Fiction, Non-Fiction, Reviews

Half-year review: best books of 2018 so far!

I’m back! As you may have seen on my Instagram, I was recently on holiday (again) and so everything was a bit quiet… but I’m now back and ready to get back into blogging. I am right at the end of Emma by Jane Austen, so I will be writing about that soon, as well as my visit to the Jane Austen’s House Museum. But for now, as it’s July, it’s time to look back at the year in reading so far. Here are my favourite books that I have read since the start of the year (in no particular order) – have you read any of these?

Little Man, What Now? by Hans Fallada (1932)

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My copy of this had been hanging around on my shelves for a while, and I finally got around to reading it this year – and I loved it. As I expected from Fallada, the writing and story are both incredibly true to life, and make the ordinary into the extraordinary. My review is here.

The Bridesmaid’s Daughter by Nyna Giles (2018)

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This was a random find on GoodReads recommendations, and I couldn’t resist it. The author’s mother was a model in the 50s and 60s, was a bridesmaid for Grace Kelly, and ended up living in a homeless shelter. It’s a fascinating story of mothers and daughters, growing up, and being a woman. My review is here.

The Amazons by Adrienne Mayor (2014)

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I came across this book in my professional life in academic publishing, and was so pleased I decided to read it earlier this year. It’s a bit heavy-going and very detailed, but if you have the interest in women in the ancient world, it’s definitely worth it! My review is here.

I Love You Too Much by Alicia Drake (2018)

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The striking cover of this book caught my eye on social media, and I bought it soon after. It’s short and easy to read, and is one of the most engaging and moving novels I have ever read. Highly recommended! My review is here.

Jane Austen at Home by Lucy Worsley (2017)

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I reviewed this really recently, so I won’t go on too long, but if you love Jane Austen and haven’t read any other biography of her, this is a MUST. My review is here.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara (2018)

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This book got a lot of attention when it came out earlier this year, partly because it is genuinely brilliant, despite the author passing away before finishing it; and partly because the subject of the book, the Golden State Killer, was identified and arrested a couple of months after publication. Highly recommended to anyone interested in crime and investigative journalism. My review is here.

I’d love to hear if anyone has read any of these, and your opinions on them! Any related recommendations would also be awesome sauce.

Happy reading!

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Non-Fiction, Reviews

Jane Austen at Home by Lucy Worsley (2017)

I bought my copy of Jane Austen at Home while on holiday in Devon, when I ran out of reading material (first time in my life that I only packed one book, silly me). I ended up reading it mostly after the holiday, but starting it in picturesque Devon only added to my joy at reading such a lovely book.

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For lovely it is. Lucy Worsley has a wonderfully easy writing style that is great to read, with her personality coming through nicely at certain points, though not overpoweringly. Her academic background means that she covers her subject comprehensively, as well as proclaiming herself a ‘Janeite’ and including all the small details of Jane Austen’s life that make this book so enjoyable.

I have long been a fan of Austen’s novels, but knew relatively little about her life before reading Jane Austen at Home – so it was wonderful to learn more about her. One thing I particularly liked was the way the Worsley related events and circumstances in Jane’s life to similar examples in her novels. This was peppered throughout, always reminding us of Jane’s work and its roots in social realism. We see that Jane was a keen observer of life and preserved so much of it in her work; but also that she put quite a lot of herself and those closest to her into her characters, and this only serves to make them more real and relatable. As a lover of Persuasion, I adored exploring how Jane’s own experiences and feelings informed her creation of Anne Elliot, and her story.

The premise of the book, and the reason for at Home in the title, is that Worsley sets out to tell Jane’s story through the places she lived, “[showing] us how and why she lived as she did, examining the places and spaces that mattered to her.” This is wonderfully executed as we follow Jane through her various homes (there were many), as well as her visits to relatives and holidays to the coast.

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Jane’s first home, Steventon Rectory (image: janeausten.co.uk)

Worsley also explores the importance of home to women of the Georgian period more generally, using Jane as a starting point but also using the examples of her friends and relatives. Unmarried women like Jane had no real control over where they lived and were at the mercy of their male relatives, and so they made their homes their own through the small spaces they could claim. Jane shared a bedroom with her sister Cassandra, and in some homes they also had their own little drawing room, which Jane seems to have really cherished. Worsley also explores how women would express themselves through their home-based work, like crafts and music. Writing was of course a key way in which Jane expressed and asserted herself, in her novels but also in poems and letters. I loved Worsley’s examination of how important letter-writing was, not just as a means of communication and connection, but also as a way of really expressing the inner lives of the women who wrote them.

