There are four books I’ve recently read which were particularly memorable. Two cheery, two rather darker. One was A. saddening and frightening, one was B. shrewdly observational and uncomfortable, one was C. full of acerbic wit yet charming , while the last was D. energising and taking-no-prisoners forthright. I’ll leave you to match the numbers to the letters.
1) Summer Pierre: The Artist in the Office
Day after day, this is how it goes: You get up, go to work – and save your ‘real’ self for the cracks and corners of your off time. Even worse when you have family, children, elderly relatives, pets, associations, voluntary work and all the fanfare of the parade on Main Street to contend with. Where does your capacity for wonder go? For how much longer are you going to postpone your creative urges?
Writer, musician and illustrator Summer Pierre – you can find examples of her comics on her blog – has wise words of advice on how to combine bread-winning with your passion. And, although she doesn’t quite tell you how to deal with all the family priorities too (this may change now that she has a child of her own), there is much to reflect upon in her no-nonsense approach to artistry. This book is about ‘waking up in the life we inhabit now instead of putting off life for later’. There are lots of little tips, suggestions and prompts how to make your working life more fun and meaningful (dancing with a co-worker, little creative projects, lunchtime adventures, using your commute in productive ways). But the real clincher for me was about being honest with myself about my priorities.
There are plenty of reasons to blow up your life: You want adventure; you hate your job; you are bored with your town, your relationship, and/or your whole life. The basic desire: YOU WANT CHANGE. This is all understandable, but ask yourself this before making any huge choices in the name of your creative life: What will be different? What will change besides circumstance?
It took me years to realize that I could do all kinds of drastic acts like quitting jobs, relationships, towns (or all of the above), but what showed up at the next job, relationship and town was still me. In all creative lives, risk is important, but ask yourself, how does it feel to do your art in the life you have right now? If it seems impossible to do now, what will really change with where you are later? If you can’t do your art – even a little – in the life you have now, with the person you are right this second, YOU MAY NEVER DO IT.
As usual, not everything will be applicable to every reader, but it’s a funny and quick read. It’s a slim, slight volume, and the variations in script may make it sometimes feel childish. The thoughts contained therein may be simple but they’re profound. I’d heard all those things before, even coached others about many of the issues, but when it’s someone else forcing you to stop and think, it’s much more powerful.
How do you cope when you are a couple with children and your best friends (with children of a similar age) go through an acrimonious divorce? How can you avoid taking sides, how can you protect your own life and family when you’re being engulfed by the flames of dispute and revenge? This is the dilemma faced by the very average (yet refreshingly normal) couple Hannah and Josh, when their rather wealthier and more glamorous friends Dan and Sasha separate. Dan is leaving his wife for a younger woman and Sasha seems to fall apart in front of our eyes, with disastrous consequences for all. This makes for some deeply disturbing reading of squirmingly uncomfortable social and family situations, which the author analyses with razor-sharp precision and sly observations about friendships and parenting, gender differences, nurseries, marriage. Great characters, which all seemed perfectly plausible in context, although in retrospect you kept wondering at their passivity or inability to grab the bull by the horns and spell out the truth. (Perhaps a rather English trait.)
It all starts out as a domestic psychological drama of the unravelling of a family and a friendship, which would have been enough excitement in itself. However, there is more tension, with childhood flashbacks which only start to make sense much later in the book and a sinister build-up towards the end. All in all, a really captivating read, which I finished in one go while waiting for my plane.
3) Miriam Toews: All My Puny Sorrows
It is so hard to avoid melodrama and mawkishness when you are talking about depression, assisted suicide and family members. Yet Toews manages to steer clear of sentimentality in this fiercely honest semi-autobiographical novel. It’s the story of two sisters, who’ve lived through a Mennonite childhood and their father’s suicide. Outwardly, Elf is the successful one: the fêted concert pianist, married to a tremendously supportive husband, well-off… yet suicidal. Meanwhile, Yoli seems to be blundering through life, unable to hold down a steady job or a relationship, not having much authority over her children, always keenly aware of her mother’s disappointment in her. Yet it is Yoli who consistently picks up the pieces, who mediates, who moves between the stubborn, deaf and blind, between the desperate and the angry. She has to deal with her own frustration and fears, while also dealing with everyone else’s demands.
The style is disconcerting to start off with: a lack of clear speech marks, meandering through different time frames and the introduction of so many characters both major and minor. But it’s worth persevering, because it’s in the accumulation of detail that this book reveals its full poignancy. And if I’ve made it sound like an unbearably depressing read, there are actually many funny anecdotes from childhood and witty observations scattered throughout the book. This is ultimately a story of the power and limitations of sisterly love, as well as surviving grief and loss, coming to terms with the things we have and haven’t done, the paths not taken, a story of forgiveness (of self and others).
4) Lena Divani: Seven Lives and One Great Love (trans. Konstantine Matsoukas)
These are the memoirs of Sugar Zach, a cat who is now in his seventh (and last) life. Yes, in our part of the world in the Balkans, cats only have seven instead of nine lives, which I’m sure posed some challenges for the translator and editor. Admittedly, I may not be the most objective reviewer of this book, since, as regular readers may know, I’ve recently adopted a cat and am completely smitten by it. So of course I loved this blend of humour, wry observation of humans and feline suavery.
Sugar Zach is a beautiful white fluffy cat, a born schemer and social climber who is disparaging about his birth family. He is cunning, selfish and acts cool at all times, peppering his story with his numbered Meows – general observations about human frailty and absurdity. He also prides himself on his literary knowledge (gleaned from previous lives). He can be very harsh about his humans. Hear him describe the partner of his new owner, a writer:
He loved to waste time. In the mornings, he made his coffee, turned on the PC and played Tetris for about an hour, as a warm-up. After that, he played a few games of patience for good luck, answered his emails, made some more coffee because he was done with the first one and then he started thinking about how on earth to begin the first chapter of his first novel. Just as he became lost in contemplation, the rival thought would occur to him that he had a deadline to meet for his first script which meant he needed to stop thinking about his novel at once and start thinking about the script. He experienced a significant bout of stress. To counter that, he played another game of Tetris.
Yet, as the book progresses, as both Sugar and his owners grow older, change, separate, fall ill, the book settles down from its initial sarcastic tone and becomes a touching tribute to the love between cats and humans. Short and sweet, but ironic rather than sentimental – a delight!