Reviews Round-Up

The critics’ verdicts on Peter Hook, Ali Smith and Sylvie Simmons.

Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division by Peter Hook

This new Joy Division biography by the band’s bassist “isn’t just Peter Hook collecting some already exhausted stories for a quick pay out,” Michelle Kambasha writes in Clash. “It provides a kind of personal insight that most of us haven’t been privy to until now.” The Joy Division story is steeped in layer upon layer of myth. “Hook’s mission,” writes Dorian Lynskey in the Observer, “is to relate the chaotic day-to-day existence of four young men – kids, really – before it was smoothed into legend.” This is accomplished, according to Lynskey, through the author’s characteristic straightforwardness and lack of pretension: “The demystification process starts with Hook's portrayal of himself as a laddish delinquent who, thunderstruck by punk rock, spontaneously decides to form a band with Salford schoolfriend Bernard Sumner.” What makes Hook’s book so refreshing is the lack of linguistic and intellectual showboating, and its simple laying of facts on the line,” notes Tony Clayton-Lea in the Irish Times, admiring Hook’s unaffected style. The book emphasises the band’s focus on music, fun and friendship – famously at the expense of even a semblance of business-mindedness: it was only in 2008 that Hook “discovered neither Joy Division nor New Order had trademarked or registered their names.” But hanging over every youthful anecdote is Hook’s knowledge, shared with the reader, of Ian Curtis’ impending suicide. As Lynskey writes: “So the tragedy infects the farce, as Curtis's ultimate fate casts ostensibly amusing on-the-road antics as symptoms of denial: never mind the worsening fits and self-harming, let's pelt the support band with eggs.”

 

Artful by Ali Smith

“It's true, I think I am love with Ali Smith,” admits the Independent’s David Hahn halfway through his review of Artful. The inherent bias of the lovestruck reviewer aside, there’s no disputing his boundless enthusiasm for Smith’s latest book: “Inspired, inspiring, exhausting” is how he summarises the work; a genre mish-mash which weaves in and out of fiction as it takes on “the big questions about art”. Although the book consists of “a quartet of lectures on literary-critical themes”, Hahn is emphatic that Smith manages to invest the notoriously dry shores of acedemia with readability through her “smart, allusive, informal, playful” voice; “dense with ideas but sustaining always a heady pace.” Publisher’s Weekly similarly falls over itself in the quest for a higher hyperbole, praising Smith’s “contemplative, electrifying, and transformative book.” Her dexterity as a writer to navigate seamlessly between the academic and the poetic is praised, as are her “riveting reflections” which successfully transform a series of lecture notes into a rich, rewarding testament to the “immutable necessity for art”.

I'm Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen by Sylvie Simmons

Whilst conceding that Sylvia Simmons’s new biography on Leonard Cohen is let down by the “inherent difficulty of telling the story of a storyteller”, A M Homes, writing in the New York Times, finds much to praise in this "exhaustive" biography. Homes is most approving of Simmons’s ability to direct her writing to creating an enriching experience of Cohen’s music, successful enough to make even seasoned fans fall think different about Cohen’s famed poetics: “Crucially, her book helps you add more detail and understanding to his lyrics”. Despite noting a slight lack of “historical context or counterpoint” in Cohen’s early life, Holmes avers that “as soon as you finish reading it you feel an overwhelming impulse to go back and begin again, revisiting the story with what you’ve learned along the way”. Fiona Sturges, writing in the Independent, is equally approving of the even-handed manner in which Simmons takes on this “serious artist who demands serious, if not too reverent, treatment”. She praises her extensive research, original interviews with Cohen himself, which “she elegantly splices … into the narrative”, as well as her uncovering of “delicious morsels that even dedicated Cohenites might find surprising”. And – crucially – Simmons has succeeded in investing a biography with a high level of readability. Tackling the book is like reading a “beautifully plotted piece of fiction”.

Leonard Cohen on stage at the Olympia, Paris. Photo: Getty Images
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Harry Potter didn’t cure my depression – but for an hour a day, it helped

These books didn’t cure me. They didn’t even come close. But at my lowest moments, Harry Potter was the only thing I enjoyed.

Just over a year ago, I was on a plane to Japan being violently sick. I had filled exactly two-and-a-quarter sick bags with my half-digested ginger-chicken-and-bread-roll before I decided to think about Neville Longbottom. As the plane rocked from side to side with turbulence, I sat completely stiff in my seat, clutching my armrests, and thinking of Neville. I told my boyfriend to shut up. In an effort to abate my nausea, I distracted myself for the remaining hour of the flight by picturing the peaceful plant-lover over and over again, like a visual mantra. I wasn’t sick again.

