Myth, Talent and Destruction: A Review of ‘Drinking in America’ by Susan Cheever

Book Review-Drinking in America

Now that I am very grown-up and mature (nothing to do with the fact that I never actually go out anymore and thus have no tolerance whatsoever for alcohol), watching drunk people behave in drunken ways is not something that appeals to me. Yes, I will guzzle Jack and Cokes at a wedding reception and find myself suddenly capable of talking to other humans, but that is, these days, the full extent of my relationship with booze. In ‘Drinking in America’ (Twelve Books, October 2015), Susan Cheever achieves something quite monumental, which is to actually make me interested in the lives and actions of people who drink too much, and the impact their drinking has.

I came to ‘Drinking in America’ via an article by Cheever in The Guardian, and was drawn to her book because she heavily referenced another non-fiction work I’ve really enjoyed this year – Olivia Laing’s ‘The Trip to Echo Spring.’ Where Laing focused specifically on writers – including Cheever’s father, John – ‘Drinking in America’ takes a broader approach, beginning with the voyage of the Mayflower and taking in the Civil War, expansion into the West and Prohibition, as well as JFK’s assassination.  Despite my fascination with America, much of what Cheever covers here was new to me, and I found the discussion of major historical events through the prism of alcoholism absorbing. I suppose it shouldn’t have surprised me that so many of the USA’s presidents have experienced alcohol addiction, given the pressures of the job and the lack of superior powers telling them not to drink, but I was equally fascinated by the other ways in which drinking has impacted on the nation’s history, from outcry against taxation of whiskey under Washington, to the continuing problem of alcohol abuse in the military.

Susan Cheever discusses personal experiences of alcoholism, encompassing her own struggles and those of her famous father, although these references are brief and set against the backdrop of a wider narrative. Cheever writes that “the Cheevers, for instance, are a family with all the distinction, myth, talent and destruction that alcoholism entails,” and uses her own family history to draw compelling conclusions about the effects of alcoholism beyond the alcoholic.

One of the sad things about alcoholic families – and there is plenty of sadness underlying these fancy stories – is the way in which the swashbuckling, derring-do, glamour and mischief of the family stories (he pulled the wigs right off the barristers’ heads!) – actually hides or mitigates the awful truth. Whether they are Cheevers or Adamses or whoever, alcoholic families are nightmarish places, heartbreak machines in which the innocent fare worse than the guilty.

Cheever moves seamlessly from social commentary – for example, discussion of the impact of alcoholism on Native American communities, something I have previously read about in Sherman Alexie’s work – to specific, human stories. The extended narrative of the Adams clan is instilled with tremendous pathos, as is the brief section on Frederick Douglass, who asserted that alcohol gave slaveholders a further means of controlling and subjugating their slaves.

The section of ‘Drinking in America’ which resonated most with me was the chapter entitled, ‘The Writer’s Vice,’ in which Cheever offers her interpretation of the apparent link between creative power and substance abuse. She establishes the well-worn fact that “all five of our twentieth-century literature Nobel laureates were alcoholics – Sinclair Lewis, Eugene O’Neill, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck.” Later, Cheever makes the valid point that, perhaps the intrinsic link between booze and books is a self-perpetuating viewpoint; that it is partly because of the focus on the same alcoholic writers that the idea that all writers drink has been sustained. Her discussion of writers is bound up with that of Prohibition, calling to mind Sarah Churchwell’s ‘Careless People,’ which explored at length the antics of F. Scott Fitzgerald and co. during the period.

By making alcohol forbidden, Prohibition increased its appeal for American writers. Writers are outlaws. Outlawing liquor gave it a delicious cachet. Part of a writer’s job is to question conventional wisdom and illegal gin had a magnetism that legal gin lacked.

In distilling American history through the filter of the country’s relationship with alcohol, Cheever has written something truly captivating. The links made here between the temperance movement and women’s suffrage are just another richly explored area which make ‘Drinking in America’ such compulsive reading. Cheever’s prose style is factual but often reflective and figurative, with personal experience and extensive research marrying to form something that I feel privileged to have read.

