Posts Tagged ‘memoir’

I have been quite annoying lately, telling everyone little factoids I picked up from this book. Did you know alcohol is a carcinogen? Did you know the recommended average number of standard drinks you should have per day is two? And no more than four in any one sitting? I’m great company. But I was very impressed by this book: it’s Age journalist Jill Stark’s account of a year spent sober, after one toxic hangover too many. And it wasn’t just hangovers she was suffering; the panic attacks and memory gaps Stark experienced were increasing in their frequency and severity. So she decided it was time for three months off the booze, an experiment that morphed into the full year’s experience.

Stark is articulate and curious, which is to be expected from a journalist – a journalist, no less, whose expertise is, ironically, reporting on Australia’s booze-soaked culture. This book is readable and interesting, with Stark’s personal journey making the necessary facts and figures digestible, but it’s also savvy publishing. At a time when Australians are drinking a lot, and starting early in their lives, this book ticks the feature-writer’s ‘interesting to everyone’ box. When discussing High Sobriety with friends, I’d mention the trouble Stark had fending off well-meaning friends’ insistence that she have a drink at celebrations, or the discomfort others would have around her when they were drinking, and everyone would nod in recognition. Though abstaining from alcohol for a year is a social and psychological feat that many wouldn’t consider possible in their own lives, the Australian cultural bias towards drinking would be recognisable for most. How you take a bottle of wine to dinner, without fail. How you have a beer after knocking off work any night of the week. How you have a glass of champers when a friend turns 29. A friend’s book launch. A bad fight with your brother. How anything, and everything, is an excuse to have a glass or four.

The book is split into chapters reflecting each month of Stark’s sober year, but each chapter also takes a different focus, whether it’s the similarities between the drinking cultures of Scotland and Australia (Stark is Scottish), the medical issues facing heavy drinkers, Stark’s search for love while sober, and the interesting role of drinking in the blokey world of journalism (for one thing, Stark describes a drinking game called ‘ottering’ that is enough to keep you off the sauce for a while). The honest and well-researched account makes it easy – even imperative – for a reader to consider her own drinking life.

For example, here’s an account of my drinking in the week after I finished reading High Sobriety.

Sunday: Share a longneck of alcoholic ginger beer that I bought a food and wine expo the week before. Though my share’s less than a standard drink, I have it before dinner and, before long, my head is spinning. I am writing, and when I look over my work the next day, it seems I temporarily forgot how to use full stops or, indeed, any punctuation at all.

Monday: It’s a public holiday, but no drinking. I’m determined not to have had a drink every day of the long weekend.

Tuesday: A board meeting. It’s going to be my final one, so I have one-and-a-half glasses of wine. Usually I’d have two, but – High Sobriety. It’s hard not to keep going, but I am proud of my restraint. It’s the first time I’ve put a hand over my glass in a long while. But then I end up having dinner with a friend who’s also on the board, instead of the bachelorette dinner at home I’d planned. Dinner is a friend’s birthday celebration, so I have another glass of wine.

Wednesday: I catch up with a writer I know. I am having dinner with my boyfriend’s boss and his family later, so I intend not to drink anything. But she offers to buy me a drink and I hesitate, unsure whether she will accept my refusal. Instead, I go to the bar and buy myself a vodka with soda water. At dinner, I have two glasses of very delicious Shiraz. I don’t intend to have any more than that, but when there is a glass and a half left in each of the two bottles remaining on the table at the end of the night, Sam’s boss asks me if I can ‘help out’ so the wine won’t go to waste. I say yes – another half glass.

Thursday: A glass of red at a pub with colleagues. Our plans to have Korean for dinner are set aside when we realise trivia’s on in the next room (and it’s raining). Two more bottles of wine are purchased, but I only have one more glass.

Friday: No more fucking drinking, thanks. My housemate offers me some pinot noir, but I say no, a halo appearing above my head. My only evening plans are to go to the gym and read my book. I don’t go to the gym. I succeed in reading about forty pages of my book, but not before pouring myself a half nip of Lagavulin. I don’t drink it, though – I fall asleep at 8:30pm.