As Jane’s readers will know, she was excellent at what Worsley calls ‘double speak’ – saying one thing, that seemed rather plain, but really meaning something else, or something more, that was much more interesting. In this way Jane used her letters to express her real feelings and opinions that she might not feel able to say outright. Worsley highlights the fact that letters were often read aloud to the household, and one didn’t want something private shared openly, and so this double speak was used to imply hidden meanings. This all adds to the distinct impression that Jane and many of the women she knew were full of deep emotions and strong opinions that were hidden beneath their ‘perfect’ exteriors.

In relating Jane’s life to her novels, this book really shows how life was slowly changing and expanding for women in the Georgian and Regency eras. Worsley presents the time and context of Jane’s books, as well as the novels themselves, as a sort of stepping stone on the way to women’s emancipation and freedom. They depicted life as it really was, and showed readers that women were ready to take more power, to express and assert themselves, and to be heard.

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Jane’s portable writing desk (image: bl.co.uk, © British Library)

One particular strength in this book is Worsley’s dedication to dismantling the often negative preconceptions about Jane – that her life was ‘without consequence’, that she was an ‘old maid’, that she was boring and lived a boring life. Many of Jane’s relatives glossed over the more interesting parts of her story in their telling, and Worsley uncovers all of these inaccuracies. She demonstrates Jane’s sense of humour, irony, and sarcasm, and explores her love life over the years. Jane received several marriage proposals, and apparently loved to flirt at dances and parties – far from the image we sometimes get of an old spinster with no romantic prospects. Rather, we see that Jane simply did not want to marry someone she didn’t love; she wanted a home, a family, just like anyone else, but she was particular, and not willing to settle for someone who did not really make her happy. This is another reason I hugely admire Jane.

I really could waffle on about how much I love Jane Austen, and how much I loved this book. It is an exploration of her life, but also of women in her time, and their experiences. We learn about their domestic daily lives, their place in both the home and wider society, and the ways in which they took control. Jane Austen at Home really gives us a sense of Jane’s personality and her experience of life, and how this often directly influenced the novels that we love. For me, it is one of the best biographies I have read, and I shall recommend it to everyone. I only wish I could read it again for the first time; instead, I plan to visit Jane’s home at Chawton Cottage this weekend, where she wrote many of her books, and hope that I can follow in her footsteps.

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Jane’s penultimate home, Chawton Cottage, which is now the Jane Austen House Museum (image: visitwinchester.co.uk)

*

First published in 2017 by Hodder & Stoughton. I read the 2018 Hodder paperback, pictured above.

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Non-Fiction, Reviews

Joan: The Remarkable Life of Joan Leigh Fermor by Simon Fenwick (2017)

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(Image: goodreads.com)

I honestly didn’t know much about Joan Leigh Fermor when I asked for this book for Christmas last year, but I knew a little about her travel writer husband Paddy,  and the blurb intrigued me. I decided to take the book in holiday with me to Devon, where I read it in two days, mostly while sitting in a cafe overlooking a beach, and on a sun lounger outside our holiday cottage. Bliss!

In his introduction Simon Fenwick reminds his readers that he is primarily an archivist, and his author bio states that he has worked on/in the archives of Paddy Leigh Fermor. Reading the book, you can see his archival skills coming out as he meticulously details documents and diaries, and he reproduces a lot of letters. This was great in terms of accuracy, but after a while I found it a bit list-like and too literal. Fenwick goes into a huge amount of detail about social events from Joan’s one surviving pocket diary, to the point where you feel that you aren’t learning anything real about Joan, just about her calendar.

Fenwick tells us an awful lot about Joan’s social circle, which included the likes of Cyril Connolly and John Betjeman – which is interesting in that you get an idea of her social world and contemporaries, but I felt that there was too much detail about these other people and their lives in ways that were not always relevant to the story of Joan’s life. In a similar vein, the book begins with a little history lesson about some of Joan’s ancestors, which while interesting was totally irrelevant. The second chapter, titled ‘Growing Up’, is also more about Joan’s brother Graham’s time at Oxford than about her; towards the end of the chapter there is a bit about her and her sister’s experience at their boarding school, and a brief mention of her social debut and visit to Buckingham Palace. This is described as a moment she has been waiting for her whole life, and yet it is only mentioned briefly. I didn’t feel like I got a real sense of Joan’s childhood or what it was like for her growing up.

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A happy young Joan (image: patrickleighfermor.org)

As the book, and time, progresses, we learn more about Joan’s own life, and a little about her career as a photographer. This was seen as a suitable career for a woman, and it was one that Joan could do with her small amount of formal education. She was obviously sharp and intelligent and clearly would have benefitted from a chance to extend her schooling and go to university. I got the impression that she did the best she could with what’s she had, and wasn’t willing to settle into a domestic life straight away. She travelled for a job and this lead her to a desire to live abroad – something she shared with her eventual partner and husband, Paddy Leigh Fermor. I enjoyed hearing about their life together, even though they spent a lot of time apart as Paddy travelled and wrote in various locations. Fenwick reproduces a lot of their letters and highlights their adoration for each other, only later dropping in that Paddy had a lot of affairs throughout their early relationship, and maybe later. Once Joan meets Paddy, it becomes even more clear that the author is an expert on Paddy rather than Joan. At times I felt like I was learning more about him than her, and I didn’t get a real sense of Joan’s experiences.

