ago and I still haven’t completed it. I simply can’t believe in it. Do I believe in Karma? Yes, to the extent that if we do good in the world, we are probably more likely to see good and therefore experience it, but for me it is not some sort of divine zero-sum game.

2017-10-18 11.17.07

I feared that this book might be a little like that. Why did I read it then? Well, my September reading challenge was to read a self-help book and I chose this one because I am in the process of writing a book and I thought it might support me in what is proving a phenomenally difficult task! There are a thousand books I could have read about how to write my novel in a month, a week, or whatever, but I’m a bit cynical about those too! No, it was the subtitle that attracted me. I’ve been describing myself as a writer for over a year now, albeit rather quietly, but do not yet feel I have the legitimacy to call myself that on my tax return or my car insurance policy! Yes, I write, quite a lot, and did so for a long time before I ‘came out’ about it, but I don’t yet feel like a writer. I don’t feel like I own or deserve that title and I want to know when my sense of entitlement to that will commence.

Big Magic

Elizabeth Gilbert is probably best-known for her 2007 best-seller Eat Pray Love which was made into a film starring Julia Roberts. That was an autobiographical account of her journey towards happiness and balance in her life (I haven’t read it), whereas Big Magic is about incorporating creativity into your life. Her starting point is that it is part of our human nature to be creative, to make things, and to deny ourselves that is to impoverish our soul.

 

 

Gilbert is a writer, and uses examples and anecdotes from her personal journey to illustrate her points, but she is adamant that creativity takes many forms, from painting to poetry, from gardening to decorating, it is all legitimate.

“A creative life is an amplified life.”

The book is divided into six parts, each dealing with a different aspect of the creator’s dilemma: Courage, Enchantment, Permission, Persistence, Trust and Divinity. The messages that resonated particularly for me were that:

  • It takes courage to accept your fears, but that most fears are irrational and a waste of valuable time – we simply do not have enough time on this earth to be paralysed by our apprehensions
  • Talent and inspiration alone are not enough – creativity requires work to be realised and you will get good at anything that you practice
  • The magic of creativity is in the journey not the result – do not fear the reactions of others, they are not your problem
  • The path to success always involves some failures and these are also important lessons
  • Do not burden your creativity with the need for it to make your living – that will certainly kill inspiration
  • Do not strive to be perfect – “Done is better than good”

“Perfectionism is just a high-end haute couture version of fear. I think perfectionism is just fear in fancy shoes and a mink coat, pretending to be elegant when actually it’s just terrified. Because underneath that shiny veneer, perfectionism is nothing more than a deep existential angst that says, again and again, ‘I am not good enough and I will never be good enough’.”

She goes on:

“Perfectionism is a particularly evil lure for women.”

Creativity gives us the opportunity to liberate ourselves from the self-limiting roles that society has allotted to us. This gets to the heart of my own angst about my writing. I don’t know if I deserve to be called a writer yet, but I #amwriting (regular Twitter hashtag), I am creating. A few years ago I made soft furnishings for a (modest) living, but I called myself a cushion-maker; just because I cannot yet claim any authenticated ‘success’ as a writer, doesn’t make me less of one. After reading this book, I feel emboldened, but I might need to bookmark a few pages and re-read them from time to time to stir my courage!

An easy engaging read, that you will find inspiring at some level. Recommended.

Do you have difficulties with perfectionism or with claiming a title for yourself? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

If you have enjoyed this post, I would love for you to follow the blog and for us to connect on social media. 

October reading challenge

I am turning rather belatedly to October’s reading challenge book; I’ve had a few heavy reading weeks trying to work my way through the Man Booker shortlist. The winner was announced last week, and although I fell a little short of my target, managing only five out of the six, I feel I need a little break before tackling the monster that is Paul Auster’s 4321!  There is still a week to go before the end of October so completing this month’s challenge is still achievable. I’ll be posting my review of September’s reading challenge book, Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert, later in the week.

Continuing the theme of life-changing (it’s still Autumn and I’m still motivated!), my task this month is to read a biography or autobiography of someone I admire. Walk into any bookshop and there are dozens of course. They are particularly prevalent at this time of year as publishers turn their attention to Christmas sales. I tend to eschew those celebrity biographies which are so clearly ghost-written and which strike me as a cynical attempt to capitalise on someone’s popularity. But there are many other worthy books and authors out there.

