Dear Life by Alice Munro

51WIU+mWxSL._SX325_BO1,204,203,200_I always feel like I’ve failed when I don’t like a book that is critically acclaimed as much as this one is. Did everyone else catch something I missed? Do I need to read it again? Maybe with a novel but I’ve been reading this collection of short stories for two months and didn’t love any of them. That isn’t to say I vehemently disliked them. I was just apathetic which might even be worse.

Alice Munro is one of the most famous short story writers around now. Before I had picked up Dear Life I had heard raving reviews about how her short stories were more layered and complex than most novels or how she wrote about the commonplace and “ordinary” people with empathy and mastery and even how she was one of the greatest short story writers of all time.

The first, and major, problem with this is that I didn’t find Munro’s characters commonplace and ordinary. Unless you define ordinary as middle class, white, straight and suburban (I don’t). All the stories were based around characters from this same background. I don’t find it hard to empathise with characters from a different background to me (most books I read aren’t centred around British Pakistani women) and in fact I love reading about characters who are wildly different from me. The problem was that I got the feeling that Munro believed herself that this was “ordinary” not just to her but universally which is why I couldn’t connect to her writing.

Repression, sex and longing are major themes in this collection of stories. Munro’s unsentimental language illustrates how they burn or curdle under a seemingly mundane setting.  The relationships vary from the taboo to the routine or sometimes the merely unwise. Munro illustrates how an insignificant event can change someone’s life, how one person can devastate another and the tragedies and foolishness of life all while maintaining the same clear and effortlessly lovely voice.

“The dream was in fact a lot like the Vancouver weather—a dismal sort of longing, a rainy dreamy sadness, a weight that shifted round the heart.”

Stories I mildly enjoyed were Dolly a story of a couple reaching old age being surprised out of their complacency by an unexpected visitor and Gravel, a portrayal of parental negligence leading to tragedy. I also appreciated the understated devastation of Corrie.

I would be more forgiving of the build up around Dear Life if I enjoyed the stories more but unfortunately it wasn’t my cup of tea.

Review: I Never Promised You a Rose Garden by Joanne Greenberg

This was a hard book for me to read. And yet parts of it were so beautiful and tragic I couldn’t stop reading even though I was terrified.

This is the fictionalised memoir of a young girl battling with schizophrenia in a mental hospital based on the author’s own experiences. The world she created is a haunting wonderful kingdom with it’s own language and gods that frequently turn on her and torments as it turns into a land of nightmares.

I do not and have never had schizophrenia but I found that several of Deborah’s issues were similar to my mental illness like the following excerpt.

She could not tell him. She could do no more than gesture feebly with her body and hand but he saw the panic she was in. “Hold on Deborah,” he said. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

She waited and her fear mounted as her other senses closed to her. She could only see in grey now and she could barely hear. Her sense of touch was also leaving, so that the reality of contact with her own flesh and clothing was faint.

I write this as a warning that it might cause the same reaction to someone with similar problems. I was so frightened that I put the book down and didn’t pick it up for weeks. I am very glad that I did.

The writing is steeped in black humour as it seems the only way to stay fighting to live in ward D where the worst patients are. The language is sharp, lyrical and coldly beautiful like a vast, dark sky pricked with glittering distant stars. Deborah is so intelligent that the world she creates is filled with riddles, poetry and people as clever as she that she must outwit.

The book also writes how this affects Deborah’s family and the awkwardness, love, anxiety, embarassment and well-intended lies are the most bleak parts in the book for me. Deborah’s sister is arguing with her mother in one of her rare visits home while she is in a drugged half-sleep.

Every letter,” Suzy cried, “Every visit that you make to her! I draw, too; I dance and I wrote two of the songs for the camp follies last year. They may not be as “profound” as Debby’s pictures, but you never stop Grandma or invite Aunt Natalie and Uncle Matt to hear the new song that I wrote or the smart thing I said.