This was my feeling throughout most of the book to be honest – I got the outline of the movements of Joan’s life, and the people around her. At times I felt like Fenwick was trying to tell the story of Joan’s life by talking about about everything and everyone around her, rather than the woman herself. He admits that she left a very small personal archive, but still the book feels a bit blank, like there isn’t enough material to go on. There was too much detail and at the same time not enough. It felt a little unbalanced. In my most disappointed moments, I thought that you could tell that this is the first biography that Fenwick has written, and that his career as an archivist means that he presents the evidence well, but doesn’t really go beyond that. So, I was rather disappointed overall, which was a shame, as I could tell that Joan Leigh Fermor was a brave and interesting woman who deserves for her life story to be told.

*

Published in 2017 by Macmillan. I read the hardback edition pictured above.

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Non-Fiction, Reviews

Once We Were Sisters by Sheila Kohler (2017)

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Like the last book I read, I found Once We Were Sisters through my GoodReads recommendations. I had never heard of Sheila Kohler but soon discovered that she is well-established writer of fiction, and this is her first memoir. It centres around her relationship with her older sister Maxine, and the devastation of Maxine’s sudden death at the age of 39. Having an older sister of my own, I knew I would be able to relate to their relationship in some way, and the premise intrigued me. More intriguing still is the fact that Maxine died when her husband veered their car off the road; she died, but he lived. Sheila wonders how this could have happened, and in the prologue poses her questions immediately following her sister’s death:

How could we have failed to protect her from him? What was wrong with our family? Was it our mother? Our father? Was it our nature, the way we were made, our genes, what we had inherited? Or, more terrible still, is there no answer to such a question? Was it just chance, fate, our stars, our destiny? It was not as if we did not see this coming. What held us back from taking action, from hiring a bodyguard for her? Was it the misogyny inherent in the colonial and racist society in the South Africa of the time? Was it the Anglican Church school where she and I prayed  daily that we might forgive even the most egregious sin? Was it the way women were considered in South Africa and in the world at large?

I am still looking for the answers.

This is quite a setup, and I was instantly drawn in.

The book skips about in time, with some chapters covering Sheila and Maxine’s childhood in South Africa, and the rest telling various stories from across their lives. There is very little mention of the years, and only the occasional mention of their ages, and so at times I was a little muddled about which period we were visiting in which chapter; it doesn’t help that both sisters travelled a lot, and lived abroad at various points. Towards the end of the book, when Maxine’s death is discussed in more detail, the timeline becomes more linear and we see how Sheila dealt with her grief and managed to continue on with her life.

There are some wonderful sections musing on the nature of sisterhood, of mothers and fathers, of marriage; both sisters have ultimately troubled marriages, and Sheila wonders why they both chose men that “have almost destroyed who we are.” I particularly enjoyed the memories of their mother with her two sisters, sitting together talking and knitting, weaving stories; likewise Sheila and Maxine playing games and wandering around the grounds of their huge childhood home in South Africa; and their times together in France and Italy, really getting to talk and escape their daily lives.

They are both weighed down by children, and as we learn, Maxine’s husband becomes violent towards both her and their children, and her life becomes increasingly difficult. As the above quote implies, while there is sympathy and comfort for Maxine from Sheila and their family, none of them step in to protect her from her husband, Carl, or offer her anything more than temporary respite. More than once, when Maxine does not want to return home from a trip, Sheila reminds her that she must get back to her children. Leaving Carl is never suggested as an option for Maxine, as it might be today, even when she reveals that he was caught trying to molest a child. Although Maxine has six healthy children, being a mother and wife is the end of her in more ways than one.

Sheila’s troubled marriage is blighted by infidelity rather than violence, and becomes perhaps even more difficult when her husband does not want to end their marriage, despite his affairs, and they continue on together in disharmony. His reasons for this are not explained beyond his declaration of continuing love for Sheila, but one suspects that the weight of tradition and obligation are a factor – likewise for Sheila, as she does not express a desire to leave him at this point. Instead she seethes with rage and betrayal, becoming obsessed with the idea of his lover, and even going to his mother for support. Of course it turns out that his mother is also speaking to him, and playing them off against each other.

A lot of this book is about mothers, and being a woman in a particular time and place, and the expectations society can place on women. Sheila and Maxine, as well as their mother and mothers-in-law, all seem to be trapped by their lives in some way, while the men live more or less as they choose. None of them seem especially happy except when they are purposefully escaping on holiday, or into drinking. Even as children there is a certain gloom over the two sisters – which may or may not be due to Sheila’s knowledge of their fate, woven into the writing.

