I’m dropping in to this neglected blog as I wanted to look back on the past year’s reading and choose my favourites of the books I read in 2017. So, without further ado, here is my top ten…

1. Bad Dreams by Tessa Hadley. A wonderful collection of short stories by one of my favourite contemporary authors. Each story is different in setting, characters and time period, but all have a strong atmosphere and emotional power.

2. The Book of Dust, Volume 1: La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman. I am really glad that Philip Pullman has returned to the world of Lyra – and to his fantastical imagined Oxford. The first volume of the new trilogy is vivid and magical, and continues to explore the absorbing philosophical ideas and world of His Dark Materials. It was fascinating to find out more about Lyra’s history and I also loved the fact that Pullman created a main character like Alice, who is much more than she appears at first.

3. Hot Milk by Deborah Levy. Intense, complex and almost surreal, this novel explores psychological darkness and troubled characters but in a way that’s so full of life and spirit that you can’t help feeling hopeful. I was lucky enough to attend a talk by Deborah Levy at a local bookshop and it was very stimulating, with lots of ideas about psychology, writing, mythology and much more. She was a compelling speaker and responded to people’s questions in a generous, thoughtful way, which resulted in a very interesting discussion. I would definitely recommend going to one of her talks if you can.

4. A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin. I discovered a new author with this brilliant, original collection of short stories.

5. His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet. Set in nineteenth-century Scotland, this novel disguises itself as genuine historical documents describing a gruesome murder. The writing style sounds very authentic and is also witty, playful and surprisingly funny at times. I liked how the book collected a variety of documents so the reader has to try to piece together the truth. The novel very cleverly makes you change your mind and doubt your earlier theories and feelings.  I also felt sympathetic towards the main character and his family, and the oppression they suffered. The novel is very passionate about the lives of the crofters and their little-known world. An absorbing and entertaining read.

6. Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel. This inventive and moving post-apocalyptic fantasy really captured my imagination.

7. The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain. A very poignant story of a friendship between two men, which lasted for decades. With a narrative that moves through twentieth-century Europe, this is my favourite book by Rose Tremain so far.

8. Three Daughters of Eve by Elif Shafak. This novel is set partly in modern-day Istanbul and partly in Oxford around the turn of the millennium. A thirty-something Turkish woman looks back on her university days and the charismatic tutor who taught her in an unconventional theology class. I really enjoyed the way the book explored religion, philosophy, the experience of university, friendships and growing up.

9. The Wonder by Emma Donoghue. A compelling page-turner about a young nurse in nineteenth-century Ireland who is employed to look after a child who can apparently live without eating, I found The Wonder very enjoyable and absorbing.

10. A Christmas Party by Georgette Heyer. I’d been put off Georgette Heyer’s novels as I knew she was mainly an author of romantic fiction and thought they would be too sentimental and not my cup of tea! However I was looking for something Christmassy to read so thought I’d try this detective novel. Well, I’d definitely got the wrong idea about her as A Christmas Party made me laugh out loud. I loved the wittiness of the dialogue and the characterisation. And it did have a side-plot of romance, but it was done with wit and style and wasn’t at all reminiscent of Mills-and-Boon.

My favourite new author of the year: Elif Shafak. I’ve now read a few books by Elif Shafak, having discovered her on Desert Island Discs, where she chose an intriguing mix of metal and Leonard Cohen and spoke in an interesting way about her life, religion, family and writing. I’ve particularly enjoyed reading her non-fiction essays and autobiographical writing, as I like her voice and the way she writes about her life as a woman and writer.