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The Lucky Ones: A Review of ‘The Rest of Us Just Live Here’ by Patrick Ness

ness2015 seems to have been the year for rejecting the title of ‘The Chosen One’ and giving some overdue attention to those who aren’t ‘chosen;’ the Rons and Hermiones, the Prims, the… whatever Percy Jackson’s friends are called… you get what I mean. Rainbow Rowell’s ‘Carry On’ gave us a rubbish ‘Chosen One’ and his supporting cast of equally amusing and interesting characters; Patrick Ness’ ‘The Rest of Us Just Live Here’ (Walker Books) offers a different perspective again, putting under the microscope those who are not only not chosen, but entirely separate from those who are chosen. That’s enough of the word ‘chosen’ for one paragraph.

I’ll put it out there straightaway; I loved this book. For one thing, it looks beautiful; the cover is awesome and the page edges are blue, which is something that shouldn’t be a selling point but is. As for the story; it’s relentlessly inventive. Ness’ premise is that, in every town and every school, there are ‘indie kids;’ the ones who fight dragons and fall in love with vampires and accidentally blow things up with poorly executed magic spells. ‘The Rest of Us Just Live Here’ is a bit like what would probably happen if someone from Ravenclaw was permitted a narrative voice in a ‘Harry Potter’ book, presumably feeling snarkily aggrieved about that speccy kid who keeps nearly causing everyone’s horrible deaths while receiving conspicuously preferential treatment from teachers.

Nice enough, never mean, but always the ones who end up being the Chosen One when the vampires come calling or when the alien queen needs the Source of All Light or something. They’re too cool to ever, ever do anything like go to prom or listen to music other than jazz while reading poetry. They’ve always got some story going on that they’re heroes of. The rest of us just have to live here, hovering around the edges, left out of it all, for the most part.

Having said that, the indie kids do die a lot. Which must suck.

Ness begins each chapter with a summary of what the indie kids are up to, before focusing his attention on Mikey and his (largely normal) friends; for instance, the book begins with the explanation that “the Messenger of the Immortals arrives in a surprising shape, looking for a permanent vessel,” before moving on to Mikey and his group “talking about love and stomachs.” This interplay between what is normal and what is not is part of what makes ‘The Rest of Us Just Live Here’ so brilliant; Ness manages to satirise a whole genre while creating a brand new one, in a style that seems effortless but can’t be because it is too brilliant. As the world of the indie kids begins to encroach upon the lives of everybody else, the lines between these two different spheres begin to blur, leaving Mikey to wonder whether graduation, prom and just going for a normal, uneventful drive will ever happen.

Aside from all the extremely clever fantasy/reality conflicts, there are very human stories to be found in this book, with Mikey’s struggles against OCD heartrending and compelling, as well as his belief that he is the least-wanted of his group, which made me have something in my eye more than once. The bathos inherent to Ness’ style, in which one character can simultaneously struggle with a god-given affinity with mountain lions and his sexuality, makes ‘The Rest of Us Just Live Here’ both thought-provoking and entertaining, with real, serious issues neatly juxtaposed with more surreal events.

Something else that seems entirely on point is the almost complete separation of teenagers and adults, with generational conflicts underpinning much of the narrative. In a sort of ‘Peter Pan’-ish way, Ness effectively highlights the inherent tragedy of becoming a grown-up and apparently losing the capacity to believe in anything beyond your own sphere.

I was in ninth grade when the vampires came. But even though people started dying, even though people disappeared and stayed gone, even though you could point at one and say, ‘That’s a vampire,’ most people, most adults, still don’t believe it ever happened.

