One of These Things First by Steven Gaines

genre: MEMOIR | pages: 272

My rating: ★★★★

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher. All opinions are my own.

Memoirs have never been a favourite of mine, so I went into One of These Things First expecting a somewhat tedious time. As it turns out, Steven Gaines’ story and writing style both fascinated and moved me.

‘I saw him fleetingly, no more than a slow camera pan as he passed in and out of frame, but I knew him so intimately from that moment that I can still smell the sun on the nape of his neck.’

It is a poignant and fairly dark read but with enough humour to offer a change a pace. The book has been compared to Girl, Interrupted   although Girl was far darker and more intense than this.

The book is fairly short but the story itself spans much of the author’s life, with the central focus on his fifteen-year-old self, leading up to, and during, his time at a psychiatric clinic. His struggle with who he is and how he is perceived is nothing short of heartbreaking.

The tone of the book is conversational as he recounts his memories and experience, but with such acute attention to detail that it makes even the mundane seem interesting. It is written in such a way that his interest, mild obsession even, with Mr Halliday or Mary, becomes infectious. And I love how his description of the people in his world conjures a vivid image in the mind.

One of These Things First is a story that I’m sure took a massive amount of courage to write. Acceptance among family, communities, or within general society is difficult, especially at the time these events took place. Self-acceptance is often a doubly hard, never-ending battle, and I’m glad there is a hint of it at the end.

‘There were women I loved, but not completely. No matter how wonderful the women I romanced were, I was driven by nature and design to love a man more.’

 

one of these things first book cover

 

In March of 1962, the author, who was fifteen-years-old, managed to “escape the hawk-eyed scrutiny” of three saleswomen in whose care he’d been left, went to the back of his grandfather’s store, punched the glass pane out of a window and sawed his wrists and forearms on the shards of glass remaining in the frame. Narrowly avoiding death, he was hospitalised and, on the brink of being committed to a state hospital, begged his grandfather to bankroll a stay at the exclusive, private posh Payne Whitney located on Manhattan’s upper eastside. With self-confessed delusions of grandeur, Gaines, as a patient, comes to understand that his homosexuality is the underlying cause of his suicide attempt. While he undertakes conversion therapy with a young psychiatrist, he becomes the willing apprentices of various celebrities who are also patients at the hospital. With a rare mix of poignancy and humour, Gaines shows an uncanny ability to conjure up a rollicking narrative woven with great moments of insight, separating himself from other memoirists by his sheer ability to tell a story.

ON WRITING BY STEPHEN KING

GENRE: MEMOIR | PAGES: 367

My rating: ★★★★

Stephen King   has the writer’s toolbox of tips to end all toolboxes, all tips, and then some. He doesn’t offer the vague and generic bullsh*t like most how-to books do. Instead, On Writing is packed with insightful, and more importantly, practical guidelines on how to improve your writing craft. He doesn’t beat around the bush, he doesn’t sugarcoat sh*t; what he does is gives it to you straight, and he insists that as a writer, you should be aiming to do the same for your readers. The theme of faithful storytelling, of truth, runs through this book and all of the advice therein. As far as storytelling is concerned, there is no black and white—only story—and it is the writer’s job to tell it.

This book is one of those books you wish you’d read ten years ago. There are moments in here where you read something and think: ‘Holy crap! I do that!’, and for a second, it occurs to you that you must be doing something right, if only because it’s happened to Stephen bloody King. And if that doesn’t get you going, there’s this:

“Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.”

That’s the kick up the a** we ALL need, right?

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft has become my dog-earred, thumbed-to-death reference/guidebook/bible. I haven’t read this just once—I’ve read multiple passages a thousand times over—and I doubt there will ever be another book on writing worthy enough to replace it. If there’s just ONE book you read on the craft, make it this one.