My favourite re-reads of the year: Philip Pullman (I’m currently re-reading the His Dark Materials trilogy after a gap of at least ten years and finding it even better the second time) and Jane Austen. When I went to Lyme Regis over the summer, I re-read Persuasion, which sets several dramatic scenes along the sea-front and the Cobb, followed by Pride and Prejudice, just because it’s my favourite Austen novel. I enjoyed seeing the displays about her at the museum in Lyme Regis (it is a lovely museum, which has lots of literary exhibits along with the geological and fossil collections for which Lyme Regis is known) and later in the year I went to an exhibition at the Bodleian in Oxford, Which Jane Austen?, which showed how, contrary to some images of Austen, she was very engaged in the world around her.

Reading resolutions: My new year’s reading resolution is to make more effort to search for books that I am really interested in, instead of just reading what’s lying around or happens to be in the library. I want both to be more adventurous and to follow my own tastes more. 


When authors make real historical people into characters in their fiction, the results can be controversial. Even if the author adds a disclaimer that their work is imagined and does not claim to tell the whole truth about Vermeer or Cromwell or Henry James, a fictional image can be just as powerful as a biographical one and add to our collective impression of that historical figure. Personally, I think that a writer has a responsibility when they begin writing about people who actually lived, and the less famous their subject, the greater the responsibility. For example, with so many images and narratives of Virginia Woolf in existence, people will not take Michael Cunningham’s portrait of her in The Hours to be the definitive truth. I think most people piece together their ideas of historical figures from many different sources, rejecting fragments that don’t fit with the rest and threaten to disturb the whole. But what if the character imagined is not Virginia Woolf but an obscure young woman who in 1818 boarded a ship from the Scottish Highlands with her father and brothers to make a new life in North America? Someone who died nearly 200 years ago has no one to defend her and if an author happens to explore her life and make it into fiction, this is probably the only representation she will ever have for us in the 21st century.

In The View from Castle Rock, the acclaimed Canadian short story writer Alice Munro turns her own life and the lives of her ancestors into fiction. She explains in the foreword that the book grew out of the research she carried out into her mother’s side of the family, who originally came from Scotland, and then became combined with a set of autobiographical stories she was also writing at the time, stories ‘in which I was doing something closer to what a memoir does – exploring a life, my own life, but not in an austere or rigorously factual way.’ The stories in this volume move forwards through time (although always reminding us that they are being imagined or researched by Munro in the present), beginning with her visit to the Ettrick Valley in Scotland, the home of ancestors who themselves lived obscure lives but were connected to famous figures such as James Hogg and Sir Walter Scott, and ending with a story based on the author’s own life in the present but very much concerned with mortality, past generations and the history of her local area, from the geological history of the landscape to the recent history of churches and crypts.

Not everyone likes books that combine fact and fiction in this way, and I’m not completely sure what I think. Sometimes, while reading, I wondered how much was true and how much invented; sometimes I just became immersed in the stories, not caring whether they were true or not. This was especially the case in the title story, which was my favourite and to me the most memorable. This story is about the sea voyage of an elderly father and his sons and daughter, who are all emigrating together from Scotland to Canada in the early 1800s. One son, Andrew, is married and his wife, Agnes, gives birth on board ship; Mary, the daughter, is small, shy, plain and overlooked, and finds her greatest joy in looking after Agnes’ children; the younger son, Walter, begins writing a journal about the voyage and makes friends with a young consumptive girl who is travelling with her wealthy father.

In this story, Munro invents the thoughts, feelings and dialogue of these people, who all really lived and whose gravestones can still be found in a churchyard in Canada. That raises the question I mentioned earlier, whether there is something disturbing about giving made-up voices to people who may have been very different in reality. However, Munro does use facts discovered in her research too, along with, most interestingly, the real journal of the sea voyage that Walter kept and letters written by the father, James. There is a clear dividing line between fact and fiction, because at this distance in time the characters and their feelings cannot be known and must have been invented, but they are imagined, as Munro puts it, ‘always within the outlines of a true narrative’. In this story, history and fiction stay in their own categories, but their juxtaposition has a kind of magic power, truly managing to convey the immigrants’ vulnerability and the wonders of their journey, the risks they were taking by leaving their old lives behind.