Saturday: Movie night at our house. I plan to have no more than one mixed drink and one beer. We’re watching The BIg Lebowski so my housemate is making White Russians. I ask for a tiny one – I don’t like milk – and he obliges. I have a couple of sips and leave it – it’s gross. The dude doesn’t abide. I have one beer during the movie.

According to the new national guidelines for alcohol consumption, I’ve probably had just on the recommended amount throughout the week, and I don’t think I’ve had more than four standard drinks in any sitting. I’ve had two alcohol-free days, also recommended, but only because a) I really thought about it and wanted to achieve it, and b) I fell asleep. The thing that surprises me about this little journal is how much I had to advert to my alcohol consumption to get anywhere close to adhering to the guidelines. Although this is probably a more social week than most, I know I could easily have had three or four more drinks on top of what I did have.

High Sobriety is a book so thought-provoking that it may well do for drinking what Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals did for eating meat. (Lots of people I know have already said they don’t want to read it for that reason.) I’m not yet going booze free, and I doubt I ever will, but it’s good to know that I’m armed with the knowledge to drink as healthfully as I can.

Bonus points: Also good is Steph Van Schilt’s review of the book at Liticism.


August 3, 2012

I picked Heat by Bill Buford for the Kill Your Darlings Editors’ Picks. An excellent read for lovers of food and antics.

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Ha ha, just kidding. More like ‘Me and Russell Brand: A Book Review in The Lifted Brow‘. Take it from there.

A little while back, one of the senior publishing editors at work, Karen, mentioned she was seriously enjoying the Mötley Crüe memoir. ‘No you’re not,’ said I, unbelievingly. Silly me! Trust me, the pain of having to use two totally redundant umlauts in the title of this post was but a minor slight in comparison to the great good entertainment I received from this book. From the opening chapter by Nikki Sixx (bass), in which he stabs himself in the arm and tells the police that his mother did it, The Dirt is a fount of rock ‘n’ roll stories from which I was seriously happy to drink.

In fact, I made everyone else drink from it too. I became a Crüe-only Conversationalist. Here are some scenes from a real-life dinner party:

Friend of Estelle [FoE] #1: …which is why I’m moving to New York.

[Brief lull]

Estelle: So, I was reading this book about Mötley Crüe, you know, the band. It’s so hilarious. I can’t stop reading it. There’s this amazing story in it where Vince, the singer, has a crush on this Playboy Playmate, and they hang out for a bit but then he has to go to Hawaii for some reason. Anyway, he’s on a jetski in a lagoon with another woman – I think she’s topless – and all of a sudden Vince sees the Playmate on the beach, and she looks pretty mad, so he elbows the topless woman INTO THE WATER. Seriously. How hilarious is that?

[The conversation continues.]

FoE #2: …so fantastic about the work she’s been doing for them.

[Brief lull.]

Estelle: SO. I don’t really want to go on about it, but this Mötley Crüe book is really amazing. It’s so gross. Have you ever seen that show about the Osbournes? Well, Ozzy Osbourne is crazy, right. SO CRAZY. I think he took acid every day for a year, just to see what it would be like. Brain is totally addled. So anyway, he was hanging out with Nikki Sixx – you know, the bass player – or maybe it was Vince, the singer? Anyway, they were off their heads on a cocktail of drugs and alcohol at a hotel, and Ozzy needs to pee. So he drops his pants and does a wee right in the middle of the hotel grounds. And then, he gets down on his hands and knees and STARTS DRINKING HIS OWN URINE. In long strokes with his tongue, like a cat.

FoE #3: Oh my god.

Estelle: I KNOW. So. then, Ozzy says, ‘Your turn, Nikki.’ And Nikki is freaking out – Ozzy is his idol, right. And Ozzy wants him to drink his own pee. What can he do but do it? So Nikki takes his pants off and does a wee, and he’s preparing himself, he can’t shame himself in front of Ozzy Osbourne, and then … Ozzy gets down on his hands and knees and drinks NIKKI’S wee.

FoEs #1 to 3: OH MY GOD, that’s disgusting.

Estelle (beaming): I KNOW!


