Re-reading Into the Wild: what killed Chris McCandless?

One of my all-time favourite books is Into the Wild by journalist John Krakauer. The film adaptation by Sean Penn was also superb.

I first read Krakauer’s beautifully written investigation of the short, but eventful life of idealistic adventurer Chris McCandless – who died in the Alaskan wilderness in 1992 – whilst travelling around the south and Midwest of America on an Amtrak pass in the late summer of 1997.

Having recently re-read the book whilst on holiday, it occurred to me that back then in 1997, I was the same age – 24 – as Chris McCandless when he died, alone, in a rusting bus, on the Stampede Trail overlooking the Teklinaka River.

People around the world have become fascinated by the story of a well-educated and intense young man from an affluent West Virginia family who gave away all his savings, burnt his money and credit cards and abandoned his car to tramp around America for two years on a rite of passage “to kill the false being within and victoriously conclude the spiritual revolution”.

McCandless wished to follow in the footsteps of his literary heroes Henry Thoreau, Leo Tolstoy and Jack London and test himself with a final adventure in the wilds of Alaska.

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Chris McCandless – at Bus 142, in the year he died

After the first Associated Press article was published on September 13, 1992, about a body discovered by moose hunters in a remote camp, accompanied by a diary and a final plea for help, John Krakauer wrote a 5000 word article for Outside magazine “Death of an Innocent”  based on interviews with people who had met McCandless on his wandering. He then expanded that article into a book which became a 1996 bestseller. Sean Penn’s haunting film came out in 2008.

Alongside these mainstream retellings, hundreds of videos have appeared on YouTube about McCandless including documentaries, tributes and amateur investigations. There’s also hundreds of articles online discussing the book, film and McCandless’s adventures and final misadventure most of them captured on an excellent website, christophermccandless.info

People have become obsessed with his short, but adventurous life, his unique philosophical view of the world and his tragic death. Not all are hero worshippers indeed Krakauer has received plenty of criticism for – in the view of some harsh critics – glorifying the death of a naive and arrogant young man who thought he could tame nature, but who ended up succumbing to it in the most terrible way.

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The journal McCandless kept at the back of a book on edible plants

I was one of those people who became fascinated about Chris McCandless, in particular  his tragic end and the mystery about what actually killed in. That fascination has never died, and I found myself, upon re-reading the book this year, scouring the internet again for clues and answers.

As John Krakauer himself wrote in an article for New Yorker magazine in 2013:

The debate over why McCandless perished, and the related question of whether he is worthy of admiration, has been smoldering, and occasionally flaring, for more than two decades now.

What I discovered is that a lot has happened  – both in terms of conjecture and scientific research – to try to come to a definitive answer.

It is worth remembering that John Krakaeur first came to the conclusion – in the article he wrote for Outside magazine – that Chris McCandless had most likely died when he mistook the supposedly poisonous wild sweet pea (Hedysarum mackenzeii ) for the edible wild potato (Hedysarum alpinum) and ate its seeds.

“Wild sweet pea looks so much like wild potato that even expert botanists sometimes have trouble telling the species apart,” wrote Krakauer in Into The Wild.

As depicted in the movie, Chris McCandless (played by Emile Hirsch) is seen studying the leaves of the plants he has been eating and discovering his mistake, to his horror.

But in the book Into the Wild, Krakauer said he had got it wrong, and that Chris McCandless did not make the mistake of mis-identification and that he was not as reckless, naive and possibly even suicidal as some claim. (Even, if he had eaten the wrong plant, some food plants experts say wild sweet pea is not in fact very poisonous.)

After McCandless wrote in his cryptic keyword diary on Day 90:  “EXTREMELY WEAK. FAULT OF POT[ATO] SEEDS. MUCH TROUBLE JUST TO STAND UP” Krakauer concluded that skinny and desperate for food, McCandless had accidentally poisoned himself by eating wild potato seeds not just the roots. Three weeks later he was dead.

Krakauer hypothesized that wild potato seeds contained a toxic alkaloid that weakened McCandless to “to such a degree that it became impossible for him to hike out to the highway or hunt effectively, leading to starvation”.

Then in 2007, Krakauer suggested that a toxic mold had grown on the seeds McCandless stored in a damp Ziploc.

“Now I’ve come to believe after researching from journals of veterinary medicine that what killed him wasn’t the seeds themselves, but the fact that they were damp and he stored them in these big Ziploc bags and they had grown moldy. And the mold produces this toxic alkaloid called swainsonine. My theory is essentially the same, but I’ve refined it somewhat. You know, who cares? But I care and his family cares,” Krakauer said.

Six years later, in the 2013 New Yorker article, Krakauer admitted he had made a “rash intuitive leap” by suggesting in the first edition of his book that the alkaloid that killed McCandless was perhaps swainsonine, a toxic agent known to inhibit glycoprotein metabolism in animals, leading to starvation.

But later analysis by Dr. Thomas Clausen, a professor in the biochemistry
department at the University of Alaska, found no trace of swainsonine or any
other alkaloids.

Into_the_Wild_(book)_coverIn his 2013 article for New Yorker magazine, Krakauer wrote of how his theories had brought scorn from many, especially Alaskans, but that he had then come across a “brilliant” writer named Ronald Hamilton who had discovered “hitherto unknown evidence that appears to close the book on the cause of McCandless’s death”.

Hamilton’s paper “The Silent Fire: ODAP and the Death of Christopher McCandless,” offered, Krakauer wrote “persuasive new evidence that the wild-potato plant is highly toxic in and of itself, contrary to the assurances of Thomas Clausen and every other expert who has ever weighed in on the subject.

“The toxic agent…turns out not to be an alkaloid but, rather, an amino acid [a neurotoxin called ODAP causing lathyrism, a kind of paralysis], and according to Hamilton it was the chief cause of McCandless’s death. His theory validates my conviction that McCandless wasn’t as clueless and incompetent as his detractors have made him out to be.”

Worryingly though Krakauer notes that Hamilton is “neither a botanist nor a chemist; he’s a writer who until recently worked as a bookbinder at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania library.

But after further scientific testing supported Hamilton’s theory, Krakauer concluded: “considering that potentially crippling levels of ODAP are found in wild-potato seeds, and given the symptoms McCandless described and attributed to the wild-potato seeds he ate, there is ample reason to believe that McCandless contracted lathyrism from eating those seeds”.

