By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept by Elizabeth Smart (1945)

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image: goodreads.com

This is one of those books that I had heard of vaguely and meant to read for ages – but for some reason didn’t. Luckily my reading lists project is getting me to read more of these sorts of books. And so I finally ordered a copy of By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept from Wordery. I read it in two sittings, partly because it’s under 200 pages, and partly because it is so intense that I couldn’t tear myself away. It is technically a prose-poem novel, kind of like The Waves, but shorter and more immediate (to me at least). It is a fictionalised telling of Elizabeth Smart’s infatuation and affair with the poet George Barker, and its devastating effect on her. The story goes that Smart fell in love with Barker just by reading his poetry, and she began to correspond with him. Eventually in 1940 she convinced him to come to the US with this wife (he had been teaching in Japan), and it was then that they began their affair. It lasted for decades and they ended up having four children together. The first of these was conceived not long after they met, and part of the book deals with Smart’s complicated feelings about being pregnant by the man she loves, but not being with him. She visits her mother and feels desperately alone. People know she is unmarried and she feels the heat of their judgemental comments and little looks.

The fact that this is a prose-poem means that the language is very ‘poetic’ but also melodramatic and very emotional. Smart feels her love for Barker with full intensity, and so the pain she experiences when they are separated is just as intense and overpowering. While pregnant, she reminds herself that the child is a permanent link to the man she cannot be with:

But O my burning baby anchors love within me, and I am consumed wherever I go, like a Saint Catherine’s wheel of torture, perpetual as the earth, and far less likely to go out.

There are so many lines in this book that I could quote here to demonstrate not only the beauty of Smart’s writing but the universal truths about love that she understands so well. She writes that “Love is strong as death.” and that she is “possessed by love and [has] no options.” Her imagery, for me, is unsurpassed. She writes a lot about the Odyssey and its characters, compares herself to Penelope waiting at home for her long-lost love. She feels her love and despair with the intensity of a Greek hero and she sees the universality in those tragic stories. She pines like Dido for Aeneas, weeping as she looks out to sea. The sea appears frequently in her imagery and similes – she often feels overwhelmed by love as if she were drowning.

But she is also overwhelmed by despair. She despairs at the intensity of her love, at the doomed nature of it, and the suffering caused to Barker’s wife. While Smart acknowledges her own suffering, she knows that Barker’s wife deserves more sympathy:

But the gentle flowers, able to die unceremoniously, remind me of her grief whose tears drown all ghosts, and though I swing in torture from the windiest hill, more angels weep for her whose devastated love runs into all the oceans of the world.

It is heartbreaking.

So I wouldn’t recommend this book if you want a light read. But By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept is a beautiful and intelligent book that reminds us of the beauty in the world, and the intense emotions that run under marriages and affairs. Yann Martel’s introduction also sums up the experience of reading the book, and the way it makes you think about life:

… therein lies the greatness of Elizabeth Smart. She takes what is yours and mine, what is everyday and everywhere, what exists in every suburb and in every flat, and makes it mythical. You’re not just Doris and Dave who live in Essex. You’re also Tristan and Isolde, Romeo and Juliet, Dante and Beatrice, Elizabeth and George – only you don’t know it, or you’ve forgotten it momentarily, or you just missed the boat (but perhaps it’s not too late to catch the next one).

I love that. It reminds us that we can all be just as worthy and special as the great heroes of love, and we can all experience those things. We can get caught up in the mundanity of everyday life, and we forget the beauty and love in our lives.

But this book also reminds us that love is never easy or simple, and often someone will get hurt, one way or another. We cannot help who, how, or when we love, and we cannot stop ourselves from loving. Smart’s book celebrates love, but also despairs at our powerless before it. We can control everything in our lives, but we cannot control love.

In a way I want to recommend this book to everyone, but I know that the overwrought and emotional style of the writing might grate on some people; you just have to give in to it in order to enjoy the book. By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept is not a book for those that like action and a quick pace, but for me it was a page-turner in its own way. It is a book for those that love language and escapism, who love to be overwhelmed and consumed by what they are reading. It is simultaneously not for everyone, and also a small masterpiece.

*

Originally published in 1945 by Editions Poetry London (Nicholson & Watson), and reprinted many times. I read the 4th Estate 2015 edition (pictured above).

Purchase from Foyles, Wordery, and Blackwell’s.

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

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

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2016 Abacus paperback edition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

Purchase from Wordery and Foyles.

