Gone: A Girl, A Violin, A Life Unstrung by Min Kym

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Penguin UK cover (image: goodreads.com)

This book was one of the few review copies I have been accepting recently, and I’m glad I decided to read and review it, because it’s something a little different – but once I got into it I realised it actually is the sort of things I like. Gone: A Girl, A Violin, A Life Unstrung is what I would call an unconventional memoir – it is not a straight chronicle of someone’s life, but rather a story from that life that has significance, that means something to the author. It is an unusual story and a special one that deserves to be told.

Min Kym is a concert violinist, and as a child she was classed as a prodigy. Her list of achievements is certainly impressive, with awards and scholarships, huge concerts, and acceptance into the Purcell School of Music as well as the Royal Academy of Music. She has made a few recordings and these are available on iTunes and Spotify. I would recommend listening to the little album she released of songs that feature in this book – it is simply beautiful. One piece on it is very special to me as it will be played at my wedding in a couple of weeks! I’ve decided to use Min Kym’s recording as I walk down the aisle.

I am no expert in classical music, but I feel I learned a lot about it from this slim book. Kym speaks passionately about her love of music and how it feels to play. Her writing isn’t perfect but it doesn’t matter because she conveys a strong sense of her personality and personal experience, with the music but also with the people in her life, and most importantly with her violin. She repeatedly reminds the reader that it feels like part of her, that she does not feel whole without it, does not feel like herself. She states that she is two people – Min, and Min with a violin.

Gone is quite an emotional book, and you go on the ups and downs with Kym as she experiences huge career success, and intense love for her violin and the music she plays; but she also experiences difficult relationships and setbacks – and of course the biggest setback of all, the theft of her Stradivarius violin. This is the crux of the book, the tipping point in her life. There is the time before, when she had the violin; and the time after, when she is mourning for it, and suffering from its absence. Kym goes through a period of depression, and it takes her a long time to get back to her old life – but while the writing is emotional and personal, it never becomes sensational or melodramatic. Kym is in control of her story.

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Min Kym (image: deda.uk.com)

The writing is at its best when Min Kym is writing about music. Her language flows beautifully as she describes the sounds, the feelings, the images that music brings to mind; the way the violin feels in her hands and when she nestles it into her neck. It is like a child, a sacred object, a beautiful thing. She also talks eloquently about the violins she plays, how they were made and where they came from, and how these things affect the experience of the player as well as the sound that the violin makes. It is utterly fascinating.

I was also fascinated by Kym’s discussions and mentions of her sense of self in relation to the violin, and how this develops as she gets older. She stated playing at such a young age that she always sees herself with a violin – it is an integral part of who she is. Her family moved from South Korea to the UK for her musical career, and this relationship between familial and national belonging and the violin and its music is wonderfully explored, from a practical as well as personal point of view.

Though only slim this is a rich volume filled with life and passion, joy and sorrow, silence and beautiful music. I would highly recommend Gone to anyone who loves unconventional memoirs, especially those with a love of or an interest in classical music, and the ways in which our passions shape our lives.

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Published in 2017 by Viking, and imprint of Penguin, in the UK and Crown Publishing, part of PRH, in the US. My thanks to Viking for the review copy.

Purchase from Wordery, Foyles, and Blackwell’s.

WWW Wednesday, 19th April 2017

I’m sure you have now heard about WWW Wednesday (even I know about it), but to recap, this is what it entails – you must post about three books:

  • What you most recently finished reading
  • What you are currently reading
  • What you will read next

Here are mine!

What I recently finished reading: Young and Damned and Fair: The Life and Tragedy of Catherine Howard at the Court of Henry VIII by Gareth Russell

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This was the second biography of Catherine Howard that I have read this year, and it really was excellent. I am currently planning a blog about this and the other biography (by Josephine Wilkinson).

What I am currently reading: The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown

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This was sent to me by Penguin for review, and I’d wanted to read it for a while. It’s an interesting take on a well-known story and historical figure (Matthew Hopkins) and so far it is very engaging. Review to come!