Not My Fathers SonThere are a couple of titles that have been on my reading list for a while. The first is Scottish actor and comedian Alan Cumming’s Not My Father’s Son, which was published in 2014. It is linked to his appearance in BBC TV show Who Do You Think You Are? in 2010 in which the result of his research caused him to reflect on his family, his upbringing and, in particular, his relationship with an abusive father. It has received glowing reviews and has also won prizes. The theme of secrets and family research is close to the book I am writing myself so it could be helpful. Or it may just make me feel like givng up now!!!

Watch Me

Option two is the second volume of Anjelica Huston’s authobiography Watch Me, published in 2015. I read the first volume A Story Lately Told, a couple of years ago and loved it. The first book gives an account of her childhood growing up in Ireland, and her relationship with her enigmatic father, the towering figure of John Huston. It moves on to London, her early adulthood and her first experiences in modelling and acting. Watch Me picks up when Huston is 22 years old and recounts her Hollywood years.

A life of my ownFinally, I saw in the bookshop recently that Claire Tomalin has written A Life of My Own, where, for a change, she is writing about herself. I admire Claire Tomalin hugely; she has written some of the finest biographies produced in recent years, covering subjects such as Jane Austen, Samuel Pepys and Mary Wollstonecraft. She has led the most astonishing life: an unhappy childhood, four children, the death of her husband, the loss of a child, and the eternal struggle between motherhood and work. I think I would find this book truly inspiring.

 

How similar are these three covers!?

So, which is it to be? Grateful for views

If you have enjoyed this post, I would love for you to follow my blog by clicking on the button below (or to the right, depending on your device). Let’s connect on social media too.

 

Man Booker prize – winner announced tonight

So, if you watch the news bulletins at 10pm tonight they will at some point during the programme “go live to the Guildhall in London”, etc, etc for the announcement of the Man Booker winner 2017. A few weeks ago, I set myself the task of tackling all six books on the shortlist. Alas, once again, I did not manage them all, though I improved on last year’s performance; this time I managed the complete four (see those on the left below), am halfway through the fifth (History of Wolves) and the sixth (4321) is so daunting I’m not sure I’ll sit down with it this side of Christmas!

 

2017-10-17 14.32.46

So, who do I think will win? Well, the bookies’ favourite is Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. Yes, it’s very unusual, some might say innovative, but I’m afraid I cannot say I enjoyed it that much, so it would not be my winner. The one I have most enjoyed is Elmet by Fiona Mozley, and my book club pals also thought it was an incredible tour de force of a story, like nothing any of us had read in some time. That said, I don’t think it will win.

History of Wolves, for me, is suffering from being read after Elmet. I had to have a bit of a pause after Elmet as I didn’t think I could pick up another book straight away. It had to rest with me for a while. History of Wolves is a much slower burn and, although I’m halfway through, I still can’t really tell where it’s going. It’s beautifully written, but, so far, there is very little plot. I’ll post my review of it soon.

Exit West  was good, but I was slightly disappointed as I had high expectations. Autumn  is also very good, beautifully written and highly topical. For this reason, I think Ali Smith has a good chance of taking the prize. As does, in my view, Paul Auster; although I haven’t yet read 4321, Auster is probably the biggest hitter (with the biggest book!), and the reviews have been very good.

So, my head tells me Auster or Saunders, my heart tells me Smith. That’s hedging my bets isn’t it?!

Overall, the shortlist has been rather underwhelming. I’ve been measuring each book against the yardstick of Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End, which has to be the best book not to win the Man Booker this year (made the longlist but not the shortlist) and is one of my best books of 2017. I’m afraid that none of those shortlisted matches up for me so far.

What’s been your favourite book on the shortlist? Who do you think is going to win?

Man Booker Book Review 4: “Elmet” by Fiona Mozley

Well, I’ve improved on my performance of last year; I only managed to read 3.5 out of six of the books on the shortlist in 2016, but in 2017 I now have four under my belt with a week still to go! Book number four was Elmet by Fiona Mozley and, my goodness, it’s dark! I’m not sure when I last read anything like it, to be honest, although it reminds me very much of the Red Riding drama series which was aired on television in 2009 (I checked this fact and if you’d asked me to guess I probably would have said 2013/14 – tempus fugit!). That resonance could be down to the fact that it is set in the same part of the country (the Ridings of Yorkshire), but the book does have that same ‘Yorkshire noir’ feel to it, the hallmarks of which seem to be violence, corruption, poverty juxtaposed with crude wealth, and the bleak rural setting. Dialogue is mostly sparse, much is conveyed by a common understanding of the rules of social engagement, and by actions.