 

The best books of 2015

My apologies for the mixture of photos in this post – I have lent out some of the books featured so wasn’t able to take a nice photo of them and had to find images of the covers online. Not ideal, but there you go…

 

Somehow 2015 is over, and I have naturally been thinking about all the books I’ve read this year, and which was the best, and the worst, and which ones were in between. According to GoodReads I red 34 books in 2015 (one off my target of 35!), which is less than I usually read – I blame the new, busier job I started half way through the year!

I read a couple of super dupers early in the year, namely Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan, and Tracks by Robyn Davidson. Two very different books, but I loved them both. Bonjour Tristesse is sort of a coming-of-age tale, but it’s also about love and relationships and jealousy, and it is beautifully crafted. Tracks could also be seen as a coming-of-age tale, though it is about the author finding herself in the desert, which is a bit different to a posh holiday by the sea. It is fascinating, engaging, emotional, and just brilliant. It also proves why dogs are better than people.

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One of my very favourite books this year was The Blue Tattoo by Margot Mifflin. It was a random book I heard about on Twitter, but it was just wonderful to read. It is the story of the life of Olive Oatman, who was captured by Native Americans in the 1800s and lived with them for a few years before being ‘returned’ to ‘her people’. There are many other stories like Olive’s but this is a good place to start with this genre.

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The next amazing book I read was The Mighty Dead by Adam Nicolson. I was umming and ahhing about this one, but then Carolyn’s amazing post convinced me I must read it. And it was wonderful! Even thinking about it now fills me with hope and wonder. It celebrates everything about Homer and demonstrates why The Odyssey and The Iliad are so integral to the development of Western literature, and why we should all appreciate them more.

(image: goodreads.com)
(image: goodreads.com)

Since then I’ve mostly liked the books I’ve read (with one notable exception), so I’m just going to pick out a few…

I adored Forgotten Fatherland by Ben McIntyre. It popped up in my GoodReads recommendations, and it is one of the weirdest and most brilliant books I have ever read. It tells the story of Elisabeth Nietszche (sister of the philosopher) and the Aryan colony she set up in Paraguay with her husband. They were essentially early versions of Nazis, and in later life, when she returned to Germany, Elisabeth was a friend of Hitler and his party. He even came to her funeral. It has to be read to be believed.

(image: goodreads.com)
(image: goodreads.com)

I also very much enjoyed the three Shirley Jackson books I have read this year: Hangsaman, The Haunting of Hill House, and We Have Always Lived in the Castle. They are all weird and strange and brilliant, and I loved all of them a lot. I am now on a mission to read everything Shirley Jackson ever wrote, and she has set a lot of wheels in motion in my head with my own writing. If I could be a modern-day version of her as a writer, I’d be happy. More Shirley in 2016!

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I must recommend the two books about mental health that I read this year: The Last Asylum by Barbara Taylor and Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen. The former is quite dark and a bit bleak, though with a hopeful ending, and was really fascinating. I preferred reading Girl, Interrupted as it was less matter-of-fact and more about a very personal experience. These two books work in different ways, but both are illuminating, moving, and very well-written.

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And lastly I want to mention the book I recently posted about, Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood. It is the first book of Atwood’s I have read, and I think it was a good place for me to start. This is more my kind of thing than her science fiction/fantasy novels, and I will definitely read more of her work – just not all of it. I loved Alias Grace for a lot of reasons – I loved the setting and the atmosphere, the descriptions of daily life in Victorian Canada (and learning about that country’s history), and I loved the ambiguity and nuance of Grace and her story. Read more in my recent post here.

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So there you have it! The best books I have read this year. I am looking forward to many more fantastic reads in 2016.

What have been your best books of 2015?

 

 

Oh is it Christmas?

Hello all just a quick note to say Merry Christmas!

I’ve been a bit off grid as I was away in Copenhagen until Christmas Eve and this is the first moment I have had to myself since then! Not that I’m complaining, we have had a lovely Christmas.

I recently finished After You’d Gone by Maggie O’Farrell, and I’m about to choose my next book! I also have a Best of 2015 post in the works will will appear soon…

I hope you all had an amazing Christmas and will have a very Happy New Year!

‘Sagan, Paris 1954’ by Anne Berest

On the publisher’s website, Sagan, Paris 1954 is described as am “intimate narrative” and I think that is the best way to describe it. “Intimate” because it is a deeply personal book for the author, Anne Berest, and it explores her relationship with Francoise Sagan as a reader; and “narrative” because it tells a story. It is the story of the months in 1954 that transformed Francoise Quoirez into Francoise Sagan – from teenager to literary sensation.