In the later stories, the ones about Alice Munro’s own life, the line between fact and fiction is less clear and I found myself wondering more often which elements were autobiographical. The first-person narrator remained recognisable throughout, rebellious and unconventional, awkward, easily embarrassed but sometimes arrogant, not at home in the place she grew up. Her ambitious mother who found the happiest time of her life selling furs in a grand hotel, her quieter father who turned to writing later in life, and her brash and tactless stepmother are also essentially the same in all the stories, and I think this is where the truth of the book lies, so that it doesn’t matter so much if the other characters and incidents are invented. Writing honestly about people who were so close to the author is much more dangerous than writing about long-dead ancestors. In a way, I think it’s natural for the reader to want to know whether what is written is true, even if only one person’s subjective truth. But Munro insists that these stories are fiction: ‘I put myself in the center and wrote about that self, as searchingly as I could. But the figures around this self took on their own life and color and did things they had not done in reality.’

I believe a writer’s imagination cannot be constrained and although it might begin with facts, it soon travels far away into a world of fiction that has a different kind of truth. But I still feel that a writer has a responsibility to people who actually existed and had their own secret lives that nobody can ever know about. I wonder how much a writer can speak for others who lived long ago.

Philip Larkin sent me a photograph of his new Library extension. Was ever a stranger photo sent by a man to a woman (in a novel she might be disappointed).

I very much enjoyed the sections of A Very Private Eye containing Barbara Pym’s letters to Philip Larkin, who supported her throughout the years when her books fell out of favour and helped spark the revival of her work in the 1970s. I think the friendships between authors can be fascinating, especially when it’s two writers I like independently of one another. A Very Private Eye only contains Pym’s side of the correspondence but it intrigued me enough to make me want to read Larkin’s side – I am sure it must be published in collections of his own letters and I would also like to re-read and discover more of his poetry.

It struck me initially that both Pym and Larkin seemed fairly reserved characters and there was a slightly formal politeness and distance in their letters (for the first couple of years she was writing to ‘Mr Larkin’); it wasn’t as if they were pouring out all their emotions to each other. Apart from Pym’s characteristic restraint and privacy, this might have been because their correspondence began on a professional footing – Larkin wrote to Pym to suggest that he might write a review article about her next novel – and because they didn’t actually meet until fourteen years after the first letter! (Incidentally I am curious in general about the relationships between letter writers who have never met. 84 Charing Cross Road is the one literary example I can think of but I’m sure there must be more).

Because Pym wrote to Larkin about the progress she was making with her novels and responded to suggestions he made after reading the manuscripts, the letters are a wonderful insight into her writing. They also show something of her reaction to his poetry (some of her favourites are The Building, Faith Healing and Ambulances, and she chose a recording of An Arundel Tomb as one of her Desert Island Discs) and her keen interest in his career as a librarian and editor. I liked this imagined novel that arose from an impending stay in Oxford he’d told her about:

Your going to All Souls suggests a plot for a novel though I doubt if I could write it. Middle-aged unmarried female don waits eagerly for the autumn when a friend of her Oxford days (the well-known poet, librarian and whatever else you like) is coming to spend a year at All Souls (doing some kind of research, perhaps). At first it is all delightful and they go for beautiful autumnal walks on Shotover (? can one still do this) but unbeknown to her he has been visiting a jazz club in the most squalid part of the town (where is that now?) and has fallen in love with a nineteen year old girl…the ending could be violent if necessary – or he could just go off with the girl, leaving the female don reading Hardy’s poems.

Another thing that interested me was how both Pym and Larkin had regular jobs as well as their writing (she worked at the International African Institute and was assistant editor on its journal, Africa). These jobs bound them both to some degree to a mundane routine (as in Larkin’s poem about ‘the toad work’ that squats upon his life). Their correspondence is very much about the small and everyday, even in the midst of more significant events, and shows a shared relish of the ridiculous in their work and everyday life. This preoccupation with the small but revealing details of life can also be seen in Barbara Pym’s novels. At the time of their correspondence, when she was writing Quartet in Autumn, she took something that isn’t normally considered important or exciting enough to be written about (four elderly people working in an office, on the verge of retirement) and made it moving because of the way she described the details of their loneliness.

