Non-Fiction, Reviews

No Place to Lay One’s Head by Françoise Frenkel (1945), trans. Stephanie Smee

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image via goodreads.com

I came across Bookish Beck’s review of No Place to Lay One’s Head last month and knew I just had to read it. It is the memoir of Françoise Frenkel, a Jewish woman from Poland who opened the first French-language bookshop in Berlin, in 1921. She had studied in France, and when on a visit to Berlin, she realises that French books and newspapers are not available, she is convinced of the need for a French bookshop in the city. Frenkel was wedded to a career as a bookseller, and it is wonderful to read to about her passion for it and her obvious joy at being able to run a successful bookshop and have regular customers.

“However, starting in 1935, serious complications set in.”

As the National Socialist party gains power in Germany, gradually more and more restrictions are placed on Frenkel and her bookshop. Initially the problems arise from her selling French literature – she has to deal with new customs regulations, certain French authors being blacklisted, and eventually a ban on all French newspapers. She starts to receive Nazi propaganda in the post, as well as invitations to meetings and rallies – and attached to these are questionnaires relating to her race, and that of her grandparents and great-grandparents. She is even arrested and interviewed by the Gestapo about taking a trip to see friends in Belgium, but is mercifully set free on the same day.

Frenkel tells her story quite swiftly, and very soon we are told about the night of 10th November 1938, a night now referred to as Kristallnacht. She is awoken by the sound of a water pump, and goes out into the street to see firefighters trying to deal with several shops that are burning, and eventually the synagogue as well. Some men approach her bookshop as she stands outside it, but turn away when they realise it’s not on their list. The next day she does not open the shop, and decides to wind up the business and leave Germany. There is a poignant scene in which she walks around her shop, touching all the books and wondering if she will ever be able to return to them.

In July 1939 Frenkel makes her way to Paris, and leaves in Spring 1940 for the south of France – just days before the city is bombed by the Germans. She makes several fortuitous moves like this throughout the book, narrowly avoiding death or capture. In the south she lives in Avignon and Vichy, before settling for a time in Nice. She writes wonderfully about her faith in the French people, and her fears for the country as it is occupied by the Germans and the Vichy government comes increasingly under their influence.

One day in August 1942, she is coming back to the hotel where she lives when she sees one of her neighbours gesturing to her from the window. He points to a side street, and when she looks down it she sees people being herded onto buses. She asks someone what is happening and they tell her that “They’re picking up Jews.” She has observed the growing restrictions on Jewish people and has heard about concentration camps – ones in France that are more like holding camps, and the ones in the east. She looks around her for options and for a moment is tempted to run towards the crowd and get on one of the buses:

“A feeling of intense joy overwhelmed me at the thought of such solidarity, such sacrifice. But cold logic took over.

Who would benefit from such a sacrifice? What could it change? What good would come of it?

The instinct of self-preservation had won out.

The bitterness of this truth weighs on me still, and will to the end of my days.”

Eventually she realises she must go somewhere, and runs over to a hairdressers owned by her friends the Mariuses. They instantly understand her plight and agree to shelter her in their apartment, as it soon becomes clear that she cannot return to the hotel. From this point on, she is in hiding. 

I included the above passage as it is one of the few moments in the book where Frenkel really identifies herself with other Jewish people in the larger context, or expresses her sorrow for those that were arrested and deported. Most of the time she explains the restrictions placed on Jewish people, and their difficulty with the authorities, as if she were not one of them. Only now and again does she say ‘this happened to me too’, and always after she has outlined the wider situation. I wonder if this detachment is like a coping mechanism, a way to distance herself from the horror she sees around her, however mundane – and even though she’s telling the story in retrospect. Her storytelling moves along quite swiftly, as I mentioned, and she is very matter of fact. At certain points she expresses her sadness, horror, or fear, but always in a simple and plain manner. She does not dwell on her emotions for too long and does not get swept up in the drama of the situations and experiences. The above passage is a rare deviation from this.

The middle of the book, when Frenkel is in hiding and has to move several times, reminded me of Gone to Ground by Marie Jalowicz Simon, which details her life in hiding during the war, mostly in Berlin (and which I reviewed here along with A Woman in Berlin). Frenkel is incredibly lucky that the Mariuses are able to help her find places to stay, sometimes paying rent for her or sending supplies of food and clothes. It is clear that without them her situation would have been a lot worse. It soon becomes apparent that she cannot stay in France, and must try to get over to Switzerland.