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2015 Gallic Books edition (image: goodreads.com)

The story itself is rather simple, in that Francoise writes a book, gets a friend to type up some copies, delivers them to publishers, one of them chooses to publish the book, etc, etc… it’s not a remarkable story. But Anne Berest makes it seem remarkable by creating vignettes from Francoise’s life and imagining how her world was changing. She talks of the ripple effect of that first novel, Bonjour Tristesse, and the ways in which it changed Francoise’s life; but she also talks a lot about her own story, and her own experiences while writing this book, to the point that some parts of it almost feel like a confessional diary for the author. She parallels Francoise’s story with her own, and pictures herself in the world of 1954 Paris. It’s an unusual combination that both succeeds and does not.

Berest muses on life and love rather a lot, and sometimes you are learning more about her than about Francoise Sagan, which was your purpose in the first place. I do honestly feel like that, having finished the book. I have not been enlightened as to how Francoise Sagan transformed her life, and what it was like to be her in 1954. Though Berest is very knowledgeable about Francoise Sagan and her life and career, I think she assumes the reader is too, and so not much concrete information is acutally related. It is more like a dreamy narrative of ‘perhaps’ and ‘maybe’, with a speculative story running through it. This book started as a requested from Francoise Sagan’s son, Denis Westhoff, that Anne Berest write a book about his mother. The book was supposed to celebrate her rather than be any sort of biography, and it does do that – Berest aims to demonstrate Sagan’s lasting effect and the ways in which she can still inspire us, along with the importance and impact of her work. This is certainly achieved, and in this way the book is wonderful. Berest’s writing is also lovely to read. But for me the book was too much about lots of in-between things, and not about anything solid. Perhaps that was the point, but it was a little effervescent and insubstantial for me. That said, I still very much enjoyed it, and I think any fan of Francoise Sagan would – just don’t expect anything groundbreaking.

*

Originally published in France by Editions Stock in 2014; I read the English translation by Heather Lloyd, published by Gallic Books in 2015.

Purchase from Foyles.

Wildflower by Drew Barrymore

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I’m not usually one for celebrity autobiographies. I think Anjelica Huston’s memoir was the first I actually read (that I can remember), and I only read that because I love Huston’s work, and the book seemed down to earth and non-sensationalist, which it was. It was a journey through a life. I decided to read Drew Barrymore’s book Wildflower because I have always liked her as an actress, and find her to be an interesting person. Also, when I read about the book it didn’t seem like a straightforward life story, more like snippets and anecdotes. I am happy to say that is largely true.

I liked a lot of things about Wildflower, but one of the major things is the structure and tone. It is not a chronological story, but more eclectic. This feels more like the natural way that memory works, and avoids a list-like description of ‘this happened, and then this…’. The stories this book tells are of different lengths and different levels of significance, but they are all about life – they are defining moments or experiences that have made an impression and are memories that stand out for Drew Barrymore, for one reason or another. She does not ‘tell all’, but shares stories and lessons she has learned. But it isn’t preachy, or her trying to give advice. It is just what she has learned, and what is important, and what matters in life. There is a lot about family, and the difference it can make to our lives. I found her discussion of parent/child relationships very interesting, with stories from both perspectives rounding out the experience. Drew Barrymore had very non-traditional parents and a very non-traditional upbringing, and you can see the impact this has made on her as she navigates her other relationships and later creates her own family. It is very sweet and heartwarming to hear her desire for stability and love, and how much she cherishes family and understands the importance of it, whether it’s good or bad.

As I said this isn’t a ‘tell all’, so while Barrymore does talk about the wilder aspects of her childhood, she makes the correct assumption that anyone reading her book probably already knows the outline of the story, and therefore doesn’t necessarily need all the nitty-gritty. She does speak about her emancipation from her parents at age fourteen, which I found amazing, as she has to tackle renting a flat and getting a job at such a young age. It sounds terrifying, but exciting. I couldn’t imagine dealing with all that at fourteen! She is very brave and determined, and I really admire this.

The tone of the book is very positive and hopeful, and although sometimes Barrymore’s style of writing can get a bit cute and chirpy (there are a lot of exclamation marks), I actually liked this because it felt like her real voice, and the way she would naturally talk and write. She isn’t a ‘writer’, so you don’t expect the writing to be perfect. Instead it is engaging, entertaining, and interesting. Drew Barrymore is a good storyteller.