Alas, in a 2015 article for New Yorker, titled “An Update: How Chris McCandless Died” Krakauer admitted, following more criticism from a journalist in Alaska, that he needed to do more testing to prove his theory that neurotoxins are present in wild potato seeds and publish the results in a “reputable peer-reviewed journal”.

This he did – after further scientific research – authoring a paper with Dr. Jonathan Southard, Dr. Ying Long, Dr. Andrew Kolbert and Dr. Shri Thanedar,  titled“Presence of L-canavanine in Hedysarum Alpinum Seeds and its Potential Role in the Death of Chris McCandless,”  It appeared in the peer-reviewed journal Wilderness and Environmental Medicine in March, 2015.

The paper concluded that L-canavanine (an antimetabolite with demonstrated toxicity in mammals) was a significant component of wild potato seeds and because they made up a significant portion of his meager diet “it is highly likely” they were a “contributing factor to his death”.

Of course ‘highly likely” meant Krakauer was still not 100 per cent about his latest theory and it was again an Alaskan journalist – Craig Medred from the Anchorage Daily News – who took him to task in a highly critical and daming article titled “The fiction that is Jon Krakauer’s ‘Into The Wild'”.

Originally published in January 2015 – a month before Krakauer’s second New Yorker article – but updated in September 2016, Medred posited that it wasn’t wild potato seeds that killed McCandless, but toxic mushrooms.

Medred points out that entry 89 of the 113 entries McCandless left in his terse diary states: “Many Mushrooms. DREAM.”

“DREAM is written in the largest, boldest letters of any word in the journal, and there are large, dark arrows connecting mushrooms to the word DREAM.” writes Medred.

He also notes that photos of mushrooms appeared on film found with McCandless’s body and appeared as photos in the McCandless family’s book about their son “Back to the Wild”.

Medred says a noted authority on Alaskan mushrooms – scientist Gary Laursen, from the University of Alaska Fairbanks – had identified mushrooms McCandless had eaten as “Amanita muscaria’ a variety known to make people sick and cause hallucinations. Laursen also identified other varieties of mushrooms in the photos that made people violently ill.

(Medred’s criticism of  John Krakauer’s book extends way beyond the wild potato seeds theory and claims the chapter he wrote about the time McCandless spent in Alaska has no basis in fact and that some of the books found with McCandless’s body (with underlined passages and notes that gave clues to his view of the world) were not actually his but that of an Alaskan adventurer “who’s now a professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks”).

I looked up the mushroom Amanita muscaria online: depending on the location/variety it is either bright red, yellow or orange with white warts, similar to those I have seen myself whilst walking in woods near my own home of Gisborne, Victoria.

They about as toxic looking as any mushroom could look in my opinion, and it seems hard to believe Chris McCandless would have gorged on them, let alone eat one.

Even if he had tried one, according to the research I found online, it would have made him violently ill – but not fatally so – and it is unlikely he would have tried anymore.

Then in December 2018, Medred published another article about John Krakauer and Into the Wild.

In it he quotes an “authority on wild edible plants, Samuel Thayer” who he says lumped all of Krakauer’s poison plant claims together as part of a “poisonous plant fable.”

Thayer’s main criticism is that any poisoning theory requires one to know how much of wild potato seeds McCandless actually ate.

“While it certainly is true that people can poison themselves with wild vegetation, the fear that we attribute to plants is monstrously out of proportion with the actual danger they pose,” said Thayer.

Medred has another monumental dig at Krakauer, writing:

“Krakauer has never been able to accept the idea that McCandless simply starved to death. To do so, would be to recognize that McCandless  was killed by his own incompetence, and that would undermine the whole “Into the Wild” myth of a bright young man on a sensible adventure of self discovery murdered by twists of fate at the hands of nature.”

That is a view held by some – though not by me.

Regardless, we will likely never know with any certainty what caused the death of Chris McCandless. It will remain an unsolved mystery, his death a tragic end to a life full of promise.

What I believe is that Chris McCandless did not intend his Alaskan trip to be a suicide mission, and that he planned to walk out of the bush and re-enter society sometime at end of 1992.

How do we know this? From his photos of course. After all, why document your travels, if not to share them with others.

RIP Chris.

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His final photo: The card reads:   “I HAVE HAD A HAPPY LIFE AND THANK THE LORD. GOODBYE AND MAY GOD BLESS ALL!”

The real meaning of ‘insouciance’

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‘Insouciance’ is a fantastically pompous word whose meaning I can never remember, no matter how many times I look it up.

It one of those words that I have never heard spoken aloud – you’d sound like a bit of a dill if you threw it into a conversation (Go on, I dare you!) – but which keeps cropping up in the books I read.

This occurred most recently on page 261 of Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson when the young narrator, Ruby Lennox, describes the family car being stuck behind “one particularly insouciant beast” on a drive down a country road in Scotland.

The insouciant beast in question is a sheep, part of a herd that the family are forced to navigate around frequently on their holiday.

Just what kind of sheep was this, I wondered? Lazy, evil, cunning, naughty, haughty? I had no idea. So I looked it up – again.

Insouciant, or the noun ‘insouciance’ pronounced IN-SU-SI-ENCE means “lighthearted unconcern” according to the Merrim Webster Dictionary” or a “casual lack of concern” according to the definition Google throws up.

The Cambridge Dictionary puts a bit more meat on the bone saying it means a “relaxed and happy way of behaving without feeling worried or guilty”, while the MacMillan Dictionary throws in a more specific circumstantial factor defining it as “not worrying about or paying attention to possible problems”.

My favourite definition comes from the Collins Dictionary which defines insouciance as a “lack of concern shown by someone about something which they might be expected to take more seriously”.

“He replied with characteristic insouciance: ‘So what?'” is the example this dictionary gives.

Synonyms include “apathy”, “nonchalance”, “indifference” and another little-used word “torpor”.

Of French origins, its fabulously pronounced AN-SOO-SAYN in the mother tongue and no doubt still used in conversation by chic Parisians, without sounding quite as silly as an English speaker would.

As for the “insouciant beast” on page 261 of my novel, I can only laugh when applying all these descriptions to the behaviour of a rather silly farm animal.

On the other hand , is does rather brilliantly describe the seemingly animalistic urge to not give a shit.