Needless to say, Stephen King has a new worshipping fan to add to his sky-high haystack. That dude rocks. (Now I just wish I had the balls to read his fiction. One day… *determined head-bob*)

“So okay—there you are in your room with the shade down and the door shut and the plug pulled out of the base of the telephone. You’ve blown up your TV and committed yourself to a thousand words a day, come hell or high water. Now comes the big question: What are you going to write about? And the equally big answer: Anything you damn well want.”
—Stephen King

 

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 On Writing Stephen King book cover

 

On Writing: A Memoir is an autobiography and writing guide by Stephen King, published in 2000. It is a book about the prolific author’s experiences as a writer. Although he discusses several of his books, one doesn’t need to have read them or even be familiar with them to read On Writing.

Your Voice In My Head by Emma Forrest

GENRE: Memoir | PAGES: 224

My rating: ★★★

Your Voice in My Head is quite powerful and moving with real insight into the author’s life.

When it comes to writing about mental illness, there’s rarely ‘a good way’ to portray ‘a bad time’ but Forrest manages to do it. Her personality and wit shines through in places and adds to the book’s depth. She is frank and honest and never holds back what she wants to say. Her ‘Dr R’ sounds like he was a magnificent person and psychiatrist, and the wisdom he imparts through her memoir was something of a treasure to read about.

Best of all, despite the struggle, his faith and her hard work ensured genuine optimism towards her future and ultimately, saved her life. 

 

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 Your Voice In My Head

 

Emma Forrest, an English journalist, was twenty-two and living in America when she realised that her quirks had gone beyond eccentricity. Lonely, in a dangerous cycle of self-harm and damaging relationships, she found herself in the chair of a slim, balding and effortlessly optimistic psychiatrist – a man whose wisdom and humanity would wrench her from the vibrant and dangerous tide of herself, and who would help her to recover when she tried to end her life. Emma’s loving and supportive family circled around her in panic. She was on the brink of drowning. But she was also still working, still exploring, still writing, and she had also fallen deeply in love. One day, when Emma called to make an appointment with her psychiatrist, she found no one there. He had died, shockingly, at the age of fifty-three, leaving behind a young family. Processing the premature death of a man who’d become her anchor after she’d turned up on his doorstep, she was adrift. And when her significant and all-consuming relationship also fell apart, she was forced to cling to the page for survival. A modern-day fairy tale of New York, Your Voice in My Head is a dazzling and devastating memoir, clear-eyed and shot through with wit. In a voice unlike any other, Emma Forrest explores breakdown and mania, but also the beauty of love – and the heartbreak of loss.

Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen

GENRE: Memoir | PAGES: 168

My rating: ★★★★

With the exception of the last three entries, Susanna Kaysen’s short essays of her time spent on a psychiatric ward run in no particular order. Like her state of mind at the time she was admitted, Girl, Interrupted is a book whose content is a little chaotic and random at times and flits back and forth in time. Yet it tells us, more than adequately and without frills, of the two years she spent at McLean.

Her ideas certainly entertain; some notions I daresay linger long after finishing, and ultimately we get a glimpse into the fascinating world that we, as humans, feign detachment from.

My thoughts on this book may be biased given that I’m a sucker for literature riddled with self-examination and the problems and/or triumphs that arise from it, yet having said that, I’m certain this book would appeal to any reader wanting to delve into the mind of another.

Kaysen has, through Girl, Interrupted opened her mind and welcomed us in, wearing her ‘tainted’ sign whilst proving otherwise.

 

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  Girl, Interrupted

 

In 1967, after a session with a psychiatrist she’d never seen before, eighteen-year-old Susanna Kaysen was put in a taxi and sent to McLean Hospital. She spent most of the next two years on the ward for teenage girls in a psychiatric hospital as renowned for its famous clientele — Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, James Taylor and Ray Charles.

Loose Girl: A Memoir of Promiscuity by Kerry Cohen

GENRE: Memoir | PAGES: 210

My rating: ★★★★

Often a title can be deceiving; you open the book expecting one thing but finding another. This is not the case with Loose Girl. It is what it says. It lives up, quite fully (and then some), to its name.

