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Posts Tagged ‘non-fiction reading’

I managed to tick off two challenges with one book again with this read. A novella sized non-fiction book for non-fiction November and novellas in November. It was the non-fiction week for novellas in November last week – and while I am not keeping up with the schedule completely I’m not too far off.

Popcorn is a collection of autobiographical essays by Cornelia Otis Skinner – an American writer and actress whose memoir Their Hearts were Young and Gay I read a staggering five years ago. I bought Popcorn and Nuts in May by her around the same time and they have been lingering on the tbr ever since. I am finding it very hard to settle down to non-fiction these days – and have only read a couple this entire year – in 2020 I have needed to lose myself in fiction more than ever.

This collection however struck just the right note with Skinner’s sparkling humour and deliciously wry observations. This lovely old edition comes with a preface by F. Tennyson Jesse and quirky illustrations by Alajalov and Soglow (whoever they were).

The America that Skinner is writing about is not the America of 2020, that is immediately obvious. In fact, it was almost certainly the America of just a certain class – here is the reasonably well off America, the America of the stable family. It is also never serious – there is very little mention of the war at all – presumably, these pieces were meant as an escape from reality. The collection opens with ‘The Defense of Long Island’ in which she is compelled by patriotic neighbours to do her bit.  Even before we get to this first essay, F. Tennyson Jesse immediately dates this collection as she states in her preface how Skinner is making good natured fun of America – and claims that

“…they stand, in their light-hearted way, for the very principle for which we are all fighting. There could not be a German Cornelia Otis Skinner – outside of a concentration camp.”

(F Tennyson Jesse – Preface to Popcorn)

In pieces that may well resonate still with many women – Cornelia Otis Skinner regales us with the tortures she endured in the name of beauty. In ‘The Body Beautiful’ – and ‘The Skin Game’ – she encounters so called experts who regard her with a mixture of pity and dismay and shames her into spending a lot of money. We witness her attempts at learning to dance, ice skating, horse riding and flower arranging. She describes her triumphs and more usually pit falls with a tone reminiscent of our own beloved Provincial Lady. She is never less than a warm and amusing companion, self-deprecating and delightfully observant of the world around her.

American family life comes under some wry scrutiny in this collection too – although it is all pretty tongue in cheek of course. These pieces about her child and family life in general were the ones I liked the best. She highlights the pitfalls of parenting – and the social life of a New York child. Convinced that the children are all rather more understanding of the unwritten rules than their hapless parents. In ‘It’s a Wise Parent’ she goes on to describe a children’s party she gave in New York – after which her son retired to bed in a foul temper, a lolly pop stick is found jammed into the piano strings and a parent rings up to inform Cornelia that her daughters band (a brace for teeth) is missing and could she look for it. She describes it thus…

“A repellent contraption of wire and silver, it looked like a surrealist exhibit or some part of an alarm clock. I wrapped it tenderly in cotton and placed it in a box from Cartier’s. Cynthia lives on Park Avenue in a penthouse I shall never see (although my child informs me he has been there). I left the box with the doorman, requesting him to see that Cynthia’s mother got it immediately. I had it well timed and as I drove away I prayed with fervor that she’d open it at the table.”

She recounts shopping with her very reluctant young son for new clothes in Youth’s Furnishings – and it recalled to me, my own similar shopping trips in the 1970s and 80s. Each generation of child I am sure, lives through this particular loathed ritual

She also recounts the dreaded ‘Business Party’ – in which none of the attendees wish to be there – yet everyone is going through the motions all the same.

I had already decided that I liked Cornelia Otis Skinner when I read – Our Hearts… however she did let me down a little when she says..

“I am no feminist. I don’t for one second think woman is man’s equal and the mere idea of a brave new world in which we all work shoulder to shoulder, even cheek to cheek, with those admirable creatures fills me with boredom and dismay. I don’t want to do man’s work. I don’t even want the vote.”

In this piece called ‘Allow Me, Madame’ she goes on to complain that while she is happy for men to do most things she would rather like to be allowed to lay a fire or tune a radio by herself – despite men not believing she can manage either of these complex procedures. I know feminism was a dirty word in the 1940s – but still – really Cornelia I was disappointed.

Still, pushing that to one side this was a lovely little collection to spend time with – and I need to try and rad that third Skinner book that I have before another five years have elapsed.

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This was a book I bought on a complete whim having seen the gorgeous cover on Twitter. Ring the Hill sounded like just the kind of book I needed, and it really was. I shall have to explore more by this author now.

‘The hare, call him scotart,

big-fellow, bouchart,

the O’ Hare, the jumper,

the rascal, the racer…

The creep-along, the sitter-still,

the pintail, the ring-the-hill…’

The title comes from a thirteenth century poem; The Names of the Hare, hares are a recurring motif in this book, and they are a pretty special animal, there is something about their elusiveness, the folklore and mysticism surrounding them that I love. Just look at the endpapers in this gorgeous hardback.