Frenkel’s first attempt at getting over the border to Switzerland ends in her being arrested, and she spends several months in prison in Annecy before being acquitted. Again she is unbelievably lucky to have friends to help her, this time in Switzerland. They are able to send her a visa, which undoubtedly helps her case. She also has a very sympathetic lawyer who helps her greatly. It is clear that other Jewish people in the same situation are not so lucky, and some are deported to the east. Once released from prison she goes back into hiding, staying for a while in a convent, before trying again in June 1943 to cross the border. She is advised where might be a good place to get across, and that certain gates are unlocked and unguarded during the day. This time, in a panic, she makes it to Switzerland. Even though you know from the start that Frenkel survives the war, the tension is undeniable and you are almost as relieved as she is when she finally makes it over the border.

No Place to Lay One’s Head is a unique and fascinating book. We know very little about Frenkel’s life outside of what she includes in her memoir, and this is explored in Patrick Modiano’s preface. Aside from the intriguing fact that not once in the book does Frenkel mention her husband Simon Raichenstein (with whom she opened the bookshop in Berlin), Modiano points out that perhaps it doesn’t matter that we know so little about Frenkel outside of the book, especially her life after the war.

I did think about the absence of her husband from the story though. He left Berlin for Paris in 1933, and was still there when Frenkel arrived, though of course it’s unclear if they saw each other. Unlike Frenkel, Raichenstein stayed in Paris and was rounded up in July 1942; he died a month later in Auschwitz-Birkenau. It’s impossible to know, but given that Frenkel wrote and published her memoir just after the war, it may simply have been too painful for her to include him in the book.

As with A Woman in Berlin, all that matters is the story that that the writer chooses to tell.

*

First published in 1945 by Verlag Jehebe (Geneva, Switzerland). Published in France in 2015 by Editions Gallimard, in Australia (for the first time in English) in 2017 by Vintage, and in the UK by Pushkin Press in 2018. I read the Pushkin Press paperback edition, pictured above.

Purchase from Wordery, Foyles, and Blackwell’s.

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Non-Fiction, Reviews

She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth by Helen Castor (2011)

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image via goodreads.com

She-Wolves was one of those books that I had heard about for ages, and kept meaning to read, but for some reason never got around to – laziness, too many other books to read, a million reasons. So I decided to put it on my wish list for Christmas and birthday books last year, and luckily I received it for Christmas. I’d been meaning to read some more about Elizabeth I (I also asked for, and received, Helen Castor’s biography of her), so I particularly liked the idea of reading about some of the women who came before her, especially as I had little knowledge of that period of English history.

I had heard of some of the women covered in this book, such as Eleanor of Aquitaine, so it was wonderful to actually learn some details about their lives and especially their roles in the politics and rule of England. Castor makes it clear throughout that what we know of these women comes largely through the fact that they were associated with famous and powerful men, as mothers, daughters, wives, and sisters. She makes it clear there are limited sources of information on these women and so you have to make the most out of what is available, and link it to the extensive sources on the men and the wider history in order to get the full picture. There are also plenty of gaps in the narrative when nothing ‘important’ was happening in these women’s lives. I loved this exploration of how we learn about historical figures, and women especially, and what the historian has to do to piece together a story. Castor readily acknowledges that it is particularly difficult to get a real picture of any of these women’s personalities as they left little or no writings of their own, especially nothing personal, and reports of their behaviour or actions might be tainted by opinions and hearsay. So while we can learn about the bigger picture, it is harder to dig down into the personal, smaller details of relationships and individual experiences.

This is true of a lot of history, especially of certain periods, but for me it became more of an issue with She-Wolves because because by the time I got to Isabella of France, all these women started to sound rather similar. I can appreciate the difficulty of getting a complete picture of personalities, as Castor explains, but I think this was compounded in She-Wolves by the fact that the book tells the stories of four different women – so the same problem occurs each time. The scant information means that while there are some small differences, each woman is described in much the same way, as ‘strong’ and ‘fierce’, protective over their children and homelands. The biggest changes between each story were the circumstances and the relationships with men. It is also inevitable that the men’s stories take the foreground sometimes, as they were the ones making the decisions and affecting change (with a few exceptions).

So while I did enjoy She-Wolves, I found it a bit frustrating and almost wished that Castor had published four short books about each of the women rather than putting them all together in one volume. Nevertheless I very much appreciate that it’s an important book and it’s wonderful that that these women have been given the attention they deserve. Castor is an excellent writer and I will certainly be reading her biography of Elizabeth I, which I’m sure will be brilliant.

*

Published in 2011 by Faber & Faber (paperback edition pictured above). Purchase from Wordery, Blackwell’s, and Foyles.

