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One From the Archive: ‘The Path Through the Trees’ by Christopher Milne ***

First published in 2014.

The Path Through the Trees, the second volume of Christopher Milne’s autobiography, was first published in 1979, and has been recently reissued by Bello.  It starts where The Enchanted Places ‘left off’, but, the author says, this book ‘is a complement [to it].  It is about the non-Pooh part of my life.  It is an escape from Christopher Robin’. 9781447269854

In The Path Through The Trees, Milne presents what he thinks of as ‘a disjointed story – but a happy life’.  He describes the second part of his autobiography as follows: ‘So I live at the bottom of a valley.  I have a small bookshop in a small town; and I seldom venture far afield’.  In the book, his story begins at ‘the point in time when the choice stopped being theirs [his parents’] and became mine’.  It opens with the declaration of the Second World War, when he has finished at his public school and is about to go and study at Trinity College, Cambridge.

A few of the themes which were so prevalent in The Enchanted Places weave their way into The Path Through the Trees, most notably the importance of nature and Milne’s love for his natural surroundings.  The Path Through the Trees is written just as eloquently as the former, but the entirety feels far more grown up.  Milne talks about smoking for the first (and last) time, forays into politics, his joining up with the Army, discovering himself as a person, his marriage, and becoming a father.  Records from his personal diary have been copied verbatim.

Whilst the charm of the first book has not made its way into the second, The Path Through the Trees is still a most interesting read, particularly when Milne reaches his acquisition of the Harbour Bookshop in the small town of Dartmouth.  It is at this point that the book really comes into its own.

One cannot help but feel, however, that the same kind of leap between volumes of autobiography is present here as exists between Roald Dahl’s Boy and Going Solo.  The spellbinding note has been lost somewhere along the way, and sadly, a lot of it tends to read just like any other memoir.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Enchanted Places’ by Christopher Milne ****

First published in 2014.

Christopher Milne’s The Enchanted Places is one of the newest books on Bello’s thoughtful list of reprints. He was the son of A.A. Milne, and the inspiration for the darling character Christopher Robin – ‘the small boy with the long hair, smock and wellington boots’ – who shares his adventures with a cast of lively and captivating animals, including Pooh and Piglet. 9781509821891

The Enchanted Places has been written from the vantage point of the author’s mid-50s, and tells of his childhood in the ‘enchanted places’ in Sussex in which he used to play – the Hundred Acre Wood, Poohsticks Bridge and Galleon’s Lap, among others.  As well as talking of his own adventures as a young boy, Milne ‘draws a memorable portrait of his father… [in] a story told with humour and modesty’.

The Enchanted Places, first published in 1974, is the first book in Milne’s three volume autobiographical series, and deals solely with his life as a young boy.  His memoirs begin ‘somewhere around the year 1932’ in his Crotchford Farm home, a place which he and his family adored. Milne describes the reason for which he decided to write about his life as follows: ‘To some extent, then, this book is an attempt to salve my conscience; and it may perhaps be some slight consolation to all those who have written and waited in vain for a reply that this, in a sense therefore, is their reply’.

Throughout, The Enchanted Places is absolutely charming, and full of vivacity.  Milne’s descriptions are beautiful, and it is clear that he was forever full of love for both nature and life.  Rural England springs vividly to life beneath his pen.  Each chapter presents a mini essay of sorts on one subject or another, and whilst Milne’s prose style echoes his father’s, there is also something wonderfully original about it.

A.A. Milne with Christopher and Pooh Bear

Milne is a rather humble man, and comes across so nicely on the page.  He takes the reader on a journey back in time with him to encompass his nursery days, his forays into the Hundred Acre Wood, tours of his home, the discovery of his very first treehouse, and the adoration he held for his childhood nanny.  He goes on to talk of the problems which he encountered due to his immortalisation in fiction, and demonstrates how his father’s fame impacted upon him from such an early age.

The Enchanted Places is a quaint and an incredibly lovely read, and is sure to be a welcome addition to any bookshelf.  The natural settings and shyness of Milne as a young boy have been captured perfectly, and the book presents a rich treasure trove of memories, certain to enchant everyone for whom Winnie the Pooh was a part of childhood.