I really loved everything about this book. A character like Mikey in any other book could have been self-pitying and whiny, but in the hands of Ness, you just want to hug him. The characters who surround him are equally well-realised, with Jared being my particular favourite (I am a cat person). The moments of supernatural high drama never distract from the very human stories being told, only serving to draw the reader more deeply into the wider narrative. Look, ‘The Rest of Us Just Live Here’ is just brilliant, okay?  I will be bullying everyone I know into reading it, maybe just by screeching ‘MOUNTAIN LIONS’ at them while raising an eyebrow at people called Finn and suggesting they stay out of the woods. And if you want to know what any of that means, you’ll just have to read it.

Never is a Long Time: A Review of ‘Crow Mountain’ by Lucy Inglis

Crow Mountain lowres jacketBefore I take a brief hiatus from the world of YA to finish reading the world’s longest grown-up book, I feel compelled to say things about ‘Crow Mountain’ by Lucy Inglis (Chicken House, September 2015). I bought this book for extremely shallow reasons: the cover is very beautiful and it was on the ‘Buy One Get One Half Price’ in Waterstones. I am pleased to say, however, that the book is nowhere near as shallow as I am.

Making me very jealous at the outset, ‘Crow Mountain’ begins with Hope, who is 16 and accompanying her very strange mother on a working holiday to a ranch in Montana. Hope immediately meets a mysterious, attractive but clearly troubled boy called Cal and much predictable sexual tension and walking around in towels ensues. Hope’s story alternates chapters with that of Emily, travelling across the continent during the 19th century to marry a man she has never met. Emily’s journey is violently curtailed, resulting in her taking shelter with mysterious, attractive but clearly troubled Nate.  Here, we also witness towels and sexual tension.

I’ve just made it all sound silly, haven’t I?  I think if I’d known more about the book before making my rash purchases, I might have put it back; it’s a romance, which is not my thing, and the whole premise is a little overwrought. But reading ‘Crow Mountain’ was a hugely enjoyable experience. Montana is a place I have wanted to visit for a long time, and Inglis’ depiction of the area, both in 1867 and the present day, is detailed and evocative and made my wanderlust go into overdrive. The region is almost a character in itself, so richly is it rendered in both timeframes.

Emily’s story was the one to which I was most drawn. A foreigner (she’s English), alone and with no hope of rescue, having lived an unenviably sheltered life with her distant parents, Emily is unprepared for the wildness of Montana and Nate, as well as the tribe in which he was raised. Inglis’ narrative takes in the mistreatment of the Native American people, the Civil War and the rights of the 19th century woman without the story ever becoming dry; this historical aspect of the novel fascinated me and, later, Hope, as she discovers Emily’s diary and the lines that connect the two young women. I’ve read plenty of 19th century novels but a modern YA novel set in 19th century America is new for me and I relished the change.

No one had ever asked me what I wanted to wear before. My clothes were chosen for me by Mama and planned  week in advance, more for special occasions. And now I stood wrapped in only a towel as a strange man offered me clothes I would expect to see on a London beggar. A man whose intentions weren’t clear at all.

The only real problem for me in reading this book was Meredith, Hope’s mother. She is almost a caricature of a feminist, getting annoyed when a man tries to carry her bags and dropping terms like “personal agency” as frequently as most people might talk about normal things like biscuits or ‘The Walking Dead.’  As a brilliant mother myself, I also thought she was just plain mean, and in an only marginally entertaining way. But her attitudes did make interesting comparisons with those of Emily’s parents in the other narrative, so maybe weird Meredith served her purpose.

The parallels between past and present are intriguing rather than far-fetched, as long as you suspend your disbelief a little bit (and if you can’t do that, perhaps novels aren’t for you). ‘Crow Mountain’ starts slowly but, by the end, accelerates at an astonishing pace to break your heart and severely stress you out – seriously, I had a few emotional moments towards the end which I was not prepared for when I gazed at the pretty horse on the cover in Waterstones. Inglis offers something different in the packed YA market and I really enjoyed the departure.