The position of the unmarried woman – unless, of course, she is somebody’s mistress, is of no interest whatsoever to the readers of modern fiction.

In general, I like the way Pym notices the absurdity that lies behind grandeur and ceremony, and how quickly supposedly serious events and gatherings of people can degenerate into the ridiculous. She writes about the practical necessities of life, which in her world are always attended to by women. But then she has another side to her, revealed in the diaries as well as her novels, which is romantic and attuned to the beauty of nature. She often writes about visiting churches and graveyards and has an eye for scenes that are picturesque and melancholy.

Back at my own church, on a cool greeny-grey English Sunday. We start with a George Herbert hymn – King of Glory, King of Peace – very English, like a damp overgrown churchyard. What different conceptions one could have of God according to the country one was in – those sun-baked cemeteries in Marseilles.

A Very Private Eye is a very entertaining collection and I found it so interesting to get to know someone as complex and talented as Barbara Pym through her most personal writing.

From her university days at Oxford in the 1930s to the end of her life, Barbara Pym wrote personal diaries and long letters to friends, as well as notebooks of ideas for her novels and stories. These are collected in A Very Private Eye, subtitled An Autobiography in Diaries and Letters, and together create a fascinating picture of her experiences and thoughts.

Her diaries from Oxford are full of excitement and exhilaration. She had a very full social life, with many friends, admirers and boyfriends. She writes about her studies mainly in the context of going to the Bodleian Library in the hope of seeing her various crushes of the moment, and she seems to have done well in her degree without too much effort. These Oxford diaries are very entertaining and amusing because of the way she describes people, the telling details she picks to conjure up a scene, and her sense of absurdity.

I desperately want to write an Oxford novel – but I must see first that my emotions are simmered down fairly well.

At Oxford she met Henry Harvey (christened ‘Lorenzo’ in the diaries) and fell in love with him. Although they had an affair, he did not feel as seriously about her as she did about him, and he went on to marry someone else. Many of Pym’s early diaries are about her unrequited love for Henry. Henry was the first of several men she fell for who did not reciprocate her feelings, and this begins a trend of her writing very honestly about her love affairs in her diaries, often with a sense of irony and self-mockery. Although Pym had several relationships and affairs and was clearly a very passionate person, they sometimes ended in an unhappy way and she took a long time to recover from the most important relationships in her life. There is a lot of sadness in the diaries but it is all part of the way that she lived a very full emotional life and expressed her feelings openly in writing. I suppose it’s a contrast with the comic writing she is most famous for, but the diaries are also very witty so the tone is fairly familiar from her novels.

Her diaries also give lots of interesting details of her life during the war (she worked in Censorship, joined the WRNS and was later posted to Naples) and afterwards, when she began working at the International African Institute in London and gained an insider’s view of a world of academics and anthropologists that would provide inspiration for her novels. All the time she was writing, although it took a long time for her fiction to be published. Her first novel, Some Tame Gazelle, was written in 1935 when she was only twenty-two but was not published until 1950. Even after she had become a successful novelist and was admired by many readers, she still went through a period of struggle during the 1960s when she could not find a publisher for her work. Her diaries convey the disappointment and frustration she felt, as well as showing the determined way she continued writing and attempting to get published. It is interesting to discover the reasons she was not published; her work was quite unfashionable at the time and did not fit with the culture of the ‘60s. She seems to have been viewed as too reserved and old-fashioned, as well as ‘obsessed with trivia’ as she puts it herself. I felt that these diaries often had a sense of sadness, even depression at certain times. Sometimes she expresses disappointment about her unrequited love, that she did not ever marry and that her work was unappreciated.