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The Book Trail: Wartime Memoirs

I am beginning this instalment of the Book Trail with a memoir I stumbled across, and have added right to the top of my TBR list.  As ever, I have used the tool on Goodreads entitled ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ to create this list.

1. Castles Burning: A Child’s Life in War by Magda Denes 514939
There are few figures in literature as riveting as the precocious nine-year-old Magda Denes who narrates this story. Her stubborn self-command and irrepressible awareness of the absurd make her in her mother’s eyes “impossibly sarcastic, bigmouthed, insolent, and far too smart” for her own good. When her family goes into hiding from the fascist Arrow-Cross, she is torn from the “castle” of intimacies shared with her adored and adoring older brother and plunged into a world of incomprehensible deprivation, separation, and loss. Her rage, and her ability to feel devastating sorrow and still to insist on life, will reach every reader at the core. Recounting an odyssey through the wreckage and homelessness of postwar Europe, Castles Burning embodies a powerful personality, a stunning gift for prose and storytelling, a remarkable sense of humor, and true emotional wisdom and makes a magnificent contribution to the literature of childhood and war.

 

2. Last Waltz in Vienna by George Clare
On February 26, 1938, 17-year-old Georg Klaar took his girlfriend Lisl to his first ball at the Konzerthaus. His family was proudly Austrian; they were also Jewish, and two weeks later came the German Anschluss. This incredibly affecting account of Nazi brutality towards the Jews includes a previously unpublished post-war letter from the author’s uncle to a friend who had escaped to Scotland. This moving epistle passes on the news of those who had survived and the many who had been arrested, deported, murdered, or left to die in concentration camps, and those who had been orphaned or lost their partners or children. It forms a devastating epilogue to what has been hailed as a classic of holocaust literature.

 

10430123. I Remember Nothing More: The Warsaw Children’s Hospital and the Jewish Resistance by Adina Blady-Szwajger
The author was a young Jewish doctor at the children’s hospital in the Warsaw Ghetto from 1940 to 1942. When the hospital was forced to close the children that had survived were taken to the death-camps. Blady-Szwajger became a reluctant courier for the resistance. She left the ghetto and began to carry paper money pinned into her clothing to those in hiding. She and her flat-mate pretended to be good-time girls having fun and threw parties to disguise the coming and going of their male visitors. This heroic memoir pays tribute to all the men and women who paid with their lives for the safety of others.

 

4. Edith’s Story by Edith Velmans
When Hitler invaded Holland in 1939, Edith van Hessen was a popular Dutch high school student. She also happened to be Jewish. In the same month that Anne Frank’s family went into hiding, Edith was sent to live with a courageous Protestant family, took a new name, and survived by posing as a gentile. Ultimately one-third of the hidden Dutch Jews were discovered and murdered; most of Edith’s family perished.   Velmans’s memoir is based on her teenage diaries, wartime letters, and reflections as an adult survivor. In recounting wartime events and the details of her feelings as the war runs its course, Edith’s Story ultimately affirms life, love, and extraordinary courage.

 

5. The Girls of Room 28: Friendship, Hope, and Survival in Theresienstadt by 2211263Hannelore Brenner
From 1942 to 1944, twelve thousand children passed through the Theresienstadt internment camp, near Prague, on their way to Auschwitz. Only a few hundred of them survived the war. In The Girls of Room 28, ten of these children—mothers and grandmothers today in their seventies—tell us how they did it.  The Jews deported to Theresienstadt from countries all over Europe were aware of the fate that awaited them, and they decided that it was the young people who had the best chance to survive. Keeping these adolescents alive, keeping them whole in body, mind, and spirit, became the priority. They were housed separately, in dormitory-like barracks, where they had a greater chance of staying healthy and better access to food, and where counselors (young men and women who had been teachers and youth workers) created a disciplined environment despite the surrounding horrors. The counselors also made available to the young people the talents of an amazing array of world-class artists, musicians, and playwrights–European Jews who were also on their way to Auschwitz. Under their instruction, the children produced art, poetry, and music, and they performed in theatrical productions, most notably Brundibar, the legendary “children’s opera” that celebrates the triumph of good over evil.  In the mid-1990s, German journalist Hannelore Brenner met ten of these child survivors—women in their late-seventies today, who reunite every year at a resort in the Czech Republic. Weaving her interviews with the women together with excerpts from diaries that were kept secretly during the war and samples of the art, music, and poetry created at Theresienstadt, Brenner gives us an unprecedented picture of daily life there, and of the extraordinary strength, sacrifice, and indomitable will that combined—in the girls and in their caretakers—to make survival possible.