Photo 11-10-2017, 12 45 36The narrator and central character is Daniel, who lives with his father (always “Daddy”) and his sister Cathy (a nod to Wuthering Heights, I wonder?) somewhat on the margins of society. Initially, they live with Granny Morley somewhere in the north east, and seem to attend school regularry, though not particularly successfully; it is clear they are ‘different’ and considered outsiders, rather akin to travellers. Cathy and Daniel’s mother has been mostly absent, seemingly a troubled soul with mental health problems and probably addiction, but who then disappears completely, assumed dead. Daddy is a more reliable carer, though he too is frequently absent as he tours the country competing in illegal boxing bouts. He is at the top of his game, however, unvanquished wherever he goes, and seems to make enough of a living from this activity, as well as making plenty of money for those with sufficient funds to gamble heavily on his success. 

When Granny Morley dies suddenly, leaving the children alone in the house with her body for several days, Daddy vows on his return never to abandon them again, and is determined that they will live together as a family. They move back to Yorkshire and set up home in a copse outside a village, land that is said to belong to Daniel and Cathy’s mother. Initially, they camp, while Daddy sets about building a house  with nothing but his bare hands and materials they gather from the woods and cast off items. Daniel and Cathy no longer go to school, but after a time Daddy decides that the children need some sort of educating so he sends them to Vivien in the village, who appears to share some intimacy with Daddy, although the nature of this is never made clear. She too is a bit of a loner and although she never seems particularly enthusiastic about her role as educator she reaches a kind of understanding and accommodation with the children. Cathy never really takes to her lessons, preferring to spend her time outside in the woods, but for Daniel this time comes to be precious and he enjoys the cosy domestic setting and this gentler side of life. Daniel, we increasingly see, is softer, more fragile, physically and emotionally, than either his father or sister, and prefers more feminine company. While Cathy shares the outlook and preferences of her father, Daniel is said to be more like their mother; perhaps this is why Daddy and Cathy love him so much and feel the need to protect him so fiercely.

Thus the scene is set, and the first third of the book is spent getting to know the characters and the setting. The plot thickens when Mr Price enters the novel. He is a wealthy local landowner who owns the land on which the family has settled. He claims that it was signed over to him by the children’s mother in payment of a debt when she ran into financial difficulties, there is clearly some history with the mother, but, again, this is never made clear. Price presents a real and present danger to the family; he clearly is set upon a battle with Daddy, it seems likely that he feels threatened by this bigger stronger man and wishes to emasculate him through his power and authority. There are also Price’s sons, privately educated at some distant boarding school where they learn to play rugby and cricket. They have all the arrogance of their father but their Yorkshire grit seems to have withered. They are particularly interested in picking on the children, especially Cathy, who seems to them to be easy meat, although always out of sight of their father.

Daddy teams up with some of the local villagers and becomes involved in a dispute with a number of the landowners, who are said to exploit poorly paid workers and their poorly treated tenants. They gain some success, but at a cost. Price clearly feels he has leverage over Daddy and says he will sign over the land to the family on the condition that he fights one last bout. Clearly, Price has nothing to lose – he will gain financially from the event, has no interest in the small parcel of land at stake, so it means nothing if he has to give it to the family, and if Daddy loses, well, that’s a problem solved. 

The last third of the book moves at a rapid pace, and events unfold dramatically. This final part of the book is a real page-turner. I read the last 100 pages in one sitting and I was almost breathless by the end! The characterisation is superb, I felt I really knew who these people were by the end. The evocation of the setting is also brilliantly done; Fiona Mozley is a fine writer and it is hard to believe this is a debut novel. The time in which the novel is set is not specified, deliberately so, I suspect, since there is a certain timelessness about it; Cathy, Daniel and their father (and to some extent, their mother) represent those people who will always live on the margins, never quite prospering, always struggling, even if they were to play by all the rules society sets. The world is simply stacked against them, their type, their way of life. But what is also timeless is the profound love between father and children, and Daddy’s instinct to protect is felt powerfully throughout.

This is a dramatic and powerful novel, which I thoroughly enjoyed. It’s bleak though! Recommended, but don’t expect a traditional happy ending or all loose ends to be neatly tied. But that’s not life either, is it?

Are you ploughing throught the Man Booker shortlist? How are you getting on?

If you have enjoyed this post, I would love for you to follow my blog. You can do so by clicking on the ‘Follow’ button. Let’s also connect on social media (various buttons to the right)

 

Man Booker Book Review 3: “Autumn” by Ali Smith

This is a beautifully crafted novel. It is so clever on so many levels. I’m writing this having not long finished the book, which is difficult since it would probably be better to let it sit with me for a while. The blog plan must be stuck to, however, so here goes!