What I will read next: Gone: A Girl, a Violin, a Life Unstrung by Min Kym

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Another review copy from Penguin, which also looks intriguing. I love a bit of narrative non-fiction and this looks like the sort of unusual memoir that I will enjoy.

What are your WWW books?

Upcoming Reads and Reviews, April 2017

Upcoming reviews

I am pleased to say I have finally finished reading Gareth Russell’s wonderful book about Catherine Howard, Young and Damned and Fair. It took me about a month to read, which is a long time for me, but it was so worth it. I am now planning a blog post about it in conjunction with Josephine Wilkinson’s book on Catherine that I finished in January. They are two very different books about the same woman and I think it will be really interesting to do a bit of a contrast and compare.

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I also have two other books to review that I have read this year: The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, and Labyrinths by Catrine Clay, which is a biography of Emma Jung, wife of Carl. These were two of the most interesting books that I have read recently, and reviews of them will soon be up!

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Another review that will soon be up – it’s currently in drafts! – is See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt. This book has been creating rather a lot of buzz, and is out in early May. [Update: this review is now up here.]

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Upcoming reads

As for books I am about to read, there are far too many of course, but these are the ones I am most looking forward to:

Gone: A Girl, A Violin, A Life Unstrung by Min Kym

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All the Good Things by Clare Fisher

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Leopard at the Door by Jennifer McVeigh

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The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown

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By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept by Elizabeth Smart

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A Broken Mirror by Mercè Rodoreda

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The Lost City of Z by David Grann

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These are books that I actually have copies of, so they are all I am going to include for now (the first four were kindly sent to me by Penguin, and the last three were purchases). There are way more on my GoodReads TBR that I am desperate to read, but until I actually have copies of them it feels too immaterial (literally) to commit to saying I will read them soon!

So there you have it – these are the books you can look forward to hearing about here on the blog and on my Twitter feed.

Which books are you looking forward to?

WWW Wednesday, 1st March 2017

I’ve only participated in WWW Wednesday once before, and that was ages ago, so I felt like giving it another try. The idea is to post three things:

  • What you most recently finished reading
  • What you are currently reading
  • What you will read next

Hence ‘WWW’! So here goes:

What I recently finished reading: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

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I read this last month after having meant to read it for years, and I’m glad I finally did. I was spurred on by the upcoming TV adaptation, and also by the fact that this mad dystopia seems oddly relevant these days, especially in the States… my review is here.

What I am currently reading: Labyrinths: Emma Jung, her Marriage to Carl, and the Early Years of Psychoanalysis by Catrine Clay

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I am almost at the end of this book and have loved it so far. I knew nothing about Emma Jung before I read it, and she has turned out to be an engaging and fascinating character. I would recommend this to anyone interested in the field and period. You can see the book on GoodReads here.

What I’m going to read next: The Good People by Hannah Kent

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I loved Hannah Kent’s first novel, Burial Rites, and so when I heard she had a new book coming out I just knew I had to read it. This one has a similarly beautiful cover, and I think it will be just as fascinating and wonderful as its predecessor. You can read more about it on GoodReads here.

So there you have it! What are you WWW Wednesday books?

Looking back on the books of 2016

This is another overdue blog post, but one that I’ve really been looking forward to writing. I read 31 books in 2016, of varying quality, but overall it was a good reading year. I tried to branch out, accepting a total of eight review copies from publishers – which is a lot for me these days. Of these the highlights for me were (links go to my reviews):

The last of these is not out until May 2017, so my review will come a little closer to the time. It was offered to me by Georgina Moore at Tinder Press and I am very glad I accepted. It is a wonderful blend of crime fiction and historical fiction based on real events, coupled with multiple narrators (all unreliable) and some really beautiful writing. In case you didn’t know, it’s about Lizzie Borden, and I loved it. You can read more here. And just look at that beautiful cover!

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(image via goodreads.com)

I read a lot of history books in 2016, both fiction and non-fiction. One other historical novel I must highlight is The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell. I’d been intimidated by its length (over 900 pages) but finally gave it a go earlier in the year – and I was not disappointed. It is a fictional autobiography of a former Nazi officer which the author spent five years researching, and it is one of the best novels I have ever read. Not only is it brilliantly written but it is deeply philosophical and challenging, and I greatly admire Littell for somehow managing to write it.

