Non-Fiction, Reviews

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

40602407

(image via goodreads.com)

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

Purchase from Foyles, Blackwell’s, and Wordery.

 

Advertisements
Standard
Non-Fiction, Reviews

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

31817301

(image: goodreads.com)

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

Purchase from Foyles, Blackwells, and Wordery.

Standard
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)

IMG_4174

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)

IMG_4175

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)

IMG_4179

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)

IMG_4176

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)

IMG_4177

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)

IMG_4178

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!

Standard
Non-Fiction, Reviews

Once We Were Sisters by Sheila Kohler (2017)

37460503

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).

Standard
Non-Fiction, Reviews

The Bridesmaid’s Daughter by Nyna Giles (2018)

38344000

(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.

image

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.

7555-a

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.

Standard
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.

IMG_2903

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).

Standard
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).

Standard
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.

IMG_2342

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.

Standard
Articles, Non-Fiction

Things I Think I Could Write a Book About

I recently tweeted about this – apologies to any of my followers for the repetition here. It’s just that I have often, in my life, thought about writing a book. I used to want to write a novel, and actually managed to write one in my late teens, though I fear it is just over-emotional crap that should not see the light of day. I have it and several other unfinished pieces of fiction saved somewhere on my hard drive, and every now then I go and look at them wistfully, wishing I had been able to finish something. I also tried to write poetry, but that’s better left alone.

Last year, at my mother’s wedding reception, we were all a bit tipsy and I got into a conversation my with mother, aunt, and cousin about what a remarkable life my grandmother led and how her story could make a brilliant book – and my mother suggested I could write it. I admitted that I had thought of this before, but I had no idea how to approach it.

My first thought, after the hangover, was to do some background reading on where she grew up, namely India in the 30s and early 40s, at which point she came over to England with her English father and her siblings. But I failed to find any books about India in the 1940s before Partition, so the whole thing stalled (if anyone can recommend anything on that period I’d be very grateful!). I reckon I should also try to read about England at that time, to get more of an idea of what it would be like to move there as a very English, and yet not English, young woman. I know that Anglo-Indians faced prejudice both in India and England.

Anyway, my point is that I think there could be a book in my grandmother’s story. And that’s only my maternal grandmother – not my father’s mother, whose family had to flee Belgium in World War 2. That’s a whole other story, and one I know very little about. Perhaps I could just write a book about previous generations not passing on their amazing stories and how annoying this is for their children and grandchildren?

Here are my other possible topics, as mentioned on Twitter:

  • anxiety
  • dogs I have loved
  • divorce
  • mothers, both mine and other people’s
  • sex/lack thereof
  • my hair

Any takers?

Standard
Articles, Fiction, Non-Fiction

On Being Stuck

I am in a sort reading quandry, and it’s why I haven’t posted in a while. If you’ve looked at my GoodReads recently (though honestly why would you) you’ll see that I am ‘currently reading’ two books – something I never do. I started Simone de Beauvoir’s Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter back at the start of October, and I am still wading through it, even though it isn’t very long. I bought it with several other gems from ladies of the 20th century, including Jean Rhys and Joan Didion, and dived right into it for fear that if I left it for a while I would just never read it. It’s one of those books – not essential or urgent, but one that I do want to read.

41TJwORJmFL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

image: amazon.co.uk

It’s not a long book but it’s very dense – small type, hardly any page breaks, and no chapters. It’s divided into a couple of massive sections, and it’s easy to get lost in them. It also doesn’t really help that the ever industrious Simone, as I have discovered her to be, does not leave out a single detail of her formative years – which in theory could be a good thing, but it means that she gets too bogged down in these details and the reader feels dragged down with her. A lot of time is spent on her brooding teenage years, with their tempestuous relationships and her musings on what she should do with her life, and what sort of person she should become. Perhaps it is not surprising, given that de Beauvoir is such a celebrated and successful philosopher, that so much of her memoir of her youth could be described as ‘navel gazing’. It is entirely self-centred to the point that it is hard to picture her every day life and how she interacts with the people around her. Instead it is like reliving those tortuous teenage years, except this time in Paris in the early 20th century. I’m about two-thirds of the way through Memoirs and I am very close to giving up altogether – though I hope I will soon feel empowered to go back to it.

I started reading Loving by Henry Green in an attempt to give myself a break from Simone, hopefully to return to her more refreshed. I first read Loving at university, for a course on the concept of time in the 20th century, and I loved it straight away (no pun intended). It was first published in 1945 but is considered a modernist work, in that it is almost entirely character-driven and is a bit experimental with language and storytelling. Most of the plot moves forward through the characters’ dialogue and there’s very little exposition, which I quite like. In that sense it feels very natural, and more like real life, where all our information comes from the communication of other people, whether verbal on non-verbal. I shall probably write a proper review of it when I have finished reading it – which hopefully won’t be in several months’ time…

That’s it for now. I will endeavour to devote more time to reading, and to blogging, both of which have been a bit neglected recently. I adore this time of year, with Christmas and a lot of birthdays, but it’s also just really fucking stressful and tiring, so at the moment I feel a bit like the picture of Simone de Beauvoir on the cover of the Penguin edition I have of her memoirs (pictured above). Hopefully I will find enough time to relax and get some serious reading done!

What do you like to do when you are stuck in a reading rut?

Standard