SELFIE by Will Storr

I am not being overly dramatic when I say that we are living in a time of increasing levels of mental illness and challenges to emotional health, actual and attempted suicides, unhappy and unfulfilled people, over whelming pressures to be someone that we may not be internally programmed to be. These have always been issues in our communities through the centuries, but in the last fifty years or so there these issues have jumped to the fore of the lives of many many people in our world. But why? And what can we do about it?

This book takes a look at the very complex issue in two ways -  how us humans have become so self-obsessed and, what exactly it is doing to us. Such a complicated subject cannot be easy to write about and the result is quite a complicated, wide ranging, energetic and fascinating exploration into what makes us, and our own individual self. On the flip side, this is a very long book, there is an enormous amount of very detailed information which at times is too much. Plus, for me, way too much space given to long-word-for-word conversations between the author and his interviewee. Some more vigorous editing would not have gone amiss. All of this does make for a book that you need to concentrate on while reading - this is one of my 'read in the daylight hours' books, rather than a  'read before going to sleep' book, because you do have to be concentrate.

The author himself is an investigative journalist, whose life and career is very, very interesting and successful. In this book, he is very open about his own suicidal thoughts, his perceived dissatisfaction with his own self.  After looking at his website, with its diverse range of articles he has written, and his bio listing his achievements, you wonder why. But this is why he is perhaps the perfect person to write such a book. After all he has made it in his field, so what the hell is wrong with him? For these reasons alone this book is excellent as it is written with self interest at its heart, full of passion and that most important ingredient - curiosity.

He firstly sets the scene by looking at why people commit suicide or try, then takes us back to the beginnings of human civilisation when we lived in tribal groups, and conformity/sameness was the way the tribe survived. Then he takes us to Ancient Greece, where a beautiful and perfect physical form was such a crucial part of the philosophy of the times. The rise of Christianity /Catholicism with its rampant notions of guilt planted the seed for self doubt, inability to meet expectations. A long period of time passes till we get to mid 20th century USA with the beginnings of liberalism, the power of the individual, decline of collectivism, which have since evolved into the current latest greatest piece of economic thinking that benefits a few at the top of the money tree, and negates everyone below - neo-liberalism, epitomised in its most raw form as I see it in zero hours contracts. I still can't get my head around employing someone, but not guaranteeing them any work. Tied up with this is a hilarious and almost unbelievable chapter about the 'self esteem' industry in America. That was an absolute revelation for me! He then moves into the frightening world of Silicon Valley, start ups, venture capital, Google and the like.

Finally, the last chapter - how to stay alive in the age of perfectionism - where it is all supposed to come together, but for me doesn't! The only message I got out of this chapter, is that if you are unhappy in your life, things aren't going right, you are overwhelmed and not coping, do not try to change yourself. We are essentially programmed from birth to react to situations in a certain way - how do you explain children brought up exactly the same way reacting differently to a life changing event. Because the answer is that you can't change yourself - there goes the self help industry, cognitive therapy etc. What you have to do is change the world you live in, which translates as change your job/profession, where you live, how you live, who you live with. Easier said than done, but what this solution does is take away that you yourself are 100% responsible for your negative self-perception, and gives you the power to fix things in another way.

Well worth reading, and keeping for future forays. The ten page index is excellent, and the notes/references take up another 50 pages. Whenever you hear or read about why people self harm, you wonder if someone maybe a narcissist, what really went on in those hippie retreats in the 1960s, how Donald Trump got to be in the White House, pick this book up because it explains a lot.

NOT MY FATHER'S SON by Alan Cumming

Outstanding. The courage it takes to put one's life and history, warts, skeletons and all, right out there in the public domain for all to see is immense. It is unlikely that many of us would ever have this opportunity or permission to do so. For well-known and admired Scottish actor Alan Cumming, he was able to explore some deep family secrets via the TV programme 'Who Do You Think You Are'. I love the BBC and Australian series and have watched just about every single one made. Some stand out more than others, the Alan Cumming episode being one of those that I remember more than others. So to be able to read the memoir behind the programme was a book I could not ignore.

In the programme Alan wants to learn the story of his maternal grandfather, Tommy Darling, who left his family in the early 1950s, and ended dying in somewhat mysterious circumstances in Malaya only a few years later. Alan wanted to do this for his mother, Mary, and it ends up being a much bigger story than Alan or his mother had ever envisaged.  Unbeknownst to the viewer, there was another huge story going on behind the scenes - Alan's estranged and seriously ill father informing Alan via his older brother Tom, that he is not actually Alan's biological father.