It also nicely describes the attitudes of quite a lot of people in high office, come to think of it.

My father the serial killer: discovering the real Shannon O’Leary?

out-of-the-fire-and-into-the-panIt’s hard to write an honest review about ‘Out of the Fire and into the Pan’, the second memoir penned by the Australian actor, performer and songwriter Shannon O’Leary, without confessing that a large part of my motivation for reading it was finding out the identity of the author.

Shannon O’Leary is a pseudonym adopted at the request of her family.

Her first memoir, ‘The Blood on My Hands’ which I read and reviewed almost 3 years ago, dealt with the author’s horrific childhood, where she was sexually, physically and emotionally abused by her father Patrick, a sadistic serial killer (never caught) whom the author witnessed murder young women on the rural outskirts of Sydney in the 1960s and 1970s.

Out of the Fire and into the Pan, which begins with the author’s move from Port Macquarie to the inner suburbs of Sydney aged 15, is the story of O’Leary’s bumpy journey through a string of failed relationships with damaged men to becoming a mother of five kids and entrepreneur. It also charts her eventful and ultimately successful career in the entertainment industry.

While I was curious from the start to know who O’Leary really is (not too many memoirs claim a serial killer for a father) the stimulus to try and solve this mystery actually came from O’Leary herself: her second memoir seemed packed full of clues about her real identity.

For instance, she writes that in 1977:

I was always busy acting. I had a guest spot on a well-known soap opera, appeared in some television commercials and gained some extra work on a few films

A footnote identifies the soap opera as ‘The Restless Years’ and so I spent a great deal of time trawling through the list of actors that appeared on the show, to try and work out which one was Shannon O’Leary.

When that proved fruitless, I tried Googling her work as a ‘reporter’ on popular television show from the early 1980s, and another, a childrens show, she said she appeared on called the Super Flying Fun Show.

Later in the memoir, she mentions a scandalous story about her that appeared in a gossip column when she was dating a much old British-born cinematographer called ‘Henry’ and again I dug around online looking for the article without any luck.

She also writes about her work on a 1980s ABC mini-series  where she agonised about having to appear topless in an embrace with a “young blond Shakespearean actor [who] was already a star in Britain”.

All these clues were enticing, but led me down rabbit holes and towards red herrings.

In the end, it was the return address on the back of the package which contained my review copy of her book which proved the most valuable clue. After a bit of digging and cross-referencing of property records, I discovered who she was and soon came across the concise Wikipedia page of the real Shannon O’Leary. I also found other stories about her and her family online.

While, I do not plan to reveal who Shannon O’Leary really is – that was never my intention – I can say that the information online corroborates the major biographical details shared in her memoirs – though unsurprisingly, there is no mention of her disturbing childhood or who her father was.

It was also nice to see a photo of Shannon O’Leary and learn a bit about her interesting family, in particurlar her kids, which have also been successful in the entertainment sphere.

As for her second memoir, it is worthy sequel to the harrowing story of her childhood, and also an enjoyable chronicle of what life was like in Australia for a young aspiring actor and entertainer in the 1970s and 1980s.

The second memoir, while not nearly as shocking as the first book, still includes graphic flashbacks to the abuse she suffered at the hands of her father, who continues to make sadistic appearances in her life, a hissing shadow of a man that refues to go away, and whose crimes went completely unpunished.

I heard him laugh and opened my eyes to see him pointing the gun at me. The shot cracked out, whizzing over my head making me jump and teeter on the branch.” I think you can stay there for hours,” Dad said, as he walked inside.

Thankfully O’Leary also  takes time, amid the many traumatic and sad episodes, to recount her successes, big and small along the way. Most pleasingly for the reader there is a sense of progress, of building towards something hopeful: a loving relationship, a happy family and a comfortable home in a NSW country town.

Despite her abusive childhood, O’Leary emerges as a victor, as someone who triumphs over the rotten hand dealt to her at the start of her life. That she survived at all is a wonder, even she struggles to fathom:’Why was I spared?’

If I am to make any sort of criticism of her memoir, it would be to say that the author sometimes says too much when less would be better.

But that is a very minor criticism. O’Leary is good story teller, blessed with the gift of objective self-reflection. All of her experiences are retold with a feeling of ardent authenticity. The key moments in her life, both good and bad, become her “stepping stones” towards a place of relative normality.

For O’Leary,  the act of writing and telling her incredible story, as painful as that must have been at times, is way for her to liberate herself from her past and to find healing.

“Letting people know about my childhood was like I’d experienced a coming out – a shedding of skin,” she writes towards the end of her second memoir. “By writing the book and with my father dying (in 2009), I had liberation from my past.”

‘100 Hundred Years of Dirt’: a classic Aussie memoir

NEWOne-Hundred-Years-of-Dirt-CoverWhen I picked up journalist Rick Morton’s memoir One Hundred Years of Dirt I had a sense it would be a great read.

This was partly due, I think, to the evocative photograph on the front cover  – a lonesome tin-roofed shack set against the contrasting colours of the deep blue sky and that distinctive red earth – and the title, which suggested this would be a gritty tale embedded deep within the Australian landscape.

I wasn’t disappointed.

Morton, a journalist with The Australian newspaper, has written a fine book which draws comparison in its storytelling to the works of Helen Garner, Clive James and Robert Drewe’s The Shark Net.

I mention Robert Drewe as I just finished reading The Shark Net for the second time, a rare effort on my part.

The Shark Net chronicles Robert Drewe’s childhood and early adult life as cadet reporter in Perth during the time crazed serial killer Eric Edgar Cooke was on the loose. It is also an evocative depiction of suburban amid Perth’s sand dune suburbs in the 1950s and 60s.

Rick Morton also chronicles a young journalist-to-be’s life in the making (he is only in his early 30s). But whereas there is an overall lightness to Drewe’s middle-class Perth tale (his father was a Dunlop executive who hosted tennis great Rod Laver in his living room),  Morton presents a modern ‘Heart of Darkness’ that begins near the very bottom of the socio-economic sphere.

First our young hero (to steal from Clive James) has to navigate the brutality of a remote outback station, then the oppressive poverty of a hand-to-mouth existence in a conservative Queensland country town and then later – as a young gay man – battle anxiety and depression amid the neon lights of the Gold Coast.

