It’s time once again to round-up my cultural highlights from the last month and let you know what I’ve been reading, watching and listening to!
Real Estate by Deborah Levy
Real Estate is the third volume of Deborah Levy’s memoirs about the writing life and womanhood which began with Things I Don’t Want to Know (2013) and The Cost of Living (2018). Real Estate is built around the image of Levy’s imagined future home – a grand old house with lush gardens, and a fountain or a river flowing nearby. It changes all the time as she adjusts, rebuilds and adds onto it. She knows it is something she will never be able to afford but it is a dream that sustains her. Throughout the book, she muses on where we, as a society, place worth and confer importance.
Each chapter is set in a different city within which Levy is temporarily living and everyday objects and meals can transport her narrative to different times and places and she explores ideas of female agency, self-worth and aging. Each temporary residence gives Levy a different perspective on her past and her present.
Her writing mirrors life’s often strange and uneven juxtapositions. She reports conversations with strangers, meals she has shared with friends and intimacies about her own thoughts and feels. She quotes from her favourite writers but the evidently free-flowing narrative belies a confident structure.
Food, shoes, swimming and plants are recurring themes in a book that blends philosophical mediations on how to live with a manifesto on how live and to write. Highly recommended.
Snowflake by Louise Nealon
Louise Nealon – a graduate of creative writing at the Seamus Heaney Centre at Queen’s – made headlines when her debut novel Snowflake was sold for a six-figure sum. Film and TV rights were sold quickly thereafter, building expectation for Snowflake, with its title that reclaims the pithy slight suggesting all millennials are overly sensitive and lacking resilience. The novel is a match for the hype, telling the story of Debbie, an eighteen year old girl on the cusp of adulthood. Debbie lives on her family’s dairy farm, with her mentally fragile mother who is obsessed with dreams and her beloved Uncle Billy, who lives in a caravan and has his own issues with alcohol.
Meanwhile, Debbie is grappling with the isolating transition from school to university, as she leaves the farm and takes a place at Trinity in Dublin. The change is immense and as the issues at home and at university conflict, Debbie must take stock of her own mental wellbeing.
There has been a wave of books about young women navigating their way through life and relationships lately, but Snowflake is a welcome addition. It is a spirited and darkly funny exploration of finding your place in the world when you can’t see a place for yourself. Nealon has a light touch when dealing with big issues – grief, sexuality and consent, addiction and self-delusion – and her clear prose paints a vivid picture of a young woman in freefall, trying to save not only herself, but those she loves.
The fantastical dream elements of the story don’t really add up to much in the end, but Nealon is particularly adept at examining the ongoing shame and silence that surrounds issues of mental health and has created a warm, acute and intelligent debut.
Slug by Hollie McNish
Hollie McNish’s latest collection is a mix of poetry, memoir and short stories, covering a range of topics including death and grief, parenting, appearance, periods and masturbation. The essays/memoir serve as an introduction to the poems, as if McNish is trying to recreate the experience of a live reading on the page.
Her trademark accessibility is on full display here and she is particularly strong when exploring the themes of double standards between men and women both in writing and in the wider world. The short stories didn’t really work for me, they are often surreal and feel a little tacked on, but McNish’s poetry is as fresh and approachable as ever.
The Florida Project
I recently watched – and very much enjoyed – Nomadland, with its exploration of older people at the fringes of society. The Florida Project has a similar theme, but is a much better film. Set in the run-down motels in the outskirts of Disneyland, the film is a stunning exploration of childhood freedom, poverty and the marginalised in society.
It follows six-year-old Monee who makes her own magic in the shadow of Disneyland, while her mother desperately tries to keep their lives on track and the bills paid in any way she can. They live week to week at “The Magic Castle,” a budget motel managed by Bobby (a career-best Willem Dafoe), whose stern exterior hides a deep reservoir of kindness and compassion.
It might sound depressing but it is an utterly joyous and intoxicating movie, which asks the viewer to question their prejudices with a poignant and magical portrait of a childhood lived on the edge.
Army of the Dead
I am a big fan of a zombie movie and was looking forward to the much-hyped Army of the Dead which arrived on Netflix at the weekend. Alarm bells were raised when I saw that it was 148 minutes long. No zombie movie should be over two hours long, and I was proved right as Army of the Dead is full of pointless plotlines, ridiculous romances and a set of characters who make every bad decision possible. I should have just watched Train to Busan again…
Here Are the Young Men
I loved Rob Doyle’s bleak but intoxicating debut novel Here Are the Young Men, which tells the story of three young men as they spend a purgatorial summer between finishing school and waiting for their exam results in Dublin in 2003.
This movie was a big disappointment though, featuring tired clichés about disaffected youths, an unconvincing plot (which is different from the book) and bizarre fantasy sequences that really don’t work. The only saving grace is Anna Taylor-Joy, it’s just a shame her part wasn’t bigger.
This month I had a run of great albums for review. I reviewed The Changing Wilderness by Will Stratton and Seeking New Gods, the great new album by Gruff Rhys for No More Workhorse and I also reviewed Higher Places, the new EP from singer-songwriter Joshua Burnside for Northern Ireland cultural website/ magazine Dig With it.
But my song of the month is this belter from two of my favourite female artists, Sharon Van Etten and Angel Olsen.
Have you been watching or listening to anything interesting this month? Let me know in the comments!
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!