Ring the Hill is a book celebrating hills, mountains get enough attention. It’s written around and about hills, each chapter taking a different hill at its heart. In the company of Tom Cox – who is very good company indeed it turns out – we find out about a Northern hill, a very small hill, cliffs and tors.

Over the course of several years, Tom Cox moves lots of times, packing up his car, taking the cats with him, and setting out for another place. Drawn to hills and their surroundings when he isn’t moving to a new place, he is taking time to visit and explore the hills he spotted as he drove around the country.

“As I drive the roads, I watch the hills. I always notice the interesting ones, and none of them aren’t interesting, so I notice them all.”

Starting in Somerset on the Somerset levels as Tom moves to the house he is currently living in (although he may have moved again by now) the book then goes back over some of the places Tom lived in or explored before, exploring the countryside, their historical sites and the stories that are still told about them. These include the smallest hill, in Norfolk, the West country, particularly Devon, Herefordshire and a wintry Derbyshire. He indulges in some fascinating family exploration, discovering a grandmother who lived on Dartmoor.

Somerset might not be the hilliest part of the UK, but Glastonbury Tor is legendary, there is a whole industry that has grown up around the legends of that place. Soon after moving in, while consulting his OS map of the area, he comes across a place name; Maggoty Paggoty, and he is soon setting off on foot to find it. He’s clearly a keen walker – never happier than when exploring a new place.

In another chapter we hear about Tom’s favourite Devon cove, a place where he was stung by jellyfish, and healed cuts and bites in its healing salt waters. This cove is apparently not the best cove in Devon for swimming, but the places that have our hearts are about so much more than being the best. We all have our favourite places; they are full of memories and that something of ourselves that we leave behind every time we visit. Devon is a place I love, and visit regularly, my mum was born and bred in Devon and I always feel a pull back there.

In a chapter called Nearly Northern, Tom describes a few wintry months he spent up a hill in the Peak district on the outer edge of Eyam, that renowned plague village. He quickly discovers that up a hill in the Peak District, in winter, is not an easy pace to live. The winter he describes was seriously bitter, and his rented house, down a rutted path, is old and full of strange noises.

“If you pitched the events around my move to Derbyshire as the beginning of a horror film, it might be rejected for being overdone, too full of well-known haunted house tropes and rural life pitfalls. You have the central character driving almost 300 miles through heavy snow, alone in a fatigued and dented car, every possible inch of its interior stuffed with possessions and cats.”

There is nothing very romantic about this Derbyshire cottage in the snow – it sounded like something that must have been hard to endure, However, it is clear that Tom connected with the place – as he does with all the places in this book – his love of the countryside and the stories surrounding Eyam.

From time to time we get a glimpse of Tom’s parents, his dad, I can only assume speaks loudly – his speech is written in capital letters – and he went up instantly in my estimation when he reports to having told a cardboard cut out of Alan Titchmarsh to f**k off.

In the final chapter Tom writes about the time he lived on the Dartington estate near Totnes, in the magic house. An existence that to me at least sounded very nearly idyllic. He arrived at the Magic House with four cats and leaves three years later with two. I mention this to warn cat lovers, the cats are a glorious part of this book, and with very old cats the inevitable does happen. One of the cats was Bear – made famous by the Twitter account Why my cat is sad. That aside, it was clearly a special time, and a place it was hard to tear himself away from.

Tom Cox writes with such warmth and humour – he puts himself right into the middle of this book – and while he is funny and chatty, we see the English countryside through his eyes and revel in his love of it. He takes us with him on his walks, we too can stand on the tops of hills and look around, we watch a red setter chase a fox. In his enthusiastic company we set out several small adventures. Ring the Hill is an endlessly readable book, portraying the intimate relationship the author has with some very special places around the country.

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I bought The Light in the Dark, when it first came out in hardback, and for some reason it has sat unread on my shelves ever since. The days before the clocks went back here in the UK seemed to be the perfect time to read it and it was. Horatio Clare’s prose is sublime, descriptions I found myself stopping to read again, perfect evocations of the British landscape in winter.

I loved this book – and if you like the sound of it too – don’t miss the giveaway at the end of this review.

“I will not lose touch with nature. This is vital. I believe in immanence, in the oneness of living things. Maintaining that faith will carry you through the hardest times. Or such is the hope, this midnight. I start my birthday with many wishes, and this is one.”

The beginning of November is the time when our thoughts really do turn to winter – and for many people it’s a time of year when they struggle. I understand something of that, although I don’t mind many aspects of winter, I do struggle with January and February when everything I have to look forward to feels like such a long time away. However, for many the last days of autumn herald a serious struggle with mood, the long dark days of winter are dreaded and must somehow be endured. It’s a time of long held traditions, the seasonal rhythms that have long been a part of our lives, however it is also a time of seasonal sadness and deep depression, as author Horatio Clare knows all too well.