It’s certainly not light reading, nor its it easy reading at times, but thankfully Morton adds dollops of wry humour, fascinating family anecdotes and insightful academic research to his tale of tragedy and woe.

It’s of course something of a miracle he survived it all, let alone emerged triumphantly as one of the country’s top journalist writing about social issues – though after you read his memoir, you realise how well-qualified Morton is for that particular journalistic beat.

The ‘dirt’ in the title refers to the origins of the Morton family – in remote outback Queensland – who at one time owned five enormous cattle stations near the Birdsville Track in an area known as ‘Channel Country’ that collectively were the size of Belgium.

“It’s that red earth…,” Morton reminisced in a radio interview. “I’ve always been disappointed with regular dirt.”

It is here that we hear about his grandfather, the legendary cattleman George Morton, who ruled the family’s vast pastoral lands with great cruelty and vengeance.  It was his grandfather – Morton informs us – who discovered the bodies of the Paige family who succumbed to this most “vicious” and inhospitable of landscapes when they got lost in Christmas 1963.

It is in this inhospitable terrain, where deadly Brown snakes invade the homestead, kitchen, that tragedy unfolds when Morton’s brother Toby is horribly burnt in a terrible accident.

It’s also where he learns that his father, Rodney, is having an affair with the teenage governess. When his father abandons the family and takes off with the governess, Rick, his mum, his badly burnt brother and two-month old sister ends up in Charlesville in emergency public housing with no money. Later they move to Boonah, south of Brisbane, where the struggle to survive continues.

In many ways the book is a tribute to the stoicism of his mother Deb, who made up for a lack of money with unconditional devotion and love for her children (including her self-destructive son Toby, an ice addict) and who realised her younger son Rick, was cut from a different cloth (she lovingly referred to him as an “alien” to explain his more sensitive and intelligent nature) and potential to make something of his life.

It’s also a meditation on social inequality and its inherent unfairness (the family’s finances were so tight they did not have enough money to take advantage of ‘two for one’ offers in the supermarket) and how hard it is to break out of that cycle, with Morton drawing on his own experience trying to make it in a profession dominated by the private school-educated middle classes.

“There’s this creeping sense, this argument that poor people are morally inferior, which I think is repugnant for a start,” Morton said in the same radio interview – his poignant memoir is a powerfual antidote to that snobbish view.

It’s also about what can emerge from the dirt and grit of a tough upbringing.

 

 

 

Why go abroad? Reading Alain De Botton’s ‘The Art of Travel’

the-art-of-travel-alain-de-botton“We’ve gone on holiday by mistake,” laments the melodramatic Withnail in the cult film ‘Withnail and I’ as his escape from his filthy London squat for the fresh country air of the English Lake District turns out to be anything but idyllic.

Withnail and his of out-of-work actor chum “I” are enduring what so many have experienced for real on their own travels: when the pictures on the holiday brochure (or in one’s imagination) turns out be nothing like the real experience.

This all too familiar feeling of traveller’s gloom is one of the many aspects of that great human urge to “go on holiday” that the British philosopher and best-selling author Alain De Botton explores in his highly entertaining and insightful book The Art of Travel.

“We are inundated with advice on where to travel to, [but] we hear little of why and how we should go,” muses De Botton in the first chapter called “On anticipation”.

De Botton recalls his own disappointing experience of a tropical island holiday to Barbados where he went with his partner one year, to escape the London winter.

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Withnail and I: We’ve gone on holiday by mistake

Prior to traveling he imagined only “a beach with a palm tree against the setting sun”, a “bungalow with views through French doors” and an “azure sky”.

What he didn’t imagine was the “large petrol storage facility” near the airport, the long line of people waiting to have their passports stamped, adverts for rum above the luggage carousel and “a confusion of taxi drivers and tour guides outside the terminal building”.

It’s not just that the holiday ‘looks’ nothing like the brochure. Even when the author does find himself in a place which should be restful and calming – the idyllic sandy beach of his imagination – he struggles to relax, his mind is full of worries about “back home” leading De Botton to the depressing realisation that he has taken ‘himself’, with all its anxieties, fears and frustrations, on holiday with him too.

“…the mind meanwhile revealed a commitment to anxiety, boredom, free-floating sadness and financial alarm.”

This candidness and almost painful honest is one of the great joys of reading De Botton. He is never afraid to draw on his own bitter experiences, failings and annoying habits to illustrate a key point; in this way, he makes himself a very likeable and sincere narrator.

As with the other books of his I have read (The Consolations of PhilosophyThe Consolations of Philosophy and How Proust Can Change Your Life)  De Botton draws on the wisdom of the great thinkers of the past – philosophers, artists, writers, painters and poets – to provide answers to the questions he has about the paradoxes, ironies and mysteries of the travel experience.  (Surely no other writer has managed to make philosophy so interesting and so practical).

These include the American realist painter Edward Hopper whose evocative scenes of lonely travellers waiting in empty motels rooms, gas stations and automats, De Botton relates to the idea of travel as a journey of reflective introspection. The poetry and power of these melancholic scenes De Botton also says explains why we take pleasure and comfort in ugly highway rest stops, where we find kingship with other fellow travellers amid the harsh lighting and plastic furniture.

I particularly enjoyed De Botton’s description of a lacklustre visit to Madrid, where he could barely muster the strength to get out of bed, despite the great Spanish city with its palaces, museums and art galleries beckoning him from below his hotel room. Only the fear of the hotel maid entering his room for a fourth time and exclaiming “Hola, Perdone!” roused him from his depression.

While one’s first reaction is to be annoyed with De Botton for squandering such a great opportunity to see the sights, who on their own travels has not grown lethargic and bored at the prospect of a visit to yet another ancient ruin, art gallery or museum, which our travel guide tells us we should be enthusiastically visiting and gazing at in wonder.

Here De Botton takes his cues from the great German explorer and naturalist Alexander von HumboldtGerman explorer and naturalist Alexander von Humboldt whose curiosity for all the things strange and unusual he discovered and catalogued on his expeditions reminded De Botton that what we find pleasurable or interesting on our travels should not be determined by the latest edition of the Lonely Planet or Rough Guide.