I also felt from reading her diaries that she was a vivacious person who was able to find meaning and interest in many aspects of life: the observations of people and snippets of conversation she recorded in her notebooks, her writing, her friendships, literature, especially English poetry, music (she often mentions listening to classical composers such as Brahms and Berlioz and the effect they have on her) and the church (which of course also inspired her novels). She also writes about her work and the problems she needed to resolve while revising her novels. I am sure that readers of her novels will find this interesting, but I think the most enjoyable part is seeing how the little everyday incidents she noted down made their way into her books and also reading the characteristically humorous or dark plot outlines that were perhaps never expanded into a novel or story.

The vicar in the dark vicarage with a broken window, near to the yew-shaded churchyard. Lives with his mother – house said to be very dirty. Vicar has to be roused from his bed (? – by an excellent woman) to take Communion Service.


Her eyes seemed to beg for a future meeting, but somehow he couldn’t suggest one. Instead he asked, “Are you any good at typing?”


I began talking about my novels, whether I should go on writing about the clergy etc. Then it occurred to me what a bore I was being and I had the idea of a young man walking with the elderly female novelist, worrying about the gathering darkness and the park closing and should he take her to tea at Stewart’s or the Marble Arch Corner House or would it be sherry time or what?

In the 1970s she was rediscovered after two writers, Philip Larkin and Sir David Cecil, praised her in an article on underrated novelists and her work came back into print again. In fact she received a great deal of critical acclaim and was nominated for the Booker prize for Quartet in Autumn. I felt it was so lucky that, all because of the publication of this article in the Times Literary Supplement, Barbara Pym lived long enough to see her novels come back into favour and that she was able to enjoy several years of recognition and fame before she died.

(This post is getting quite long so I will stop now but there will be a little more in the next post on her correspondence and friendship with Larkin, which was a section of the book I particularly liked).

Today I wanted to write about my favourite autobiographies. These five books are all written by women who are novelists or academics, and I think if they have something else in common, it’s in the authors’ stories of how they came to recognise and develop their own creativity, whether it was in academic research and criticism or in writing fiction.

My descriptions probably make them sound like they are all about very difficult experiences but I don’t think they are depressing – I am definitely not a fan of typical ‘misery memoirs’ and usually avoid them at all costs. These are all very well-written and imaginative books that have so much interest in them apart from the difficulties the authors experience. I’d recommend them if you are interested in the importance of reading and writing in someone’s life, and in how a person can discover their creative side and become a writer.

An Angel At My Table by Janet Frame
Janet Frame was an acclaimed writer from New Zealand, who wrote novels, short stories and poetry. An Angel At My Table is the second volume of her autobiography and is about her hospitalisation for mental illness, as well as about the beginnings of her literary career. It is an interesting story, because although she was diagnosed with schizophrenia, it later became clear that this was a mistake and that she was really suffering from depression caused by unhappiness in her childhood. When she left home to train as a teacher, her shyness and loneliness caused her to have a breakdown and, through her efforts to attract attention, to be diagnosed with an illness she didn’t really have.

What saved her from spending the rest of her life in psychiatric hospitals was her talent and the recognition given her by publication and by the prizes her work received. Part of the book describes the support given her by a fellow writer, Frank Sargeson, with whom she lived after she left hospital. He gave her a place to work and helped her recover from the stress she had been under. I’d recommend this book to anyone who wants to read about a fascinating and unusual life.

Once in a House on Fire by Andrea Ashworth
Once in a House on Fire is a memoir about a young girl’s difficult childhood among domestic violence. Her intelligence and love of books eventually led to her leaving her hometown of Manchester, going to Oxford University and then becoming an academic. This is a very intense book and, although it tells a story that is at times sad, it’s interesting and absorbing. I haven’t read it since I was eighteen and was about to leave for university myself, but I remember it made an impact on me then because of the author’s love of reading and the way she had achieved so much despite her background.