I enjoyed Once We Were Sisters, but for me the book lacked coherence as a whole. The moves through time seemed a bit random, rather than a carefully constructed timeline, and the sparse writing, though lovely, made the whole thing feel a little out of reach, a little unreal and dreamy. Though I suppose this is how memories sometimes feel, especially if they are wrapped in sadness and grief. The book ends on a vague note, after Sheila has explored her anger and grief, her desire for revenge against her brother-in-law, dissipated over time. She reflects on her sister’s life, and her life as it is now, but does not really draw any conclusions. Instead we are left with the pain of her memories of her sister as a perfect child, and she comes to accept “that she, so lively and lovely, could be dead.”

*

Published by Penguin and Canongate in 2017. I read the Canongate paperback, pictured above (image via goodreads.com).

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Non-Fiction, Reviews

The Bridesmaid’s Daughter by Nyna Giles (2018)

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(image: goodreads.com)

I discovered this book through the wonder that is GoodReads recommendations, which are surprisingly good at times. I have found a number of unknown-to-me books this way that I ended up loving. I’ve been on a non-fiction kick recently, and have always loved reading unusual or off-beat memoirs, especially by women. The Bridesmaid’s Daughter has the perfect combination of mother/daughter relationships, New York in the 1940s and 50s, Grace Kelly, and what promised to be a fascinating life story. I couldn’t resist.

The outline is that Nyna Giles’ mother, Carolyn, came to New York in the late 1940s to become a model, and she was neighbours with Grace Kelly in the Barbizon Hotel, which was a hotel specifically for young women who lived alone in New York. It was run almost like a big university dormitory or boarding school, with a curfew, no men allowed, single rooms, and shared communal spaces. Carolyn was a model, Grace was an actress, and they became fast friends; as the title states, Carolyn was a bridesmaid at Grace’s wedding to Prince Rainier of Monaco in 1956. The book effortlessly blends the story of Carolyn in New York with episodes from Nyna’s childhood, allowing the reader to get a sense of Carolyn’s life from different angles at the same time. As we see her rising to fame to New York with her modelling, we also see her later in life, married and living on Long Island, struggling with motherhood.

We learn from the blurb, and quite early in the book, that when Nyna was a child her mother often kept her home from school, saying she was too ill. There were various doctors over the years who either agreed or disagreed, and in her research Nyna found many letters and reports from the school despairing at her absence and begging her mother to meet with them. As the book goes on and Nyna gets older, she realises that sometimes she is not ill, or she only has a minor medical issue, like a cold, but her mother insists she is too ill and weak to go to school, or to have home tutoring. We also hear about Nyna’s two older sisters, and her father, and her parents’ troubled marriage. This story grows alongside that of the young Carolyn finding success, meeting her husband, travelling to Monaco for Grace’s wedding, and getting married herself. Eventually the two stories meet somewhere in the middle and we get the full picture of Carolyn’s life.

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Carolyn with her three daughters; Nyna is the baby. (image: refinery29.uk)

Reading about Nyna’s side of things, you realise that something was not quite right with Carolyn once she was older and had children. She is clearly neurotic about Nyna’s health, and is unhappy is her marriage, but still she seems off balance. At one point Nyna recalls her mother tearing down her beloved posters because she thought she could hears noises in the walls. The subtitle gives away the fact that by the time Nyna was an adult, with her own children, Carolyn was sleeping in a homeless shelter in New York; this book attempts to explain how she went from the glamour and success of her young life, to the shelter. As the two timelines of her lift come together, we begin to see how fragile Carolyn’s mental health was, and how this affected not only her but her children as well, and how things worsened over time. The sudden deaths of Nyna’s older sister Robin, and of Grace Kelly, obviously had a devastating effect on Carolyn as well.

Looking back, Nyna explores how difficult it was to get any help or treatment for mental health issues in the 1960s and the decades afterwards. At one point Carolyn starts to see a psychiatrist, but Nyna’s father disapproves and makes her stop when she won’t go to a doctor he has chosen; Nyna reflects on several instances like this when help was possible, but Carolyn was either thwarted or did not pursue it. Once you get about two thirds of the way through the book, you realise that Carolyn’s mental health was the point of the story all along, and why Nyna chose certain episodes about which to write. Grace Kelly is at first a fun addition to Carolyn’s story, adding glamour and a connection to the wider world that Carolyn experiences; she also introduces Carolyn to her husband Malcolm, Nyna’s father. As the timeline progresses, especially after Grace gets married and moves to Monaco, she is not quite so present, but serves as a rough parallel to Carolyn’s life, and how different their lives ended up being – although Nyna does see a similarity in that both of them essentially gave up their careers for marriage and children, for better or worse.