Humboldt did not suffer such intimidation…He could unselfconsciously decide what interested him. He could create his own categories of value…

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Curious explorer: Alexander von Humboldt

De Botton’s other guides include Vincent Van Gogh, whose vibrant paintings of bright yellow wheatfields and whirling Cypress trees in Arles reveal the hidden beauty and power in seemingly ordinary places and the poetry of William Wordsworth, which celebrated daffodils, sheep and trees – as an explanation for why we yearn to escape the city for the restorative piers of the countryside.

(It’s just a shame my paperback edition of The Art of Travel reproduced all the artworks and photographs in black and white, though its easy enough, albeit a little disruptive to one’s reading, to look up the full colour version on one’s smartphone or tablet.)

There is of course another message that De Botton is so eager to share: that one does not have to jump on a plane and fly 5000 miles to a remote island to undertake an enlightening journey. Just exploring one’s own neighbourhood with a curious eye and alert mind can reveal wonders, as the author does himself with a meditative walk through his London suburb of Hammersmith.

In fact, one does not even have to leave one’s bedroom to “travel” if one subscribes to the wisdom of French writer Xavier de Maistre whose bizarre book Journey Around My Bedroom, published in 1794 De Botton brings back from obscurity.

While De Botton acknowledges there is clearly something rather silly about de Maistre’s suggestion that rather then go travelling we instead admire the elegance of one’s bedroom furniture,  he also recognises a more profound message that “the pleasure we derive from journeys is perhaps more dependent on the mindset with which we travel then on the destination we travel to”.

It’s one worth remembering the next time we reach for the chunky travel guide wedged in our bookshelf, when the urge to go on holiday hits us again.

(Readers of The Art of Travel, might also enjoy an accompanied documentary Alain De Botton made on the topic, which you can watch for free on YouTube:

Reading a literary legal classic: Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent

presumed-innocent_lI recently read Presumed Innocent the New York Times best-selling legal thriller written by Chicago lawyer-turned crime novelist Scott Turow.

It was published to both critical and commercial success in 1987 and then, three years later, made into a hugely successful Hollywood movie starring Harrison Ford and directed by Alan J. Pakula, after Sydney Pollack (the film’s producer) bought the movie rights for US$1 million.

Turow, who taught creative writing at Stanford University before obtaining a law degree from Harvard Law School, prosecuted high-profile corruption cases as a Chicago assistant US attorney before penning the tale of Rusty Sabich, a deputy chief prosecutor accused of murdering his co-worker, Carolyn Polhemus, with whom he had a brief, but intense affair.

For some reason I vividly recall watching a CNN profile of Scott Turow after Presumed Innocent became a major Hollywood film, and being fascinated by the fact that he penned most of the book in longhand in a spiral notebook while on the morning train into work.

I also recall seeing the movie at the cinema and enjoying the tale of murder, corruption and court-room battles in what was an above-average thriller elevated by the typically edgy and intense performance of Harrison Ford as the accused Rusty Sabich,  the cool cat-like performance of the late Raul Julia as Sabich’s suave legal defender Sandy Stern and the very spicy sex scenes involving Ford and the utterly gorgeous Greta Sacchi who played the fateful bombshell attorney Carolyn Polhemus.

And so, almost three decades after seeing the movie as a pimply 17- year old, I picked up Scott Turow’s novel on the recommendation of my wife, who had just read and raved about it.

It is a superbly crafted literary novel, certainly heads and shoulders above anything the likes of John Grisham might have penned and has not surprisingly drawn comparisons with the grand masters of crime writing like PD James and Ruth Rendell. In summary: Scott Turow can write!

As the author Anne Rice (Interview with a Vampire) puts it so elegantly in her 1987 review of the book for the New York Times , Turow “transcends the murder-mystery genre, combining whodunit suspense with an elegant style and philosophical voice”.

She also remarks of his “immense writing talent” and “impressive legal experience”. These are both of in evidence from the very first page when readers are introduced to Rusty Sabich,  the chief deputy prosecuting attorney of fictional Kindle County, who is also – in a stroke of genius by Turow – the narrator of the story.

Opening statement
This how I always start: “I am the prosecutor. I represent the state. I am here to represent to you the evidence of a crime. Together you will weigh this evidence. You will deliberate upon it. You will decide if it proves the defendant’s guilt…”

The novel begins with Sabich brooding over his affair with the beautiful Polhemus, who jilted him just before she was founded raped and murdered in her apartment.

The violent crime is the talk of Kindle County, casting a dark cloud over the re-election campaign of Sabich’s boss, the veteran chief prosecutor Raymond Horgan.

Sabich, who has kept his affair with Polhemus mostly a secret (he has tearfully confessed to his wife Barbara) is then put in charge of leading the investigation into her violent death, a task he attempts to carry out despite the obvious personal conflict.

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Close encounter: Greta Sacchi as Carolyn Polhemus, Harrison Ford as Rusty Sabich

But events take a shocking turn for Sabich (who up until this point has been the reader’s insightful guide into the world of politics, big city crime, police investigations and legal procedure) when he is accused of Polhemus’s murder on the basis of circumstantial evidence and the suspicion of his affair, which gives him a motive.

Sabich hires top defence lawyer Sandy Stern to represent him, while his loyal cop pal, Dan “Lip” Liprazaner helps hunt down information on a secret case file that Polhemus handled and which might explain who killed her and why.

But can we trust Sabich? Yes, he has prosecuted child molesters and violent criminals, but he is also an adulterer and who seems both vulnerable and resentful of women. Did he murder Polhemus in a fit of uncontrollable, jealous rage?

 And then, when I’m by myself, I feel desperate and ashamed. This raging, mad obsession! Where is my world? I am departing. I am gone already.”

This clever plotline – faithfully replicated in the movie – is brought to life on the page by Turow’s carefully delineated characters – from the eloquent and morally ambiguous Sabich to his wounded and bittery resentful wife Barbara to the slippery prosecutor of his case, Nico Della Guardia – and pitch-perfect language to create the sinister undertones at play within the court and district attorney’s offices of Kindle County.

Turow takes his time delving into the biographies of his characters  – Sabich is the son of an unloving and cruel father who escaped the war in Europe – exploring their motivations, so they become living, breathing creations.

At the same time he manages to keep the story and plot moving along so you never feel you’re just turning pages hoping to get to the next important courtroom battle or clue, but immersing yourself in the drama. Everything said and done by Sabich and the cast of lawyers, police officers and members of the court has meaning and relevance to the story.

