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‘In My Own Time: Thoughts and Afterthoughts’ by Jane Miller ****

I had not heard of Jane Miller’s In My Own Time: Thoughts and Afterthoughts, but I could not resist picking up a brand new Virago hardcover online for just a couple of pounds when placing a remaindered books order in the late autumn of 2020. Imagine my surprise when I found that this lovely collection of articles, written by a British author for an American magazine, had just five ratings and two reviews on Goodreads! I felt that it would be a title of interest to a lot of my friends and fellow readers, and had no choice but to add my own review to the very small pool in existence.

In My Own Time follows Miller’s memoir Crazy Age, which Diana Athill commented came from ‘a mind so subtle and well furnished.’ Interestingly, Miller, who has worked for many years as a teacher and Professor in London, writes that she only became a journalist when she was almost eighty years old. The columns collected here were all first published in the Chicago-based proudly Socialist magazine entitled In These Times. They have been published together here for the first time, specifically for British readers. However, I feel that a lot of the topics which Miller writes about and comments upon are relatively universal, particularly within the Western world. There is, of course, a lot of emphasis upon Britain and its politics, but the subjects here are wide-ranging. In My Own Time surely has a great appeal for a wide range of readers.

The topics of Miller’s articles, of which she has full selective control, vary greatly. She writes, amongst other things, about ‘reading Tolstoy in Russian, on Syrian refugees, on the demise of the NHS and on struggles with technology.’ She discusses class, economic inequality, the monarchy, travelling, the media, the changing use of language, education, Charles Dickens, protests… Each subject is a surprise, and most of them wonderfully feel quite unrelated in content to those which they are sandwiched between. Interviews with historian Eric Hobsbawm and Labour politician Tony Benn, both of whom Miller was greatly fond of, have been included as appendages.

Miller carries rather a charming humility throughout. Of the span of twentieth century history, she comments: ‘We grandparents were there, witnesses to it all; yet I am shaky and uncertain when it comes to change itself and not much good at remembering moments when the world spun on its axis… But more often time is marked for me by the births of babies, the deaths of my elders or the day in 1985 when I stopped smoking.’

In her preface, Miller writes about the difficulties which she sometimes faces in selecting topics for her monthly articles. She says: ‘There is often far too much in the news or in my life, not all of it suitable, though on one or two occasions I could think of nothing at all.’ In her first column for the magazine, which is included here, she reflects: ‘it seems to me now that I was announcing – perhaps a little apologetically – who I was: confessing that I was middle-class, had attended a school where I didn’t learn much, was a bit of a technophobe or technofool, and that I was awash in memories of a sort which might seem dull or incomprehensible to an American readership.’

The pieces here range from May 2011 to the start of 2016, and are arranged chronologically, which I appreciated. It seems a logical way to arrange such a book, and I enjoyed being able to follow threads of idea from one article to another. Alongside recent occurrences, there are some marvellous anecdotes sprinkled through its pages; for instance, when, in 1875, Karl Marx helped Miller’s great aunt Clara with her German homework. There are some very personal troubles here, too; she writes quite candidly about her husband’s death from cancer, and the loss which is left after his passing: ‘When someone you know and love dies you are confronted by the unique, particular shape of the hole they leave, by the utter specificity of their absence. That strange, contradictory, complicated person will never exist again.’

Miller writes with truth, and honesty. On the monarchy, for example, she writes: ‘I wish I knew quite why I should want to watch these strange people at their play and in their hats and uniforms doing what they do. I don’t know them. We’ve got almost nothing in common. They spend their days doing things I’ve never done, just as I spend mine doing things they’ve probably never done.’ Miller is an author who is very to the point, which I admired.

Miller is wonderfully scathing about the Conservative government, their misleading comments, and their utter lack of transparency. She writes the following in a column entitled ‘Bad Language’: ‘We’ve had prime ministers recently “passionately believing” things, and entirely sure that something is “the right thing to do” and “the right ting for our country”. These are weasel words, which bypass the expectation that we might be told exactly why we have gone to war, why the National Health Service will be even better once it has been privatised and reduced, why bankers must be indulged and everyone else must take it on the chin, and so on.’

In My Own Time is an important reflection on the modern world, and an excellent work of social commentary, written by an author with a great deal of wisdom and wit. Miller is an erudite person, in touch with both the modern world and the twentieth-century history which has helped to shape much of it. She also has a marvellously warm sense of humour, and I found myself chuckling at points. The pieces within In My Own Time are relatively brief, covering an average of four pages each, but without exception, they have been so well executed. I am so surprised that this wonderful book has not had a larger readership, and can only hope that more readers come to it in the near future. I also hope that another book of this kind is forthcoming.