I’m telling you this anecdote because this was the only time in my life that Harry Potter acted as some strange and magical cure (even then, the fact there was no inflight meal left in my stomach to throw up had more to do with it). And yet, a few years before this, Harry Potter did help me through my depression. When we talk of Harry Potter and depression – which we do, a lot – we imagine that the lessons of the book can teach us, in a Don’t let the Dementors get you down! way, to not be depressed anymore. What do you mean you want to kill yourself? Banish that beast to Azkaban with your silvery kitty cat Patronus!! For me, it wasn’t like that at all.

In 2013 I was depressed. And Harry Potter helped me through. But it wasn’t magical, and it wasn’t wonderful, and there was no lie-back-and-think-of-Neville instant fix. When I closed the cracked spine of the last book, my depression didn’t go away.

Here’s some context, as plain and painlessly as I can put it. I had just graduated from university and ended my four year long relationship. I was living at home and working three jobs a day to be able to save up to do a six-month journalism course in London (the course was free, but eating is a thing).

Early in the morning, my mum would drive me to the local hospital where I would print out sticky labels and put them on patients' folders, in between sobbing in the disabled toilets. Around lunch, I’d go to work in a catering department, where I printed yet more labels and made sure to order the correct amount of gravy granules and beef. At five, my mum would pick me up and drive me home (thanks mum), and I’d have an hour or so to eat something before going to work in the local steak restaurant for the rest of the night. (On weekends, I had a fourth job - I would wake up early to scrub the restaraunt's toilets. Yay!) 

It sucked – even though there was, at least, a woman in the hospital who liked to do an impression of a Big Mouth Billy Bass fish.

“You’re not just depressed, you’re depressing to be around,” said the boy I was not-dating, two weeks after I said we should stop not-dating and a week after I begged him to start not-dating me again. If I was being dramatic and poetic, I’d say he was the kind of boy who stopped at nothing to make you feel unloved, but if I was being honest I’d say: he was really bad at texting back. Still, tip for anyone wondering what to say to someone who is depressed: Not This.

This wasn’t, exactly, the moment I realised I was depressed. (For a little extra context, note that it was Christmas Eve eve!) For a few months, my tongue had felt constantly burnt. Every moment of every day, my mouth felt like I had just bitten into the chewiest, gooiest molten pizza and burned off all my taste buds. Except I hadn’t. Eventually, Google told me this was a little-known symptom of depression called “burning mouth syndrome”. After ignoring clues such as constant crying, and knowing-the-exact-number-of-storeys-you-have-to-jump-from-to-ensure-you-die, I realised what I was. You know, depressed.

And round about here was when Harry came in. I’d always been obsessed with Potty Wee Potter, from the lilac HP branded M&S fleece I wore as a child, to making my brand new uni mates don pillowcases and bin bags to dress up for a screening of Deathly Hallows, Part 1. But by 2013, I hadn’t read the books for a while. So I started again.

I can’t emphasise enough that these books didn’t cure me. They didn’t even come close. But one of the worst parts of my depression was my anhedonia – which is the inability to feel pleasure in things you previously found enjoyable. I would spend (literally) all day at work, dreaming of the moment I could crawl into bed with a cheese sandwich and watch my favourite show. But the first bite of the sandwich tasted like dust, and I couldn’t concentrate on watching anything for more than thirty seconds. I lost a lot of weight incredibly fast, and there was no respite from any of my thoughts.

Except: Goblet of Fire. Harry needs a date! And Hermione wants a House Elf revolution! Wait, does Ron fancy her? Harry can’t manage Accio and THERE’S AN ACTUAL DRAGON ON THE WAY. The fourth Harry Potter book is now my favourite, because its episodic and addictive structure meant I couldn’t put it down even when I knew what happened next. I couldn’t enjoy anything in my life at that time, and I’m not even sure I “enjoyed” Harry. But the books were a total and complete distraction, like slipping into a Pensieve and floating down into another world where you could lose track of the time before being yanked, painfully, up and out.

I didn’t learn any lessons from the Dementors. I didn’t learn that love would get me through. As valuable as these messages in Harry Potter are, none of them helped me with my depression. What helped me was – and I can say it and you can say it, because 450 million sold copies have said it – insanely good writing. Addictive, un-put-downable writing. All-consuming, time-consuming, just-a-second-mum-put-mine-back-in-the-oven writing. Writing that allows you to lose yourself in the moments you most want to be lost.

That’s not to say, of course, that the messages of Harry Potter can’t help people through dark times – they have and will continue to do so for many years. There is no right way to be depressed, and there’s no right way to stop. But for me, Potter helped me through my anhedonia when nothing else at all could. It wasn’t magic. It was something ordinary in a world where everything had changed.

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

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