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I read a handful of other books about the Second World War and three of the best were written by and about women, real women of the War who faced huge challenges and trials but who remained strong and determined throughout. The first of these was Gone to Ground by Marie Jalowicz Simon. The book is a compilation of her stories (recorded on tape and put together by her son) from her time living in Berlin during the War as a Jewish woman. She lived ‘underground’, in hiding, using an alias and constantly moving. It is one of the most remarkable books I have ever read. Similarly, I also read A Woman in Berlin. It is an anonymous account of the last few months of the War by a German woman living in Berlin. She is not persecuted as Jalowicz Simon was, but her whole life is destroyed and she suffers immensely. It is a harrowing but necessary book and shows the cost of the War on ordinary German people that often gets overlooked. I read these two books close together and wrote about them in one blog post (linked above) and they have really stuck with me. I think they are vital reading for anyone considering the experience of women in Europe during the Second World War.

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Another book that fits into that category is If This is a Woman by Sarah Helm. It’s a massive book so I waited until it was out in paperback before I read it, the delay making my expectations quite high – and they were all met. It is the first book dedicated to the story of Ravensbrück, the only Nazi concentration camp built specifically for women, and it was one of the most incredible books I have ever come across. I had read If This is a Man by Primo Levi so I had some idea of what to expect; but of course each story is unique, and these women all had incredible stories. Sarah Helm is to be hugely admired and respected for telling these stories, for doing the research and making sure each name is mentioned, each life is honoured in some way. I will not soon forget this book. I should note that in America the title is simply Ravensbrück.

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Towards the end of the year I wanted to branch out from history, and so I read The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson, which was just brilliant. I was already a fan of Jackson’s writing but I’d never actually read any of her short stories. Some of these are still quite fresh in my mind (least of all the title story) and I am desperate to read more. Luckily I was given two more volumes of her short stories for Christmas, so I have those to look forward to. These were Let Me Tell You and Dark Tales.

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The other highlights of my reading year, which I don’t have space to write more about here, were:

I have enjoyed reading other ‘best of 2016’ posts – it was a good year for books – and I look forward to a great 2017 filled with marvellous things to read. I am on my second book of the year at the moment and frankly I am dying to get back to it, so I shall finish here. Happy 2017!

 

Overdue update on Christmas and birthday books

As I said in my last post, life has rather gotten in the way of blogging over the last month or so (probably more than that), so I am only just getting around to organising posts I meant to write and publish a while ago…

First I must ask you to cast your mind back to the excitement of getting presents at Christmas, and then double it, because my birthday is just after Christmas and so I get lots of presents around that time. Not too bad.

I actually received fewer books than I expected to, seeing as I asked for quite a few, but I am so pleased with the ones I did get. And aren’t they pretty!thumb_img_9248_1024

These were all on my wish list apart from The Prose Factory, which was a pleasant surprise from my fiancé’s mother.  I’d never even heard of it but it looks fascinating so I’m looking forward to getting into it at some point.

I’ve just finished reading the book about Katherine Howard and have a blog post in the works. It has made me really want to read more about the women of the Tudor period, particularly Henry VIII’s other wives, as well as Elizabeth I and Mary. I am particularly keen on reading about my namesake as she has always held a certain mysterious magic for me and I would love to understand more about her life and reign, and her character.

I also asked for every Shirley Jackson book that I haven’t already got, and I am very pleased to now have Let Me Tell You and Dark Tales, especially as the latter is a very nice little hardback with a bright green back cover. I can’t wait to get back into more of Jackson’s eerie and wonderful short stories.

I asked for The Devil in the White City as it’s something I’ve been meaning to read for quite a while. The book is set in 1893 and “tells the stories of two men: Daniel H. Burnham, the architect responsible for the [Chicago World’s] Fair’s construction, and H.H. Holmes, a serial killer masquerading as a charming doctor.” (quote from GoodReads). I think both these men have interesting stories, and it just sounds like a fascinating time. It also doesn’t hurt that H.H. Holmes was the inspiration for the character of J.P. March in American Horror Story: Hotel – and for the hotel itself.