Suffering acutely from seasonal affected disorder, as the winter of 2017/18 approached, Horatio Clare decided to write about his relationship with this darkest time of the year, and the feelings it inspired in him. In journal form, beginning as autumn drew to a close, Horatio Clare began to look outward, celebrating and observing the natural world, which has its own rhythms. He reminds us that mountains are glorious no matter what the weather, that there is a kind of consolation in our British woodland and winter days can still be bright. In this wonderful book, Horatio Clare shines a light into the darkness and reveals the magic that is hidden sometimes by the darkness. It was a bad winter, when the ‘the Beast from the East’ hit, remember that? I don’t think I will ever forget the journey my family and I made, from Birmingham to Sheffield to attend a funeral, in a snowstorm.

Having previously lived in London – where winter is different somehow, more endurable – Clare is finding the Northern winters of his home in Hebden Bridge – from where he commutes part of the week to teach at the University in Liverpool – especially gruelling. Here he lives with his wife, and sons, recalling the winters of his childhood in rural Wales – where his mother still lives and who the family visit for Christmas. I really enjoyed this blending of past and present, and Clare’s simple appreciation of the natural world, which he stops to enjoy in the midst of his everyday life.

“A joy of magpies rush a buzzard, all three of them low; hedge-height under the air. A solar-panel farm gazes darkly at the clouds, its feet in water. In a hundred flat miles in the middle of half-term there is not a child outside; a man talks to two Labradors at a field’s turn, lecturing them, as they raise their noses and wag their sympathy. Pylons march into a westering afternoon as a swan beats his wings, stretching tall in a sugar-beet field, as if fanning four companions, snowdrop-white. Starlings! A hundred, no murmuration but a trace, a skipping wisp of a flock over the field’s brow.”

As the winter progresses Clare struggles more and more with his mental health, reluctant to see a doctor, though he describes honestly the worst of his moods, he does so retrospectively, sparing us in a sense from the worst. Not wanting, his journal to be as bleak as he feared that could make it. He is honest about the nature of depression and the guilt it made him feel – but he doesn’t impose those feelings on the reader.

“This diary is a refuge, a thing to do, something to put work and time into, a defence against the hopelessness. This depression is a terrible disabler. You cannot flow from one thing that needs to be done to the next; you constantly pause and doubt and disbelieve. When I do the shopping I make a list and stick to it, as if incapable of improvising.”

He acknowledges how it made work difficult, how debilitating it was, how having to function for his young son became a massive focus. Therefore, the book is far from bleak, it is beautiful, honest and infused with a quiet wisdom that I found inspiring, and which I hope will help me through my own winter days of discontent. For as Horatio Clare pushes through the worst of his winter days, there are moments of hope, in which he beautifully balances the dark with the light.

Giveaway

So, the lovely people at Elliott and Thompson who publish A Light in the Dark, offered me one of the new paperback copies – however as I already had my own copy of the book waiting, one of you can benefit instead.   

The giveaway is open to UK readers only I’m afraid, so if you would like to win a brand new copy of A Light in the Dark indicate below. I will draw a name using a random name generator next weekend and the winner’s details will be forwarded to Elliott and Thompson who will send out the book in due course.

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With thanks to the publisher for the review copy

The Secret Life of Books is another in a long line of attractive tomes produced to woo all us book lovers who love reading about the things we love to read. Preaching to the choir? Oh absolutely, but that’s no bad thing. Tom Mole brings his own ideas to the genre and there are some lovely personal anecdotes here too – including an insight into his young daughter’s adorable book group. There is also a rather surprising story about Philip Larkin and an Iris Murdoch book.

“I realised that you couldn’t talk about the book as an object without also talking about the things that people did with books. Reading was one of those things, of course, and people’s reading left their own traces on books. But reading was only one of the things that people did with books, and not always the most important.”

Well… I still think the reading of the books is the most important, but yes, when you think about it, we do, do a lot of other things with books. We buy them, collect them, give them away, deface them, talk about them, socialise around them, take them on holiday, arrange them on bookcases. This book is a celebration of all the things we do with books and more besides – as it also traces the history of how those things we do with books came about.

Looking at the subtitle; Why they Mean More than Words we see the author’s intention in this book is to explore the physical book, rather than what they contain. I found this a very interesting way to approach a book about books. The book is broken up into eight chapters, and between each pair of chapters is an interlude that celebrates a piece of artwork featuring books.

What emerges is a thorough exploration of books as objects, from the early scrolls and codex through to the leather bound first edition that would cost a small fortune to own today, to the cheap second hand paperback sporting coffee stains and inscriptions and on to the e-book. Mole suggests how books can reveal something of the status and wealth of the owner (think those very expensive first editions). There are often so many different editions of the same book – the contents are the same yet the physical object very different and what they mean to the owner can also be different. We leave something of ourselves behind in these books too as the author discusses – food stains, jottings – a bookmark where we stopped reading and never went back. We also take a great pride in the way we display our books. The author also suggests that the books we choose to put on our bookshelves tells us something about who we think we are. Oh, and don’t we all love looking at people’s shelves?

“A library is an argument. An argument about who’s in and who’s out, about what kinds of things belong together, about what’s more important and what’s less so. The books that we choose to keep, the ones that we display most prominently, and the ones that we shelve together make an implicit claim about what we value and how we perceive the world.”