Turow also makes full-use of his legal experience to create terrifically authentic courtroom exchanges between the defence and prosecuting teams as the scales of justice tip for and against Sabich’s ‘presumed innocence’.

In summary, it’s not hard to understand why Presumed Innocent became a publishing phenomenon in 1987 and why it launched Turow’s writing career (more than 30 million copies of his books have been sold).

time cover turowIn 1990, when the movie of Presumed Innocent came out Time magazine featured Scott Turow on its June 11 cover calling him  ‘the bard of the litigious age’. (It’s also become a popular crossword clue!)

He was then the 92nd writer to make it onto the cover,  joined the ranks of Ernest Hemingway, J.D. Salinger and Alex Haley.

The great thing about Presumed Innocent is that it never descends to the status of an “airport paperback thriller.

While its undoubtedly a page-turner, it is squarely a work of literary fiction, spiced up with a film-noir plot, a femme fatale straight out of a 1930s Raymond Chandler crime novel and writing that some have called “Dickensian”

Even if you have seen the movie (or remember the controversial twist at the end), I highly recommend reading the book, which has rightly retained its much-revered status in the crime fiction genre.

Interviewed by CBS News in 2010 after publishing a sequel called Innocence, Turow said:

“‘Presumed Innocent’ changed my life and I went from being a guy writing on the morning commuter train – and I finished the book in an unfinished basement in my house in Wilmette – I went from that to somebody who was a best-selling author around the world.”

Unbearable and uplifting: The illogical pleasure of reading A Little Life By Hanya Yanagihara

hanya-yanagihara-a-little-lifeIt must say something about the impact Hanya Yanagihara’s novel “A Little Life” has on its readers, that random strangers came up to me, while I was reading it, to offer their praise.

“You should persevere with it, it’s an amazing book,” said one bloke as he got off the train, when I was only about fifty pages in.

Then, a few weeks later: “It’s so good. I’ve only got 20 minutes left to read on my Kindle and I don’t want it to end,” enthused a mother with two children as our train pulled into Melbourne.

After finishing it myself, and being equally affected by its power, I perused the internet for reviews and comments.

Quickly I realised  those random strangers and I were not alone.

Almost anyone who has read Yanagihara’s 720 page epic, about four close male friends – one of whom is a survivor of horrific sexual abuse – making their way in  New York after college has been similarly jolted.

Jon Michaud’s review in the New Yorker gave a succinct summary of its principal effect: “Yanagihara’s novel can drive you mad, consume you and take over your life.”

“I will genuinely never recover from reading A Little Life,” wrote another fan on Twitter.

When I finished reading A Little Life, I felt that sense of nostalgia, sadness and loss that comes with experiencing all great works of art be it a book, movie or piece of music.

I was as if I had been taken on an exhilarating ride – one of pain and suffering, but also of great joy and love – and then it had all come to an end and the characters had exited the stage, leave me and my world view irrevocably altered.

To summarise briefly the plot , four close college friends Jude St Francis, JB, Willem and Malcolm find themselves living in New York and trying to make their way as lawyer, artist, actor and architect respectively. All are bright and brilliant in their own way.

The book chronicles their steps up the professional ladder, the shifting dynamics of their friendship, their on and off romantic relationships, their shifting social circles and the changes they undergo from unsure twenty something’s to fifty-year-old successful men. All set against the backdrop of a modern, but timeless New York.

While this may hardly sound like the plot for a the “Great American Novel” what sets the book apart is Yanagihara’s ability to get inside the head of someone who has survived appalling sexual abuse in their childhood and how they learn to cope with its scars as adults.

This she does through the devastating brilliant character of Jude St Francis, whose childhood as an orphan raised by monks is so unimaginable cruel and painful that it is something of a miracle he survived at all.

Not only that but Jude suffers from a chronic pain and debilitating back spasms – due to an automobile attack he endured aged 15 – that leave him writhing on the floor in agony.

But he has learnt to cope, both with the sense of shame he feels about the past, the memories of these events which haunt him and his pain. This coping mechanism is to cut himself with razors, behaviour which shocks his friends and family, but which he is unable to stop even as he runs out of space on his arms, and finds himself cutting through “tough, webby scar tissue”.

Despite his tragic upbringing (which Yanagihara reveals in long flashbacks) Jude does more than just survive, he becomes a success.

Blessed with a brilliant legal and mathematical mind, he ends up becoming a top litigator at a major Manhattan corporate law firm even as his physical pain worsens and the mental scars refuse to heal. 

Whilst those closest to him – his best friend and later lover Willem and his adopted parents Harold and Julia – try to heal his deep emotional wounds, and his faithful doctor Andy, treats his weeping sores, failing legs and other bodily injuries, it is only Jude himself  who can keep the demons and ghosts of his past a bay, or give in and let them consume him.

And this almost biblical journey of Jude’s-  into and out of the light – is what drives the narrative of Yanagihara’s opus, and gives it is remarkable power.

Ultimately, the message of Yanagihara’s devastating book, I think, is our inability to escape the events that shaped us as children, but also that we can as adults transcend those events, even if those moments remain fleeting.

More fool me: Stephen Fry’s “coke years”

22662908One of the most interesting and surprising things you will learn about Stephen Fry, if you read his third autobiography “More Fool Me” is the extent of his cocaine addiction.

Or perhaps you’d wonder how he managed to snort so much marching powder up his snoz, given how crooked it is.

As you read through the book, which traces some of his most successful and creative years in the late 1980s and early 1990s – working with Hugh Laurie on Jeeves & Wooster, starring in Blackadder,  hosting royal variety shows and writing the novel The Hippopotamus and countless essays, reviews and speeches – you realise that cocaine is Fry’s special friend.

On page 69 of my soft-back edition, Fry lists all the places he has snorted cocaine during his 15 years of addiction. They include Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle, The House of Lords,  The House of Commons, Fortnum & Masons and of course, the BBC Television Centre in London.

Fry is forever heading off to the exclusive, members-only Groucho Club in Soho in London’s West End (often on foot as he lived nearby) to meet up with his dealer “Jethro” for a cocaine top-up. He is incredibly candid about some of the stupid and embarrassing stuff he has done whilst consuming or after partaking of the drug.