 

6. Playing for Time by Fania Fenelon
In 1943, Fania Fenelon was a Paris cabaret singer, a secret member of the Resistance, and a Jew. Captured by the Nazis, she was sent to Auschwitz where she became one of the legendary orchestra girls who used music to survive the Holocaust. This is her personal account of the experience.

 

12520997. The Story of a Life by Aharon Appelfeld
In spare, haunting, almost hallucinogenic prose, the internationally acclaimed, award-winning novelist shares with us–for the first time–the story of his own extraordinary survival and rebirth.  Aharon Appelfeld’s childhood ended when he was seven years old. The Nazis occupied Czernowitz in 1941, penned the Jews into a ghetto, and, a few months later, sent whoever had not been shot or starved to death on a forced march across the Ukraine to a labor camp. As men, women, and children fall away around them, Aharon and his father (his mother was killed in the early days of the occupation) miraculously survive, and Aharon, even more miraculously, escapes from the camp shortly after he arrives there.  The next few years of Aharon’s life are both harrowing and heartrending: he hides, alone, in the Ukrainian forests from peasants who are only too happy to turn Jewish children over to the Nazis; he has the presence of mind to pass himself off as an orphaned gentile when he emerges from the forest to seek work; and, at war’s end, he joins the stream of refugees as they cross Europe on their way to displaced persons’ camps that have been set up for the survivors. He observes the full range of personalities in the camps–exploitation exists side by side with compassion–until he manages to get on a ship bound for Palestine. Once there, Aharon attempts to build a new life while struggling to retain the barely remembered fragments of his old life (everyone urges him simply to forget what he had experienced), and he takes his first, tentative steps as a writer. As he begins to receive national attention, Aharon realizes his life’s calling: to bear witness to the unfathomable. In this unforgettable work of memory, Aharon Appelfeld offers personal glimpses into the experiences that resonate throughout his fiction.

 

8. Shanghai Diary by Ursula Bacon
By the late 1930s, Europe sat on the brink of a world war. As the holocaust approached, many Jewish families in Germany fled to one of the only open ports available to them: Shanghai. Once called “the armpit of the world,” Shanghai ultimately served as the last resort for tens of thousands of Jews desperate to escape Hitler’s “Final Solution.” Against this backdrop, 11-year-old Ursula Bacon and her family made the difficult 8,000-mile voyage to Shanghai, with its promise of safety. But instead of a storybook China, they found overcrowded streets teeming with peddlers, beggars, opium dens, and prostitutes. Amid these abysmal conditions, Ursula learned of her own resourcefulness and found within herself the fierce determination to survive.

 

Have you read any of these?  Which interest you?

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The Book Trail: From Penelope Lively to Elie Wiesel

I am beginning this Book Trail post with a memoir which I read as part of my Around the World in 80 Books challenge, and which I very much enjoyed.  As ever, I have used the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool on Goodreads in order to generate this list.

1. Oleander, Jacaranda: A Childhood Perceived by Penelope Lively 9780141188324
This autobiography is about growing up in Egypt. It is also an investigation into childhood perception in which the author uses herself and her memories as an insight into how children see and know. It is a look at Eygpt up to, and including, World War II from a small girl’s point of view, which is also, ultimately, a moving and rather sad picture of an isolated and lonely little girl.