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Non-Fiction, Reviews

Kings of the Yukon by Adam Weymouth (2018) – shortlisted for The Sunday Times / Peters Fraser + Dunlop Young Writer Of The Year Award, in association with The University of Warwick

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image via penguin.co.uk

I had not heard of this book when it was shortlisted for the Young Writer of the Year Award, and I was pleased to have the opportunity to read it – I have always liked travel writing, and I love to read about places and things I know nothing about, but still find interesting. Kings of the Yukon is based around Adam Weymouth’s journey along the Yukon river (crossing the Canada/Alaska border) in a canoe at the same time of year as the salmon are making their way along the river in the opposite direction, back inland. He writes about the salmon themselves quite a bit, their different species and habits, their life span and their habitat; and he writes about the places he visits and the people he finds there.

I loved the way that Weymouth let the people along the Yukon tell their own stories, and sort of sat back and let them talk on the page. He does not try to impose his own opinions or narrative on things, and this book is much more about the journey, places, and people than about the author. A lot of travel writing is about a personal journey, some sort of self-discovery, but that doesn’t really happen here, and it was actually quite refreshing. I do like reading those more personal travel books, but Kings of the Yukon is about how people interact with nature, and how that impacts the animals, the land, and in the end the people themselves. Weymouth writes about the impact of overfishing and the bureaucracy that is put in place to control it, successful or otherwise. I felt I was learning new things right from the start of the book, which was wonderful.

I also loved Weymouth’s writing style. It is simple and understated, descriptive and yet never overblown or too complex. He is clearly a keen observer, and adds marvellous details in just the right places. His fascination with his subject comes through in his writing, and you can feel that this was a journey, and a book, that came from a passion for nature and this particular area, as well as the people who live there. Stories are told of both the native First Nations people as well as those who came later; we learn about why these people came to the area – the gold rush, farming, and of course the fishing. The history of the place still seems to be present in the lives of the people that Weymouth speaks to, alive in their memories. As a British person who has never visited either Canada or Alaska, it was fascinating to learn this history and the ways in which it has influenced the lives of those in the area.

Reading Kings of the Yukon was a wonderful experience outside of normal life, off to this remote place up near the arctic circle that I now really want to visit. I also loved the hand drawn map at the start of the book that shows the Yukon river and the places mentioned in the book. I very much look forward to whatever Adam Weymouth publishes next!

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*

Published in 2018 by Particular Books (UK), Little Brown (US), and Knopf (Canada). My copy was provided for review in conjunction with the Young Writer of the Year Award 2018.

Purchase from Foyles, Blackwell’s, and Wordery.

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Non-Fiction, Reviews

The Reading Cure by Laura Freeman (2018) – shortlisted for The Sunday Times / Peters Fraser + Dunlop Young Writer Of The Year Award, in association with The University of Warwick

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image via orionbooks.co.uk

I’d had The Reading Cure on my GoodReads TBR for a while, so I was pleased to see that it was shortlisted for The Young Writer Of The Year Award, and I would have a reason to actually hurry up and read it. It is a memoir that blends together the personal and the literary, as writer Laura Freeman takes us through her struggles with anorexia and her deep love of reading.

Despite the word ‘cure’ being in the title, and the subtitle being How Books Restored My Appetite, Freeman acknowledges that anorexia is a much more complicated thing than that, and she muses on the fact that it will never completely leave her. I admired her candidness throughout the book, and found her discussions about mental health issues refreshing and down to earth, especially the lasting effects of it both on her and those closest to her. More than once she writes about how isolated she was during the worst points of her illness, whether that was in a literal sense when she was confined to bed, or in a more personal sense when she felt different and weird for having these issues around food.

Her discussions of the possible causes of her anorexia are insightful and fascinating as she takes us through her happy and thoughtless childhood eating through to her gradual realisation as a teenager that food could make her fat, something she didn’t want to be, and that the ideal form was obviously to be thin. Later in the book she also considers how women both in real life and in literature seem required to eat daintily, to prefer neater foods, while the man can glut themselves on pies and meat. This is something that I have observed too. It always seems to be seen as a virtue when a woman denies herself more food than she absolutely needs. Freeman considers this in light of the writers she reads throughout her illness, as she starts with male authors and eventually veers over to more women, such as M.F.K. Fisher, Elizabeth David, and Virginia Woolf.

The books she reads are the centre of this memoir. It is as much a reading diary as a book about Freeman’s experience with her illness. She takes us in great detail through her year of reading Dickens, her time reading Laurie Lee, Paddy Leigh Fermor, First World War poets, and then through Fisher, David, Woolf, and on to others. At times I felt like there was a little too much detail from the books (I was glad I actually hadn’t read most of them, otherwise it would be too repetitive), and not quite enough about how it related to Freeman’s life and experience. She is also very obviously influenced by her reading when it comes to her writing style, which is quite flowery and sometimes quite self-conscious. While she discusses her love of new words she learns from her reading, and this is great at the time, her later use of them can come across a bit heavy-handed.