Autumn imgAli Smith has said that she wrote this book very quickly in the aftermath of the EU referendum in the UK last year. As UK citizens will all understand by now, as we continue to reflect upon/reel over the events of Summer 2016, the outcome of that vote was about so much more than should Britain remain in or leave the European Union. That our social, cultural and political path in this country could be determined by a simple yes or no answer to that question now looks absurd. The election of Donald Trump to the US Presidency in November last year was another cataclysmic event, which provides the context to this novel. Ali Smith has, I believe, outside this book, nailed her political colours fairly firmly to the mast. (I’m not going to do that.) But what we are seeing now, I believe, is the response of artists and writers to the shock of last year’s events, and Autumn is for me, my first foray into a literary reflection.

We mustn’t forget it’s a novel, not a piece of journalism; the two main characters in our story are Daniel Gluck, a 101 year-old former refugee from Nazi Germany, and Elisabeth Demand, a 32 year-old lecturer. It is Autumn and Daniel is at the end of his life, lying, mostly asleep, in a care home, not far from Elisabeth’s childhood home. Daniel and Elisabeth developed a close and unusual friendship when Elisabeth was a child, living alone with her mother, who, although she never really either understood or fully trusted their neighbour, would leave her daughter in Daniel’s care when she had to go out.

Despite their age difference, Elisabeth found Daniel’s company stimulating and energising. His love of stories and story-telling, his artistic sensibility, his appreciation of nature, his philosophical mind and his enigmatic past, all served to enliven Elisabeth’s imaginative powers and develop her intellect. He was like an oasis in her otherwise culturally barren life.

Written in the context of Brexit and Trump, the novel is essentially about fracture and is rich in metaphor. There are barriers, fences and separation in the novel, symbolic of our increasing desire to shut out, or, as we seem to see it, to protect. Those who appear different or unconventional are excluded or feared, or simply denied existence. The artist Pauline Boty, the subject of Elisabeth’s PhD, serves as a metaphor for this; she was the only British female Pop Artist of 1960s, but has effectively been written out of art history. Elisabeth’s supervisor (representing authority) refuses to approve her subject proposal, saying that Boty is insufficiently significant, but Elisabeth goes ahead anyway (defiance of authority). In a nice symmetry, Elisabeth discovers later on that Daniel in fact had a connection with the artist.

There are wider concerns here other than Brexit, however. Arguably, Brexit is just one symptom of a wider cultural shift; the phenomenon of Trump is another. The boundary between truth and lies has become blurred, marketing and PR have taken over, such that we no longer know what is objective reality. You can see it in the following quotes:

“The power of the lie…always seductive to the powerless” (p114)

“Whoever makes up the story makes up the world.” (p119)

“Facts don’t work. Connect with people emotionally.” (p133)

These are frightening thoughts. And we should be worried.

Ali Smith also laments the attempt to homogenise culture and our experience of everyday life – from the bizarre bureaucracy of the post office queues and the ‘Check and Send’ service (hilarious!) to Elisabeth’s mother’s nostalgia for the comfort of prevailing weather patterns (“That was back in the years when we still had summers. When we still had seasons, not just the monoseason we have now.”)

Ali Smith presents us with much to be worried about, but she also offers us glimmers of hope: the very friendship between Daniel and Elisabeth shows that it is possible to bridge the generation gap that appears to have surfaced in the wake of the EU referendum. Also, the descriptions of Autumn itself which pop up regularly in the novel, are as fine as any in the English language, and show that if we pay attention, then we can still experience the beauty of the seasons, so long as we are vigilant in the fight against forces that may alter that (climate change maybe?):

“The days are unexpectedly mild. It doesn’t feel that far from summer, not really, if it weren’t for the underbite of the day, the lacy creep of the dark and the damp at its edges, the plants calm in the folding themselves away, the beads of the condensation on the webstrings hung between things.” (p177)

A very powerful novel, skilfully done in such a compact form. Highly recommended.

Man Booker Book Review 1: “Lincoln in the Bardo” by George Saunders

Once again this year, I have set myself the goal of reading the Man Booker shortlist. The shortlist of six was announced on 13 September and the winner will be named on 17 October. The title and description of this book did not appeal immediately and it would probably not have been the book I started with, but the others took a few days to arrive and this was the one that was available in the library, so by default it became my starting point.

Lincoln in the Bardo
I’m sorry, I just don’t get it!

