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.

*

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? 

*

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

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Fiction, Reviews

Emma by Jane Austen (1816)

I still have two more Jane Austen novels to read but I have wanted to read Emma for the longest, and wanted to read it the most, if that makes sense. Ever since I learned that one of my favourite films, Clueless, was loosely based on it, Emma has loomed large on my TBR. After reading Lucy Worsley’s wonderful biography of Austen recently I was spurred on to get myself a lovely Penguin English Library edition and crack on. And I am so glad I did.

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Emma is such a well-read and well-reviewed book that I can’t really review it as such – but I can heap on the praise and say that it had everything that I love about Austen’s work. There is humour, drama, irony, sarcasm, free indirect speech (when characters’ voices are incorporated into the narrative voice), layered meanings, romantic intrigue, and wonderfully real characters and emotions. Emma herself felt like a real person, so fully realised and with some elements of character that clearly came from Jane herself.

Austen famously declared that she didn’t expect readers to like Emma, and she does have flaws, but of course these dissipate as she matures and becomes more self-aware throughout the novel, and you can see she is well-intentioned; her major flaw is perhaps naivety, or arrogance, or snobbishness. But as I grew to like her more and more, I forgave her these. In the end she accepts the truth of things and is able to be happy for others, and for herself.

I think Persuasion is still my favourite of Austen’s novels, though I’d like to reread it as I haven’t visited it in years – but I completely adore Emma now as well. I know there are several TV and movie adaptations of it out there, but if anyone could recommend one that would be amazing! It’s always lovely to see Austen’s novels brought to life (except for that movie of Pride and Prejudice, which is best forgotten). Which is your favourite?

I’ve been a bit Austen-mad recently, so I am looking forward to my next few books – though I have yet to choose what to read next. As always I have too much to choose from! The current contenders are Lois the Witch by Elizabeth Gaskell, and Thérèse Desqueyroux by  François Mauriac – how to choose??

*

Emma was originally published in 1816; I read the 2012 PEL paperback, pictured above.

 

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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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Fiction, Reviews

History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund (2017)

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(image: goodreads.com)

I had vaguely heard of this book before I saw it in Waterstones – probably because it was shortlisted for the Booker in 2017. I was in Barnstaple and wandering around the bookshop, having stupidly taken only one book away on holiday with me (perhaps the first time I have ever done that), and have inevitably finished in the first two days. So we drove to the nearest Waterstones. History of Wolves was on one of the front tables, and both the the cover and the title caught my eye. I don’t pay much attention to book prizes, but the front and back of the book was also covered in praise, so I thought I’d give it a go. The premise of a lonely teenage girl, living with her parents on an ex-commune next to a lake in Minnesota appealed to me.

The girl is Linda – we learn her real name is Madeleine or Mattie, though an explanation for why she is sometimes called Linda is never given – and she is lonely and isolated, both at home and at school. You quickly realise she is incredibly independent for her age, and only relies on her parents for her home and food. She seems to do everything by and for herself. I adored this early phase of the book, as author Emily Fridlund is wonderful at setting the scene and conjuring up the Minnesota woods and countryside. There is a deep sense of place, and lovely descriptions throughout. We also get a decent sense of Linda’s character through her narration, though you feel that she is still always holding something back. She always retains an element of mystery.

Likewise there is a degree of mystery about the commune that she grew up in, and her parents involvement in it. We learn that it eventually ended when relationships broke down, but Linda seems to have happy memories of her childhood there – though she doesn’t talk about it much. She also doesn’t provide that much detail or characterisation about her parents, and this adds to the opaqueness of certain areas of her character and experience. At first I found this a little frustrating, but I think it was an intentional choice on the part of the author, to add to the isolated feeling, and Linda’s un-anchored sense of family and belonging.

Perhaps for this reason, she becomes fascinated with the family that build a house across the lake. They seem perfect at first – two parents and a little boy. In such a quiet area it is perhaps inevitable that she eventually meets the mother, Patra, while she is out with Paul, the little boy. For much of the novel that father, Leo, is away and Linda and Patra become friends. Linda takes Paul out for long walks in the woods, the place where she seems to feel most at home, and she teaches him about the plants and animals. She has a fascination with wolves that she tries to pass on to him, unsuccessfully. This all goes along for a while until we start to realise, as does Linda, that there’s something off about the way Patra talks about Leo. He seems to have all the power in the relationship, and this becomes even more clear when he returns and meets Linda. They never really get on, and Linda is oddly protective of Patra and Paul when he is around. He asks her lots of questions about belief and sense of self that she finds odd. As she spends more time with the family and becomes more invested in them, she sees that something is bubbling under the surface, something that isn’t discussed explicitly, but something that makes her uneasy. Eventually Paul seems to become ill, and Linda is concerned, but both Patra and Leo brush her off and say that he’ll be fine once he rests. They both seem on edge, and as if they aren’t telling her something.

In the background behind this main story there is also Linda’s fascination with her teacher Mr Grierson, and with Lily, one of her fellow students. We find out early on that Mr Grierson was eventually fired from the school when they discovered that in his last job he had been accused of paedophilia, and a lot of indecent images were found in his home. Despite this Linda never seems to judge or hate him, and even sends him a letter at one point. She is oddly obsessed with him, and discovers that his status as a registered sex offender means that she can see his movements around the country in the years after he leaves the school. Somewhat connected to him is her obsession with Lily, a student who accuses him of sexual harassment. For this she loses her social status and becomes something of a pariah at school. At first I couldn’t work out why Linda was so fixated on these two people, but I think it is because she feels some vague connection to them as outsiders, as people who are judged and who do not fit in. She tries to help them both in her own way, and perhaps this enables her to feel like she is doing some good, and preventing someone else from feeling as lonely and isolated as she does.

Linda is a fascinating character. As I said we never find out why she gets called Linda, and though it was a bit annoying at first I actually liked that she remains a bit of a mystery to the reader. Likewise her parents are not fully realised characters, and I came to see that this is largely because she isn’t really close to either of them, and actually questions whether they are her real parents because all the children in the commune were raised together. The failed commune is a like a symbol of how trying too hard to create an idyllic family is almost doomed to fail and implode; and Linda and her parents are what is left behind. She is obviously starved for love, affection, and a real connection with someone, and this influences her actions and her views of others. She gets fixated on people and tries to connect with them, but doesn’t really know how. When we see parts of her later adult life, she is still isolated and lonely, even when she is with other people.

History of Wolves is an odd sort of coming-of-age novel, in that Linda is trying to figure things out and make her way in the world, but I’m not sure if she is ever really successful. There isn’t any sort of satisfying conclusion to the book, and that seems to fit with Linda’s independent and uncommitted way of living, her connection only to nature and herself, and her isolation from conventional society and relationships. It’s an odd little book that I think some readers might find unsatisfying or frustrating, but I enjoyed it for the character of Linda, the beautiful and evocative settings, and the wonderful writing. An unconventional but intriguing story, like Linda herself.

*

Published in 2017 by Grove Atlantic. I read the Weidenfeld & Nicolson 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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