The Reading Cure is a very charming book, filled with Freeman’s love of literature and her appreciation for food, despite her illness. At times I think things could have been delved into a little deeper, or explored from another perspective, but the book is very enjoyable and a great accomplishment nonetheless.

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*

Published in 2018 by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, an imprint of the Orion Group. My copy was kindly provided in conjunction with the Young Writer of the Year Award 2018.

Purchase from Foyles, Blackwell’s, and Wordery.

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Non-Fiction, Reviews

This Will Only Hurt A Little by Busy Philipps (2018)

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(image via goodreads.com)

Like many people, I was aware of, and liked, Busy Philipps from her various TV shows and movies, and my liking of her only grew when I followed her on Instagram and witnessed the joy and brilliance of her Stories on the app. I love that she is honest and frank on Instagram, and shows us the everyday parts of her life as well as the exciting ones. Of course you have to realise that even for someone as open as Busy Philipps, the life we see on Instagram cannot be the whole picture – there is always more to people’s lives than what they present to the world, whether online or in real life. And in Busy Philipps’ case, quite a bit of the ‘more’ is here in her book, This Will Only Hurt A Little.

Busy Philipps is an insightful and engaging writer, even if her style isn’t ‘literary’, and she draws you in straight away. There isn’t really a theme to the memoir, so it is a a straight chronicle of key moments from Philipps’ life, and she is relatable and likeable right from the start. I have seen reviews where people weren’t sure how to feel about her strong emotions, especially when she expresses anger or dislike; but for me I liked these moments because she was really being honest, and women are often discouraged from expressing these ‘unpleasant’ emotions or opinions. You can see that sometimes she had a certain reaction for personal reasons, which might not always be ‘correct’, but I liked that she didn’t try to sanitise or cover up what really happened and how she really felt. Philipps readily admits that she is “a lot” and that she is an emotional person. I loved that she is so honest about how she feels, and that she is unwilling to compromise who she really is.

I had a very different experience growing up to Philipps, but despite that there was still so much in the early parts of the book that I could relate to, and I think a lot of people will find the same thing. There is always something universal about growing up in a very ordinary place, and going through the turmoils of family, friends, school, puberty, and all the ensuing drama – we each just have our own versions of all these things. I was amazed at how open Philipps is about her family in particular, and their own unique issues and personalities. I did wonder how they might feel about all that being in the book. I wondered this too about various people she meets over the years, as she never uses pseudonyms or tries to hide who she is talking about, or what happened between them. Likewise she is searingly honest about her marriage and its ups and downs, as well as her and her husband’s feeling about having children, and what is was like to be new parents. This type of candour and emotional honesty is rare in the celebrity world, especially when it is not played for laughs and just told straight – and I found it refreshing and relatable. Busy Philipps and her husband (who is a screenwriter, producer, and director) may have a Hollywood life, but they still have a family and a marriage, and everything that comes along with it.

I genuinely just really enjoyed reading This Will Only Hurt A Little, and I was happily swept up in the emotions of Philipps’ stories. It made me feel a lot of things about her, and myself, and women, and men, and mothers and sisters, parents, work, self-worth and self-esteem, moments when we need to be tough and demanding, moments when we need to work and give, moments when we need to be there for others, and for ourselves. Philipps has had an incredible life filled to the brim with people and emotions, and it has obviously been a difficult life at times, both when she was young and as an adult; but I was impressed by her resilience and her later self-awareness and willingness to deal with difficult things. I really do admire her for these things – as well as her wonderful body of work. Freaks and Geeks is one of my favourite things I have seen her in, as well as Vice Principals, and movies like Made of Honor (one of several movies and TV shows where she plays a scene-stealing friend of the central female character). I’m also very keen to see her new late night chat show on E!, amazing titled Busy Tonight, partly because she is one of very few women to host a late night show, but also because I am sure she will be completely engaging and brilliant on it.

I think This Will Only Hurt A Little is one of the most well-written and engaging celebrity memoirs I have come across, and in fact it doesn’t really feel like a ‘celebrity’ book – more like a memoir of a woman who is really interesting and brilliant and normal and just happens to be an amazing actress with an amazing life. I really recommend it to anyone who enjoys this type of memoir, especially if you would normally be put off by the ‘Hollywood’  aspect. Busy Philipps is a relatable and brilliant women who deserves nothing but success. Read this book!

*

Published in 2018 by Sphere, an imprint of Little, Brown.

Purchase from Foyles, Blackwell’s, and Wordery.

 

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Articles, Events, Fiction, Non-Fiction

The Peters Fraser And Dunlop/Sunday Times Young Writer Of The Year Award – Shortlist Reveal!