In one episode, he gets involved in a competition to snort a massive line of coke on a table in a restaurant. He gets to the end and promptly vomits furiously. In other episode, having drunk too much and snorted too much he lurches out the window of the Groucho Club and spews down onto the pavement outside.

It’s not the kind of thing you’d expect from Fry, one of England’s great literary and artistic treasures – more the behaviour of a bad boy rock ‘n roll star. But as you read you realise that Fry is quite the contradiction – a mix of erudite, literary brilliance mixed with too much alcohol, aforementioned cocaine and a fondness for wearing leather and riding motorbikes.

In one amusing episode set in the Groucho Club, Fry bumps into an angry, swearing Manchurian who turns up to be Oasis’s Liam Gallagher,  in another he befriends Damon Albarn from Blur at the Club bar, whom he finds most charming.  He seems to know, bump into or meet every single interesting person living in England at the time.

Fry writes about his cocaine use,  with both embarrassment – part of a habit of his of forever apologising for being rich and successful – and with an undercurrent (I am sorry to say) of boastfulness.

And while he professes that the details of his cocaine habit should not be seen as an encouragement to others, when you throw in all the celebrity parties, dinners, film premiers in Leicester Square, hobnobbing with the rich and famous amid all the endless line snorting (and prodigious sums of money spend on it) its hard to see his habit as anything other than part and parcel of being rich, famous and successful. Which no doubt it was back then, and still, I assume is for many in the “it” crowd.

The fascinating thing about this memoir, as with The Fry Chronicles (a lesser work which I reviewed on this blog covering his university years) is the warts-and-all account of a period of his life that despite his wild behaviour, was incredibly creative, productive and successful. Might he have achieved more if sober more often?

More Fool Me book has a strange, uneveness to it – the first part being rambling memoir that spends too much time recapping what happened in the previous book, while the second half is merely a republishing of his diary during a hectic few months when he was finishing his novel, The Hippopotamus – it really gives the reader an over-the-shoulder view of what it was like to be Stephen Fry as he soared towards becoming an English icon.

Indeed his status as a true English national treasure is sealed by a scene in the book where Prince Charles and the late Princess Diana casually pop in for tea at Fry’s country home one autumn evening.

In his customary self-effacing manner, Fry does not believe the visit will actually happen, until the royal carriage is on its way.

Then its a mad scramble to prepare tea, cakes, toast and crumpets, followed by a cozy afternoon chat with the royals which only ends when Lady Di explain that she has to get home to watch the latest episode of her favourite soap opera.

Its in scenes like this and throughout the book that Fry comes across as warm, funny, sincere and  kind – a cuddly bear of a man also capable of ingesting large amounts of coke and alcohol whilst still being able to write a word-perfect article for a major newspaper the following day.

Most impressively, he can look at himself in the mirror and be honest about what he sees.

But among all the excitement of the West End life he led then, there is also a profound sense of loneliness as he returns, home, alone – often drunk.

In that respect, it is reassuring to know that he has found a life partner – his husband Elliott – especially with the latest news that he is battling prostate cancer.

Thankfully too – as he reminds readers often in the book – he no longer has a cocaine habit.

 

 

 

 

City to country: Musings on moving house

It’s been a couple of months since I last posted on this blog. The main reason is that we moved house (packing up is a bitch).

We’ve relocated from the bland northern suburbs of Melbourne to the pretty country town of Gisborne in the Macedon Ranges, between Sunbury and Woodend (for those who know them) and on the way to the gold rush towns of Castlemaine, Bendigo and Ballarat.

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So we have made the proverbial “tree change” swapping the conveniences, but also the congestion of suburbia, for the quieter life and fresh air of the pastoral countryside.

Gisborne, it’s quiet, pretty, country town of about 12,000 people, with lovely tree-line streets, nestled in a green valley – an hour’s commute from the centre of Melbourne.

According to Wikipedia, it is named after Henry Fyshe Gisborne the first Commissioner of the district and began life as a merino sheep grazing station. There is still plenty of farming about: sheep, cows, alpacas and horses, olive groves and vineyards.

Probably the most famous thing nearby is Hanging Rock – for those of you who have read the book ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock‘ (the mysterious novel by Joan Lindsay) or seen the spooky movie, directed by Peter Weir (Witness).

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Hanging Rock in Woodend

Unfortunately we don’t have the funds yet for a grand country estate or even a rural block – we’re renting on a subdivided block – but we’re surrounded by tall trees and mountains and on a clear night the pitch black sky is peppered with an astonishing display of flickering stars.

Also, a two-minute drive in the car and you’re winding your way through a sweeping vista of valleys and green and gold mountains: it’s food for the city-wearied spirit.

On my daily train ride into work the farms and fields fly by and beyond them the undulating hillsides, stone cottages, grand Victorian homesteads, before we re-enter the sprawling ‘McMansions’ of suburbia.

It is good to be “disconnected”.

The last time we moved house was four years ago – swapping one Melbourne suburb for another.

Goodbye to stuff

Over that time we naturally accumulated a lot more things, but as we packed up our house, it did strike me – as we deposited hundreds of CDs, DVDs and books at our local charity shops – how technology had embedded itself even further into our lives.

Armed with a Netflix account, a Kindle and an iPod and/or Smartphone, who needs to hold onto these things?

Just about anything you want to watch or listen to these days can be found, streamed or stored on a device or online. I can’t remember the last time I bought a DVD (I think it was a season of Nurse Jackie or Inspector Morse) or a CD from a shop.

I still like buying actual books (there’s something nice and tactile about holding a book in your hands) but it’s hard to beat the almost instant delivery to your Kindle and the cheaper prices.

I should also remark that over the four years we lived in our Niddrie suburban house, our two local video stores – a Blockbuster and a Video Ezy – closed down (I blogged about this in: In memorium: the suburban video store).

In the end, we only kept a small selection of books, CD and DVDs mostly for sentimental reasons or because we will use or watch them again. Also, to ensure we had something to put on our bookshelf – its still aesthetically pleasing and homely to have a lounge filled with books.

The other physical thing we have less now of is printed out photographs.

I spent a nostalgic Sunday afternoon going through my old photo albums, pulling out only a selection of photos dating back to my early childhood and encompassing my Bar Mitzvah, numerous overseas trips, four years of London life, my year in Brisbane and six years in Sydney. It was a nostalgic and sentimental afternoon: many faces I had long forgotten, or have lost touch with.