All this despite never having heard any of their songs, ever. You get the idea. If neither of those stories floated your boat, you won’t like this book. It’s also super readable, especially the first half, in which you’re driven by the pure emotion of WTF. The book lags a little towards the end, but the writing’s good throughout, which I’m guessing is mostly thanks to Neil Strauss. (If you think I’m being unfair to the members of the band, consider these lyrics, given at the end of the book: ‘You’re so fake / You’re a dirty little bastard / Fake, you’re always so plastered.’) Strauss, no matter what I think of his pick-up society antics, is a good writer and music journalist, and in The Dirt each of the four members of the band has a distinct voice and story.

Next up? Tommyland.

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My friend Jonathan, who accompanied me on my holiday in Sri Lanka, is a keen photographer, so I thought I’d ask him how to take a good shot of Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family. ‘You want an awesome shot?’ he asked. ‘Okay.’

Not exactly what I’d had in mind.

What I did have in my mind after reading Running in the Family, though, was a wonderful, intimate portrait of 1920s Sri Lanka, then called Ceylon. Though Ondaatje is well known for his fiction, including Booker Prize winner The English Patient, he is also a poet and non-fiction writer, and now lives in Canada. Running in the Family was a product of multiple visits Ondaatje took to the land of his childhood and is the product of his attempts to comprehend and reconstruct those years. Though it can be classed as a memoir, Ondaatje alludes to his process of storying the material: ‘I must confess that the book is not a history but a portrait or “gesture”‘. If it is to be termed as such, then this book is a gesture of grace and colour; a promise to bear, carry and perform history as if drunk on memory.

Oft-colonised Sri Lanka has a fascinating and tortuous history, and its parapets and creoles multiply with alarming alacrity for a reader unversed in that history. It’s pleasing, then, that while this book has a personal, familial focus, it can also illuminate certain aspects of the events that shaped the island nation. Ondaatje, as a scion of a well-known Burgher family, is well positioned to cast light on some of those events. At one point, he visits with John Kotalawela, Sri Lanka’s third Prime Minister, who served in the Ceylon Light Infantry with Ondaatje’s father, Mervyn. But this is not a political memoir; it is a personal one, and Ondaatje’s telling of the meeting is dominated by the fact that the animals in the household were fed before the people, while the meeting itself centres around the wildness Kotalawela remembers in Ondaatje’s father.

Of all the memorable personalities that appear in Running in the Family, and there are many, Mervyn Ondaatje is one of the most arrestingly portrayed. Sent down from Oxford University for a prank, Mervyn was a ‘veriest rogue’ kind of fellow: wilful, changeable and a terrible dipsomaniac for a good part of his younger years. Thoughtful and loving when sober, and unstoppably manic when inebriated, Mervyn once took off all his clothes on a train and threatened the driver with death unless he stopped the train. He proceeded to then go through all the passengers’ luggage, claiming that bombs were secreted there. When he lined up the ‘bombs’ outside, they were pots of buffalo curd, a common Sri Lankan foodstuff. Tales such as these are not told with bitterness or aggression, but rather keen curiosity and tenderness.

Just as Running in the Family is not a political memoir, neither is it a linear one. Short chapters with headings like ‘The Courtship’, ‘Monsoon Notebook (i)’ and ‘St. Thomas’ Church’ are interspliced with pictures of the Ondaatje family and their friends, including the only picture the author has of his parents together: an expensive black-and-white portrait in which they are both making mischievous monkey faces rather than the staid smiles dictated by the age. In some instances, Ondaatje chooses to interpret his recollections through the medium of poetry, and though his poems are strikingly heart-on-sleeve (or they were for me, obedient denizen of a satirical age), they are also strikingly, heavily evocative and often sensual, as in ‘The Cinnamon Peeler’:

I buried my hands
in saffron, disguised them
over smoking tar,
helped the honey gatherers

And of course, through the filter of Ondaatje’s anecdotes, the wondrous splendour of Sri Lanka itself is radiantly apparent. Despite its political troubles, it is a land of diverse beauty and the source of innumerable stories. Whether detailing the procedure with which he would, as a young boy, ride the giant kabaragoya and thalagoya lizards over a wall; or writing about ‘the most beautiful alphabet’ of the Sinhalese language, ‘created without straight lines because the locals wrote on brittle Ola leaves that would fall apart if a straight line was wrought through it’; or explicitly treating the many names and identities – Serendip, Ratnapida, Taprobane, Zeloan, Zeilan, Seylan, Ceilon, Ceylon – of his home country, Ondaatje continually adverts to the multifaceted allure of Sri Lanka. Since it is Ondaatje, this is done, as are all other tasks in this book, with deceptively casual grace.

