Powerful and moving — Notes to Self by Emilie Pine

The blurb: Emilie Pine speaks to the business of living as a woman in the 21st century – its extraordinary pain and its extraordinary joy. Courageous, humane and uncompromising, she writes with radical honesty on birth and death, on the grief of infertility, on caring for her alcoholic father, on taboos around female bodies and female pain, on sexual violence and violence against the self. Devastatingly poignant and profoundly wise – and joyful against the odds – Notes to Self offers a portrait not just of its author but of a whole generation.

These vividly told and highly readable personal essay touched a chord with me for the raw, honest way they deal with everyday experiences — particularly female experiences from menarche through peri-menopause to middle-age.

The collection opens with a powerful account of Pine’s experience of the Greek healthcare system. She tells of the difficulties she encountered finding care for her father during his hospitalisation in Corfu for a serious alcohol-related condition. She reflects on the challenges families face when their loved one is an addict — of picking up after them when they are not able to look after themselves and of how it is not just practically taxing but metaphysically difficult. It hardens the heart.

The second essay — “From the Baby Years” — recounts Pine’s  experience of miscarriage and infertility. She describes the emotional and physical pain she went through while trying to conceive and the added heartache that came with the unexpected loss of her baby niece.

Then comes  a piece reflecting on Pine’s parents’ separation and her experience of being a go-between when communication broke down. 

“Notes on Bleeding & Other Crimes” is a strong essay on menstruation that captures intensely personal, unspoken experiences many women will relate to. 

For me, these four essays outshine the final two pieces — “Something about Me” which reflects on Pine’s troubled adolescence and “This is not on the Exam” which covers her experiences as an academic, teaching, researching, chasing funding and on the conference circuit.

All in all, though, a highly-readable collection. I enjoyed it. 

[Disclosure: I read an advance copy via Netgalley.]

I am, I am, I am — Seventeen brushes with death by Maggie O’Farrell

This week, thanks to Wicklow and Waterford City and County Libraries, I got my hands on a copy of I am, I am, I am – Seventeen brushes with death by Maggie O’Farrell. Although I have read O’Farrell’s fiction in the past, this is the first of her non-fiction titles I’ve come across.

It’s a tense and thought-provoking account of seventeen near death experiences. What comes through strongly in each episode is O’Farrell’s genuine appreciation of life and its fragility.

Some of her near-death experiences, such as her childhood illnesses are outside of her control. Others, come from foolish or hasty decisions. In some situations, she is aware of the danger she faces in the moment. In others, that awareness comes later as she reflects on the experience.

Each experience is life enhancing in the sense that it strengthens appreciation of life. And, as O’Farrell puts it, often the things in life that don’t go to plan are the most formative in the long run.

Survival is thanks to a combination of luck, circumstance,  personal skills and, occasionally, the intervention of others.

Patterns repeat

However, I was also struck by the similarity in some of the situations she encounters. This made me think about how patterns repeat in life when we make the same kinds of choices that we’ve always made. The older I get, the more I notice this in myself and my friends. So much so,  I wonder sometimes if we are hard-wired not to learn in certain situations. Or, perhaps, as seems to  the case for Maggie O’Farrell, the lure of adventure or freedom outweighs our sense of risk.

Brushes with death

So, over the course of a lifetime, most of us have occasional brushes with death through ill-health, accident, carelessness or being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  O’Farrell’s seventeen brushes with death, are a reminder of both of the fragility of life and the rewards of living bravely.

Other titles by Maggie O’Farrell include The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox and The Hand That First Held Mine.

A Life Discarded by Alexander Masters | Review

A Life Discarded by Alexander Masters is the most unusual book I’ve read this year. Thinking about this review, I tried to come up with a novel to compare it to and the only one I can think of is Tristram Shandy.

Like Sterne’s novel, A Life Discarded is curious and whimsical. It’s a much shorter work than Tristram Shandy though and, to me, that’s a good thing.

It was the description of A Life Discarded that first caught my attention. A biographical detective story based on diaries found in a skip sounded  intriguing.

The diarist is a young woman, interested in the arts and apparently a bit eccentric. She writes a lot — thousands of words every week — and her notebooks are illustrated with occasional drawings.

Much of her writing is about how she isn’t exploiting her talent for writing. This is partly because the diaries take up time that she could spend more creatively. Somewhere, the narrator admits he spent five years “studying diaries nobody wants in which nothing happens”. However, don’t let that put you off because, if anything, that’s kind of the point of A Life Discarded.

“Writing destroyed her writing”

It took me a while to get into this book. This was because, initially, I found it frustrating that the narrator didn’t put the diaries into chronological order and get on with cracking the case.

As the book progressed, I began to see method in the narrator’s madness. But I still questioned whether I wanted to continue reading because neither the diarist nor the narrator captured my interest.

However, the idea on which the book is based held my attention, perhaps more than the quirkiness of the writing. So, by the end, I found it an easier read and felt that, at least partly, I understood what the author was trying to achieve.

[Disclosure: I received a digital review copy of A Life Discarded by via Netgalley]

If you enjoy biographies/autobiographies, here are a few other titles reviewed on izzyreads.com