 

2. The Italics are Mine by Nina Berberova
This is the autobiography of Nina Berberova, who was born in St Petersburg in 1901, the only child of an Armenian father and a North Russian mother. After the Revolution, and the persecution of intellectuals which followed, she was forced to flee to Paris, where she was to remain for 25 years. There she formed part of a group of literary Russian emigres that included Gorky, Bunin, Svetaeva, Nabokov and Akhmatova, and earned a precarious living as a journalist, barely surviving the hardship and poverty of exile. In 1950 she left France for the United States to begin a new life with no money and no knowledge of English. She is now a retired Professor of Russian Literature at Princeton, and has belatedly been acclaimed for the short novels she wrote in the 1930s and ’40s.

 

251472953. Zoo or Letters Not About Love by Victor Shklovsky
While living in exile in Berlin, the formidable literary critic Viktor Shklovsky fell in love with Elsa Triolet. He fell into the habit of sending Elsa several letters a day, a situation she accepted under one condition: he was forbidden to write about love. Zoo, or Letters Not about Love is an epistolary novel born of this constraint, and although the brilliant and playful letters contained here cover everything from observations about contemporary German and Russian life to theories of art and literature, nonetheless every one of them is indirectly dedicated to the one topic they are all required to avoid: their author’s own unrequited love.

 

4. The Shutter of Snow by Emily Holmes Coleman
In a prose form as startling as its content, “The Shutter of Snow” portrays the post-partum psychosis of Marthe Gail, who after giving birth to her son, is committed to an insane asylum. Believing herself to be God, she maneuvers through an institutional world that is both sad and terrifying, echoing the worlds of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “The Snake Pit.”  Based upon the author’s own experience after the birth of her son in 1924, “The Shutter of Snow” retains all the energy it had when first published in 1930.

 

5. Vain Art of the Fugue by Dumitru Tepeneag 759968
Clutching a bouquet of flowers, hurrying to catch his bus, and arguing with the driver once he’s on, a man rushes to a train station platform to meet a woman. This sequence of events occurs and recurs in remarkably different variations in Vain Art of the Fugue.  In one version, the bus driver ignores the traffic signals and is killed in the ensuing crash. In another, the protagonist is thrown off the bus, and as he chases after it, a crowd of strangers joins him in the pursuit.  As the book unfolds, the protagonist, his lovers, and the people he meets become increasingly vivid and complex figures in the crowded Bucharest cityscape. Themes, conflicts, and characters interweave and overlap, creating a book that is at once chaotic and perfectly composed.

 

6. Blindsight by Maurice Gee
Alice Ferry lives in Wellington, and keeps an eye on her brother, though he doesn’t know it. Alice as narrator begins telling us the story from their childhood, but there are things she’s hiding.  When a young man shows up on her doorstep, claiming to be her brother Gordon’s grandson, things get complicated.

 

48109717. Little Fingers by Filip Florian
In a little town in Romania, a mass grave is discovered near the excavations of a Roman fort. Are the dead the victims of a medieval plague or, perhaps, of a Communist firing squad? And why are finger bones disappearing from the pit each night? Petrus, a young archaeologist, decides to do some investigating of his own.   Meanwhile, an Orthodox monk in the surrounding mountains stumbles into history when he becomes the father confessor of a partisan bent on bringing down the government, one handmade grenade and one derailed train at a time. Not to mention a team of Argentinean forensic anthropologists who arrive in town in a cloud of rock music, shredded jeans, and tequila.   Florian has packed real history, a religious pilgrimage, a criminal investigation, a recipe for roast pigeon, and a love story into two hundred truly remarkable pages.

 

8. The Time of the Uprooted by Elie Wiesel
Gamaliel Friedman is only a child when his family flees Czechoslovakia in 1939 for the relative safety of Hungary. For him, it will be the beginning of a life of rootlessness, disguise, and longing. Five years later, in desperation, Gamaliel’s parents entrust him to a young Christian cabaret singer named Ilonka. With his Jewish identity hidden, he survives the war, but in 1956, to escape the stranglehold of communism, he leaves Budapest after painfully parting with Ilonka.  He settles in Vienna, then Paris, and finally, after a failed marriage, in New York, where he works as a ghostwriter, living through the lives of others. Eventually, he falls in with a group of exiles: a Spanish Civil War veteran, a survivor of the Warsaw ghetto, a victim of Stalinism, a former Israeli intelligence agent, and a rabbi—a mystic whose belief in the potential for grace in everyday life powerfully counters Gamaliel’s feelings of loss and dispossession. When Gamaliel is asked to help draw out an elderly, disfigured Hungarian woman who is barely able to communicate but who may be his beloved Ilonka, he begins to understand that a real life in the present is possible only if he will reconcile with his past.

