March 2019 | Books & Links

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The Life of Stuff: A memoir about the mess we leave behind – Susannah Walker

The Life of Stuff is about the author Susannah Walker’s experience of going through her mother’s house and belongings after her death. It documents her coming to terms with her childhood, her relationship with her mother and her mother’s life, as well as the process of preparing the house for sale. Susannah remembers her mother and the stages of her life through objects, weaving a narrative between her recollections from the past and her experience in the present as she clears the house for sale. The story is also laced with the history and origins of the objects described, as this is the author’s area of academic interest.

I have great admiration for Susannah in her ability to tell both her own story and the story of her mother so honestly, yet at the same time with grace, respect and understanding for her mother’s situation. It’s a difficult balance to strike, especially given the circumstances. I also like how she protects her family members from the intrusion of what must have been a very personal writing project by referring to them by initials rather than their full names.

The Life of Stuff is a fascinating and very well written and researched account of one woman’s descent into isolation and a life of squalor, but I felt that by the middle of the book Susannah began to over theorise in order to make sense of the mess and her mother’s life. This is understandable for an academic and writer, but I’m not sure how useful it is to the narrative, or was for her in practice. Whilst some of the discussion was fascinating, I felt that other trains of thought went a little too far. For example, in one section Susannah starts to examine the literature on conceptualising a hoard as a piece of modern art. I know that many artists and creatives are inherently messy people, but I don’t think hoarding and creativity are one and the same. To her credit, she does acknowledge this.

As I was reading the book, I began to wonder what Rose Terrace, Susannah’s mother’s house in Worcester, looks like now that it has been restored by a developer. It’s easy enough to find what looks like the house pictured in the illustrations and described in the book through a few simple search terms. It’s a house transformed, with no sign of the sadness its four walls once contained. At one stage Susannah wonders about leaving a lasting monument to her mother in the city after the house is sold; I think she has achieved that through writing this lovely book, which is a book many people will be able to relate to. It is, above all, a testament to the affection she holds for her mother despite everything they endured as individuals, and as a family.

As an aside, reading The Life of Stuff reminded me of an article I read several years ago about the Collyer brothers in New York City. Their story is an interesting one as it shows how people can descend into hoarding and isolation, although of course it’s a very sad one too.

The Secret Lives of Colour – Kassia St Clair

The Secret Lives of Colour traces the history and origins of various pigments, dyes and colours. It’s arranged by colour, so you start with shades of white and end with shades of black. I enjoyed learning more about the history of colour, although my historical interests are different to those of the author (I’m fascinated by 20th century history but care far less about social norms and events which took place much before then). I also know next to nothing about the history of art, which is a major theme in this book. There were several colour chapters that I skimmed through as the stories didn’t interest me, but others that I found fascinating. Not surprisingly for me given my interests, the chapters I enjoyed most were those with a contemporary or late 19th to early 20th century setting.

What surprised me the most while reading this book is how revolting dye and pigment creation was, and to a large extent remains. Paint and dye making is a smelly business and many of the pigment and dye extraction processes are toxic to humans, bad for the environment, and show little concern for animal welfare. I’ve never really given much thought to this aspect of colour until recently when I became interested in watercolour painting. I wanted to make sure my paints and materials were cruelty free, and was astonished to find out just how many products are traditionally made with animal derivatives.

Graphic Novels

Barefoot Gen I – Keiji Nakazawa

My library doesn’t have a huge selection of graphic novels, but they do seem to specialise in graphic novel auto-biographies so I’ve been reading a lot of those lately. Barefoot Gen was the first manga to be translated into English and tells the semi-fictionalised but mostly true story of the author’s childhood in Japan and experience of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima which killed most of his family.

I read Black Rain by Masuji Ibuse and Hiroshima by John Hersey several years ago, but I hadn’t heard of the Barefoot Gen series until recently. It’s a slow build which chronicles the author’s family’s struggles with hunger, the sustained aerial bombings and anti-war sentiment. Interspersed throughout the book are pictures of the sun and the clock in their home. The sun’s symbolism is an obvious choice for Imperial Japan, but the clock less so unless you are familiar with the events and timings of the morning of 6th August 1945. In both Black Rain and Hiroshima survivors speak of what they were doing at specific times on the morning of that fateful day, whether they were indoors or outside, whether their routine was the same as always or had changed for the day, and the impact of where they and their families stood at 8:15 in the morning on whether they lived or died.

As the book hurtles towards August 1945 it becomes more and more claustrophobic because you know what’s coming and the clock and sun references increase. The final panels are horrific, and no less so for being in black and white cartoon form. After finishing Barefoot Gen I I wanted to know how true to the author’s experience the manga had been, and so I found a couple of interviews he gave detailing the real events of 6th August 1945 (linked below). They too are worth reading.

Barefoot Gen II – Keiji Nakazawa

The second volume of Barefoot Gen begins the day after the bomb. It’s gruesome and difficult reading, but more fantastical than the first volume. While the first volume feels like it sticks quite closely to the author’s lived experience, the second veers off into a more fictionalised story. The descriptions of radiation sickness and the aftermath of the bomb are harrowing. After reading the first two volumes of Barefoot Gen I found the 1983 dubbed anime online. The manga is much better as it’s much more detailed. The anime was quite cheesy and moves through the story too fast.