As I ~may~ have mentioned, I am on the shadow panel for this year’s Young Writer of the Year Award – and today the shortlist has been announced! Here they are:

young writer award shortlist 2018

Kings of the Yukon: An Alaskan River Journey by Adam Weymouth (Particular Books)

Kings of the Yukon is about Adam Weymouth’s journey in a canoe along the length of the Yukon River, as he explores the landscape, people, climate, and animals of Alaska. He made the journey alongside the migrating salmon, and considers their plight along with his own. I have always loved good travel writing, especially when it comes together with memoir, and I’m really looking forward to reading this one.

Elmet by Fiona Mozley (John Murray)

Elmet is a novel that explores class, nature, violence, land-ownership, childhood, humanity… a lot of things. The central character is a boy named Daniel whose idyllic existence with ‘Daddy and Cathy’ in their rural home is changed forever. Their land is threatened and Daniel sees a new side to Daddy as he becomes more and more angry and violent. I didn’t know much about this novel before now, but it seems intriguing and I can’t wait to get stuck in.

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar (Harvill Secker)

This novel was very popular when it first came out, and I remember seeing a lot of press and blog reviews, so I’m sure it’ll be an enjoyable read. Jonah Hancock, a merchant, becomes famous when one of his crew discovers what appears to be a mermaid. Soon everyone wants to come and marvel at the spectacle, and along the way Jonah meets a courtesan named Angelica Neal… and it all goes from there. It is described as a “spell-binding story of obsession and curiosity” on GoodReads and I’m not surprised that it has been so popular.

The Reading Cure: How Books Restored My Appetite by Laura Freeman (W&N)

I had already had The Reading Cure on my TBR for a while, so I was very pleased to see it on the shortlist, and to be given the opportunity to read it. Laura Freeman suffered from anorexia as a teenager, and this book chronicles how her love of literature kept her going through some of the hardest points of her illness, and inspired her to get better. This is just the sort of memoir I’m sure I will enjoy.

So there they are – four very interesting books. I’m very pleased that two are fiction, and two are non-fiction, as I love reading both, and I think it will be a very interesting conversation when the shadow panel and I have to try and choose our winner. They all look wonderful.

You can follow award news on Twitter via the award’s page and with the hashtags #youngwriteraward and #youngwriterawardshadow.

I’d love to hear what you think of the shortlist – have you read any?

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Non-Fiction, Reviews

Agrippina: Empress, Exile, Hustler, Whore by Emma Southon (2018)

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(image: goodreads.com)

I was particularly excited to read this biography of Agrippina the Younger for a couple of reasons: I had only vaguely heard of her and was keen to know more about a real Roman woman, and I also pledged to support this book on its publisher’s website. As you may know, Unbound is a crowd-funding publisher where readers can pledge towards a particular book, and in exchange you get a copy of it and your name printed inside. I was really intrigued by the premise of this book and pledged as soon as I read about it – and was very pleased to finally receive my copy of the paperback a couple of weeks ago. I started reading straight away.

Now, I knew that Agrippina was not going to be an ‘academic’ book, despite the author Emma Southon being a Dr, because I knew she has left academia. And I knew that Unbound are an unconventional publisher, and they might not be as rigid as some of the bigger presses when it comes to the books they publish. But somehow I was entirely unprepared for the style of this book.

I totally get that Southon wanted to write a more ‘popular’ style of book on the Romans, and I think that is a good thing, especially as she actively seeks to demolish old-fashioned ideas about them, and makes a point of highlighting how women were treated in the Roman period and in the historical record. Throughout the book Southon demonstrates how hard it is to put together a biography of someone about whom we have very few sources of information left. This is very admirable and very interesting, and initially I liked that Southon was clearly rejecting the stiff academic style of historical biography, and that she makes a point of trying to make her characters seem more human and relatable, especially when trying to understand what happened and why.

However – perhaps it’s just me, but I found the writing almost too casual and chatty, and I found this hard to get along with. As Southon points out, a lot of the characters in her story had the same or very similar names, and everyone in the Julio-Claudian dynasty was related in complicated ways, and it can be hard to keep track. But I found the chatty and casual style made it even harder to keep track of this, because the conversational tone meant that it was a bit stream-of-consciousness and meandering.

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Agrippina the Younger (image: britannica.com)

Despite my issues with the style – and the over-the-top swearing and gratuitous graphic phrasing – the story of Agrippina’s life is undoubtedly fascinating and engaging. Her position in the dynasty meant that her life was full of high drama, including exile to an island, a few possible murder plots, affairs, death, divorce, political intrigue, revenge… and that’s just in the first couple of chapters. I loved reading about such a courageous and defiant woman who lived in an age when women had basically no rights and, as Southon points out, did not matter unless they were attached to a man. It was fascinating to see how Agrippina’s position and status changed along with the men in her life, and how interconnected and fragile the structure of Roman high society was. Everyone’s lives were intertwined and very involved, and everyone was constantly vying for power and status. Women had so little of both these things, so they often seemed the most desperate. Southon succeeds in depicting the women in this story as fully-formed people as well as possible, given the limited source material. She also succeeds at acknowledging both the flaws and importance of these sources – such as Tacitus, Suetonius, and Cassius Dio.