The author understands the physical relationship we have with our books. He remembers an old Benjamin Disraeli book he has which had survived long years without being read, Mole had to cut the pages himself in order to read it. When we are searching a book for a favourite passage, we use nonverbal clues to help us – our memory of the physical book itself, the place on the page, how far through the book it was – this isn’t something we can do with an audio or digital book.

Something that resonated with me is how keeping a book previously read on our shelves somehow keeps it alive – something of that book is retained in our memory. Personally, I look at my bookshelves as places filled with old friends.

“Even if we can’t recall most of what we’ve read, the presence of the books serves as an aide-memoire, a reassuring sign that not everything we’ve read is lost. Books on the shelves are sandbags stacked against the floodwaters of forgetting.”

The author considers how technological developments are changing the way we read, and therefore our relationship both with books and the way we share them. Once it might have been wing backed chairs that gave a reader a small amount of privacy, shielding them as they lost themselves in a book, today it could be noise cancelling headphones that help to cut us off from the world around us. The author clearly understands the benefits of e-books – but warns how these technologies can also prove problematic, reminding us how e-readers have built in obsolescence, and how files stored on old devices can suddenly become difficult to access.

The Secret Life of Books contains lots of fascinating little nuggets of information with lots of historical facts I didn’t know, an exploration of books as objects is an interesting take on the book about books. The author’s enthusiasm for books is infectious, and this is a treasure trove for book lovers.

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My book group chose Educated by Tara Westover for our August read. I wasn’t sure it was the kind of thing I was in the mood for. I needn’t have worried – it’s enormously compulsive and was a great book group choice. We met last Wednesday, we all found things that made us so angry, and there were sections some of the group found very uncomfortable to read. It definitely gave us quite a lot to talk about.


“There’s a sense of sovereignty that comes from life on a mountain, a perception of privacy and isolation, even of dominion. In that vast space you can sail unaccompanied for hours, afloat on pine and brush and rock. It’s a tranquillity born of sheer immensity; it calms with its very magnitude, which renders the merely human of no consequence. Gene was formed by this alpine hypnosis, this hushing of human drama.”

Tara Westover grew up in Idaho, in sight of stunning mountains known as the princess, told all government agencies were her enemies, that the end of days was coming and had to be prepared for. Hospitals and schools were all part of the conspiracy and the family kept away from them. Apart from church attendance the family lived quite apart from their neighbours. Her life was entirely different to that of most little girls born in mid-1980s America. Until she was nine years old, she didn’t even exist, her birth had never been registered later she was issued with a retrospective birth certificate.

“I had grown up preparing for the Days of Abomination, watching for the sun to darken, for the moon to drip as if with blood. I spent my summers bottling peaches and my winters rotating supplies. When the World of Men failed, my family would continue on, unaffected.”

Tara; the youngest of seven children was destined however, to prove herself to be phenomenally focused, determined and a real survivor. The landscape in which she grew up in, was one that it would prove difficult to extricate herself from.  

Their community was a Mormon community. However, Tara’s father had taken some of the tenets of their religion to another level. The family home was a little way out of the small local town, incorporating a scrapyard, from where her father made his living. The Westover family were nothing like the other Mormon families in the area, who lived pretty much like other American families. Tara and the three siblings closest to her in age were home schooled – though what Tara’s mother saw as education was somewhat limited. The children could read and do basic maths, and there was one science book in the house for them to learn from. At some level I think (my book group agreed) Tara’s mother must have sensed something of her daughter’s natural intelligence. When Tara was still quite young her mother appeared to have some concern for her daughter’s learning – however she never built on that concern, and Tara was allowed to grow up in appalling ignorance of the world and its history.

For years there was no TV or telephone in the house – later Tara’s father Gene, allowed them – he seemed to change his own rules as it suited him. Tara’s mother became an unqualified midwife (in the same way wise village women did in England during the middle ages) and soon began to mix her own home remedies for the frequent accidents that happened in the scrapyard. Tara’s older brothers were always limping home sporting one gruesome injury after another, their father never very concerned by the battle scars his children wore. Whatever the accident was, no matter how serious, doctors and hospitals were never consulted.

As Tara grew older, she was expected to work alongside her father and brothers in the scrapyard. Her father began to get more extreme in his views, her brother Shawn more and more violent, and Tara’s clothing and behaviour is scrutinised and commented upon, she becomes afraid of falling below the required standard. As Tara becomes a teenager, she is allowed to take part in some local dramatics, when it is discovered she can sing – here she makes her first friend. It is the first small change. Her brother’s violence is shocking, and hard to read about, and Tara survives it by excusing it to herself – she sees his girlfriends enduring the same treatment, and her parents doing and saying nothing.

When she is sixteen, Tara decided that she wanted to learn, and set out on the long, difficult journey that was her education. Having never finished or in fact started high school – she manages to win a place at BYU by passing ACT exams – though her challenges are only just beginning. Showing the most extraordinary determination Tara finally embarks on her education – one that will take her from BYU to Cambridge University and Harvard. During these years and in her visits home she begins to question her memories of home and the things that happened there – and whether she will ever really be able to maintain her relationship with her family.


