Book Of The Summer Book Review!

We interrupt your regular programming to bring you breaking news (or it would have been if I’d read this book when it was first published last summer!) of a book I have completely fallen in love with, The Map Of Us. It’s got a typewriter, a garden, sand art, washing machines, French estate cars, statistics, the colour blue, handbags, a sofa and a dog. Not sure what else a book needs, really.

 

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The Map Of Us 

This book is one of those rare treats that can surprise and delight and stretch the boundaries of genre. It’s got EVERYTHING; a little bit of history, a generous helping of clever, wry humour and tons of humanity. The characters manage to avoid the usual tropes and all bring their own very unique personalities to this quirky tale of family, love and finding your path in life.

Jules Preston is officially my new favourite author, which leaves me in a bit of a pickle because his new book isn’t out yet. So no pressure Jules, but get a wriggle on! Where did he come from? Why didn’t I hear of this book till now? And why isn’t it being made into a film? All questions I will fail to deal with here.

Anyhoo, I don’t like writing reviews that kind of dissect a good book, I feel it’s enough to keep shouting in big letters how much I love it, but I’ll do my best to give you a flavour of this wonderfully uplifting story.

The Map Of Us tells the story of the North family (although it doesn’t really read like a family saga at all) starting with Violet North – a tenacious young woman who is abandoned by her family in a very large house with a very large garden. Unfortunately, Violet cannot walk very far, having suffered from polio as a child, but she does not allow this to hold her back.

Her family had lately abandoned her in a  house with several staircases and a large garden in the hope that she would fall and die as quickly and conveniently as possible. They had told her as much when they left. She had been a burden to them for long enough. Violet could not walk far, but she was twenty-six and had her own house with a large garden and decided to be as inconvenient as possible. She did a grand job.

There’s a hint of fairytale (think Lemony Snicket) to Violet’s story and dare I say a whisper of magical realism throughout the book. Not necessarily in the plot, but simply in how the story is told. There is something of the ‘once upon a time’ to it; the repetition, the short chapters (with funny names), the triumph of good over evil. But we do not linger with Violet for long, as the book shifts gear into the present day with our first person narrator Matilda. I adore Matilda and her dry sense of humour. Her marriage is ending and as a statistician, she decides that in order to better understand where it went wrong, she should write a report on it.

Okay. Maybe writing a report on our marriage with footnotes and a summary and a series of conclusions was another spectacularly bad idea. But that is what I did.

You often hear of books being described as feel good, when really they leave you feeling like you’ve had to ingest unsafe amounts of sugary cringe. But this book really made me feel good – about myself, about life. Because life is (unfortunately) all about challenges and how we overcome them. Life changes us; it’s supposed to and if we’re really lucky, we will find exactly what we need to be happy here. This book even gave me goosebumps when the gardener…. well, I’ll let you find out for yourself.

There are so many laugh out loud (or giggle quietly) moments to enjoy. When Matilda describes her erstwhile husband Matt’s dedication to listening to experimental jazz.

He went to all this effort just so he could listen to music that sounded like an instrument salesman being pushed down a flight of concrete stairs wearing trousers made of trombones.

And another one of my favourite lines also comes at Matt’s expense. We’ve all been here!

Matt was waiting for something to happen. It was hard to tell what. He didn’t know. He liked to think about his future while he was asleep on a secondhand sofa. For all he knew his future may have already come and gone.

Over-arching themes like the futility of building an empire versus the nobility of building a garden; the impermanence of life and sandcastles set against the durability of love and family. It is written with such poetry and honesty and I think this line encapsulates the entire story.

We were a family. We were strange and resilient, too.

I think I’m going to make that my family motto – strange and resilient! Perhaps with a fire panda as my crest. Or a sloth! I digress. The point is, I am utterly beguiled by this book, which seems to have been written just for me. I love that feeling when reading a book – the sense that the author secretly mined your imagination and produced the exact kind of book you wanted to read. And I also like the fact that I’ve found it a year after its publication, because it reminds me that readers will find my books long after the initial hype is over.

So if you like books that take a kindly look at the human condition and find redemption in our foibles, or a story about a man who walks the great moors, even if he is just the figment of a young woman’s imagination who is too afraid to visit the garden, then please give yourself the gift of this novel. It’s just beautiful.

 

 

It’s The Most Repetitive Time Of The Year

 

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If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, then Christmas really takes the biscuit.  Is it just me, but when you reach a certain age, don’t you just kind of think ‘Christmas, again?  Really??’

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a total Grinch.  I mean, I used to love Christmas…. or at least I did the first 30 times!  Like I used to love clubbing till 5 in the morning or wearing platform boots, but you grow out of these things.  You mature.  Your tastes become more refined.  You move on.  But Christmas won’t let you move on.  Regardless of your age or your circumstances, Christmas demands to be observed, every year, for what has now become a two-month torture-fest celebration.

From November onwards, it’s the same old Christmas songs you’ve been subjected to every year ad nauseum, ringing out from every public space.  There’s no getting away from the countdown or the brainwashing to join the masses and start shopping for a meal that will take place in two months time.  Every half-cooked Nigella impersonator is telling you how to disguise your brussel sprouts so they don’t taste vile – I mean honestly, is there any other veg that has built its entire career around one meal?!

But that’s just the food.  The latest shopping frenzy to hit our shores, Black Friday, swiftly followed by Cyber Monday, only serve to remind you of the annual (vain) search to find vaguely novel gifts for the same people.  If, according to the ‘desire theory’ of Jacques Lacan, our desires can never fully be satisfied, I think we can safely assume the ‘perfect gift’ does not exist.  It’s just shit you got from the shop wrapped in sparkly paper.  And anyone with kids (including inner children) will know that the wrapping inevitably ends up being more fun than what’s inside!

The pressure to create a saccharin, picture perfect, roasting chestnuts on an open fire kind of Christmas inevitably spoils the entire thing.  Most people set themselves the unattainable goal of trying to re-create the magic and nostalgia of their own childhood memories, instead of breaking out of the mould and creating new traditions.  On top of the emotional cost is the actual cost of the aptly named ‘silly season’.  In Ireland, each houshold will spend approximately €1,400 this year – unlike the Dutch who will spend a rather sobering €211!  (And as far as I can tell, they invented the whole thing with the original Sinterklaas – so when you get your credit card bill in January, blame the Dutch!)

It can’t be December already?!

And besides, when you’ve reached a certain age, if you really want something, you’ll buy it for yourself.  Unless you’re a child, you’re hardly waiting for December to come so you can start dropping hints about that Swarovski watch you’ve had your eye on (oh, did I just say that out loud?!).  I have enough stuff (although it would be great to have the time constantly available on my wrist, in crystal form) and so does everyone else in my family.  I’d rather give to people who really need help this Christmas and just spend the holiday being greatful for what I have.  Maybe the best way to survive enjoy Christmas is to ditch the idea of a perfect day and try to have an enjoyable one instead.

Just to show that I’m not completely immune to the charms of the festive season, or averse to a new old Christmas song, here is a beautiful waltz from Lisa Hannigan.  Merry Christmas everybody (again!)