Agrippina is a very engaging read, and I am very glad that Unbound made it possible for this book to be published. The world always needs more books about the women of the ancient world, especially such influential and intriguing women like Agrippina. This biography helpfully includes a list of further reading, which I will definitely be mining for inspiration. It has also reminded me that I need to do much more Classical reading! I work on the subject in my job, so I often forget just how much I love reading about the Classical world outside of work. Agrippina is a great starting point for anyone who wants to learn more about women in the Roman world in a less formal way, and I’m sure a lot of people will love this book.

*

Published in 2018 by Unbound. I received my copy as part of the crowdfunding scheme.

Purchase from Foyles, Wordery, and Blackwell’s.

 

 

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Non-Fiction, Reviews

The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial by Maggie Nelson (2007)

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(image: goodreads.com)

I came across The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial in my GoodReads recommendations, and thought it seemed almost like the perfect book for me – a memoir about family history, women, and crime. The crime element particularly appealed to me as the book details Maggie Nelson’s experience of the trial of the man of may have murdered her aunt, over thirty years before. She and her family had no idea that the murder was still being investigated, and then suddenly they are told that a possible suspect will be tried for it. It’s a whirlwind of old pain and new horror as Nelson’s mother, aunt, and grandfather have to dredge up their memories of what happened to their sister and daughter – Nelson’s aunt Jane.

It turns out Nelson had written a book of poetry and prose about her aunt, simply called Jane: A Murder, which came out in 2005, just two years before this book – so she was already somewhat familiar with her aunt’s life and the circumstances of her death, even though she never knew her. Jane was murdered in 1969, when she was 23 and studying at the University of Michigan. Unless it happens to you, it’s impossible to know what it’s like to live with the knowledge that someone in your family, so closely related to you, was murdered. Throughout The Red Parts, Nelson muses on her connection to Jane and why her death seems to haunt her so much. Perhaps because she knows the pain caused to her mother and her other relatives, perhaps because Jane was killed so randomly by a stranger, and that this could, in theory, happen to any woman who was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

She also muses on our shared interest in these awful stories, especially when she and her mother are asked to participate in an episode of the show 48 Hours Mystery about Jane’s death. They agree to do it, but throughout The Red Parts Nelson discusses her conflicted feelings about this sort of thing – why do we want to know all the unpleasant details? Is it voyeuristic or sensationalist to learn about murders like Jane’s? She wonders why we obsess so much over young women who are murdered, why it can be so hard to prove what really happened, and why it is necessary to try a man for a crime that happened so long ago. She wonders about the nature of justice and the difference between its legal definition and the feeling of justice that she supposes her family are meant to feel if the suspect in Jane’s murder is found guilty. Does that make it all better? Does that close the book on the whole thing?

These are interesting and vital questions that I think we could all relate to or apply to something in our lives; but I wasn’t sure whether Nelson was trying to appeal to her readers in that way, or whether she just wanted to express her disgust at both the horrific nature of Jane’s murder, and her own confusion over it and its consequences. She seems to disapprove of 48 Hours Mystery and other media interest in the trial, and at times even her own interest in it beyond her familial connection. I thought perhaps she was going to explore the possibility that we are all fascinated by things like murder because we are afraid of them, and we want to understand them, and she brings this in to some extent, but the overwhelming impression is of her revulsion and misery in the face of the whole situation. Not to say she shouldn’t feel these things, but there was nothing to counter it, nothing to remind us that life can still be good and happy, and that there can be light at the end of the tunnel.

I’d never read anything by Maggie Nelson before The Red Parts, and honestly I’m not sure I will read anything else of hers. While I found this book fascinating, I found it very hard to read (it’s only 195 pages and I was reading it from August to October) and I can’t say I enjoyed it very much. Nelson’s narrative is raw and tough, and I personally found her hard to relate to, despite the universality of much of what she discussed. The Red Parts is, to me, a cold and hard book with a cold and hard centre. Its darkness is rarely countered by glimmers of light or comfort and the unpleasantness and sadness is unrelenting. I’m glad I read it, but I’m also glad it was so short. Not one for the fainthearted.

*

Originally published by Free Press (an imprint of Simon & Schuster) in 2007. I read the 2017 Faber paperback edition, pictured above.