“But vindication has no power over guilt. No amount of anger or rage directed at others can subdue it, because guilt is never about them. Guilt is the fear of one’s own wretchedness. It has nothing to do with other people.”

Educated is a fascinating memoir, not only in the depiction of the Westover family – but in the story of how Tara changes. From her first awkward beginnings; a teenager unused to the company of other girls, who knew nothing of world history, and who felt her own ignorance daily, still terrified of doctors – to the woman who would leave Cambridge with a PhD.

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Last year I saw so much love for Bookworm by Lucy Mangan across Twitter and the blogosphere. As I was deep into A century of books and it didn’t fit, I resisted the urge to buy it in hardback. Fast forward several months and it was chosen by my very small book group as our April read. The rest of the group met Wednesday night to discuss it and it would seem everyone loved it, though I wasn’t able to go, I joined in virtually.

“Each book is a world entire. You’re going to have to take more than one pass at it.”

Bookworm; A Memoir of Childhood Reading is a slice of deliciously warm bookish nostalgia. It immediately returns us to those timeless days enjoyed by a child bookworm, the days when spending time with a loved book was the most important thing to be done once the irritation of a day at school had been dispensed with.

The book starts with The Very Hungary Caterpillar and ends with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and in between those two there is a world of wonderful children’s literature to be reminisced over. From Sugar Pink Rose a feminist elephant who refuses to turn pink – through the adventures of My Naughty Little Sister and Milly Molly Mandy to the land beyond the back of the wardrobe, and dozens of more besides. Mangan has such a deep and genuine affection for the books she talks about that her joy in them becomes quite infectious.

There is a big section all about Enid Blyton and the controversy and snobbery she has unleased over the decades – I must say I read a gazillion of her books.

“Blyton is not demanding. She is not an expander of minds like any one of the imaginatively and linguistically gifted authors already mentioned or still to be discussed. Her great gift lies in proving beyond doubt to children that reading can be fun, and reliably so. That the marks on the page will translate into life and colour and movement with ease. This is a thing you can master, a foundation upon which you can build, and also a retreat into which you can escape. She makes it all possible, time and time again. It was for this reason that Roald Dahl – whose own professed primary aim in writing for children was always to entertain them and thus induct them into the world of books – went to bat for her when he was on the 1988 Committee on English in the National Curriculum. He fell out with the rest of the board on the issue of whether her books should be welcomed in schools.” 

Roald Dahl novels come in for several mentions too – as do all manner of children’s classics like The Railway Children, The Secret Garden (I wasn’t alone in my child crush on Dickon) Tom’s Midnight Garden, Goodnight Mr Tom and Little Women. I saw the shadow of TLotR looming – and so couldn’t help but raise a silent cheer when Mangan revealed a dislike of Tolkien’s fantastical world. Her feelings almost exactly my own – although she did actually read all of The Hobbit – while I have never read more than a couple of pages out of idle curiosity.

Whilst discussing the books of her life, Lucy Mangan inevitably talks about her childhood. We meet her family, her mother a gynaecologist – Lucy played quietly, usually with books, behind the secretary’s desk while her mother held consultations. Her quiet father who frequently bought her books, (I couldn’t help but be reminded of my own dear dad – who sometimes bought me books) her younger sister who wasn’t at all bookish. She missed out on outings with her dad and sister because her nose was stuck so far into a book – her family soon became used to her distraction. We meet the next generation – Lucy’s young son to whom she has now begun reading some of the books from her extraordinary collection of ten thousand books.

She was a child who didn’t have many friends – there was another Lucy who lived next door – hours and days lost to other worlds. We’ve all been there – just one more chapter – sneaking the light back on late on a school night.

“The intensity of childhod reading, the instant and complete absorption in a book – a good book, a bad book, in any kind of book – is something I would give much to recapture” 

Lucy Mangan reminds us – should we need it – what it is to be a real bookworm, particularly the child bookworm who without any responsibilities yet, practically eats books. Books were the young Lucy’s friend, her saviour and her frustration when they are banned from the dinner table – Lucy’s relationship with books was and is total – responsible for many of the joys and heartbreaks of her childhood.

Bookworm is a glorious achievement – and I can see why it has become a book so loved by readers. I realised however that I had missed out on a lot of children’s literature by moving on to adult books very early. By eleven I was reading Agatha Christie rather than Enid Blyton, Jane Eyre instead of The Railway Children, terrible nurse and doctor romance novels, Catherine Cookson, Victoria Holt and Jean Plaidy, a few classics like 1984, Great Expectations, Oliver Twist and Nancy Drew (she was definitely for teens). I was less fussy back then. Perhaps I was in too much of a rush to move on to adult books but when it comes to Sweet Valley High – I really don’t think I missed anything.