 

Which of these books have you read?  Have any been added to your list?

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‘Oleander, Jacaranda: A Childhood Perceived’ by Penelope Lively ****

I have been wanting to read Penelope Lively’s childhood memoir, Oleander, Jacaranda, for such a long time, and it was thus one of my first choices on my Around the World in 80 Books challenge list.  I have read and enjoyed several of Lively’s novels in the past, and was keen to learn about the woman herself.  Where better to start than with her own memories of her childhood, lived in comfort in Egypt in the 1930s and 1940s?

9780141188324Almost every review on the Penguin paperback edition which I purchased spoke of how ’emotive’ Lively’s memoir is.  The Washington Times writes: ‘She sees herself with clarity as both child and adult, a rare accomplishment indeed’.  The Times believes her autobiography to be: ‘Unsentimental yet so vividly evocative that you can smell the dung, the jacaranda and the oleander.  It offers potent glimpses of British colonial life…  The result is a wise, colourful and touching tale.’

In her modest preface, Lively writes: ‘My childhood is no more – or less – interesting than anyone else’s.  It has two particularities.  One is that I was a product of one society but was learning how to perceive the world in the ambience of a quite different culture.  I grew up English, in Egypt.  The other is that I was cared for by someone who was not my mother, and that it was a childhood which came to an abrupt and traumatic end.’  Indeed, after living all of her early life in Egypt, and most of it just outside Cairo, Lively had to move to England after the Second World War, following the divorce of her parents; to the young Penelope, they are ‘peripheral figures… for whom I felt an interested regard but no intense commitment’.  Of course, her nurse, Lucy, who is variously described as ‘the centre of my universe’, is not part of her new life.

Lively’s aim in Oleander, Jacaranda was to ‘recover something of the anarchic vision of childhood – in so far as any of us can do such a thing – and use this as the vehicle for a reflection on the way in which children perceive.’  Whilst she recognises that her child and adult selves are linked in many ways, she is able to separate them for the purposes of her memoir.  She writes: ‘As, writing this, I think with equal wonder of that irretrievable child, and of the eerie relationship between her mind and mine.  She is myself, but a self which is unreachable except by means of such miraculously surviving moments of being: the action within.’

At the forefront of her exploration into childhood is the untrustworthy element of memory: ‘One of the problems with this assemblage of slides in the head is that they cannot be sorted chronologically.  All habits are geared towards the linear, the sequential, but memory refuses such orderliness.’  With this constantly in her mind, Lively presents both her recollections, and the historical facts, of spending her formative years in such a turbulent and fascinating period, and a place so different from the England that she would later call home.

The descriptions in Oleander, Jacaranda are sumptuous.  When talking of her daily routine, for example, she writes: ‘The daily walks with Lucy are merged now into one single acute recollection, in which the whole thing hangs suspended in vibrant detail – the mimosa and the naked leaping children and the grey mud-caked threatening spectres of the gamooses.  The pink and blue and lime green of children’s clothes, the white of galabiyas, the black humps of squatting women.’  Lively’s observations of her young self feel both thorough and beautifully handled: ‘No thought at all here, just observation – the young child’s ability to focus entirely on the moment, to direct attention upon the here and now, without the intrusion of reflection or of anticipation.  It is also the Wordsworthian version of the physical world: the splendour in the grass.  And, especially, Virginia Woolf’s creation of the child’s eye view.  A way of seeing that is almost lost in adult life.’