Giving Up The Ghost by Hilary Mantel
A memoir by the author of Beyond Black and Wolf Hall, this is one of Hilary Mantel’s less famous books but I would highly recommend it. Giving Up The Ghost is the story of Mantel’s early life and in particular her struggles with an illness (endometriosis) that was undiagnosed for many years. It describes the problems caused by doctors who do not listen to the voice of a young woman, resulting in permanent damage to her health. It is not a very happy book for the most part, but I would recommend it to people who have chronic health problems or who have ever felt dismissed by doctors or those in authority. I also think this would be a great book for anyone thinking of going into the medical profession, as it emphasises the importance of listening and creates sympathy for someone suffering from an unidentifiable illness, with symptoms that don’t seem to fit a particular diagnosis. This is something I feel strongly about and I don’t think it can receive enough attention. This memoir is also hopeful, however, because it goes on to explain how Mantel began to write her novels and did not allow her spirit to be crushed by those who undermined her, and it is therefore quite inspirational in spite of the frustrations she describes.

Bad Blood by Lorna Sage
I really liked this memoir of the literary critic Lorna Sage’s unconventional childhood in Wales with her parents and grandparents because it is written with such passion and humour. The story tells how, through her academic ambitions and determination, Sage manages to transcend the ‘bad blood’ that has cursed the family, although her escape from her miserable circumstances seems at one point to be threatened, when she becomes pregnant at 15.  She analyses her dysfunctional family perfectly, and the characters, especially her grandfather, are very gothic and fascinating. You can read the first chapter here.

Instead of a Letter by Diana Athill
Among many other things, Instead of a Letter vividly describes the end of a relationship and the sense of loss that can drain away all pleasure from life for a long time afterwards. Diana Athill was editor to many famous writers, including one of my favourites, Jean Rhys, and is also the author of several other memoirs (I also like Stet, her memoir about her publishing career, particularly the section describing how she worked with Jean Rhys and helped her to finish and publish Wide Sargasso Sea). Instead of a Letter, though, is about her happy childhood and the sad ending of her engagement, and how she eventually found meaning in her life.

What I find interesting about this book is that Athill very honestly and self-critically looks at herself, concluding ‘I have not been beautiful, or intelligent, or good, or brave, or energetic, and for many years I was not happy’. When she asks herself what the meaning of her life is, her attention is captured by a quotation from John Ruskin, ‘The greatest thing a human soul does in this world is to see’. Athill has a gift for observation and she says that ‘seeing things remained, through the dreariest stretches of my life, a reason for living’. I think this is a lovely thought, whether related to creating any form of art or to life in general.

Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter is the first volume of Simone de Beauvoir’s autobiography, and covers her life from early childhood until her days as a student at the Sorbonne. De Beauvoir is considered one of the leading existentialist thinkers, and wrote several novels (none of which I have read yet…) as well as her feminist work, The Second Sex. I wanted to read this book because I’m interested in existentialism, enjoy autobiographies and was quite intrigued by de Beauvoir herself. Although I’ve read a couple of existentialist novels (The Stranger by Albert Camus and Nausea by Jean Paul Sartre, if you’re interested!), I was quite curious to read about the movement from a woman’s perspective. De Beauvoir’s memoir completely lived up to my expectations – she is an unusual and fascinating character, and it helped that the book also contained a few ingredients I usually like reading about (Paris, the 1920s and 30s, university life).

One aspect of the story she tells is her rebellion against her family in her late teens. She was born into a middle-class family; her mother was a strict Catholic, while her father, to whom Simone was devoted, was a conservative lawyer, a sceptic and an impressive amateur actor. Her parents’ two contradictory influences seem to have created a kind of internal conversation that repeated itself during her life: ‘My father’s individualism and pagan ethical standards were in complete contrast to the rigidly moral conventionalism of my mother’s teaching. This imbalance, which made my life a kind of endless disputation, is the main reason why I became an intellectual’. Simone was herself very pious as a child and thought of becoming a nun but later completely lost her faith. I think you can see the same intensity and tendency towards extremism (in a positive sense) in her earnest attempts to find ‘the Truth’ as a philosophy student.