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Review copy from the publisher

The Smallest Things is both a memoir and a celebration of family – a family who the reader becomes quickly very fond of. Nick Duerdon writes with poignant intelligence, honesty and enormous affection. I was nearly reduced to tears on the bus!

Nick Duerdon grew up in a London high rise flat with his mother. His grandparents, his mother’s parents, lived in a suburb of Milan, Italy. They were always there. There was a language barrier which made things a bit more awkward, Nick’s Italian very limited, his grandparents speaking no English. However, they were an unchanging presence in his young life that could always be relied upon. The recipients of dutiful visits in school holidays, where carefully preserved rituals had been maintained for years.  

“At first I suffered these weekends dutifully because I was young and brash, and because time in Milan stood so tauntingly still and I didn’t. But as I aged and slowed, and as they did too, these trips out of normal life became visits to cherish, to burn into my mind’s eye for the time when the inevitable happened and they weren’t around any more.”

As Nick Duerdon entered into middle age, himself a father of two daughters, his 98 year old grandmother is reluctantly obliged to go into a care home. It is the moment in which he begins to realise that perhaps he didn’t pay enough attention to his grandmother in the past. Living in London with his Spanish wife and two young daughters, Nick sees how history is beginning to repeat itself with his girls and their Spanish grandmother.

When we’re young, we take the people around us, a little bit for granted, we forget I suppose that they won’t always be there. Families are often a mystery – and we forget sometimes to ask the important questions while there is still someone to answer them. There have been little mysteries in my own family – small things, we wonder about when we look back – why did such and such happen? why did that person suddenly go and live there? It’s frustrating to know that those questions will never be answered. One of the reasons I enjoy family memoirs so much is because families are so endlessly fascinating – and the fascination is so often in the small things, the silly squabbles, the rituals and traditions that are unique to that family, the tiny hurts and tender spots that never quite heal, and of course the mysteries.

In The Smallest Things, Nick Duerden examines the rich, poignant complexity of family life. Nick’s mum was only in her fifties when she died, his ageing Italian grandparents his last link with her. Nick’s duty visits to his grandparents continued into adulthood – short trips in the main, long weekends becoming shorter as the earlier plane home begins to be always the one booked.

“Time with my grandparents really did operate at a more gradual pace. It was a stagnant thing. Swollen with inactivity, no pressing need to maintain the urgent thrust of modern life because here life wasn’t modern at all. It had stopped with my grandfather’s retirement years earlier, and these days tock only followed tick if tock could be bothered. There were no distractions, little incident, no pressing places to be, nothing to get done.”

Visits are looked forward to, but once installed in his grandparents’ apartment, the same old routine is fallen into, beautifully cooked dishes of spaghetti for lunch and days in which the evening game of cards is the highlight. He describes the visit he took with his wife – before she was his wife – and the rare trip out in the car, they took with his grandparents. It was of course a disaster – his grandfather confused by the new roads – too stubborn to admit he didn’t know the way. The atmosphere of awkward tension is palpable, and tenderly portrayed.

Nick witnesses his grandparents ageing – never sure when he says goodbye if it’ll be the last time. The passage of time brings changes for all of us – and it is always sad when we spot the decline in others.

“The last time I had seen them together, they didn’t bother eating at the living-room table any more, deciding that it was quicker, and less fuss, simply to eat in the kitchen, both of them done with the ceremony of tradition. A significant capitulation, this, the white flag of surrender, the beginning of the end.”

With his grandmother ageing and becoming ever frailer – Nick goes in search of the secrets his late mother left behind. A family friend helps to sensitively fill in some gaps. He finds that in the end it is often the smallest of things that bind us together, when things have remained unspoken for years.

As it says on the cover; this is a memoir of tiny dramas – after all isn’t that the essence of family life? Tenderly written, and unexpectedly poignant The Smallest Things is a beautiful celebration of family life and those relationships which are the most important.

Highly recommended for those who enjoy family memoirs as I do.

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Following a wonderful year of #readingmuriel2018 this seemed the perfect book to end 2018 with.

Alan Taylor first met Muriel Spark in Arezzo in 1990, she was already seventy-two and had been living in Italy with her companion Penelope Jardine since the 1970s. Taylor had gone to Arezzo especially to interview Muriel Spark. From this first meeting there blossomed a mutual, fond friendship which only ended with Spark’s death.

In Appointment in Arezzo, Alan Taylor tells the story of Muriel Spark, using his knowledge of the writer, as well as his conversations and friendship with Muriel and Penny. Taylor and his family became regular visitors at San Giovanni; Muriel Spark’s home in Italy, he tells of the family’s first holiday there, when Muriel and Penny were away travelling, and the Taylor family were left in charge of the house and the dogs. There were other times the family stayed with Muriel and Penny and their household is a charmingly chaotic, colourful one, a place of real warmth I felt.

“As we got out of the car, Muriel, dressed in an elegant trouser suit, emerged from a gnarled door, beaming broadly and greeting the children as if she’d known them all their lives. She had in her hands two notebooks, one of which she presented to each of the children. Jennifer’s was called ‘Confidential’ while Michael’s was ‘Underground.’ ‘Hide them from the customs officials,’ Muriel whispered.”