I really enjoyed Wildflower. It was a nice break from my usual serious/literary stuff, and I loved that the book doesn’t try to be anything other than what it is – just like Drew Barrymore. And I love the cover!

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Published in 2015 by Virgin Books (part of Ebury and PRH).

Purchase from Foyles here.

Quick update

Just a quick update to let you all know I am a bit behind on blogging as I have just returned from a week away in France. But luckily I finished three books and started a fourth while I was away, so there will be plenty of blog posts coming up! The books I finished were: Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen; Cheerful Weather for the Wedding by Julia Strachey; and The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. I also started to read The Undergorund Man by Mick Jackson, but I haven’t read enough yet to decide what I really think of it…

Anyway, my point is that there will be some more blog posts over the coming week, so fret not.

In the meantime here’s a lovely picture I took of the Roman amphitheatre in Arles in the south of France, which I visited last week:

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Summer roundup!

It is the August bank holiday – and I think summer is over. I shed a tear, but I’m also pleased to be able to wear all my nice jumpers. Plus we’re going on holiday to France next weekend, so I can’t really complain.

It’s been a pretty good summer, with both my boyfriend and I starting new (better) jobs, getting a new house for October, and generally having a nice time. I have, of course, read a lot of books. Some good, some bad, and some that were somewhere in between…

MAY

I’m counting May as summer, as we had some really nice weather and I read quite a lot of books. First was The Helios Disaster by Linda Bostrom Knausgaard, which was sent to me by World Editions as part of their launch. I didn’t review this book as it was sent to me unsolicited, and I just did not get on with it – and yet I didn’t have enough to say about it to warrant a review. It was just an anomaly.

Next were some in-between-y books – not great but not terrible either. Hideous Creatures by S. E. Lister was one of the weirder books I’ve read, but not necessarily in a good way. It felt like maybe it was for younger readers? My review here.

2015 paperback edition
2015 paperback edition

After that came Witches: James I and the English Witch Hunts by Tracey Borman (review here), which promised a lot more than it delivered. It was nevertheless very interesting and enjoyable – just not quite enough. I’d still like to read something about this weird phase of history, perhaps something that covers both the British and American witch hunts and trials. Recommendations welcome!

2014 edition (image: goodreads.com)
2014 edition (image: goodreads.com)

I read my first Penguin Little Black Classic this summer, which was very nice – I chose The Beautifull Cassandra by Jane Austen, and it was lovely, like a little dip into Austen’s world of society and social drama. Loved it.

(image: goodreads.com)
(image: goodreads.com)

Finally in May I read two history books, one of which was a bit meh, and one of which was unbelievably amazing. A-bit-meh was The Bride of Science by Benjamin Woolley, a book I had high expectations for. It is a biography of Ada Lovelace, who I had wanted to read about for some time. She was the daughter of Lord Byron and his wife Annabella Millbanke, which is interesting enough, but she was also one of the first ever computer programmers and worked with Charles Babbage on his difference engine. So should make for a great biography right? Uh, no. Benjamin Woolley manages to make the book entirely about the people around Ada rather than Ada herself, and I got tired of this quite quickly. Sigh. My review here.

2015 Pan paperback edition (image: goodreads.com)
2015 Pan paperback edition (image: goodreads.com)

But then came…. The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters by Adam Nicolson. I was in love. I had been waiting for this book my whole life. It is simply wonderful. Just read it. My waffling blog post here.

2015 William Collins paperback edition (image: goodreads.com)
2015 William Collins paperback edition (image: goodreads.com)

JUNE

First up in June was the first of Anjelica Huston’s two memoirs, A Story Lately Told. It has a beautiful cover and is a charming, funny, and very engaging book. I reviewed alongside the second volume, read later in the summer, so I’ll link to it then, later in this post. It’s a good summer read, quite easy-going and very likeable.

Now, I quite often take the time to explore the Recommendations section of GoodReads, as the sheer quantity of stuff on there means that it usually throws up something good, or at least unexpected. My next read was both of these things, and was discovered in said Recommendations section. Forgotten Fatherland tells the story of Elisabeth Nietzsche, sister of the famous philosopher and completely bonkers. She was a complete racist and, with her equally mad racist husband, set up an Aryan colony in Paraguay which they named Nueva Germania. Really. Suffice to say I loved this book. My review here.