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Grace Kelly’s wedding; Carolyn is on the far left. (image: blog.hellomagazine.com)

Before I started The Bridesmaid’s Daughter I worried that there might be too much of a focus of Grace Kelly, or that it would be clunky, but it was actually executed very well. She exists as a symbol of Carolyn’s past, and something to aspire to. Nyna Giles is writing about her own mother, and so she is the focus, and the whole story is handled very sensitively and empathetically. Perhaps because I’m a woman, I find mother/daughter relationships fascinating, and the ones in this book were no exception (we also hear a bit about Grace and Carolyn’s parents, as well as Nyna’s two sisters). Personally I really enjoyed this book – I read it in only two days – and would recommend it to anyone interested in these kind of memoirs, as well as the 20th century history. It is elegantly written by Giles, with the help of co-writer Eve Claxton, and is honestly just a really fascinating story. Another win for GoodReads recommendations!

*

Published in 2018 by September Publishing in the UK, and St Martin’s Press in the US. I read the September paperback, pictured above.

There is a lovely website about the book here, including galleries of Carolyn’s modelling days. Nyna Giles has also shared a lot of great images on her Instagram here.

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Non-Fiction, Reviews

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara (2018)

As soon as I heard about this book I wanted to read it. It was published in February 2018, and just two months later its subject, the Golden State Killer, was finally captured. His first recorded attack was in 1974, and he had finally been identified and caught. It was a big moment for all involved, to say the least, and I had to know more.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer is a brilliant mix of reportage and the author’s account of her own experience trying to identify this man. By the end we feel that we know Michelle McNamara as if she had been talking to us the whole time.

The Golden State Killer case was, as the title states, her obsession and it filled her life for several years. In Michelle’s writing as well as the afterword and the section completed by her colleagues, we see that she worked tirelessly to acquire huge amounts of information relevant to the case, however tangentially, and that she was nothing if not thorough in her research. I am in awe of her dedication and attention to detail.

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It becomes clear throughout the book that Michelle’s interest in the case is driven not only by her interest in its subject (and his unknowableness) but also by her sincere desire for his victims to be honoured, and for him to pay for his crimes. She had a deep interest in true crime cases (as documented on her blog True Crime Diary), but this was the one that she devoted the most time to, and the one she will be remembered by. Michelle passed away in 2016, before she could finish I’ll Be Gone in the Dark. 

Luckily, two of Michelle’s colleagues in her investigation were able to go through her files and write a concluding section for the book. This section, Part Three, is therefore lacking Michelle’s engaging writing style, and her personal touch, but it in still incredibly detailed and demonstrates the level of work that went into this amateur investigation – and how closely it ran alongside and often intersected with the official police work. Michelle was often in touch with several investigators and shared evidence with them, working together to solve this mammoth case.

It is heartbreaking to know that Michelle did not live to see the case solved; but it is gratifying to know that her dedication and incredible hard work obviously contributed to it being solved. In Part Three, Michelle’s colleagues discuss how she and other investigators (both professional and amateur) were using the killer’s DNA profile to look for matches on genealogy websites such as Ancestry and 23andMe. We now know that this exact method, looking up possible matches to his DNA and then following the family tree to a possible suspect, was successfully used on the website GEDMatch to identify the man who had been haunting California for 44 years. After reading I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, it is even more amazing to learn this, and to see the coverage of the arrest, and the court dates so far, and to learn more about this man. Plenty of people involved in or connected with the case are sharing their stories, and you can feel the relief – and how angry they still are. Even if a killer is captured, the anger and sadness don’t necessarily go away.

I would honestly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in true crime, but also anyone who likes thrillers and crime fiction. Michelle McNamara’s writing and storytelling is as gripping and engaging as the best thriller and crime fiction writers. I read her book in four days and wish she would have been able to write more.

Now that the Golden State Killer (aka the East Area Rapist or the Original Night Stalker) has been identified and caught, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is a more redemptive story than it would have been otherwise. Even though he is older now, in his 70s, wearing a prison jumpsuit, behind bars or in handcuffs, it is still terrifying to look into the eyes of Joseph James DeAngelo and remember all the terrible things he has done. Reading this book, you realise the darkness that can live inside people, that pain and fear can be twisted into motivation to attack, to rape, bludgeon, and kill. It is hard to think about. For while we are fascinated and gripped by I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, we must remember the pain he caused, and the suffering of these people. Michelle McNamara helped to solve the puzzle that lead to his capture, and for that we are all grateful.

*

Published in 2018 by Harper and Faber & Faber. I read the F&F paperback edition, pictured above.

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Non-Fiction, Reviews

Where I Was From by Joan Didion (2003)

A disclaimer: I did not manage to finish this book, even though it’s not very long. I love Joan Didion’s journalistic writing, as well as the two other memoirs of hers that I have read (The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights), but I just could not get on with Where I Was From.