The resulting memoir which covers the summer of 2010, the period of the making of the TV episode, narrates this tumultuous time in Alan's life. The chapters alternate between now and then, Alan's childhood/growing up years. His father was a monster, and so Alan tells us how awful and terrifying his childhood was, how his family life was, and the indelible mark it left on him, his brother and his mother as the years pass. And I can't say anything more, because it will spoil the reading experience.

Alan is brave opening his heart and soul, for uncovering family secrets, with the result some online reviews have been negative as a result. But I loved this, his search for belonging and kinship with both his never known grandfather, and his own father, the intense love he has found within his family and his personal relationships despite the appalling abuse he suffered. And as that TV programme has always been one of my favourites for its treasure hunt and history focus, I loved  this book even more. What it has highlighted too is the absolute uselessness and pointlessness of having family secrets and refusing to discuss stuff. One day it will all come to light, and quite possibly cause further pain and anguish when it never needed to be like that.

THE WONDER by Emma Neale

As the days go by since I finished this, my admiration and respect for this novel, both for its storyline and for its writing increases. Incredibly atmospheric, the poverty and despair of mid-19th century Ireland, combined with the rampant folk superstition and blind faith in the church pervades every page, every conversation. The arrival into the community of a nurse, Lib, veteran of the Crimea War, and trained by the amazing Florence Nightingale herself, with her modern and practical ideas, challenges everything this community holds dear.

The Wonder is an 11 year old girl - Anna - who has not eaten for some months, and is being hailed as a religious miracle for her ability to still be alive. Lib has been engaged by some community leaders to watch over Anna, sharing the task with an elderly nun. With her fact-based medical background Lib knows something is not quite right with this child still being alive after so many months of apparently self-starvation and she is determined to uncover the hoax. She is facing an uphill struggle in this very Catholic community, plus the threat she is posing to the  increased income showing Anna off to believing visitors is bringing to the family.

Lib remains stoic and focused in her mission, however as the days go by, she realises there is much more to Anna's fasting than is immediately obvious. She finds that her reason for being there is changing, leading her to make some tough and brave decisions.

This book grew on me so much as the story unfolded. It took a while for me to fully engage with what was taking place, but was certainly well worth persevering with. The writer evokes so well the precarious existence of the Irish at this time, the dirt, squalor, hopelessness, the hold the church has over the minutiae of daily life. It was gloomy and depressing to read a lot of this. The frustrating struggle Lib has when she blows into the community like an unwanted wind shows how  far apart people can be in their combined mission of looking after an 11 year old child. 

THE NIX by Nathan Hill

This is a big book, both physically - 600 plus pages - and in scope. Enormous in fact. Numerous and diverse story lines, numerous and diverse characters, some very tenuous links, moving back and forth in time between 1968 to 1988 to 2011, there is a lot going on. But for the most part it holds together superbly well, showcasing the wonderful story telling talents of the writer, and his mastery of language and writing. I really loved this, it was a complete surprise, and  most enjoyable, if somewhat difficult to hold open due to its massive size.

The cover shows a protest, young hippy people in a sit down somewhere in the US. Chicago actually in 1968, thousands of students protesting the Vietnam War in that year that has come to be the defining year of a tumultuous decade in the USA. Faye is the young woman with glasses, Sebastian is the young man she is leaning against, and Alice is the fierce looking young woman with sunglasses. Faye is the pivotal character in the whole book, it is really her story, how her actions and the things that happen to her at this time impact so critically on her life and that of her son Samuel. Most of the story is told from Samuel's point of view. In 2011 he is in his early thirties, single,  a university professor of English, disillusioned, bored, spends more time as an avatar in his favourite online game Elfscape.

With his job under threat due to the self indulgent actions of one of his students, Samuel, once a promising writer who has never delivered on a book he was paid in advance for, now finds himself facing the prospect of doing a hatchet job biography of his mother Faye in order to save himself. Faye abandoned Samuel and her husband Henry when Samuel was 11, and has never been heard of or seen since. Now she has been arrested for allegedly throwing handfuls of gravel at an aspiring presidential candidate during a walk about in a public park. Samuel, therefore, in order to save himself, takes on the task of hunting down his mother and facing up to why she left her family.