Alan Taylor was to accompany Muriel on several trips abroad – arranging for her to speak at the Edinburgh book festival – an event that had the whole of Edinburgh fighting for tickets – well you can hardly blame them. We witness Muriel in Manhattan, and Taylor recalls the years that Muriel Spark wrote for the New Yorker – and had her own office in their building. When the New Yorker celebrated its seventy fifth birthday, it invited Muriel Spark to take part in a festival, and due to Penny’s fear of flying, it was Alan Taylor who accompanied her.

“Throughout our stay in New York Muriel seemed carefree as I imagined she had been when she first arrived there in 1961, fascinated by everything and everyone. It was easy to forget that she was in her ninth decade and in constant pain. I couldn’t help but compare her with the elderly cast of Memento Mori. ‘How primitive life becomes in old age,’ thinks one of them, ‘when one may be surrounded by familiar comforts and yet more vulnerable to the action of nature than any young explorer at the pole.’ Muriel’s approach to ageing – and the infirmity that was its inevitable accompaniment – seemed to be to ignore it wherever possible.”

It is clear that the families became close, and Alan Taylor gained a deep understanding of Muriel Spark’s work, her character and personality. It seems to have been an understanding born of great respect for her work and affection for her as a person. It is obvious however that this book is in no way supposed to be a complete biography – it is the story of the Muriel Spark who was Alan Taylor’s friend.

“No life can be wholly recaptured in words. Something is always missing or unnecessarily included, or over-emphasised, or mis-recalled or made more of, or less of, than it merits. Scott Fitzgerald said that there never could be a good biography of a good novelist, because if he is any good he is too many people; Muriel would certainly have agreed with him.”

Taylor returns to those years before he knew Muriel Spark – and recounts briefly the years Muriel Spark herself covered in Curriculum Vitae. Her upbringing in Scotland, her brief disastrous marriage and the beginnings of her writing career.

However, Taylor certainly doesn’t shy away from those more controversial aspects of her life. He confronts the very difficult relationship with her son; Robin, relating aspects of their correspondence – which certainly shows another side to the story. He also confronts Muriel Spark’s attitude to her Jewish roots – one of the biggest arguments she and her son Robin had. He acknowledges Spark’s prior suspicion of biographers – especially following her experience with Derek Stanford – who had so betrayed her and whose unofficial biography had so infuriated her.

Taylor gives us Spark’s thoughts and feelings on all the key moments in her life, and her long career in writing. Taylor’s portrait is hugely affectionate, a warm, honest portrayal of a woman he quite obviously felt very in tune with. It is a wonderful portrait, and a wonderful book. It provides a fabulous companion to Curriculum Vitae – and for me really completed the picture of a writer I have come to admire so much.

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The name Michael Holroyd is very familiar to me, and yet I don’t really know why it should be. Checking the list of his published works (mainly biographies) I see I have read nothing else by him. Yet, when I asked for recommendations for a book published in 1999 for my A Century of Books, his name jumped out at me as one I recognised. So, Basil Street Blues was the book I picked for 1999, buying an old paperback second hand edition, knowing that I generally rather enjoy family memoirs.

Holroyd writes superbly, in Basil Street Blues we are treated to a parade of fascinating character studies, honestly and faithfully reproduced by a consummate biographer. These people, now long dead, and mostly forgotten I am sure, outside the Holroyd family – breathe again.

In the 1970s Michael Holroyd asked his parents to each write an account of their lives, their marriage, his childhood etc before they died. By this time his parents had been divorced and living separately for many years, but they had each come from different worlds – and their son wanted their stories. Holroyd used those accounts as the basis of this book – although he found there were some big inconsistences in their accounts, and so he had to become a bit of a detective into his own life.

Michael Holroyd’s father was Basil de Courcy Fraser Holroyd, descended from the 1st Earl of Sheffield, Michael’s grandfather had sold Lalique glass out of the Breves Galleries in Basil Street. His mother; Ulla, however, was originally from Sweden, where she had lived closely with her mother; Kaja– her parents having separated she barely knew her father.

“My grandmother (Kaja) is a snob. Snobbishness is her form of authority. It cows other people, and this suits her. That is why she looks so young in the photographs and my mother so ill-at-ease. My grandmother believes in appearances and living up to her beliefs, she appears splendidly superior.”

Unfortunately, the marriage was not a success, and when the couple separated during the war. Michael’s father took him to live with is family in their home Norhurst in Maidenhead – the family had relocated there during the war from the original family home of Brocket. It was not a harmonious household – though Michael was loved – he grew up under a barrage of spite and recrimination between the other occupants of the house.

“Norhurst was to be my intermittent home for twenty years. Everyone was very kind to me, but the atmosphere had become saturated with unhappiness. It was a ritualised unhappiness, repeated in the same formula of words through the awful succession of meals, housework, and more meals that was our routine, every day, all year. I can hear their voices still.”

