Books That Saved My Life review: Michael McGirr on those he has loved
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Books That Saved My Life review: Michael McGirr on those he has loved

READING

Books that Saved My Life
​Michael McGirr
Text, $34.99

Oh to be a book critic who has loosened what Kurt Vonnegut described as armour worn to attack a hot fudge sundae or a banana split. Michael McGirr is a knight of the genre. He has reviewed a gorilla of books – that's a K, a G, 1000 big ones to you – many of them for this newspaper. He is also the author of Snooze: The Lost Art of Sleep; Bypass, about the Hume Highway; Tim Winton: The Writer and His Work; and Things You Get for Free, an account of a trip he took to Europe with his mother. McGirr was also publisher of Eureka Street and fiction editor of Meanjin. In his latest work, Books that Saved My Life, McGirr blends the lives of authors, their works – mostly fiction – and events in his own life in 40 essays about roughly 40 books.

Author Michael McGirr.

Author Michael McGirr.

"This is a book," writes McGirr in the introduction, "about why Antonio should have read – really read – To Kill a Mockingbird." McGirr is a teacher and Antonio was a star student of his who googled the plot summary of Harper Lee's novel instead of reading it. The question then must be: Antonio, what is it that you have spawned through your wayward actions, wrapped, and placed beneath the Christmas tree – a gift or a curse? Luckily, from the first essay, McGirr's book feels like that of a man happy to have had the most wholesome of prayers answered: for a loving family, a happy home, satisfying work and travel. It is difficult, reading it in the weeks before the summer holidays, not to find the gratitude a little infectious.

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With Books that Saved My Life, McGirr has also granted himself four distinctly book reviewer-ish wishes: to review, in a way, books that came out before your time, to include details about authors, to write about the books of your friends, and to refer to details from your own life.

Books That saved My Life by Michael McGirr.

Books That saved My Life by Michael McGirr.

For McGirr, the most defining of these personal details might be the fact that he was a member of the Jesuit order for 20 years, and a Catholic priest for seven, before leaving the church and marrying his wife, Jenny. The book's epigraph is from God's Grandeur by Gerard Manley Hopkins, the Victorian poet who was himself a Jesuit priest: "There lives the dearest freshness deep down things."

McGirr's life-saving books include those he read when lonely (Thomas Merton's The Sign of Jonas); a story that comforted and distracted him when his father died (War and Peace – watched on TV when McGirr was seven); and poetry that did the same when his mother died (John Shaw Neilson's Love's Coming – and visiting the poet's grave in Melbourne).

McGirr's house, he writes in an essay about Mrs Dalloway, was built the same year Virginia Woolf's book was published: "The book and the house have each helped me to understand the other." He discovers that the wives of WWI soldiers with PTSD had used the house – located in an area that "happened to be a byword for respectability" – as the meeting place for a support group and a place to rest during the day after nights spent next to sleepless men. "This was precisely what Virginia Woolf was dealing with in Mrs Dalloway: the pain that endures beneath the unruffled exterior of a respectable existence," writes McGirr.

Other essays are more playful. In his essay on Middlemarch, he writes of the comfort he drew – after failing to pick up that his now-wife had been wondering when he would finally propose – from "the fact that some of the most horrendous proposals of marriage in the history of literature are delivered by clergy". He is referring to Mr Collins in Pride and Prejudice and St John Rivers in Jane Eyre, as well as Middlemarch's Mr Casaubon.

McGirr's essays are often like good sermons, with their small bits of wisdom expressed simply. Of G.K. Chesterton he says: "He laughed at nearly everything. That's what made him such a serious writer." Of literature, that it "is an experience of a broader world, one we can learn from but not control". Then again, this isn't the church, and so there are also lines like these: "Coco Chanel grew up in a Cistercian monastery; Chanel No. 5 has always struck me as an ineffable combination of sex and silence."

The Death of the Author is well and truly binned in this collection, and there is the occasional dad joke and dad lament (on the F-bomb being used too often, for example), but the only thing that ever really feels amiss is a little more detail about the difficult personal moments McGirr alludes to throughout. Then again, perhaps that's just my own curiosity to know more about the man behind the armour.

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