This is such a simplistic plot outline even though it is actually quite long, but against this background so much goes on - Samuel's childhood in the days leading up to his mother's disappearance and his peculiar friendship with twins Bethany and Bishop, his mother's story which really begins with her father migrating from Norway after the war. Why did that happen? He fills her with dread and fear with his stories of Norwegian mythical creatures including the Nix, which stay with poor Faye for far too long. There are a host of other characters too, the most interesting although really completely irrelevant to the overall book, being one of the other players in the Elfscape game. His near death from too much time on line is very much a parable for modern times, and for me was one of the highlights. In many ways this novel is a social history of the USA, much of it being centred on Chicago and the riots that followed that took place in 1968. Many of the issues important then are still important today, making this novel very relevant reading.

THE HIRED MAN by Aminatta Forna

It's 2007, in the small town of Gost, Croatia. Duro is in his 40s, a single man, born and bred in Gost, and likely to also die there at some long future date. He lives in an old cottage with his two dogs. Life is simple, uncomplicated, little happens in the community to disturb the day to day. Being Croatia in 2007 though, you know that in this story untold and buried events will be exposed.

It is the arrival of an Englishwoman, Laura, and her two teenage children, that opens the box of closely held secrets. Laura and her absent husband have bought the blue house, situated on the outskirts of town, empty for many years, neglected and run down. It is a house that Duro spent much of his childhood in, where his best friends Kresimir and Anka lived. The three were insepararable as children, Anka becoming Duro's first love.

All of this gradually unfolds as Duro's memories are awakened with the arrival of Laura and the children. He becomes the hired man of the title, helping the arrivals with making the house habitable, odd jobs, gardening and the like. One day the daughter, Grace, uncovers a beautiful mosaic on the wall of the house. Where did it come from, who did it? Duro finds an old car in the garage, the car that Anka drove in days past. These small events upset the delicate status quo in the community that has evolved over the 10 years or so since the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s. Tensions lying just below the surface are set to explode.

Throughout the novel there is an air of something not right, unspoken history - the writing is so good, so perfect. The naivety and happy disposition of Laura, for whom the house is simply a summer holiday place, is brilliantly contrasted with the darkness that pervades Duro and the other long time residents of the area. This is not a grand sweeping epic whereby we are thrust into the world of war crimes, of people doing amazing heroic deeds, but rather a small story of a small town, an anywhere town, made up of very ordinary everyday people, being human, still coming to terms with a dark time in their history.

BEFORE THE FALL by Noah Hawley

When the New York Times calls this one of the year's best suspense novels, you know you are in for a really good, and it does not disappoint one little bit. The author is an American screenwriter, best known for the Fargo TV series, as well as a successful novelist. This is novel number five, no prizes for guessing what his next screenwriting project may be, and it will be perfect.

What a ripper of a novel. Eleven people board a private jet at Martha's Vineyard for the short hop back to New York one night. Three of the people are crew, one is a struggling artist, one is a body guard to a wealthy media mogul, his wife, and two young children, the remaining two a Wall St investor and his wife. Sixteen minutes after takeoff, the plane crashes into the sea, the only survivors being the artist, Scott, and the boy, JJ, who in an epic swim against the odds make it to land. Then the media circus begins.

Immediately an air crash investigator is called in, and the FBI is also drawn into the mix, firstly to find the downed aeroplane, then to hopefully discover what happened. There are red herrings galore as the back stories of each of the people on board the flight are revealed. The media mogul for example, has made a lot of enemies with his FoxNews style channel, and the investor is about to be indicted for fraud. What about the flight crew? How lily white are they? And really, why is Scott on board? Was he having an affair with the media man's wife? His presence and survival on the flight places him in a most suspicious light?

This is a cracking good read, well drawn characters, the reveal when it comes is unexpected, but also highly plausible. Gripping and realistic.

PIECES OF YOU by Eileen Merriman

A first novel by an Auckland based award-winning short story writer, this is clearly aimed at the Young Adult demographic. Of which I am not, well and truly in my distant past, although I have two daughters who are only recently out of the teenage years, both quite different girls who had quite different experiences of those years. So my review is very clearly tempered and coloured by my own long distant teenage memories, and also the more recent experiences of my daughters.