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It is a memoir, about Didion, but mostly it is about California. The book begins with some of Didion’s family history, going back to her ancestors who migrated from the east of the US over to California. I liked this part. But quickly the book becomes more and more about California, and less and less about Didion. I found myself just switching off during chapters dedicated to this landowner or that one, none of whom have any real connection to Didion apart from maybe living in the same town as one of her ancestors.

The book starts to get rather list-like as she moves through time, and I just could not engage with the material. Didion’s rather flat style of writing works perfectly when she’s writing about something interesting, so that the subject matter is the focus and you get swept along with what she is telling you. But here her style means that I was too aware of how uninterested I was in what she was actually talking about. Didion obviously did copious amounts of research as the book is very detailed, but a lot of the time I felt like I didn’t need that amount of detail. I found myself skimming over whole paragraphs.

I honestly feel bad that I didn’t get on with this book, given that I am a fan of Didion’s other writing. I think it was a combination of the book not being what I expected (I thought it was going to be a more straightforward memoir, with a bit of Californian history thrown in), my not being engaged with such niche American history, not being American, and my having a busy few weeks where I just wanted a super engaging and easy book to read. Where I Was From was just not the right book for me at the moment. Perhaps I’ll try and give it a go another time, but for now, I’m looking forward to reading more of Didion’s other work that I know I’ll get on with better.

*

Originally published in 2003 by Knopf. I read the 2004 Harper Perennial paperback (pictured above).

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Non-Fiction, Reviews

Smile Please: An Unfinished Autobiography by Jean Rhys (1979)

IMG_2701I first read Jean Rhys at university when her novel Good Morning, Midnight was on the reading list for a course about the 20th century novel. Since then she has been on my radar and I have kept most of her books on my long term TBR. I read Wide Sargasso Sea a few years ago, but apart from that I don’t know why it has taken me this long to read more of her work.

I am on a bit of a non-fiction kick at the moment, and the purchase of Smile Please was part of that. It was an obvious choice, as it was by an author I already knew I liked, who I knew had had an interesting life, plus it’s quite short and you can buy a beautiful Penguin Modern Classics edition with a picture of Jean Rhys on the front with a dog – which I did.

I would very much recommend reading the foreword to this book, written by the editor and author Diana Athill. Athill was Rhys’ editor for Wide Sargasso Sea, and also worked with her on Smile Please. Given that the book is unfinished, it certainly needs to be put in context, and Athill does this perfectly, drawing a vivid picture not only of Rhys and what it was like to work with her, but of the writing of this book specifically.

Only one section of the book could be considered finished, and that is the first, also titled “Smile Please”, about Rhys’ life in Dominica. As some readers may know, Rhys was born in Dominica and lived there until she was 16, at which time she came to England with an aunt. Rhys describes her early life episodically and with little dialogue because, as Athill describes in her foreword, she only wanted to write what she could remember accurately. This adds to the vividness of the narrative and takes us straight into the young Jean Rhys’ world. She tells us about certain events, such as having her picture taken (the origin of the title, as the photographer instructs her to smile), and when she jealously smashes a doll owned by her sister, that she wishes was hers. She also covers more general things such as her various aunts, her relationships with her parents, and what they always did on Sundays. In general Rhys paints quite a happy childhood, punctured only by feelings of social awkwardness and inadequacy, and the pain of not knowing how to act in certain situations. Like all childhoods there are moments of joy, and of pain.

The two further sections in the book are considered unfinished, although the first of these still reads very well. Athill has named it “It began to grow cold”, as Rhys never gave it a title, and it describes the first few years of her life in England, carrying straight on from the end of the previous section, where she begins her journey across the Atlantic.

Rhys had a dream of England as some sort of perfect place, and while it is not awful when she finally gets there, it is not as she imagines. This section is written much like the first, episodically, though there are fewer details and Rhys admits that she does not remember quite so much, and so clearly, as her childhood. She works as a chorus girl and tours the country with the troupe, lives in a so many different flats that you lose count, and eventually begins to drop in mentions of men and love affairs. She does not go into much detail about anyone except Jean Lenglet, who became her first husband. We begin to see the influence of her own life on her work, and indeed it is during this period that she first starts to write. Despite having a job and ‘love affairs’, and later a more serious relationship with Lenglet, Rhys still seems rootless, wandering, never having quite enough of anything and always at the mercy of landladies. She becomes disillusioned with England, and with London.

By the end of the section she and Lenglet are married, and have begun to travel in Europe with his job. Living in different cities seems to give Rhys a bit more spirit, and the section ends with the first real interest in her writing, and a mention of Ford Madox Ford, who became her mentor. We can see that her life will never be perfect, but she will be able to write, at least.