In Running in the Family, Ondaatje writes of ‘a house that is an island’, and this book could easily be subtitled ‘an island that was many lives’. With prose – and sometimes verse – that easily echoes the gravid air of Sri Lanka and the lyrical anarchy of his parents’ social set, Ondaatje uncovers a series of familial narratives with sweetness and a meandering intent that are lovely to behold.

When Maddie and I interviewed John Hunter of Hunter Publishers a month or so back, he brought along a stack of books for us, an expansive gesture that Maddie, better tenacious of her good breeding than I am (sorry, Mum and Dad) took the lead in declining to fully exploit. But neither of us could resist taking one book each from the proffered pile, and there was a dog fight over Sarah Manguso’s The Two Kinds of Decay. I won — spurred by Older Sister Entitlement Syndrome — and Maddie took away the tantalising, not-really-second-place Oink Oink Oink by Eric Yoshiaki Dando.

I’m not usually a scrapper, and I don’t think Maddie is either. But John was describing how he’d discovered Manguso’s writing — she’s a poet and short fiction writer, an Iowa alum — and came to buy the Australian rights to The Two Kinds of Decay, a memoir about her experience with a disease called chronic idiopathic demyelinating polyradiculoneuropathy (CIDP). Both us girls (well, I’m extrapolating from how I felt) were intrigued and touched by the story and its short-sections format, and I got stuck into it pretty much straight away.

Like most human dramas seem to do, Manguso’s sickness crept up on her without any warning. One morning in 1995, when she was washing her face, she couldn’t catch her breath and her hands started tingling. It was a strange affliction that became more severe over the next couple of days, though with the average person’s blithe lack of presentiment for catastrophe, her worry was mostly directed at the collateral effects:

I was concerned I’d caught a strange illness, but I was more concerned that I looked drunk. I was staggering around, even to and from breakfast, and I felt people looking at me and thinking it might be time for an intervention.

Only a day later, she fell down in her university’s courtyard. Her mother took her to the hospital and in twelve hours she was hooked up to a machine and warned that she would be intubated through a hole in her neck if she deteriorated any further.

What followed was four years of medical treatment so intense that ‘intrusive’ doesn’t quite cover it. In CIDP, the immune system secretes antibodies into the blood, and these antibodies destroy the patient’s neurons. To avoid the effects of this self-destructive cycle, Manguso had to undergo apheresis, ‘from the Greek aphairein, to take away’. Her blood was fed into a machine that spun the blood into its separate components, removed the poisoned parts — in Manguso’s case, the plasma — and guided back into the body once mixed with saline and artificial plasma.

The matter-of-fact way in which Manguso describes the effects and the equipment of her illness is simple, though not inhumane or stark. She reports the taste and the cold of the plasma infusions, inescapable because they are inside her; and it’s difficult not to put one’s hand to one’s neck and close the book and be of one’s own body for a moment. Weakness is one of the accompanying detriments of CIDP, with the limbs becoming too impuissant for common tasks. This leads to impossibilities where once there was effortlessness: the section entitled ‘Blood and Shit’ tells of the cheerful nurse who ‘really knew how to wipe an ass’, and Manguso’s gratefulness for the competency with which her favourite staff would accomplish these intimate duties. Less able to be imparted without horror are the tales of professional inadequacy. In ‘The Sikh’:

He tried again and again to jam the tube into my vein. Every now and then he had to stop and apply pressure, as I was bleeding. At one point I thought I felt a jet of blood spurt into my chest cavity, and that’s when I lost my composure.

Months later, after his hair had gone from steel gray to white, my father told me it had looked like a horror movie.

While her writer’s nous enables her to figure her observations as salient themes or lessons, Manguso’s poet sense also conveys understanding in impressionistic flashes. At ‘The End’, she learns to ‘pay attention’; and that ‘to pay attention is to love everything’: a conclusion as comprehensive and inscrutable as monks’ replies to koans.