“Don’t you see, you stupid girl,” Esther said almost savagely, “I don’t have to! Praising you is bragging. Praising Deborah is–excusing–.”

The difficulty that Deborah faces is not just fighting her own mind but figuring out if she wants to live in the drudgery she sees in the real world. I never promised you a rose garden Deborah’s doctor says to her about how life won’t neccessarily be better once she is able to escape the world she has built for herself but at least it will be the truth. Sometimes the path to getting better is more difficult than being right at the bottom of the pit.

Review: Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves

Robert Graves’s account of his life during the WWI is a book I’ve owned for a while and heard so much about that I never got round to actually reading it.

I nearly gave up a quarter of the way through the book because the writing style was so dry and seemingly detached. I found it slow reading, especially during descriptions of Graves’s school days which I felt dragged on, and I am the kind of reader who races through a book and not emerging sometimes until I have finished it.

When I picked the book up again and reached Graves’s life in the war I was hooked. The dry and stoic writing was layered with black humour, anger and admiration as we saw corpses, heads blown to pieces, idiotic arrogance of military command and day-to-day life in the trenches.

The shells went hissing away eastward; we saw the red flash and heard the hollow bang where they landed in German territory. The men picked up their step again and began chaffing. A lance-corporal dictated a letter home: “Dear auntie, this leaves me in the pink. We are at present wading in blood up to our necks. Send me fags and a life-belt. This war is a booger. Love and kisses.”

Halfway through the book I began to love Graves’s style of writing (although never managed to love the writer himself). I certainly respected him and enjoyed savouring the book slowly and occasionally going back to read a scene again. The book is filled with anecdotes and stories that Graves heard of people he met and a detailed account of his friendship with Siegfried Sassoon which I found fascinating to read.

It is rare that I find a book where I enjoy reading it slowly and carefully. I’m not sure how often I will re-read it but there are definitely scenes that I have page folded to look at later.

Review: Prozac Nation by Elizabeth Wurtzel

imagescavfr55fSynopsis

Elizabeth Wurtzel writes with her finger in the faint pulse of a generation whose ruling icons are Kurt Cobain, Xanax, and pierced tongues. A memoir of her bouts with depression and skirmishes with drugs, Prozac Nation is a witty and sharp account of the psychopharmacology of an era.

Review
This is an indulgent and brutal account of Wurtzel’s life and her troubled mind and her dealings with mental illness. It makes for fascinating reading not only because of the portrayal of clinical depression but also because of the author’s own personality. As a sufferer of clinical depression even I found it difficult to sympathise with her even as she articulated beautifully how depression can feel.

That’s the thing I want to make clear about depression: It’s got nothing at all to do with life. In the course of life, there is sadness and pain and sorrow, all of which, in their right time and season, are normal—unpleasant, but normal. Depression is an altogether different zone because it involves a complete absence: absence of affect, absence of feeling, absence of response, absence of interest. The pain you feel in the course of a major clinical depression is an attempt on nature’s part (nature, after all, abhors a vacuum) to fill up the empty space. But for all intents and purposes, the deeply depressed are just the walking, waking dead

She did come across sometimes mean and selfish but I still connected with her because I felt like she knew that. It also is one of the most honest aspects of the book which I admire her for writing. Severely depressed people can act selfish and act differently from how they usually are. However, her actions sometimes portray manipulation not effects of her illness. She calls her therapist throughout the night, claims if she does not listen to her she will kill herself and admits a few times that she is addicted to her own depression.

The ending was the one part I could not possibly believe. The author suddenly got better after having an epiphany. I felt like she had been told to stick a happy or hopeful ending on the end to get that and it gave a jarring ending to the book.

If you have gone through something like what the quote describes above then I recommend you read this book. Reading it made me realise further that the depression was not a weakness of mine but an actual illness. However if you want a complete truthful account of clinical depression I would suggest looking elsewhere.