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In Praise of the New York Times Book Review

I have been a fan of the New York Times Book Review since I first discovered it online,

book-review-emilaino-ponzi

The New York Times Book Review from November the 20th 2011

and thought I’d offer something a little different on the blog today.  I was reading a fantastic Jim Shepard review of Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body in its archives recently (find it here), and came across so many fantastic articles, which led my attention away from work for quite a while (oops…!).  I thought I’d put all of these together in the hope that you may find one or two (or perhaps all of them, as I did) of interest.

  1. Ernest Hemingway’s first short story, which he wrote at the age of ten, is found in Key West, Florida – here
  2. A review of the Broadway adaptation of ‘A Clockwork Orange’ – here
  3. ‘The Story of Louisa Alcott’s Baby Sister, and Other Characters from Literature’s Sidelines’ – here
  4. ‘An Antigone for a Time of Terror’; a review of Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire here
  5. Karl Ove Knausgaard’s ‘Visions for his Daughter’ – here
  6. ‘The Transcontinental Life of an 18th-Century Woman of Letters’; a review of The Extraordinary Life of Lady Anne Barnard by Stephen Taylor – here
  7. ‘A Guide to Graveyard Tourism’ – here
  8. A review of Difficult Women: A Memoir of Three by David Plante – here
  9. The Real Story Behind Roald Dahl’s ‘Black Charlie’ – here
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Flash Reviews: ‘Moranifesto’, ‘Cities I’ve Never Lived In’, and ‘Rapture’

Time for some more mini reviews!

 

Moranifesto by Caitlin Moran **** 9780091949051
I think Caitlin Moran is excellent, and have very much enjoyed all of her other books. I was a little surprised, then, when I saw that Moranifesto had such harsh criticism from those I know who also like her, and/or her sense of humour. I read many comments about how the material was old, and not at all relevant to today. Yes, all of the newspaper articles have been previously published – surely that is the point? It would be almost impossible to publish a book like this where everything was current, and that book would then surely be out of date in six months, or a year’s time. Catch-22.

I do read books like this from time to time; David Mitchell’s Thinking About It Only Makes It Worse… is a very enjoyable case in point. I see no issue with reading ‘out of date’ articles, particularly when, like Moran’s, they are amusing, and still relevant to a lot of the things which are going on in the world at the moment. They offer new slants, and new perspectives, and therefore make ‘old news’ seem fresher.

There were a good few laugh-out-loud moments for me here, and reading Moranifesto has reestablished that Moran is incredibly talented at what she does. I wasn’t disappointed with this, and eagerly look forward to her next release.

 

9781555977313Cities I’ve Never Lived In by Sara Majka *****
My parents very kindly found this for me in the wondrous Strand bookstore in New York, and I was so very excited to begin! This is Majka’s debut short story collection, and it is nothing short of brilliant. I was drawn in immediately. Nothing is predictable here, and elements surprise throughout. I adored the way in which each of the narrators and protagonists were so different; they each sprang to life incredibly quickly.

Cities I’ve Never Lived In is a collection about people; about displacement and disappointment. Its themes are large and well wrought – hurt, heartbreak, and loneliness prevail, but there is also a wonderful sense of hope at times too. The interconnectedness and the more mysterious touches were original, and Majka’s writing masterful. I can’t wait to get my hands on what she releases next.

 

Rapture by Carol Ann Duffy ***** 9780330433914
I purchased this as part of 2016’s Oxfam Scorching Summer Reads campaign. Duffy is one of my favourite poets, and this was a collection which I hadn’t yet had the pleasure to read. And a pleasure it is. Rapture is a series of interconnected poems about a single relationship, and the themes which Duffy encompasses are wide and surprising. A rich story weaves its way through.

As ever, her turns of phrase are beautiful, and I adored her use of nature imagery, and the way in which this was woven into the couple’s story. The poems here almost sing. They are wonderful and hopeful; sometimes bleak; always buoyant, and utterly mesmerising.

Purchase from The Book Depository

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Literary Hub

Somehow, I had never, on my trawling of the Internet for literary tidbits, come across Literary Hub, or LitHub as it is known to the Y2K generation.  Since discovering it, I have spent a wonderful few moments clicking on links, and have been rewarded with a plethora of book recommendations, bookish facts, and wonderfully insightful reviews.  I thought that I would collect together a few of my favourite pieces on their website for your enjoyment.

  1. How the New York Review of Books chooses its Reissues: The Story of Stoner (here)
  2. Celebrating National Poetry Month: Ten Must-Read Poetry Collections (here)
  3. Confessions of a Reluctant Memoirist (here)
  4. How the Literary Class System is Impoverishing Literature: On the Systemic Economic Barriers to Becoming a Writer (here)
  5. Kate Atkinson on ‘Adlestrop’ (here)
  6. Five Writers on the Poems that Make Them Cry (here)
  7. Men Explain Lolita to Me (here)
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Bookish Articles and Interviews

I very often find myself reading fascinating bookish articles and interviews, a lot of them written by authors whom I greatly admire, or featuring those whom I love.  I thought that I would group a few of these together, so that you can all read them too, should you be so inclined to.  I have found the following selection thought-provoking, and it has certainly opened my eyes to works of literature and authors whom I had not previously considered.