Throughout Oleander, Jacaranda, Lively explores our capacities for recollection.  Her memoir is one which feels balanced and measured from its opening page.  There are few moments of drama, or melodrama; things happen which make a great impression on Lively as a child, but the importance of the everyday shines through.  Lively’s voice is charming and beguiling.  It is fascinating to see those moments where her childhood memories and adult eyes meet, particularly when Lively discusses her return to Egypt in the 1980s.  Oleander, Jacaranda is honest, warm, and intelligent.  Lively somehow manages to make a very specific period of her life feel timeless in her depictions, and in consequence, her memoir of childhood is a joy to read.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Road Beneath My Feet’ by Frank Turner ***

First published in March 2015

I’m not going to lie. When the postman delivered a review copy of Frank Turner’s The Road Beneath My Feet to me two weeks before its publication date, I was rather excited (to the point of almost squealing). I have been a fan of Turner’s music for a good few years now, and have seen him live close to a dozen times. I was also at the sellout Wembley gig which he charts as the pinnacle of his career to date. I have always thought that Turner – and Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes fame – would write excellent books. Yes – it is fair to say that my excitement over this book was tangible.

9781472222039The Road Beneath My Feet presents, says its blurb, ‘a searingly honest and brilliantly written account of Frank Turner’s journey from the pub circuit to selling out Wembley Arena’. The premise of the book poses instant appeal for all Turner fans (of which there are many): ‘Told through his tour reminiscences this is the blisteringly honest story of Frank’s career from drug-fuelled house parties and the grimy club scene to filling out arenas, fans roaring every word back at him. But more than that, it is an intimate account of what it’s like to spend your life constantly on the road, sleeping on floors, invariably jet lagged, all for the love of playing live music’.

After Frank Turner’s last gig as frontman with his hardcore band Million Dead in 2005, he returned to his Hampshire hometown, ‘jaded and hungover’, with no plans for the future. All he knew is that he wanted to continue to play music. Rather aptly, the book begins with this juncture in his career: ‘It was the defining experience of my late adolescence, my early twenties – it was my formative musical experience. But we were also just another jobbing underground hardcore band that made some small ripples and fell apart’.

In his Introduction/Disclaimer, Turner muses about his reasoning for publishing his biography, something which he largely attributes to his admiration of Black Flag’s Henry Rollins: ‘You hold in your hands a book, a book that I wrote, all by myself… One reason I was not expecting this book to exist is that I’m not generally much keen on autobiography as a genre. There are, of course, notable exceptions to this – Ben Franklin for example, or Churchill’s – but I feel like you either need to have won a war or be knocking on death’s door to justify the exercise… It was also suggested that the book need not be an autobiography in the strict sense, starting with birth and ending in the nursing home; it could be a specific set of recollections about a certain period of time’. Each of Turner’s recollections is split into a particular numbered show, of which he has kept a record since he started performing. This record has actually been included at the end of the book, which is a lovely touch.

In some ways, Turner comes across as rather a humbled man: ‘I’m aware, painfully so, that I’m incredibly fortunate to do what I do for a living; I’m also not under the impression that it’s death-shakingly significant, in the grand scheme of things. Hopefully I don’t come off as overly self-pitying or self-important’.

As with his lyrics, Turner’s prose writing is intelligent, and one gets the impression that a lot of thought has been put into many of his sentences: ‘Like most youthful, Arcadian ideals, the bald facts of the denouement are mundane rather than monumental’. In places, the book is rather amusing and filled with Turner’s dry humour: ‘There’s a bleak, failed romanticism to the idea Valentine’s Day alone in Ipswich’, for example. He also recounts amusing episodes; in Russia, for instance, after a few too many drinks, the following happens: ‘On hearing that I had been left alone by my compadre, I jumped to my feet, rushed into the club, leaped up on to the bar and shouted “Communist bastards! I’ll fight you all!” while rather pathetically waving a plastic cup’. The characters whom he meets along the way have been vividly evoked; Karlis, for example, ‘a formidable, hulking Latvian’ whose ‘favourite king was Charles I and [who] liked trampolining very much, but, alarmingly, was minded to shoot gypsies with his “double-barrelled shooting gun”.’