2013 Bloomsbury paperback edition
2013 Bloomsbury paperback edition

JULY

And next came… oh dear… the book that people will not stop talking about, for better or for worse… A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. I thought I would absolutely love it, and while I did love some parts of it, I really didn’t love others. Now that some time has passed and I’ve read other reviews etc, my feelings about it are the same really – I’m glad I read it, but I didn’t really enjoy it, and I’m not going to rave about it as one of the best books ever, which is the way that most people seem to feel about it. There are sad books, and then are just unnecessarily traumatising voyages into misery. Sorry. My post here.

Picador (UK) cover, 2015. (image: goodreads.com)
Picador (UK) cover, 2015. (image: goodreads.com)

Unsurprisingly I needed some light relief after all that trauma, so I read Watch Me by Anjelica Huston, the second instalment of her memoir. I loved this – well written and structured, genuinely interesting, and very charming and enjoyable. My blog post here covers this and the first volume, mentioned earlier.

(image: goodreads.com)
(image: goodreads.com)

And then, the last four books I read, which I have blogged about more recently: The Last Asylum by Barbara Taylor, which I loved and spoke about here in my first booktube post….

Hamish Hamilton 2014 edition (image: goodreads.com)
Hamish Hamilton 2014 edition (image: goodreads.com)

AUGUST

Then it was Confronting the Classics by Mary Beard, which was good but not excellent;

(image: profilebooks.com)
(image: profilebooks.com)

The Sense of an Elephant came next, which was a quirky mystery that I got on with quite well;

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and most recently Hangsaman by Shirley Jackson, reviewed here, which was really weird and really good. I wil definitely be reading more Shirley Jackson!

2013 PMC edition (image: goodreads.com)
2013 PMC edition (image: goodreads.com)

And of course there was the book blogger/booktube meet-up back in July, which was a fantastic day. I finally met Kirsty of The Literary Sisters, as well as lots of other lovely bloggers. We did a bookshop crawl (and I bought some books, big surprise), and had a fab day out in London. It was a bit of an adventure, and something I would definitely do again. My post about it here; this is Kirsty’s video; and posts/videos from Katie, Jordan, and Stevie. And here is Stevie’s great photo of us all, tweeted by Jen Campbell:

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So not a bad summer!!

How was your summer??

A Trip Down Memory Lane with Anjelica Huston

As a rule I rather like reading memoirs, though I must say I am picky about whose I read. I’ve read mostly literary memoirs or those about an ordinary person who had an extraordinary experience (such as Wild or The Rules of Inheritance). I don’t think I’ve ever read a memoir of a celebrity before. The phrase ‘celebrity memoir’ creates visions of cheesy covers with swily writing, with taglines promising to dish the dirt and ‘tell all’. I would never read those. But I did decide the two-volume memoir of Anjelica Huston. Partly because she isn’t some fame-hungry idiot, and also because I like her films and find her interesitng as a person; and I knew a little about her life already, so I knew it would be a good story.

The memoir is split into two parts: A Story Lately Told covers her life up to about the age of twenty, and Watch Me goes from then to now. They both have beautiful covers too, which make them look like memoirs, but not like trashy memoirs. I think they are very well measured and very effective.

(image: goodreads.com)
(image: goodreads.com)
(image: goodreads.com)
(image: goodreads.com)

I read A Story Lately Told while on holiday with friends in Devon, and it was the perfect way to escape while it rained and we were stuck indoors. Anjelica spent most of her childhood in Ireland, running around the family’s large house and grounds, and hearing exciting stories from her father’s overseas adventures in his career as a film director. Her father was John Huston, known for directing Hollywood classics such as ‘The African Queen’ and ‘The Misfits’ – and also as a bit of a womaniser and someone who did things his own way. As a result Anjelica’s childhood was often punctuated with glimpses of the drama which surrounded her father, both in his professional life and personal life. He was a ‘big personality’ and their relationship, though not always harmonious, is never boring. Anjelica’s father also led her to her career as a model and actor. Anyway. The first book is a dreamy account of an idyllic childhood in Ireland, followed by teenage adventures in London with her mother, after her parents’ divorce; then a few years in New York, and finally the beginning of Anjelica’s life in Los Angeles. It is a whirlwind of anecdotes and endless names and places, but as in both books, Anjelica Huston has a steady and calm way of narrating her story that avoids becoming too complicated or muddled, even when there is a lot going on. I found her emotionally intelligent and perceptive, with a knack for self-analysis (and analysis of others) in hindsight.