While reading this book, I was struck by how restricted the life of young girls was during the early twentieth century. Although Simone was encouraged by her parents in all her intellectual pursuits, her social life and that of her friends was limited. For example, when she was a student, she had to lie to her mother in order to spend an evening at the ballet with a friend. Until Simone was 19, her mother even opened and read her two daughters’ post before giving it to them. I don’t think this was unusual for the time, as the lives of Simone’s friends, like Zaza (her best friend, who plays a large role in this book), seem to have been just the same. The expectation that they’d behave in the narrow way acceptable to bourgeois society and then make a respectable marriage seems to have been very oppressive. I think it’s difficult enough nowadays (when there’s more freedom for women) to disregard certain social expectations, but this environment makes de Beauvoir’s decisions to break away from these conventions and incur her parents’ disapproval even more courageous.

However, in her later student days, she experienced (through her own determined efforts) a greater degree of freedom. This life seems to have been much more fulfilling: going to the theatre, cinema and jazz bars, expanding her horizons through studying, and making friends with a whole crowd of intellectual men and women. I was quite envious of the way de Beauvoir and her friends were able to discuss their opinions and their feelings in such an articulate manner, writing long, passionate letters and constantly challenging one another’s ideas about life. Although she loved the city nightlife, she seems to have had an ambivalent attitude towards ‘debauchery’, sometimes dismissive of friends whom she saw as merely drunken aesthetes and nihilists (typical insults in 1920s Paris). She herself was a very serious person, which leads me on to another thing I enjoyed about this book: the fact that it takes seriously a young woman’s feelings, opinions and interest in philosophy, in pursuing the truth about life. Although de Beauvoir often takes a slightly ironic tone (which I also liked) when describing her younger self, I appreciated the fact that she wasn’t too critical of her. It’s a book that seems to illustrate the belief that an individual’s inner life and subjective experiences are meaningful and worthy of analysis.

I would recommend this book to readers who enjoy explorations of a person’s emotional and intellectual life, and in-depth descriptions of their relationships with other people. I do like all of the above, but there were a few moments when the book’s events progressed slightly too slowly for me, or I found it somewhat repetitive (for example, in the neverending ups-and-downs of some of de Beauvoir’s relationships). It doesn’t have a fast-moving plot, that’s for sure. However, I’d then move on to a more interesting episode and would become absorbed again, so this is only a minor criticism. Overall I really liked this memoir of a personality and era I am drawn to, and am hoping to read the other volumes of de Beauvoir’s memoirs, The Prime of Life, Force of Circumstance and All Said and Done.

Something I think I particularly like about Simone de Beauvoir is that she sees philosophy as being vitally important and not merely abstract theories unrelated to people’s lives; as a student, she did not wish for the conventional academic and ultra-cerebral life, which she saw as dry and dull. I liked the way she expressed this: ‘In my view, it was not enough just to think or just to live; I gave my complete allegiance only to those who “thought their lives out”.’

Going away is my only real talent. Betty’s right: I’m a reluctant performer…not a performer at all. I need to go away so the song can play itself.

Paradoxical Undressing is a memoir by Kristin Hersh, the lead singer and guitarist from Throwing Muses, based on a diary she kept at the age of eighteen. She was very bright as a teenager, forming a band at fourteen and going to university at fifteen. The book is about one year in her life, around the time her band started to become well-known and were offered a record deal, when she began to suffer from mental illness and was diagnosed with schizophrenia and then bipolar. It is about her life as a musician, her creativity and the way she experiences the world, and explores in a very personal way the boundaries between mental illness and artistic talent.