In the end a huge stack of bulky photo albums was reduced to a shoe box of photos and a small stack of CDs.

Everything else, especially the record of the last decade or so of my life, is stored on the computer in endless digital files

More recently, I took the prudent step of backing everything up in the digital “Cloud”.

The Lost Son of Philomena Lee

philomena_xlgThe story of Irish woman Philomena Lee’s search to find the long lost son she was forced to give up for American adoption in the 1950s was made into a moving 2013 Oscar-nominated movie starring Judi Dench as Philomena and Steve Coogan as the journalist, Martin Sixsmith.

I loved the movie (it made me cry) and was intrigued to read Sixsmith’s 2009 book upon which it was based, which I just happened to find on display at our local library one Saturday morning.

I was not disappointed. It is a great piece of journalism and imagination, with Sixsmith piecing the sad story together and retelling it through his conversations with Philomena and all those in America who knew her son, Anthony.

Another good reason to read it, even if you have seen the film, is that it has an entirely different focus.

The movie told the story of Philomena’s search for her lost son. The book, which was orignally called “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee” is devoted to telling the story of the life of Philomena’s son, Anthony Lee, or as he became known in the US, Michael Hess.

His story begins, when aged just three he gets on a plane bound for Chicago and then St Louis with his ‘sister’ Mary (a young girl in the convent the Hess family adopted at the same time) for a new life in America.

He leaves behind a heartbroken Philomena, whose story Sixsmith (somewhat frustratingly) does not return to until the last 30 pages of the book. By that time almost 50 years have passed since she watched Anthony be driven away from the unwed mothers and babies home at Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea near Dublin.

Philomena yelled ‘Antony! Look up here! and Margaret (Mary’s mum) banged on the window. But the noise of the engine seemed to blot out their voices and neither child responded. As the car pulled away, Philomena wailed, ‘No! No! Not my baby. Don’t let them take my baby. And at that precise moment Anthony twisted in his seat and climbed up to peer through the rear windscreen.

That was in 1955.

The book begins in 2004 when Martin Sixsmith meets Philomena Lee through a mutual friend. The previous Christmas she had broken down and finally told her grown-up children they had a brother living in America.

Having agreed to help her find her son, Sixsmith plunges the reader back into repressive Ireland of the 1950s and the silence and servitude of Sean Ross Abbey, where Philomena gives birth miracously to Anthony, who is a breech baby.

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Michael Hess, chief counsel to the Republican National Committee

We spend nearly four years with Philomena in the cold-hearted confines of the abbey, where she is forced by the nuns to sign away her motherly rights to her son, and where she must work long hours in the intense heat of the laundry awaiting the day when he will be ripped from her, without notice.

In a cruel twist of fate, the Hess family (whose story Sixsmith also tells in great detail) had only planned to adopt Mary, but because Anthony is her protector and because he is such an affectionate child, they decide to adopt him as well.

Sixsmith goes into great detail describing the cruel forced adoption system that existed in Ireland in the 1950s, where the government, under the complete control of the Catholic Church, allowed up to 60,000 illegitimate children to be ripped from their young mothers against their will, and given to American familes in exchange for hefty donations.

Then over the next 300-odd pages Sixsmith combines his talent as an investigative journalist with the imagination of a master novelist to tell the story of how Irish adoptee Anthony Lee became handsome Washington lawyer and powerbroker Michael Anthony Hess, who by his mid-thirties had risen to be chief counsel of the Republican National Committee, one of the most powerful legal positions in the country, who hobnobbed with the political elite including the Reagans and the Bushes (Look him up, he has his own Wikipedia page).

Through Sixsmith’s book, we learn that Michael Hess, despite his professional success, could never come to terms with the idea that he had been abandoned by his mother (the truth, that she was forced to give him up against her will was kept from him by his adopted family and by the nuns of Sean Ross Abbey).

Despite years of counselling, he suffered what I imagine is the classic abandoned child’s dilemma of believing he never deserved the success, love and happiness that came his way because even his own mother had not wanted to keep him.

Amid the trials and tribulations of his young adult life, Michael Hess decides to visit Ireland in 1977 in the hope of finding out who his mother was and possibly even meeting her. But after what turned out to be a fruitless and frustrating visit, Sixsmith writes that Michael Hess turned to “hopelessness and self-loathing”.

Now all the setbacks and rebuffs seemed to him the result of his own inadequacy: the orphan’s rootless insecurity, his sense of not belonging, left him feeling adrift, helplessly tossed by life’s tempests.

The story of Michael Hess – as told by Sixsmith – is of epic highs and sinking lows. Sixsmith paints a picture of a man who was both brilliant, funny, charming, warm and tender, but who could come spectacularly off the rails and descend into heavy drinking and promiscuity. By day he was involved in shaping the crucial redistricting laws that would change the course of political power in the future, but by night he often cruising gay bars for casual sex.

Sadly for Michael Hess, his bouts of wild sex with strange men would prove his downfall; coinciding with emergence of the AIDS epidemic in America and the reluctance of the Republican Party of Ronald Reagan to do anything to address what was then considered a gay man’s disease.

In another ironic twist, Michael Hess’s quest for acceptance and success in America led him to serve a political party, which, delayed the start of medical research, which might have saved his life.

While the book proved controversial (aspects of it have been discounted by those close to Michael Hess) if you take it at face value its a wonderful retelling and re-imagining of Michael Hess’s life by Martin Sixsmith, and a fitting tribute to the son that Philomena Lee so tragically never got to see again.

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Philomena Lee

However, it seems an injustice that so few pages of the book were devoted to Philomena’s story, a formidable and brave woman.

I suspect this is partly due to the fact that she lived a mostly unremarkable life after she left the abbey – marriage, children, domesticity – especially in comparison to the amazing life her son Anthony lived in America.

In that sense it is pleasing to think that a Hollywood movie has shined the spotlight so brightly on her again, and it seems, turned her into an important figurehead for all the women in Ireland, who had their children ripped from them so cruelly.

And while Philomena Lee was horribly robbed of the chance to know her son as the brilliant man he became because of a merciless system, there must be some comfort for her in his life coming alive so vividly in the pages of Sixsmith’s enthralling book.