The last section is “From a Diary: at the Ropemakers’ Arms”, which is literally diary entries, and isn’t really finished work. Rhys begins the section with a note saying that these pages were written in the 1940s when she was separated from her third husband, Max Hamer, and living above a pub (The Ropemakers’ Arms) in Maidstone. It is rough and a bit random, a stream of consciousness that covers her own self-doubt, the family that own and run the pub, her rooms, her feelings about England and London, and her own existence. It is the most ‘unfinished’ part of the book, but oddly it works as a conclusion because it shows us a snapshot of her life after the events of the two earlier sections.

In Smile Please we see three distinct stages of Rhys’ life and the disparity between them, but also the similarities. In Dominica and in England, she is always somehow lost, not quite fitting in, not quite satisfied. Like the protagonist in Good Morning, Midnight, she uses several different names throughout her life, including her real name and her pen name, and this seems to exemplify her feelings of alienation and rootlessness, of being Other and never quite belonging.

In a way I liked that the unfinished nature of the book means that she does not consciously try to sum up her life and say ‘there you go’. Being unfinished, and written episodically, makes the autobiography feel more like real memories, like the way a real person would talk about their life. A life cannot be summed up so easily in words, but this book can be: an unpolished gem, essential reading for any fan of Jean Rhys.

*

Originally published by André Deutsch in 1979. I read the 2016 Penguin Modern Classics edition (pictured above).

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Non-Fiction, Reviews

Live Fast, Die Hot by Jenny Mollen (2016)

It’s a funny thing, how I came to read this book. I love Instagram – I follow people I know, bloggers, and a handful of celebrities (ok, quite a lot). One of these is the actor Busy Philipps, who I have always liked, but after following her on Instagram for over a year, I love her. I watch her Stories every day. Anyway, through her account I have also followed a few other people – like Jenny Mollen. I hadn’t actually heard of Jenny Mollen before seeing her on Instagram, but I am very glad I decided to follow her. Like Philipps she is frank and funny about life, and the trials and tribulations of family life and motherhood – and trying to retain your own sense of self amongst everything. I know that Busy Philipps is currently writing a book (which I am desperate to read!), and this lead me to discover that Jenny Mollen has published two books, the second of which is this one – Live Fast, Die Hot.

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It’s kind of a ridiculous title, but after having read the book, I can see that it works. Jenny Mollen wants to have a crazy, brilliant life, and to be beautiful and sexy forever – that seems to be the gist of it. The crux of this book is the advent of marriage and motherhood in her life, two things that she didn’t feel grown-up enough for, but that she goes for with full force, something I really admire. I quite like that throughout the book Mollen retains her childlike-ness, her feeling that she is not mature enough for her own life, that she is still a child herself. It’s endearing and relatable, and reassuring to those of us who are just entering the marriage/grown-up/possible parenthood phase of life. Really none of us feel like we know what we are doing.

I have read a couple of slightly mean reviews of this book that label Mollen and/or the book as ‘desperate’ and that this is off-putting. I disagree with this completely. She is only ‘desperate’ in the way that we all are – desperate for happiness and love, for a good life, for fulfilment and pleasure. The thing I really like about Jenny Mollen, after reading this book, is that she completely acknowledges the fact that she is neurotic and just wants approval and to feel worthy. This is felt most keenly when she discusses wanting to be loved and ‘approved of’ by her infant son, that she wants to be an amazing mother and wants him to realise that she is an amazing mother. You could read this as selfish, but I read it as a deep desire to be a better person, to be the best mother she can, to do the best for her son – to make him happy and make sure he has a good life. And to make sure that she has a good life too.

Mollen also writes a lot about her mother and her family, and readily acknowledges and discusses the neuroses and scars of her childhood and adolescence, and how these affect her life now. The thing I loved most about this aspect of the book was her unfailing sense of humour and her willingness to just keep going and embrace life. That might sound corny, but there you go.

My main point is just that I really enjoyed this memoir. It is an amazing mix of crazy stories (like the infamous Morocco trip to see the ladies that make the rugs, which is still on her Instagram if you scroll back far enough), family drama, and adjusting to marriage and motherhood. I loved that Mollen and her husband (who just happens to be Jason Biggs) seem like such a perfect pair, both as narcissistic and neurotic as each other, and both with a sense of the absurdity of life, and that you always just have to find the humour in the situation. I mean, just the fact that on Jenny’s Twitter and Instagram bios, she describes herself as “Jason Bigg’s guest” tells you something about their attitude and sense of humour. Their life seems totally nuts and totally brilliant.

Anyway, Life Fast, Die Hot was an engaging and entertaining read, and a much-needed break from the more ‘serious’ books that I always seem to read. Definitely recommended if you want some fun. Also, I recommend looking at Jenny’s website as it has links to all her stuff, including some of her excellent articles for various publications. The one about miscarriage for Cosmopolitan became the first chapter of Live Fast, Die Hot, and is definitely worth a read for its frankness and heart.