Human is Human: A Review of ‘Tarnished’ by Kate Jarvik Birch

Here is a confession of my boundless stupidity; I started reading Tarnished (Enchanted Publishing, out December 1st) by  by Kate Jarvik Birch without realising it was the second in a series. This was obviously very foolish, particularly as it was made quite clear on the NetGalley page from which I requested it. Anyway, once committed to Tarnished, I made the potentially dangerous decision to carry on reading without going back to the previous book, Perfected. With my crippling series fatigue and all, I decided this was a brilliant plan and a useful literary experiment; how much would I understand without the benefit of the first book’s action?

The answer is, pretty much all of it (I assume. Unless there were killer robots or song and dance numbers in the first one, of course).  Tarnished picks up the story of Ella, a human pet, who presumably escaped captivity at the end of the first book.  There’s a love interest, obviously, and his name is Penn, which is appealingly hipster. Ella encounters a series of bad people who want to hurt or exploit her and she is a completarnishedte badass in every one of these situations. There is a shadowy organisation called NuPet at the root of all this, along with dubious politicians and creepy ‘kennels,’
where the pets are bred.

You need to stop trying to protect me and let me protect myself.  I’m stronger than anyone gives me credit for and if that’s the one and only advantage I have to fight them with, fine. I’ll take it.

I will admit to not having any particular expectations of Tarnished; the story sounded interesting and I liked the cover, which were my deep and intellectual reasons for choosing it. However, it basically blew my mind, and there is one particular reason for this; early on, I came to the astonishing realisation that Tarnished is essentially The Handmaid’s Tale for teenagers who aren’t quite ready to read The Handmaid’s Tale. Please stop for a moment to contemplate what I am saying here; I am comparing this book to, in my opinion and that of at least one other sensible person who I know, one of the greatest novels OF ALL TIME. Do not underestimate how much I love The Handmaid’s Tale. People have done that before and they are still locked in a room being forced to read my A-level essays on it. What Atwood does so successfully in The Handmaid’s Tale is expose the wrongs that have been committed against women throughout history and across the globe; reading the book at the age of 17 completely changed my outlook on life and opened my eyes to what it means to be a woman if you aren’t born in the right place at the right time. Tarnished accomplishes a similar feat because a lot of what Birch describes doesn’t actually sound that outlandish. It is a well-worn track to point out depictions of women in the media, or the ways in which society still sees a woman as a man’s property; in Tarnished, this is literally true.

We’d spent so many years learning how to glide when we walked, learning how to hold our bodies so that they looked fragile and elegant like a flower balanced on its stem.

Once I’d thought of this Atwood parallel I got really excited and kept finding more ways in which the two compare (the kennels are like the Rachel and Leah Centre! Missy is like Moira!  It was all very enthralling). But aside from this, there is a huge amount to get excited about in Tarnished. Ella is a brilliant heroine; she has never even been taught to read but is fearless and selfless and tremendously smart. The relationship between Ella and Missy is Bechdel-testingly fascinating, with the two providing a perfect foil for each other. There’s a very astute moment when Ella acknowledges that “I’d been taught my whole life to distance myself from the other girls at the kennel. Pets weren’t meant to be friends,” which, I think, echoes a lot of the pitting women against each other which we see in the media. The least interesting person in Tarnished is probably Penn, but he might be really fascinating in Perfected and I am just ill-informed; I am absolutely going to read that book when my TBR pile no longer rivals the Empire State Building so I might change my mind about him.

Tarnished is hugely exciting; I wasn’t even annoyed by the setting-up-the-next-book ending, which is a big deal for someone with Chronic Series Fatigue like me.  It fits into the YA dystopia category but offers something different; something which, I would hope, will create in its teen audience the same feelings which a certain previously mentioned dystopian novel did for me as a teenager. If I am making it sound preachy or dry, I am describing it badly; Tarnished hits the ground running and doesn’t turn around to stop; it just assumes you are still there because why wouldn’t you be?