Living in the house were, his grandparents, his father occasionally when home, his aunt Yolande and old Nan, who had been employed when his grandmother Adeline first became a mother. It seems the women of the house never stopped scrapping, snarling and spitting – and so boarding school first Scaitcliffe and later Eton, and visits to his mother must have been welcome distractions at times. Though despite chapters relating to Holroyd’s school days and later the beginnings of his writing career, this is a book which mainly concerns those we have never heard of – the members of his family.

The stories of his grandparents and his parents – I found truly fascinating – yet they are not happy stories. His grandfather remaining unhappily married to a woman of volatile temper – later had a long affair with a woman called Agnes in London. His own parents separating and re-marrying – more than once – happiness seemed to be mostly an elusive thing. By the time he came to ask his parents to write about their lives, they were both in ill health, Michael was now having to support his father financially. I am left with a sad image of these two people – for whom life was often difficult.

“My parents, who had long been divorced, and gone through a couple of subsequent marriages, each of them, as well as various additional liaisons, were by the late 1970s living alone in fragile health and meagre circumstances. They appeared bewildered by the rubble into which everything was collapsing. After all, it had started so promisingly.”

No doubt Holroyd trusted that his readers would find his family as interesting as he did. He doesn’t spend much time talking about himself and he is quite humble about his own writing. His own achievements come in for very little mention – though he does reveal that after having written an autobiographical novel ‘A Dog’s Life” his father threatened to sue if he published it in Britain. Despite his obvious fascination and understanding for his own family, this isn’t a very warm or happy book – Holroyd grew up surrounded by failing and unhappy marriages, conflict and changing fortunes. His account of these however is moving and surprisingly engrossing.

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I love Diana Athill’s writing and have now read several of her memoirs and a volume of short stories. However, the book that seems to be mentioned again and again by fans of her work is Stet – An Editor’s Life. I can now see why, it is a book full of bookish gossip, lifting the lid on almost fifty years of publishing.

Diana Athill was born into the kind of family, where young women would have grown up not necessarily expecting to have to work for a living. They primarily escaped this dire fate of course by marrying, but, by the time of Athill’s parents’ generation the family finances had changed a lot – and it had been impressed on Diana by her father, that she would need to make her own living. During the Second World War Diana worked for the BBC – and it was around this time that Diana met André Deutsch who was to become such a key figure in Athill’s life.

André Deutsch was a young Hungarian about to dip his toe into the world of publishing. Not long after meeting Deutsch at a party in the flat she shared with a friend, Diana was to leave her job at the BBC to join André Deutsch in the publishing firm of Allan Wingate, and later as a director when he started a new company under his own name.

Athill obviously had a lot of respect for Deutsch, the two were good friends, but she was well aware of his faults – and seems to have been one of the people best able to handle him. André Deutsch was clearly a very difficult man to work with, he definitely had his own little ways. He was given to terrible rages and was irritated by employees who he felt weren’t up to scratch, yet Diana continues to work well with Deutsch through business ups and downs across four decades. Athill is also wonderfully self-effacing about her own abilities, playing down rather the important role she played in bringing so many books to life. Her love of literature is obvious – and she shares many anecdotes of the vast amount of editing work she did.

“We must always remember that we are only midwives—if we want praise for progeny we must give birth to our own.”

She was rigorous in her approach to work, she clearly took her work seriously, yet she had a sensible approach – to what we would now call work life balance.

“Generally office and home were far apart, and home was much more important than office. I was not ashamed of valuing my private life more highly than my work; that, to my mind, is what everyone ought to do.”

In the second part of the book Athill talks about her relationship with six of the writers she worked with during her long career: Mordecai Richler, Brian Moore, Alfred Chester, Jean Rhys, V.S.Naipul and Molly Keane. I’m afraid I didn’t know anything about Richler and Chester, and Brian Moore I have heard of but not (yet) read I recently bought The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne which Athill references quite a lot in that chapter.

However, V.S Naipul, Jean Rhys and Molly Keane I have read quite a bit – and so I found these accounts particularly fascinating. I don’t think I was particularly surprised that V.S Naipul was – well quite frankly – pretty horrible – (his poor wife!). About Naipul, Athill says:

“I saw him as a man raised in, and frightened by, a somewhat disorderly, inefficient and self-deceiving society, who therefore longed for order, clarity and competence.”

Nor was I surprised to hear how fragile Jean Rhys was – though the extent of that fragility is completely at odds with the precise genius of her writing. What a fascinating woman, though a sad one – and hopelessly impractical.

“No one who has read Jean Rhys’s first four novels can suppose that she was good at life; but no one who never met her could know how very bad at it she was.”

Athill is very honest about these people – and there does seem to have been a culture of accommodating their every whim – valued writers (certainly of this kind of stature) were rather pandered to it seems.

I wonder if that was just how things were under Andre Deutsch? or whether it was common to other houses? My assumption is that things have changed hugely since those days. It makes for compelling reading.

It is incredible that a woman born in 1917 – who worked for the BBC during the war, is actually still with us, she will be 101 on Friday.

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