*

Published in 2016 and 2017 (paperback) by Doubleday and Anchor. I read the 2017 paperback edition, pictured above.

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Non-Fiction, Reviews

The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women Across the Ancient World by Adrienne Mayor (2016)

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(image: goodreads.com)

I saw this book at a conference last year, and it sat on my reading list for months until I received it for my birthday in January. I was a bit apprehensive about reading it as I knew it wouldn’t exactly be a light read, and the paperback is 429 pages (not counting the appendix, notes, and bibliography). But once I had a copy myself, I knew I had to just go for it, which is often the best option for long or intimidating books (for me at least).

I have been keen to read more classics stuff outside of work (where I work on classics books), but wanted to avoid feeling like I was working, which is why I chose a non-academic book like this one. It is written by a professor, and published by a university, but it is not a textbook. In the introduction the author describes it as a sort of encyclopaedia, which sort of makes sense, though it reads like a biography or history. The encyclopaedic aspect comes through in the sheer volume of information and the huge amount and range of sources that are cited, from myth, history, and archaeology.

The latter is crucial to Mayor’s argument that there really were women who were like the mythical Amazons – equal to men in combat and status, riding horses, fighting and going out to battle, etc. Mayor carefully defines the difference between the Amazons of Greek myth, that we see in their art and literature, and real women across the ancient world who lived Amazon-like lives. The real women that Mayor discusses were from the lands north and east of Greece, covering what is now south-east Europe, parts of Russia, Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and over into Iran, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, and China. It is a huge area – hence the huge book.

Mayor assumes that her reader has a good base of knowledge about ancient Greek society and gender roles, and uses this as a starting point to compare the women of these various regions with women in Greece, as well as the Amazon women in Greek myths. Mayor points out that there are some classicists who theorise that the Amazons were purely something from Greek myth and not based on any real people – and she disputes this. There is plenty of historical and archaeological evidence for ‘warrior women’ in multiple tribes, peoples, and places throughout the regions mentioned, and Mayor catalogues many of this in detail. This cataloguing can get a bit overwhelming, but it’s worth the effort for the incredible stories of these warrior women and the lives they lead.

As someone who only studied classics up to A-Level, it was fascinating to learn about more of the ancient world outside of Greece and Rome. I loved hearing about these women who lived like men, rode into battle, and yet still formed families, had children, and lived full lives. Greece starts to look like the anomaly instead of the norm, with its women confined to the house for all their lives, never having any freedom or choice.

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(image: pinterest.com)

One of the most fascinating aspects of the book is the consideration of how ancient Greek people, both men and women, would relate to the warrior women of the east – whether mythical or actual. The common mythical trope was that the Greek hero and the Amazon would be more or less equal in combat, their fighting charged with potential sexual tension, but ultimately the hero would overpower and kill the Amazon. The most famous (and earliest) piece of Greek art to feature an Amazon is Exekias’ vase showing Achilles and Penthesilea at the moment that they lock eyes and fall in love, exactly as his spear enters her chest and he kills her (see right). Penthesilea was a mythical Amazon queen who led her band of female warriors to Troy to help defend the city against the invading Greeks. They managed to kill plenty of soldiers until Achilles and his band of men attacked, and the women were all killed. The story was immortalised by Exekias, and the Greeks loved this interplay of sex and death on the battlefield, in the Greeks’ most famous victory over their eastern neighbours.

The Greeks seemed to have a weird fixation on Amazons as ‘wild’ women who must be overpowered by heroes; they held a certain fascination as both ‘manly’ and strangely alluring. Mayor details several Greek myths in which the sexual tension between the Greek hero and the Amazon is a very important factor, included in all versions. This fascination with Amazons meant they were included in huge amounts of ancient Greek art and literature.

Mayor argues that the Amazons of myth were based on real women encountered by ancient Greek travellers and historians, most famously Herodotus (I have just bought myself a copy of Tom Holland’s translation of his Histories). Having read her book, I completely agree with this. So many tribes throughout Scythia, the lands around the Black Sea, and over towards China, contained women who lived almost exactly like men – or who at least knew how to ride, shoot arrows, and fight to some degree – that it is impossible to refute the notion that mythical and legendary Amazons were based on real women.

The Amazons is a wonderful blend of mythical stories, histories, art, literature, and archaeology all being discussed and analysed, giving a broad overview of the lives of women outside Greece in the ancient world. While it is a dense and sometimes heavy-going book, it is also fascinating, engaging, and ultimately very rewarding. It is one of the most authoritative books I have read on the ancient world, and I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in the lives of women in antiquity.

*

Published by Princeton University Press in 2014 (hardback) and 2016 (paperback). I read the paperback edition, pictured above.

 

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