Purchase from Foyles, Blackwells, and Wordery.

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Non-Fiction, Reviews

Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin (2016)

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(image: goodreads.com)

I first read Shirley Jackson a few years ago, and saw this biography advertised shortly after – and immediately wanted to read it. Even before I’d read Jackson’s work I was intrigued by her and her life, and of course a biography is the perfect way to explore that. If you’ve ever read any of her work you’ll know what I mean; when she was alive journalists used to say she was a witch (something she didn’t deny).

Having so far read three of Jackson’s novels (currently reading a fourth) and several short stories, I can confidently say that her fiction is filled with the dichotomy between the norms of everyday life, and the unknown horrors that lurk beneath it. Many of her short stories are about women who are in some way lost, or whose worlds are slowly unravelling. And in her novels, the central female characters share these traits, explored on a deeper level. It has been said before that Jackson’s life and personal experiences influenced much of her work, and Ruth Franklin explores this in A Rather Haunted Life. As she takes us along the story of Jackson’s life, she constantly makes links to her work, both fiction and non-fiction, and demonstrates how much of herself Jackson put in to some of her stories. There is no one character that is completely based on her, but parts of her self and experience are dotted throughout her various characters in one way or another.

Shirley Jackson was born in California, and began her life in a well-to-do suburb. When she was sixteen the family moved to New York state, where Shirley would later attend Syracuse University. This was where she met her husband, the literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman, who would become a hugely influential figure in her life and work. Eventually they moved to North Bennington in Vermont, where Hyman taught at the famous Bennington College. Franklin takes us through the early years of Jackson’s life with a perfect blend of detail and overview, and highlights those all-important episodes that would later appear in novels and short stories. Jackson’s tricky relationship with her mother Geraldine is excellently established, and then highlighted very effectively throughout the book. Their relationship was always a source of tension for Jackson, as her mother was very critical and often withholding, but Franklin does not sensationalise this or demonise either one of them – she simply lays out the facts, often with quotations from letters, and shows us the impact and influence of the mother on the daughter, both personally and professionally.

The third chapter, “Intentions Charged with Power” introduces us to Stanley Edgar Hyman, with a bit of background on his childhood and adolescence, up to his meeting Jackson at Syracuse. Normally I would roll my eyes at a big tangent into the life of a man, when I’m reading a biography of a woman, but this chapter is not only necessary for illustrating Hyman’s character, but it is also just really entertaining and interesting. You see that he and Jackson both had ‘big personalities’, and knowing more about him gives you much more insight into their relationship and marriage, for better or worse – which in turn also gives you insight into much of Jackson’s work. They were both deeply flawed but I liked them both very much, and wished I could hear their conversations and see them in their everyday lives.

Franklin depicts them as having an intense and sometimes volatile relationship, with strong emotions on both sides. They obviously loved each other a great deal, and at the same time were capable of hurting each other deeply. Hyman became Jackson’s life long critic, reading her work first and offering searingly honest feedback. He pushed her to write as much as possible, and more than once we hear how he considered time she spent doing other things as a waste, because writing stories in order to earn money and be successful was the most important thing she did – in his opinion.

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Jackson with her children in 1956 (image: sevendaysvt.com)

More than anything I enjoyed being immersed in Jackson’s world as I read A Rather Haunted Life. To me she is utterly fascinating both as a writer and as a woman. I adore her insightful and uncanny depictions of women battling with the ultimate dichotomy in their lives, as she did – the desire to be a good wife and mother, and still achieve things outside of this and be independent. It was a classic dilemma of Jackson’s era in the mid-twentieth century, but I think it is still relevant today, if in a slightly different form – perhaps more as the juxtaposition of our psychological inner life with our day to day existence of work and home, relationships, and everything in between. Shirley Jackson was perpetually torn between looking after her house and four children, and fulfilling her career as a writer (as well as being her own person with her own identity). Both were hindered by episodes of ill health, and her husband’s wonderful combination of not helping around the house but also berating her for not spending more time writing. There was also the fact that Jackson’s mother was never satisfied with her daughter, and seemed disappointed in every achievement that didn’t fit her narrow vision of what a woman should be.

What a woman should be. I think this is a question Jackson grappled with throughout her life and work, and something that I, and I’m sure many other women, still grapple with today. But luckily we have the work of Shirley Jackson to help us, and this wonderful biography to inspire us. I adored this book and its exploration of Jackson’s writing, as well as her personal experiences, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in her work. If anything it shows us that life is rarely easy, but it’s always worth the effort.

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Published in 2016 by Liveright, part of W.W. Norton. I read the 2017 paperback (pictured above).