First, I have to tell you that this book is very funny. Despite what you may expect given the subject matter, it’s not miserable or self-pitying in any way; it’s above all an amusing read written in an idiosyncratic and passionate voice. From her time living in an empty apartment along with constantly arguing tribes of painters and musicians and a mysterious Animal none of them have ever seen, to an art therapy class full of hippies she attends at university, this book is full of entertaining scenes. Her observations and her turn of phrase really made me laugh.

It is also quite inspiring because, even as a teenager, Kristin Hersh was so dedicated to her work and sure of her own vision. I have actually never heard any of her music and just thought the book seemed interesting from what I read about it – both because of the story of her recovery from mental illness, and because of the title’s meaning and its relation to performing as a very shy person:

There is a phenomenon known as ‘paradoxical undressing’ that affects those dying of hypothermia. Freezing to death, people tear off their clothes as they’re overcome by imaginary heat. Lost in blizzards, on snowy mountains, in frozen forests, their bodies become convinced that they’re burning, not freezing.

Honestly, I’m so shy that I find most contact with people deeply unsettling, but songs – the kind alive in the air, injected with evil from the Doghouse – mean that I’m burning with sound, not frozen with fear. ‘Cause they’re my way down to where we all are.

I didn’t ask to go down to where we all are, but as it turns out I’m a member of a deeply social species in which the only truths worth speaking are the most naked. In other words, I had planned on wearing all my clothes into those freezing woods – songs ask me to wear none.

As I’m quite shy myself, I found it really interesting to read about how a person who already often feels uncomfortable with others would choose to perform in such an emotional and intense way on stage. Of course, some shy and reserved people may have a conflicting desire for attention or be happier performing in certain, very specific circumstances than they are socialising, and some apparently extrovert perfomers are probably privately quite shy. However, it seems as if, in Kristin Hersh’s case, the expression of the song itself is what matters to her, not that she (as a person) is communicating with the audience. If she manages to lose herself, the song is expressed through her, whether the audience is there or not. In fact, she finds it easier to pretend the audience is not there, and, just to make this easier, both she and the drummer take out their contact lenses so they can’t see clearly while they’re performing.

Not seeing is a very important part of playing music for me. I stare into space and get lost in a warm, fuzzy sensory deprivation tank of sound. No audience, no club, just my best friend: noise.

Around this time, Kristin begins to experience frightening hallucinations and becomes isolated and out of touch with the world. She describes how she heard music constantly and couldn’t escape from it, suffered from terrible insomnia, and saw snakes and bees which she later describes as sound-images, suggesting that her illness is linked to her creativity. The music in her head seems to have been caused by an accident some time previously in which she was knocked off her bike by a woman in a car (who she sees as either a good or a bad witch), experienced concussion and was given the gift or curse of hearing songs. During her breakdown the music seems to become more intrusive and unbearable. She also sees these songs as evil or coming from an evil part of her, which she doesn’t control. However (and this is where the book is interesting about the madness/creativity boundary), once she has recovered from this extended manic episode, she is able to stop taking her medication and her symptoms seem to become less threatening, even though they are still there to some extent. She begins to see them as part of her as a musician rather than something that threatens to ruin her life.

One scene from the book I liked was when she went to see a psychiatrist who was very perceptive and was the first person who thought her explanation of the ‘snake’ in her bag as a ‘sound-image’ made sense. I liked what he said to her: ‘Art and dreams are very closely related and they’re worth listening to, as long as your hold on reality remains intact.’ It’s also interesting that she finds the sympathy and attention of the doctors to be a more important contribution than medication to her recovery:

This may be the real medicine they offer and it’s powerful. I watch them administer both their drugs and their kindness and the kindness seems just as effective to me, if not more so. Chemicals in the form of medication are interesting, ham-fisted tools, but humans themselves engage in myriad processes we haven’t yet measured. We really are a deeply social species.