  1. My Hero: Lydia Davis by Ali Smith (The Guardian)
  2. Interview with Jonathan Safran Foer (The White Review)
  3. ‘Hearts Full of Sorrow’: A Review of Nicole Krauss’ Great House by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein (NY Times)
  4. ‘Ted Hughes: Man Into Fox’ by Alan Jenkins (Times Literary Supplement)
  5. Review of Mary Beard’s SPQR by Natalie Haynes (The Guardian)
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Goodbye to Goodreads

Following yesterday’s post which spoke about Goodreads’ new policies alienating a lot of their members, I have decided to leave the website altogether.  I will keep my account open, but for the time being – unless something drastically changes, which I highly doubt – I shall not be logging on.  I have made some marvellous friends on Goodreads over the years, and whilst I think leaving is a shame, I just do not enjoy visiting the website any longer.  This blog has been a marvellous fresh start, and all of my reviews and recommendations will be posted here as usual.

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Book Groups

Today marked the end of a book group which I started moderating last January over at Goodreads. Whilst I enjoyed being a moderator for the majority of that time, there came a point where I was forced to evaluate just how much time it was taking out of each and every day. The answer was a lot. I was having to spend at least an hour there daily, whether I liked it or not, and despite my putting seven more moderators in place to ease the load, the time I was spending there was not diminishing at all.

I loved the social aspect of running such a group, and being able to choose books and discuss them with a wide range of people was marvellous. I loved the diversity of the books and authors which I picked over those twenty months, which ranged from Virginia Woolf, George Orwell, Rebecca West, Dickens and Thomas Hardy to more contemporary picks – Marilynne Robinson, Amitav Ghosh, Lisa See, Louisa Young and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. We agreed on books we loved, and disagreed about many others. That, for me, was the beauty of an online book group. We were able to tell others of our thoughts and musings of different pieces, and they would be carefully considered and respectfully replied to.

Why, then, was there so much negativity when I decided to close the group? The decision had been brewing for several months before I sent a message to my fellow moderators, the majority of whom supported me wholeheartedly. I thought that the general members of the group (over 900 members by that point) would be much the same. Lots of them were absolutely lovely and detailed how much they would miss the group. One or two even said that the group was like a wonderful book which they didn’t want to end, which I felt was a delightful analogy.

With these kind thoughts, however, came much dissent. I faced a barrage of comments which detailed how ‘selfish’ and ‘inconsiderate’ I was for closing the group, and how my work there would stand for nothing when it was closed. They may be correct in this latter respect, but it was ultimately my decision, and I was surprised that they acted in such a way, if I’m honest. I still am. Evidently there was something not very nice always lurking under the kind facade of the group, and I hate to think that certain individuals have ruined the experience of moderating for me. Rather than look back on the experience as a great one which has shaped my reading for the better, I am afraid that a lot of the memories associated with the group will be bad ones.

At this juncture of my life, being the moderator of an enormous group is not a priority for me, and I thought everyone would understand that. The comments, however, have made me less likely to start another group in years to come (in fact, I am steering clear of this option entirely in consequence), and they have also made me rather dislike the general attitude of Goodreads. It seems to be a popularity contest rather than anything else at present. There is too much focus on writing scathing reviews to garner attention and ‘likes’ – far too social media for my liking, I am afraid – and not enough on that thing which I’m sure many joined Goodreads for: the discussion of books. I have had several comments on my reviews in the last few months which have told me that my opinion regarding a particular tome is ‘wrong’, and I believe that kind of attitude to be an absolutely awful one.

I will continue to use Goodreads, but only as a place in which to store my reviews and keep track of my to-read shelves. It is a real shame that the atmosphere of the website has changed almost entirely since I joined it back in 2009, and I think that such a change now, particularly with the addition of the Amazon takeover, is an irreversible one. Never again will it be an entirely happy place where each and every user is able to revel in their love of literature and the bookishness of others, and that thought makes me very sad. We had built up a community on the website over the years, and the sudden loss of that ever-present love and respect for books and others seems to have disappeared entirely.

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What the Dickens!

I have decided that I’ve read nowhere near enough classics, particularly for a student of English Literature, and my goal for the rest of the year is to remedy that. I have chosen two authors whom I am going to read a novel by every month until December – Virginia Woolf and Charles Dickens. Both are authors I love, and I know that I am likely to very much enjoy the novels which I have selected for each of these months. My Woolf and Dickens extravaganza is as follows:

September:
Hard Times by Charles Dickens
The Waves by Virginia Woolf

October:
The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens
The Years by Virginia Woolf

November:
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
Jacob’s Room by Virginia Woolf

December:
The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens
Night and Day by Virginia Woolf

I am very much looking forward to getting stuck into this project, and if anyone would like to join me, that would be marvellous.