This book was recommended too me by Isabel Costello following a hibiscus margarita and a conversation about female satirists.
Eat My Heart Out is a satire of our narcissistic, hedonistic, post-post-feminist world. It centres upon Ann-Marie an anti-heroine in her early twenties who, after suffering a mental breakdown and walking out of her finals at Cambridge, is trying to find her way in the world in London.
Ann-Marie’s voice is startling and unique. Her journey allows Pilger to lampoon a whole host of targets, including burlesque dancing, reality TV, contemporary art, academic feminism, hipsters, class, wealth, privilege and the baby boomers. Ann-Marie is misunderstood, abused, and taken advantage of by all around her. She resolutely refuses to take control of her own life, and instead favours the naive optimism of a quick fix in the form of ‘sweet love!’ Surely a hangover from popular culture’s happy ever after? The reader is left with the feeling that everyone, including themselves, want to make Ann-Marie into something else. To be the sculptor of her life. Too control her. Ann-Marie rebels kicking and screaming against all, even when she herself doesn’t know what it is that she wants.
Eat My Heart Out is a bleak, shocking, and, in places, repulsive tale, it is also very, very funny. The detached and grotesquely comic sex scenes remind me of those in Lena Dunham’s Girls. Despite occasionally reading like a lurid fantastical novel, the familiarity of the characters and situations in Eat My Heart Out leave it routed, unnervingly, in reality. A dark comedy for the cynical.
Eat My Heart Out, Zoe Pilger: A raw and meaty 4/5
I started to read this book and abandoned it after 20 pages. It was too well crafted, too tense, too good. I didn’t want to waste it in drips and drops of paragraphs, squeezed into tube journeys’, or a few more pages wrung out before I fell asleep at night. I wanted to savour it, luxuriate in it like a warm bubble bath. So I fought the temptation to pick it up, and waited till I boarded a Eurostar bound for Paris. For a novel based on the four wives of Ernest Hemingway, whose lives often wove through Paris, this seemed perfect.
And it was worth the wait. Split into four parts, one for each of Hemingway’s wives, this story is skilfully executed. It took until Martha, the third wife, before I realised Ernest was little more than a bit part character. Though the wives’ thoughts, memories and actions revolved around their feelings for him, he rarely appeared in person in the text. Wood has performed a clever magic trick: the machismo, the allure, the cruelty, and the career of Hemingway are here in the pages, but she has given full voice and focus to the women in his life, elevating them beyond the unique club they found themselves in by romantic association. She has made them whole, they are not simply the ‘wife of’. Not simply Mrs. Hemingway.
An enticing, passionate, and at times heart-wrenching read, Wood maps not only the intricacies of each couple’s relationship, but the increasingly destructive relationship Hemingway has with alcohol. Each wife’s cocktail hour starts earlier than the last. As patterns and echoes of past behaviours emerge through the lives of the women, so too do they resound through Hemingway, charting his descent into depression. Devastating.
This book haunts me, pleasingly, like an ex-wife hovering in the background.
Mrs Hemingway, Naomi Wood: Raise a glass of Papa Doble 5/5
Are you fascinated by the creative process? Do you hunt out the ‘a day in a life’ features on authors, musicians and artists? I do! I do! I’ve always been enthralled by how others work. It’s part validation – Voltaire wrote in bed, I write in bed, it’s okay I write in bed! And part inspiration – perhaps somewhere in the minutiae of the daily grind of the great creatives is the key to joining their ranks? Daily Rituals: How Great Minds Make Time, Find Inspiration, and Get to Work, by Mason Currey is a dream for those like me who are obsessed by process.
In an expansion of what started as a blog, Currey details the charming, the amusing, and the sometime terrifying schedules of a whole host of composers, writers, and artists. Take Balzac, who ate at 6pm, went to sleep till 1am, rose, worked for seven hours, took a ninety minute nap, worked again for a further six and half hours and then took a bath, went for a walk and started the whole process up again. Exhausting.
I bought this book because as well as being fascinated by other’s working routines, I was also trying to reshape mine. Wrestling with the limitations of my health due to EDS III, I find myself going against the grain and designing a new way of working. As well as providing many pleasant distractions and dinner party anecdotes, this book has aided my focus on my own routine. There is something reassuring and reinforcing about reading a couple of daily schedules before launching your own. A great present for the creatives in your life, or anyone who is interested in how creatives lived and worked.
Daily Rituals, Mason Currey: ritually enjoyable 4/5.
I love a small book. The recent popularity of doorstop tomes, which piggybacked in on the coattails of talented writers like Mantel and Catton, has seen a number of verbose and flaccid bricks lolloped onto the market, when, really, they could have benefited from a decent edit. Not so with Smith. The Embassy of Cambodia is a master class in tight, compact fiction, where far more is revealed than the 69 pages might imply.