 

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Non-Fiction, Reviews

My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf (2012)

IMG_4278This is one of those books that I have no memory of first discovering – but somehow it made its way on to my radar, and my GoodReads TBR. I am fascinated by the true crime genre, and so my interest in My Friend Dahmer came from that. I’m the kind of person who has heard of a lot of serial killers, with a mixed amount of knowledge, and I already knew plenty about Jeffrey Dahmer when I picked up this graphic novel (if you don’t, you’re lucky).

The author, John ‘Derf’ Backderf, went to school with Dahmer and this book recounts his memories of him at that time, supplemented with material from interviews, news coverage, and the memoir written by Dahmer’s father. This last especially helped the author to depict a broader view of Dahmer’s teenage life both at school and with his family. This is all explained in the notes section at the end of the book – Backderf talks about his sources, as well as why he wrote the book, and what he really thinks of Dahmer, both in school and later on. It turns out he wrote a few short stories about Dahmer once his crimes became public, a few gained attention, and he eventually put his memories together in this book.

My Friend Dahmer is short and stark. Backderf’s black and white style makes the uneasiness that underlies everything even more palpable, and the exaggerated features of both people and surroundings really lift the story from the page and make it seem more real. You get a sense of the claustrophobia of 1970s small town life, and the routine of school and home; you see how limited their world was, and that there was no outlet or relief for Dahmer’s increasingly disturbed mind. More than once Backderf states his opinion that if the adults in Dahmer’s life had paid more attention to his behaviour, and had intervened, he might not have grown up to be a serial killer. He was clearly different, with his propensity for collecting and dissecting roadkill, and his burgeoning alcoholism, among other things.

But as Backderf shows, his mother was increasingly fragile and unwell, and due to his parents’ deteriorating relationship and subsequent divorce, his father was largely absent. In Backderf’s notes he writes about how once Dahmer’s father, Lionel, realised that his son was drinking so much, he did try to help, and he did support him, but it was too little and too late. This would have been in the summer after Dahmer graduated from high school, after he had been left alone in the family home for a few weeks – at which point he had already committed his first murder. Once his parents’ divorce was initiated, Dahmer’s mother moved away with his younger brother, leaving him to wait at home for his father to move back in. A perfect example of how the adults in his life left him to his own devices far too much.

Given the subject matter, My Friend Dahmer is pretty heavy going, even though it never goes into the nature of his crimes beyond the fact of murder. But the dread of what we know comes later hangs over the whole story, creating an oppressive atmosphere. It’s a strange feeling, knowing that this troubled teenager will become what he becomes. His experience throughout this story is miserable and lonely, and more than anything the whole thing is incredibly sad. There is an unsettling inevitability to Dahmer’s giving in to his fantasies and abandoning any attempt at normalcy. Backderf draws excellent and jarring comparisons between his own happy teenage life with his loving family, and the misery of Dahmer’s experience. He acknowledges that he and his friends sometmes excluded Dahmer, and made fun of him, and played along with his cruel impressions of what turned out to be his mother’s drug-induced fits (at the time they thought he was impersonating a mutual acquaintance with cerebral palsy, and Backderf later learned it was really about his mother – though neither is excusable). He knows that they were clueless teenagers, never really thinking about their actions, or what was really going on with this strange guy they knew. They never spoke to him about his obvious drinking, or how unhappy he seemed. Like the adults in Dahmer’s life, it was easier for them to keep their distance. At one point Backderf states that most people figured he could just become someone else’s problem – and then he was.

Despite how dark it is, I really enjoyed reading My Friend Dahmer. It is brilliantly constructed and Backderf’s style is perfect for such a multi-layered and deceptively simple story. Once you reach the end you are left to think about what came next – the years in the military where Dahmer allegedly abused and raped two separate men, and was eventually discharged because of his drinking (not because of the abuse, even though it was reported); and then the later rape and murder of 17 men and teenage boys. Even when you consider his later statements that he didn’t want to do any of it, that he wished someone had stopped him, the fact is that he still did these things, and he didn’t turn himself in. Backderf states that he has sympathy with Dahmer up until the point he commits his first murder at the age of 18, and I agree. He had a miserable and damaging adolescence, but that doesn’t excuse anything. It depresses me how easy it could have been for someone in his teenage years to step in and try harder to help him. He might not have had a normal happy life (he was clearly very disturbed) but he wouldn’t have become a rapist and murderer.

So, My Friend Dahmer is not the easiest book to read. But then I like weird stories about weird people, and I’m fascinated by this kind of stuff. I plan to watch the movie adaptation that came out recently, which looks like it’ll be good. I’ll have to write about that once I’ve watched it.

Would you read My Friend Dahmer, or watch the movie? Or have you already read it? 

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Published in 2012 by Abrams Books (paperback edition pictured above).

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