George Saunders is a well-established American writer, winner of the Folio Prize in 2014 (for Tenth of December, a collection of short stories) and on the back of my copy of this book are some impressive quotes from literary heavyweights: “A writer of arresting brilliance and originality” Tobias Wolff, “A morally passionate, serious writer…He will be read long after these times have passed.” Zadie Smith. High praise indeed. But this book? I just don’t get it.

The premise of the book is the untimely death of Willie Lincoln, eleven year old son of US President Abraham Lincoln in February 1862, whilst the American Civil War is raging. The Bardo is, according to Tibetan tradition, a kind of interim state that the dead enter prior to their admission to the final place where they will spend the afterlife. The Bardo, as imagined in this book, is a riotous place where the spirits, from different ages and social strata, mingle and squabble. Specifically, here, they argue over Willie’s soul and are fascinated by the vigil that Abraham Lincoln undertakes beside his son’s coffin. The cemetery (or perhaps more accurately the Bardo) is populated by a cast of characters who could easily have stepped out of a Victorian travelling circus; a mixture of grotesques and rogues, troubled souls and tragic misfits. Some are more fully realised than others; Hans Vollman. Roger Bevins iii and the Reverend Everly Thomas are our primary narrators, whose background stories are revealed in some detail, but many others make only brief appearances and are more like caricatures.

The structure of the book is very unusual, like nothing I’ve ever read before. There is no coherent narrative, as such, the story is told from the multiple perspectives. These not only include the restless spirits, but for the events that precede Willie’s death, or outside the cemetery, they are told in short paragraphs by third party observers, reporters and historians. What was most interesting to me, was how different some of these accounts were, despite the writers all seeming to have been present at the event described.

This book has left me feeling like I’m missing something. I know that it has been highly praised, but I’m afraid I just am not seeing anything particularly innovative here. To me it’s all just a muddle, with no story, where nothing really happens. There is one central theme, which seems to be that the dead do not rest easily until the living let them go, allow them to realise their ‘deadness’, but I’m not sure that single point is worthy of a whole book. And I didn’t really find the cast of spirits very entertaining or enlightening. I’ve read many books which have challenged form, which have taken some re-reading to fully appreciate. But for me, this book offers nothing that I want to delve back into. If it wins the ManBooker, I may need to go back to Literature School!

I dislike being critical. Did you find something of value in this book? What is it I’m missing?!

If you have enjoyed this post, please follow my blog and let’s connect on social media.

The latest in YA books – books for teens

Last week, I blogged about some of the interesting new children’s titles that had caught my eye. In recent years, YA fiction has rightly developed as a genre apart from younger children’s fiction, and there are some fantastic young writers out there catering for the needs of this age group. Most adults would accept I think that the pressures on teenagers these days are numerous and new, and for many parents navigating this unknown terrain can be challenging and worrying. In the same way that children’s literature can help our little ones work through some of their fears and worries (from the monster under the bed to the impending arrival of a sibling), so YA fiction can help teenagers deal with the issues they face, when they may feel their parents just don’t understand.

Here are a few of the titles that have attracted me.

No Filter

 

Irish writer Orlagh Collins’s story No Filter covers traditional teen territory, that of first love. It tells the story of Emerald who comes from a privileged background, and appears to enjoy an outwardly perfect life. Then Emerald discovers her mother unconscious on the bathroom floor and her world begins to fall apart. She is sent off to stay with her grandmother in Ireland for the summer, where she meets Liam, and begins to reevaluate what’s important.

 

 

Just Fly AwayJust Fly Away is the debut novel from 1980s brat-pack actor, turned award-winning director and author Andrew McCarthy. It tells the story of fifteen year old Lucy who discovers that she has a half-brother, the result of an affair her father had, living in the same town. Like No Filter it is a novel about secrets and lies, as Lucy escapes to Maine to live with her grandfather, himself estranged from the family, and to work through the confusion and torment her discovery has left her with.

 

 

all the things that could go wrongFinally, on a different topic, there is All the Things that Could Go Wrong by Stewart Foster which concerns the relationship between two boys, initially at loggerheads, who find common cause when they are forced to spend time together. Alex suffers from OCD and worries about everything. His condition is so severe that he rarely leaves home. Dan is angry, because his older brother Alex has left home and he feels lost. Initially, he takes it out on Alex, whom he perceives as weak and ineffectual, but the boys’ mothers force them together on a garden building project and the understanding that develops between is healing for both.

 

I hope one of these might be of interest for your teenager. Better still, take them along to the library or bookshop and let them choose something themselves.

I’d love to hear what your teens are reading just now. 

If you have enjoyed this post, please follow my blog and let’s connect on social media.