It tells the story of Fatou, a West African migrant, who has escaped one hell, and found herself in a purgatory: caught between freedom and imprisonment. The story is set in Willesden, a part of London Smith is personally familiar with and has taken her readers too before. There is also the reoccurrence of a pompous male character, who could represent a love interest, except our heroine appears indifferent to him. And there is a familiar motif of escapism, in this case swimming. Fatou struggling up and down the pool of her employers’ fancy gym in her black underwear. Is Smith playing with us with these accustomed echoes? Is this an ironic meta element to her work? Or merely a repetition of tried and tested ideas? Whether it is any, all, or none of these it works for me. The Embassy of Cambodia is small enough to enjoy in one sitting, but big enough to stay with you long after.
Smith’s writing evokes a sensory experience that brings Fatou, and her world, to life. She gives voice to a character that is often not heard by wider society. You might have walked past Fatou on the street, or swum past her in the pool; don’t miss her story.
The Embassy of Cambodia, Zadie Smith: A perfectly formed 4/5
Olivia Laing’s The Trip to Echo Spring: Why Writers Drink is an in-depth investigation of the relationship between writers and alcohol. Laing grew up in an alcoholic family, and laces her own unsettling memories among her exploration of six alcoholic writers, as she wends her way, literally, across their American landscape: John Cheever’s New York, Tennessee Williams’s New Orleans, Ernest Hemingway’s Key West, Raymond Carver’s Port Angeles. In an act of self-preservation she selects only male alcoholic writers (F. Scott Fitzgerald and John Berryman are included), as female alcoholics are too close to home.
This multi-layered exploration of the horrors of alcoholism quickly disperses any notion of romance when it comes to creative genius and intoxicated exuberance. The destructive angry hurt alcohol leaves strewn across the pages had me struggling to comprehend how Laing herself was able to enjoy a drink at various points on her journey: it quite put me off my wine.
The Trip to Echo Spring (or Echo Falls as I kept awfully, ironically miscalling it) was shortlisted for the 2013 Costa Biography Award. Laing’s discriminating descriptions of the American landscape are light and poetic, her prose sculpted and erudite, her research thorough and weighty. This is a beautifully written journey through land, time and the bottle. More than a mere biography – though there is plenty of meaty detail of the writer’s lives, loves and losses – it is an exploration of addiction and the darker things that drive and threaten to tear us apart. It drove me to previously undiscovered texts and to revisit old favourites, armed with new insight.
This book will satiate those who enjoy reading about their literary idols. But Laing provides more than hero worship for other readers – she delivers a text that offers a greater comprehension of human nature: what drives us, what can destroy us, and ultimately what can redeem us. Like a hangover lingers after you finish your final glass, this book will stay with you long after you’ve digested the final page.
The Trip to Echo Spring: Why Writers Drink, Olivia Laing: An addictive 5/5
Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians’ is a riotous romp through Singapore’s super loaded elite. An epic bitchfest of putdowns, family politics, pricey real estate, and piled-on designer labels, it’s less chick lit, and more chic lit. The action centres on “ABC” (American Born Chinese) Rachel Chu’s summer trip to Singapore, to meet the family of her boyfriend Nicholas Young. Nick just forgot to mention that his family is insanely loaded. With the empathise on insane.
Kwan uses a few clunky turns of phrase (“[F]rom the dewy just-back-from-a-morning-run-on-the-beach complexion to the obsidian-black hair that stopped just short of her collarbone”. Oh, please.), and some of the encyclopaedic lists of designer goods, family riches and family connections can be tiring. But if you fancy an insider view of Singapore’s crème de la crème class (Kwan’s own privileged background is said to have influenced the book), with a healthy sprinkling of Cantonese and Mandarin slang, a fast-paced plot, a fascinating (and often downright nasty) cast of characters, and the sort of moneyed-up escapism favoured before we all became austerity aware, then this is the book for you. Perfect holiday reading. Though be warned if you’re reading it in the cold dark UK: it will make you want to jet off to somewhere hot (private plane, darling), and stuff your face with all the incredible food that’s described in mouth-watering detail throughout the book. Mmmmm satay.
Crazy Rich Asians, Kevin Kwan: A tasty 3.5/5
According to the all powerful Wikipedia the average adult reads 250 – 300 words per minute. With this in mind I’ve decided to critique a range of things (books, films, restaurants, beauty products, whatever else I think of) in easy one minute chunks that you can read on the tube, the train, on your tea break, in the loo, wherever you like. It’ll be quick culture: fast, fun and over in a flash. Heck, I know you’re busy.
The first one is due up this lunchtime.