Not elegiac, but clear and aware, Manguso’s memoir is a bright prism for insight into the matrix of sickness and strength. Written seven years after her recovery, The Two Kinds of Decay uses a structure of fragments to translate life’s linear chaos into something multifaceted and utterly graspable. In a cruel bracket of life where the words ‘prednisone’ and ‘bolus’ and ‘fear’ become daily companions, and doctors and nurses number among the most common cast members, humanity might be a person’s most precious and most tenuous asset. Manguso’s powers of pellucid distillation guarantee the preservation of that humanity in the telling of a story with the power to all but devour it.


Next on the list for me is certainly some of Manguso’s poetry. Also, she is working on a novel: ‘it’s called The Guardians, and it’s about surveillance and paranoia’.

I travel a lot, but I am crap at travel stories. You can ask anyone who knows me. I have done some of the most fun things in the world, and I can still make them sound boring. Wells Tower asked me what Dakar was like, and I said, ‘There are a lot of fancy ice-cream places’. It’s unfair that I get to travel, actually. They should only ever send born raconteurs overseas. But such is life.

Lisa Dempster, on the other hand, is a great travel writer. (She’s also a publisher, blogger and good value lady.) We invited her to talk about Neon Pilgrim on Textual Fantasies a few weeks back, and her publisher, Emily Clark from Aduki, sent us a copy as a thank you. No: thank you! It was exactly what I wanted to read at the exact time that I received it: a book with a heart as big as its endeavour.

I figure that the sweet spot in travel writing is enabling a reader to share the joy and pain of your journey, and Neon Pilgrim affords ample scope to partake in Lisa’s experience. Lisa lived in Japan as a schoolgirl, on the island of Shikoku, and promised herself that one day she would undertake the island’s 88 Temple pilgrimage, the henro michi. The memory of this promise resurfaced at a time when she needed it very much; a couple of years ago Lisa was depressed, withdrawn and unmotivated. One of those dark days, however, she came across a tale in a library book about a suicidal woman who walked herself well on the pilgrimage. It became very clear to Lisa what her next step would be.

I know Lisa well enough to know that she is honest, principled and passionate — all things that characterise Neon Pilgrim, her account of the 1200 kilometre pilgrimage. For those of you who might think that a journey designed to venerate an enlightened monk might be quite a nice form of low-impact exercise — it’s not. It sounds freaking hard. Not only was the physical effort of hiking mountains in summer so overwhelming that Lisa couldn’t keep her food down for the first ten days, but the sheer size of the enterprise — the distance, the loneliness, the self-intimacy — was enough to make her rethink her plans more than once. In addition, Lisa was undertaking the henro michi nojoku, or sleeping rough.

But the other side of such harshness and difficulty is, of course, grace. On her trek, Lisa was inspired by the spirit and ideals of Kōbō Daishi, the buddhist monk who achieved enlightenment on the track now followed by 150,000 people a year. The Daishi was what I think they call ‘ahead of his time’: a feminist, anti-class, pro-equality crusader. Above all, I was incredibly moved by the Shikoku natives’ generosity to pilgrims through the custom of settai, or gift giving. Settai is a way for those who haven’t the health, time or financial support to go on pilgrimage themselves; and by gifting a pilgrim with food, drink, accommodation (or even chiropractic services, as Lisa discovered), the giver is assisting the Daishi himself.

There were so many things I loved about this book. Having been to Japan, it was such a tonic to re-encounter my favourite things about it through someone else’s words; I was wretched for Lisa’s descriptions of Japanese food, from flame-grilled mochi (which I don’t even usually like) to the udon of the Sanuki province, which is so soft and silky you can swallow it without chewing. Also, while reading about Lisa’s interactions with her fellow pilgrims and Shikoku’s residents, my heart swelled to such a size that I didn’t know quite where to put it. Absolutely crowning my enjoyment of Neon Pilgrim, though, was that it stripped away my belief that you can’t still have an adventure in these superconnected and dangerous times. You can; it’s possible; how sublime that knowledge is.