The true account by Kerry Cohen holds every bittersweet detail of her very active sex life, from her most intimate desires to the low value she placed on herself from a young age. Through well-written prose, she demonstrated the validation she needed and sought from men throughout her life. For reasons that may have stemmed from her broken home-life and the beliefs she held about herself, she developed an all-consuming need for physical contact in order to really feel alive, but even then, it was never enough to fulfill her. She never holds back on description throughout, sharing with us the innermost workings of her mind–every paranoid thought, every desperate plea–all in the name of feeling wanted, chosen–loved.

I found this hard to read yet I could not put it down. In some instances I found myself personalising her account; I could identify with her in several ways and I find that, in itself, both worrisome and comforting. Still, it was satisfying to discover that she eventually made the necessary change and found a way to accept herself, thus eventually allowing another person to do the same. It must have taken great courage to write so openly and with such fierce honesty and for that I salute the author.

 

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  loose girl

 

For everyone who was that girl.

For everyone who knew that girl.

For everyone who wondered who that girl was.

Kerry Cohen is eleven years old when she recognizes the power of her body in the leer of a grown man. Her parents are recently divorced and it doesn’t take long before their lassitude and Kerry’s desire to stand out–to be memorable in some way–combine to lead her down a path she knows she shouldn’t take. Kerry wanted attention. She wanted love. But not really understanding what love was, not really knowing how to get it, she reached for sex instead. Loose Girl is Kerry Cohen’s captivating memoir about her descent into promiscuity and how she gradually found her way toward real intimacy. The story of addiction–not just to sex, but to male attention–Loose Girl is also the story of a young girl who came to believe that boys and men could give her life meaning. It didn’t matter who he was. It was their movement that mattered, their being together. And for a while, that was enough. From the early rush of exploration to the day she learned to quiet the desperation and allow herself to love and be loved, Kerry’s story is never less than riveting. In rich and immediate detail, Loose Girl re-creates what it feels like to be in that desperate moment, when a girl tries to control a boy by handing over her body, when the touch of that boy seems to offer proof of something, but ultimately delivers little more than emptiness. Kerry Cohen’s journey from that hopeless place to her current confident and fulfilled existence is a cautionary tale and a revelation for girls young and old. The unforgettable memoir of one young woman who desperately wanted to matter, Loose Girl will speak to countless others with its compassion, understanding, and love.

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

GENRE: Memoir | PAGES: 234

My rating: ★★★★★

I went into this novel rather blindly and I have to say I preferred it that way–it allowed me to make up my own mind. To say that I ‘enjoyed’ this book would seem inappropriate but nevertheless, I’ll admit that I did.

I find Plath’s style thought-provoking and full of imagery. In one review I saw moments ago, it was noted that there was no mention of a diagnosis and hardly any discussion of treatment. I have to say, in the book’s defence, that it would seem that Plath didn’t need to label her protagonist’s illness. Everything seemed to be written as thought processes and emotion and this worked incredibly well given that depression (from my own personal experience) is such an inward and isolating illness. Plath’s likening of this to a bell jar fits perfectly.

She captures the chaos of the mind and puts it on the page so beautifully that I often wanted to read a sentence more than once just to absorb it all over again.

Overall, a brilliant novel and one that will stay with me for a long time.

 “To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is a bad dream.” 

 

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The Bell Jar

 

Esther Greenwood is at college and is fighting two battles, one against her own desire for perfection in all things – grades, boyfriend, looks, career – and the other against remorseless mental illness. As her depression deepens she finds herself encased in it, bell-jarred away from the rest of the world. This is the story of her journey back into reality. Highly readable, witty and disturbing, The Bell Jar is Sylvia Plath’s only novel and was originally published under a pseudonym in 1963. What it has to say about what women expect of themselves, and what society expects of women, is as sharply relevant today as it has always been.