Aside from the first three years of life which fortunately we don't retain memory of, I would say the most traumatic time for most people is those teenage years - the years between twelve and eighteen years of age - high school. I have strong memories of hating myself, hating those around me, struggling with friendships, horrible girls, floundering, huge self doubt, complete lack of self-esteem, wishing and hoping I was adopted. Being tall, skinny, with glasses and braces was never going to be a good start to young adulthood, but somehow I made it out of all that. On the plus side my teenage years weren't burdened with social media, phones, texting or sexting, easy access to alcohol and drugs. Some of my peers were, shock horror, in sexual relationships with each other, despite the pill only just becoming mainstream, and certainly not available for teenage girls. For my girls the teenage experience has been everything as it was for me, plus all those things in that aforementioned list of burdens. All I can say about that now is I am not at all surprised there are so many unhappy, confused, bewildered teenagers and young people, with spiralling rates of depression, anxiety, thoughts of suicide, compared to 40 years ago. 

The relevance of this novel, therefore, to teenagers is undeniable, particularly those of school age. The recent high level media coverage over mental health in young people and the unacceptably high rate of youth suicide in this country makes this novel doubly relevant. Good on the author for tackling such a huge subject as teenage mental and emotional health. This novel tells the story of 15 year old Rebecca who has moved with her parents from Dunedin to North Shore, Auckland. She is not happy, uprooted from her close friend group and everything familiar. So far no surprises. She starts school, finds making new friends difficult, trying very hard to fit in. She goes to a party one night with a girl from school, only to be lured away by a boy at the party and indecently assaulted. Again probably no real surprises.

I won't go into the true definition of rape, but this is what she thinks has happened to her, and she is quite traumatised by what has taken place. To cope, she begins to cut herself in secret, the bleeding helping her deal with the mental and emotional pain of what has occured. She then meets her next door neighbour, a boy from her school called Cory. Things improve greatly for Rebecca, she makes friends, she settles into school, and her and Cory become very close, sharing a love of reading and writing. Rebecca's narration is full of the drama and intensity of first love, and very well done too by the writer. So much angst! Intimacy between the two of them however becomes very problematic due to Rebecca's panic and shame at what happened at the party earlier in the year. At the same time, Cory appears to be having some health issues himself, taking regular sick days, and not being fully engaged with Rebecca. The cutting continues. 

Much of this plot line is very relatable probably by anyone who has ever been a teenager, myself included. Some shocking things happen, but again not unusual in the teenage world. And there is certainly plenty in this novel to provoke discussion between teen and their meaningful adult, or for the young person to think on while and after reading this. My younger daughter has not read this, but she and I have talked about it, the issues  and outcomes. I always value her opinion, experiences and observations. Am I a lucky parent having such an open relationship with my daughter? I don't know, but I do know, as with Rebecca and Cory, that teenagers are incredibly secretive little beings, and can fully understand how parents say they didn't see coming whatever danger or awful situation their child has got themselves into. As happens in this novel.

However, I seriously wonder how true to the average kiwi teenager these two are, how relateable they are.  We have two white middle class kids, living with both parents still married to each other, and siblings, in a relatively affluent part of Auckland, and of above average intelligence. They want for nothing. There is one Asian teen, no Maori or Pacifica or LBGT teens. I suspect that there are thousands of teenagers in this country whose lives, families, and class rooms bear very little resemblance to the lives of Rebecca and Cory, who probably wish they only had the problems these two have, not that this comment belittles in any way the teenage experience. I find Rebecca's naivety at fifteen going on sixteen not truly realistic, which makes me wonder if the author's target audience is the younger teen, rather than the more knowing mid-high school and older teen. But what I really could not get my head around was how these kids talk to each other. For a start, any parent reading this review will know how the word 'like' peppers every single sentence, so much you want to scream. In this novel - none of that. I was expecting more swearing, more rawness in the exchanges these kids have with each other, more real. It was all very sanitised. I remember watching the UK series Skins a few years ago. Now, we don't want our own teens to be like that, but it was riveting, realistic, not afraid to show what life for many young people is like. My girls, in their sanitised middle class world, loved it. We ended up buying the whole series. It was frightening, confronting but excellent, and I just don't feel that there was enough of that in this novel.

Still the fact that this review is so long, shows that the book has got under my skin and that has to be a good thing. If you are a parent of teens or young teens, then this would certainly be a worthy book to leave lying around for someone to hopefully pick up, as it covers a lot of very relevant issues to the lives and well being of our young ones. Although how successful it as at resolving problems and issues facing teenagers is debatable, despite the list at the back of support services to contact. One thing I did really like about this book is the chapter headings. They are all classic book titles, many of which would be studied at school or university, such as  Catch 22, The Outsiders, Atonement and many other great novels and authors. Each title had some sort of relevance to what was happening in the chapter - very clever. I would love for a teen to read and review this book, several teens if possible, just to let us older and out of touch adults know if this novel accurately reflects the average teen life.