My fiancé’s amazing brother and sister also got a set of Vintage Classics editions of Virginia Woolf, which was a lovely surprise.

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I’ve some of these but not all, and I’m very glad I get to read them in such lovely editions! I plan to start with A Room of One’s Own as I’ve never actually gotten around to reading it…

So there you go – lots of amazing reading to be getting on with. I did also get vouchers for Foyles so there may even more books soon, what a surprise!

Happy reading!

In Praise Of: True Crime

Many years ago I worked as a bookseller for Borders and I have to admit that the true crime section was not one that I thought of as full of ‘literature’. All the books had sensational covers with big red letters and bad photographs. They were small fat books that didn’t get many visitors, and while I thought some of the topics looked sort of interesting, their terrible covers and titles put me off. So I turned my nose up at true crime. It seemed almost as bad as the trend for Misery Memoirs a few years ago –  books that implied you were entertained by the suffering of others and that you fell for the sensationalised titles and covers. They were the book equivalent of the trashiest tabloid newspaper.

But as time has passed I’ve realised that I have an interest not in suffering or sensationalism, but in crime. I like crime novels, detective TV shows, mysteries and thrillers. And surely the best stories are always the ones that are true? These days it seems to me that love true crime is as popular as ever, but there are more socially acceptable ways of receiving it – podcasts are the prime example. People went mad for Serial, and now In the Dark is making a splash, as well as Criminal. There’s also the success of the Netflix series Making a Murderer, which I thought was brilliant. I’m pleased to hear there will be a second series.

I enjoyed Making a Murderer so much because it delved right into not only what may or may not have happened in terms of the murder itself, but also the events following it – the search for Teresa Halbach, the police investigation, and the ways in which Steven Avery was identified as a suspect. The investigative and legal processes are fascinating to me, and I was glued to the scenes featuring Avery’s lawyers as they worked on their case, and especially when they were arguing in court.

I think my interest in this area is linked to my interest in psychology and unusual people. People who are in some way different from others, people who are strange or unusual, are inherently interesting to me. I like weird stories and unexplained mysteries – the ‘other’ side of life. People who commit serious crimes are on that other side.

Which leads me to serial killers. They are some of the most extreme and troubled of people, and some of the most interesting. There are a handful of topics that regularly lead me down Wiki-holes, and serial killers is one of them. When J. P. March had a bunch of them over for dinner in the Halloween episode of American Horror Story: Hotel, I knew their stories already.

Listening to the podcasts mentioned above, and my Reading Lists project, lead me to consider The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule. This was a book I’d been aware of for quite a while, but worrying that it was too trashy stopped me from getting hold of a copy. But my new attitude to reading what I really want made me click ‘order’ on Wordery.com.

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Like the trashiest true crime books, it is small and fat and has a very questionable cover design; but The Stranger Beside Me proved to be an engaging and fascinating book. It is as much about Ann Rule and her experience as it is about her subject, Ted Bundy, and it was a rich and immersive reading experience. Rule was a journalist before she wrote books, and this was her first one, so the style is quite journalistic, which I think worked well. She is methodical in detailing what happened, or what might have happened, and manages to mix the ‘cold hard facts’ of Bundy’s crimes with the emotional aftermath.

Ann Rule was in a unique position when it came to Ted Bundy – she knew him in real life purely by chance, and she was assigned to write about his crimes before anyone knew that he was the one committing them. Some of the most interesting sections in the book are when Rule tries to reconcile the man she knew in the early seventies – young, polite, caring, intelligent – with the man who committed these crimes. He was someone entirely different. In this vein the later updates to the book are fascinating as Rule looks back on the period with hindsight. She states that she was wrong to think Bundy was insane, and that at the time she had a limited understanding of what that meant. The passing of the years has allowed her to learn more about people like him, and for her view of him to expand and develop. She comes to understand that he was not insane, but was a true psychopath.