A Pale View of Hills – Kazuo Ishiguro

It wasn’t intentional but I ended up reading A Pale View of Hills straight after Barefoot Gen. The story has a split setting between Nagasaki, Japan soon after the end of WW2 and an unnamed town in 1970s England. It’s written as a first person narrative which isn’t something I usually enjoy, but within the first ten pages I knew it’d be a book I saw through to the end.

Without giving any spoilers, A Pale View of Hills is narrated by middle aged Etsuko in the present day (it was published in the 1980s) during a visit from her younger adult daughter Niki after the suicide of her older daughter Keiko. As she struggles to talk about Keiko’s suicide and her grief and sense of responsibility, Etsuko’s memories pull her back to 1950s Nagasaki and a very odd friendship she had with an older woman and her young daughter. The reader is left to ponder the extent to which Etsuko’s memories of her friendship and time in Nagasaki are shaped by her own experience as a mother to a troubled daughter.

A Pale View of Hills is packed full of suspense and unanswered questions and is the kind of horror I was hoping Fever Dream and Such Small Hands which I read last month (both marketed as horrors but which did nothing for me) would be. It’s a short novel coming in at less than 200 pages and is paced really well. That said, there were things I found frustrating. The writing is at times quite repetitive with characters repeating the same lines over and again. The character development is quite thin, and the relationships and dialogue between characters is very formal and stunted. This may be an accurate portrayal of the culture and social norms of 1950s Japan, but I found it quite jarring. A Pale View of Hills was Ishiguro’s first novel, and it’s the first of his I’ve read through to the end. I read the much lauded Remains of the Day several years ago but didn’t like it and abandoned it, again as I found the writing and voice far too formal.

Nocturnes – Kazuo Ishiguro

I don’t typically reach for collections of short stories. The reason for this is that I find it takes me a while to get into the books I read. I feel like short stories break up my reading too much as I’m constantly getting to grips with new characters, storylines and settings. That said, I picked up Nocturnes as it was sat alongside A Pale View of Hills at the library and sounded interesting. There are five stories and they’re all on a theme of music and musicians.

I didn’t love this collection, but there were two stories that I particularly enjoyed. They were ‘Malvern Hills’ and ‘Cellists’. All of the stories in Nocturnes contain farcical elements and push the boundaries of reality, which is something that I don’t usually like in short story format. I don’t mind it in full length fiction (e.g. Haruki Murakami) as there is enough time given to building a setting and developing characters to make it work, but it doesn’t work for me in a short story. The exception to this rule is Zweig’s writing, but he has an unusual ability to create fully formed characters in very few pages which makes his improbable stories work.

I think the reason I enjoyed ‘Malvern Hills’ and ‘Cellists’ more than the other three stories is because of my familiarity with the setting or subject matter, which made up for the absence of depth and character development in the writing. I know the Malvern Hills and the part of Worcestershire and Herefordshire ‘Malvern Hills’ is set in really well, so I instantly felt a connection to the story. With ‘Cellists’, I could relate to the protagonist as I play violin and so I found a connection there as the story centres around two cellists. I suppose I might have enjoyed the other three stories more if the genre of music they pivot around was something I was familiar with or enjoyed, but they weren’t.

Articles // Projects // Links

Two interviews with Barefoot Gen author Keiji Nakazawa about his career in comics and experience of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. I found these after reading Barefoot Gen I & II as I wanted to know more about the author’s life.

In the Comics Journal // From NEO Magazine

I subscribe to artist and writer Austin Kleon‘s mailing list. Every Friday he sends out an email with ten links in it. The links are to articles he’s written and things he’s read or found interesting that week. I don’t subscribe to many mailing lists, but his is always fun to open. Here is a video of a talk he gave last year on the theme of how to keep going as an artist or creative. It’s worth watching.

Also on the theme of colour I read this article by Greenleaf & Blueberry on the link between language and perception of colour. I find this such an interesting concept. Kassia St Clair raised it in her book, exploring how different languages have different names for colours; for example Russian has a distinct word for light blue (голубой) whereas we don’t make this distinction for blue in English. However in English, as Matt and Jess point out, we have ‘pink’ to refer to light red. It goes to show how language shapes our understanding of the world.

Thomas Romain’s YouTube channel. Thomas Romain is a French animator and illustrator who lives in Japan. He makes videos with his two sons. His sons create concept sketches, and Thomas turns them into full characters. As an aside, I especially like how Thomas speaks in French in the videos. So much of YouTube is in English, and it’s nice to see someone speak their mother tongue without catering to an anglo-centric audience (there are subtitles though). It feels much more honest and authentic that way.

Oliver Sacks’ thoughts on life and death, written a few months before he died in 2015.

I don’t read the Telegraph for politics or opinion, but I am impressed by their coverage of women in sport. In an effort to read more articles about female athletes and women in sport, their new section is quite interesting.