In The Road Beneath My Feet, one can see quite clearly how Turner’s style, both musically and as a performer, has evolved over time: ‘I felt like I was pretty much done with (post-) hardcore as a style… After years of self-conscious musical awkwardness and trying to be dark and angular all the time, hearing simple chords and simple words was immensely refreshing and I felt like the music told me deeper truths… I’m always more interested in music when it breaks out of the mould and becomes a dialogue, an interaction, rather than just a lecture from “artist” to “punter”‘. The positives as well as the negatives have been considered throughout, from habitual drug use and sleeping on uncomfortable sofas, to barely scraping together enough money to eat each night. Turner relates his experiences to the songs which they influenced: ‘It’s reasonably fair to say that Sleep is For the Week is, in some senses, an album about doing too much cocaine’.

There is a slightly repetitive air to the whole, but that is to be expected due to the nature of the book. The format which has been used works well, and in consequence, The Road Beneath My Feet is eminently readable. There is a ‘woe-is-me’ air which pervades at times, but again, one can easily believe that this goes with the territory. Sadly, parts of the book do feel like something of a plugging exercise in places, but overall, it is a well written and well-developed account of how to make it the hard way in the music industry, and it is sure to captivate and satisfy his fans.

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‘The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial’ by Maggie Nelson ****

I was supposed to be reading established poet and non-fiction author Maggie Nelson’s  The Argonauts for a book club I’m a member of, but unable as I was to find a copy, I plumped for The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial instead.  This piece of extended non-fiction, which deals with the aftermath of her aunt’s unsolved murder in the late sixties, and new evidence pointing to her killer, was first published in 2007.  Of all of Nelson’s books, this was the one which appealed to me the most.

The blurb piqued my interest immediately when browsing for Nelson’s books on my local library catalogue.  It reads: ‘After asking for a lift to her hometown for spring break, Jane Mixer, a first-year law student at the University of Michigan, was brutally murdered in 1969; her body was found the next day, a few miles away from campus.’  Jane was shot twice in the head, and then ‘strangled viciously with a stocking that did not belong to her’.  Nelson, whose aunt was killed before she was born, uses The Red Parts to trace her aunt’s death, as well as the trial which took place thirty-five years afterwards.  Jane’s case was reopened in 2004 ‘after a DNA match identified a new suspect, who would soon be arrested and tried.’9781784705794

‘Resurrecting her interior world during the trial – in all its horror, grief, obsession, recklessness, scepticism and downright confusion – Maggie Nelson has produced a work of profound integrity and, in its subtle indeterminacy, deadly moral precision.’   The Red Parts has been hailed by various critics as ‘remarkable’, ‘Didion-esque’, and a ‘darkly intelligent page-turner’, which gives ‘the sense that the writer is writing for her life’, as well as Jane’s.

Within her book, Nelson is candid from the very beginning.  She writes of the process of putting such a painful familial past down on paper, and how the trial and its evidence impacted upon her, her sister, and her mother, Jane’s elder sister.   In her preface, Nelson calls the book ‘a peculiar, pressurized meditation on time’s relation to violence’.  She goes on to say: ‘One aim I had while writing was to allow the events of the trial, the events of my childhood, the events of Jane’s murder, and the act of writing to share a single spatial and temporal moment.’

Initially, police attributed Jane’s murder to a man who had killed many other young girls in what were collectively called the ‘Michigan Murders’.  The new evidence found, however, attributed her murder to someone else entirely, a retired nurse.   When Nelson sees him on trial, she writes: ‘I feel disoriented too.  Where I imagined I might find the “face of evil,” I am finding the face of Elmer Fudd.’  She goes on to describe the difficulty which she has in coming to terms with what he may have done: ‘I watch the light and I watch his hands and I try to imagine them around the trigger of a gun, I try to imagine them strangling someone.  Strangling Jane.  I know this kind of imagining is useless and awful.  I wonder how I’d feel if I imagined it over and over again and later found out that he didn’t do it.’

The Red Parts is very brave and directly honest; it is as objective as it can be, and whilst emotional at times, it does not read – as one imagines it so easily could have done – as a piece of overblown melodrama on the part of the family.  She talks openly about all of the grief in her life, from her father’s death, to seeing her boyfriend overdose more than once.  The Red Parts is a multilayered and well thought through work, which merges biography and autobiography in a seamless and interesting manner.  Nelson’s writing is engaging from the very beginning, and is sure to appeal to anyone who has enjoyed the likes of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.

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