I wouldn’t recommend reading The Stranger Beside Me if you are home alone and it’s dark outside, particularly if you are female. Bundy kidnapped many women in broad daylight, but the most frightening tales of him are those in which he crept into houses late at night and murdered girls in their beds – such as his ‘visit’ to the Chi Omega sorority house in Florida in 1978. These episodes, along with the kidnapping and killing of twelve-year-old Kimberley Leach, really show the most frightening sides of his personality.

Ann Rule writes a certain type of true crime book. Her heyday was the eighties and nineties, so the covers of her books look quite dated, and they do have slightly melodramatic titles – they do not have the reserved and ‘sophisticated’ look of titles such as The Monster of Florence or Columbine. She does not spare details, and she readily includes the emotional side of the story. The fact is she was not an investigative journalist, and they are the people that usually present true crime stories to us these days. Her style is a little dated, but she is a brilliant storyteller and an engaging writer. I am considering reading one or two of her others books (she wrote a lot of them), and I’m glad to have discovered a new genre of writing that I find interesting. True crime isn’t for everyone, but I will definitely be reading more of it.

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The Stranger Beside Me was first published in 1980 by Norton; I read the 2008 edition from Pocket Books (pictured above).

Puchase from Wordery and Foyles.

 

If This is a Woman by Sarah Helm: A Reading Experience

More than one of my fellow reviewers on GoodReads wrote that reading this book is more than that – you ‘live it’ as well. It is an experience I will never forget. If This is a Woman took me ten days to read, which for me is a long time – but then it is 727 pages (I read the 2016 Abacus paperback). It’s long, but it needs to be long because of the sheer amount of information and individual stories that it tells; Sarah Helm is diligent and respectful, taking time to list names and tell people’s stories. I admire her for taking on the task of writing about Ravensbrück in such a way. She tells the life story of the camp, from its construction and opening in 1939 to its abandonment in 1945 – and its life beyond as a grave and a memorial. It was one of the longest-operating concentration camps in the network, and was significant for two reasons: it was only 56 miles north of Berlin; and it was built specifically to hold women. It was the only camp designated as such.

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2016 Abacus paperback edition

Sarah Helm posits that it was almost a special project for Heinrich Himmler. He ordered it to be created, and he sent very specific orders to his staff there. He visited quite regularly in the early days of the War because the camp was so close to Berlin, and he had organised for his mistress Hedwig Potthast to live nearby. The same doctor, Dr Karl Gebhardt,  who delivered their first child also ordered experiments to be carried out on Ravensbrück inmates.

The experiments are some of the worst things that happened inside the camp. A group of Polish women, and some French, were subjected to unnecessary surgeries on their legs during which bone and muscle was either cut or removed, and bacteria was introduced in the form of foreign objects. Some of them also had their legs injected with poisonous substances such as gangrene gas and petrol. The official reason for these experiments, ordered by Himmler, was to simulate battlefield wounds in order to work out how best to treat them. There was a debate around the drug sulfonamide and whether this could treat such wounds. Hitler’s personal doctor advised that it be given to Reinhard Heydrich after a bomb went off in his car, but Dr Gebhardt advised against it; and Heydrich died. Gebhardt was then ordered to experiment with the drug at Ravensbrück to ‘analyse’ its effectiveness.

The women who suffered through these experiments came to be known as the ‘rabbits’ of the camp, because they had been experimented on like animals. Reading Helm’s book, they were to me some of the bravest women of all in Ravensbrück. Once the experiments were over they lived in constant fear of being executed, as they were living proof of what the doctors has done and what Himmler had ordered. Some of them died whilst still in the camp hospital and some died later; but a large group survived and made a point of telling their stories. There is a brilliant article on them here that I would recommend reading – but I must warn there are also some unpleasant pictures.

The rabbits were telling their stories even while they were still in the camp. For a time they were able to send and receive care packages via the Red Cross and in these they hid letters to and from their families. The information in these letters made its way to a clandestine radio station in England that broadcast to the Polish underground; and the information was passed on from there is the Red Cross and various other parties (this is explored in detail in Part Three of Helm’s book). During the War the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was reluctant to do anything about reports they received of such atrocities, but the fact that the rabbits got the information out of the camp was instrumental in bringing their stories to light after the War. You can read more about the role of the ICRC during the War here.