This ‘knack’ also comes in very handy in the second volume, Watch Me, which chronicles her adult life. At the end of A Story Lately Told, she has just extricated herself from an emotionally turbulent relationship with the photographer Bob Richardson (father of Terry Richardson), and Watch Me begins with the aftermath of this. This relationship is brilliantly examined and explored, and Huston adds a great sense of humanity and feeling to something that happened so long ago. Likewise her account of her relationships with Jack Nicholson and Ryan O’Neal, both of whom were challenging and brilliant in their own ways. It is fascinating to hear particularly about her relationship with Jack Nicholson, and she handles the ups and downs with dignity and sensitivity. She speaks quite personally about Nicholson, but you get the impression she is still respecting his privacy, as she protects her own, and I liked this very much. She is able to tell stories without resorting to ‘telling all’. It could so easily have descended into sensationalism, but Anjelica Huston keeps it classy, as always.

While Anjelica Huston’s story is filled with famous people, places, and events, she does not brag, or gossip, or sensationalise. She tells her story just as she experienced it, with its good times and bad times, just like anyone else’s life. Hers just happened to be quite exceptional. I liked her very much as I read, and very much enjoyed the style and tone of the books, which is relaxed and anecdotal, but not so chatty that there isn’t a clear storyline and structure. The books also aren’t that long, so they are not too demanding.

If you have the interest, and you like memoirs of interesting women, I would really recommend these two volumes. It is a life filled with excitement and adventure (and some excellent old movie recommendations) but also with the comforting mundanity of ordinariness. This isn’t groundbreaking stuff, but it is a celebration of life and the fact that it doesn’t matter if things aren’t perfect and you aren’t perfect – life can still be wonderful. That alone makes these two books worth reading.

*

Both volumes published in the UK by Simon & Schuster, and in the US by Scribner, in 2014 and 2015.

The Sense of an Elephant by Marco Missiroli (tr. Stephen Twilley)

A rare deviation from me here – I actually read and am actually reviewing an unsolicited review copy! I know, world gone mad. I usually leave these to mould on the  shelf before they get passed on to a friend/family member/charity shop, but I actually decided to give this one a go. Not least because it came to me from Picador, a publisher I like, but also because it came with a note from publicist Kate Green explaining the very sweet and quite cool little scheme that Picador have thought up to help promote the book. See:

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Pretty cool right? It’s a nice touch, and encourages sharing the book, which I like. Also, the opportunity to pass the proof to someone else who might like it – or because you don’t want to keep it. Either way I like the idea.

So, the book itself. Having liked the concept, I was happy to find I liked the book as I began to read. I think as with any translated book you’ve got to take that fact into account as you read, but regardless I thought that the prose was careful and elegant, simple but effective. We are introduced to our main character, Pietro, who has just taken a job as a concierge at a condominium (essentially a small block of flats) in Milan. He looks after the building, and, you soon realise, its residents. He is particularly interested in the Martini family, and more than once enters their flat when they are out, observing their lives and taking a bicycle bell. What is he up to?

Pietro quickly makes friends with the Martinis’ neighbour, Poppi, who proves to be a charming and wise, slightly world-weary character who is easy to like. There is also Fernando, who appears to ave some kind of autism, and his mother Viola. This cast of misfits come together as Pietro’s mystery slowly unfolds for the reader.

I have to say I liked the sense of mystery that was built up, and even when you know most of the secrets, the story is still engaging. There are odd little flashbacks to Pietro’s time as a young priest, which fit in nicely and aren’t too jarring. They of course slowly shed light on the mystery.

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About two thirds of the way through the book, things start to get a little more intense, and I found both the style of writing and the events of the story becoming more and more dreamlike. To be honest it gets a bit surreal and I wondered why certain things were happening, and why some characters were acting as they were. This developed as the book went on, and though some things were concluded nicely, others were not. This is a story that needs good conclusions, and the ending was just a bit off for me. I think I just didn’t quite get it, which is unfortunate. Maybe I need to reread it a bit and work out what the author was trying to do. But I still liked the book overall, and the ideas that were explored.

Anyway, please don’t let that put you off giving this book a go. It really is rather good, and there is a lot of intelligence and beauty inside.

*

 Originally published in Italy (2012) as Il Senso dell’Elefante by Ugo Guanda Editore. Published by Picador in the UK in September 2015. My copy was kindly provided by Picador for review.