It is easy to get caught up in the individual stories included in If This is a Woman, and there are so many; but Sarah Helm does an excellent job in making sure each gets their space and time, and I can only imagine how carefully she must have had to plan out the structure of the book to make sure everything was included and covered fairly. She conducted a wealth of original research, interviewing the women and visiting both the camp and the homes of those who were there. For years huge amounts of evidence and testimony were held behind the Iron Curtain, so it is only recently that a lot of these stories have come to light in the wider world, such as those of the ‘rabbits’.

If This is a Woman is an exhaustive account of Ravensbrück and the lives of those who were there – either as prisoners or guards. The last section of the book is dedicated to ‘what happened next’ and covers the fates of some of the most notorious SS staff at the camp, such as the commandant Fritz Suhren and the guard Dorothea Binz. The legal process is fascinating, but really the most interesting thing is the way the SS staff behaved once they left the camp, and during the trials. Helm states that when Binz was being led to the gallows she reportedly said “I hope you won’t think that we were all evil people.” You can read more about the female guards here.

The stories of how women were able to leave the camp, as well as where they went afterwards and what happened to them, are just as incredible as their time it. It is not just the events of the War that must be documented and commemorated, but what happened afterwards as well – these events changed the places and the people forever.

To do justice to this book I would have to write an article thousands of words long; so I hope this one will do for now. It is one of the most incredible books I have ever read. I hope that others will take on the task of reading If This is a Woman and will learn of these women and what happened to them, and what they went on to do. The book is a seminal work of World War Two literature and I would recommend it to anyone interested in that period. At last these stories can be told, and they should not be ignored or marginalised. At times the reading experience is hard-going, and often intense and incredibly sad, but the overall feeling is that of defiance and determination, and hope for the future. If This is a Woman made me proud to be a woman.

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Published in 2015 and 2016 by Little, Brown and its imprint Abacus.

Purchase from Wordery and Foyles.

 

Most Anticipated Upcoming Books

I try to read a mixture of old and new books, and often find myself reading ‘new’ books some time after they come out, purely because I always have so many books I want to read that I rarely get to read things when they are really new. Often I just get to look at other reviews and wish I didn’t have so many books to read! There are several books that I am really excited about reading in the next few months – some new and some not-so-new. Here are the ones I’m most looking forward to…

The Wonder by Emma Donoghue
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Sept 2016 Picador edition (image: goodreads.com)

I loved Room but somehow didn’t feel the need to pick up Frog Music; but now Emma Donoghue’s new novel The Wonder really appeals to me. I know from reading Room that she is a wonderful  writer, and this story is not like anything I have read before. Kim Forrester wrote a brilliant review of it here. Fingers crossed I’ll get to read it before Christmas!

See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt
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May 2017 Tinder Press edition (image: goodreads.com)

This is coming out in May 2017 from Tinder Press, and I am really looking forward to it. It is a fictional take on the story of Lizzie Borden and the murder of her father and stepmother. She was acquitted of their murder but of course suspicion remains, and the story is fascinating. This looks like a really interesting and modern interpretation of the story, and I cannot wait to read it.

Labyrinths: Emma Jung, Her Marriage to Carl, and the Early Years of Psychoanalysis by Catrine Clay
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Nov 2016 Harper edition (image: goodreads.com)

I’ve always had a vague interest in psychology and psychoanalysis and the fact that this book focuses on Emma rather than Carl Jung really appeals to me. It just seems like another way of looking at a familiar story, and I hope it’ll be as interesting as it looks! It’s always a pleasure to read about wonderful women from history.

The Good People by Hannah Kent
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Feb 2017 Pan Macmillan edition (image: goodreads.com)

Like many other readers, I loved Hannah Kent’s first novel Burial Rites. It really stuck with me and as soon as I heard she had written a second novel I knew I had to read it. The premise really interests me and I think it will be a great multi-layered book.

Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin
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Sept 2016 Liveright/Norton edition (image: goodreads.com)

I have read three of Jackson’s novels and have The Lottery and Other Stories on my shelf waiting to be read, so I just have to read this new biography of her. New PMC editions mean that Shirley Jackson is again popular, and I am so glad she is – her writing is some of the most beautiful and beguiling I have read in years. Luckily she also seems to have been a brilliant and intriguing person, so I’m really looking forward to this one.

I’d love to hear about books that you are looking forward to – there are always too many to read!

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

I’d heard of The Glass Castle long before I read it, and I was vaguely interested in it, but the real impetus to read it came from two things: my putting together reading lists of the books I most wanted to read; and the news that it has been adapted into a film starring some great people – Brie Larson, Naomi Watts, and Woody Harrelson. I have to say casting Harrelson as Jeannette’s father is pretty perfect.

Anyway, so I bought the book. It is one of those memoirs that seems, oh yeah, simple, story of redemption, escape from poverty, crazy family… and it is about those things, but it’s also about accepting the fact that your parents are flawed, weird, not-perfect people; and accepting the life they have given you. Jeannette Walls talks a lot about chances, choices, and what really makes us happy. Towards the end it gets quite philosophical.

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Virago 2005 paperback edition

For me this was a book about building on what you have and bettering yourself, but also about mental illness and fear. Jeannette’s parents Rex and Rose Mary are both lovably quirky and hippy-ish to start with, but over the course of the book, and Jeannette’s childhood, you see that they are both a little unstable, and they are both afraid of a lot of things. Rex is delusional and believes that a host of government agencies are out to get him, so he needs to keep moving around the country (but this is also because the family are often skipping out on rent). He also has a terrible attitude towards authority and cannot keep a job; and he is an alcoholic. In time he proves to be the family’s main obstacle when it comes to earning enough money and making things work. But Rose Mary is also to blame. She seems to be terrified of responsibility and work, is very self-centred, and she acts as an enabler to Rex. Even when he screws everything up, even when he is angry at his family for no reason – there comes a point when her teenage children (Jeannette and her three siblings) are practically asking her why she doesn’t just leave him. But she always has an answer, always accepts him just as he is and doesn’t push for change. I felt that Rose Mary was afraid of change, and afraid of things she didn’t know. She also says more than once that she might as well do as Rex says because he’s her husband. This was before third or fourth wave feminism.

There is in fact a point when the children persuade their mother to leave their father behind when they move, but he follows soon after. Rose Mary and Rex are like doomed lovers – they cannot be apart, but being together just seems to create problems. It gets really interesting when the children get older and are able to live on their own – we accept that their parents will never change just as they do, and we see their efforts to create good and happy lives for themselves. Jeannette is the most sympathetic to her parents, and in her and her siblings’ differing attitudes to them we see the complexity of parent/child relationships and the different ways in which people cope with the same situation. One thing that ties all four children together is that they are all incredibly independent and resilient, not to mention brave. They know how to look after themselves and are not afraid to take risks – they have always survived worse. I really admired them all for this bravery and willingness to try things, this refusal to give up or become hopeless.

As for the reading experience, The Glass Castle is both wonderful and terrible. Rex and Rose Mary are infuriating and frustrating, and they just completely lack practical parenting skills. But they are both fascinating as case studies of people who are a product of their environment and their families, people who are just so determined to do what they think is right no matter what anyone else says or thinks – even their own children. The story of the Walls family is entertaining, fascinating, sad and desperate, but ultimately hopeful. They seem to be able to survive anything. For me the lasting message of this book, if there is one, is that people are more resilient that you know, and very different things make different people happy. There is a no one right way to live – although there is one right way to look after your children and that is to keep them safe, something which Rex and Rose Mary did not always do. Despite everything the family still love each other, and they are always a family no matter what. That is what holds them together, for better or worse.

As for their life now, this New York Times article from 2013 is a brilliant update on the Walls family, and Jeannette’s attitude to her life and parents now that she’s an adult and has a totally different lifestyle. It is still kind of heartbreaking, but utterly fascinating in the way that families almost always are.

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First published in 2005 by Scribner (USA) and Virago (UK). I read the Virago edition.

Available from Wordery and Foyles.