5

Eight Great Audiobooks

I had sampled the odd audiobook in the past, but it wasn’t until 2020 that I began to listen to them regularly. I am fortunate that my local library offers a great deal of titles for free on the BorrowBox app, and although this is the sole resource which I personally use for audiobooks, I know that many people pay for subscriptions to the likes of Audible and Scribd.

I haven’t reviewed any of the books which I came to on audio, but the following eight were standouts to me last year. I loved the narration and delivery for the mostpart, and also the way in which I was able to immerse myself in so many titles which I otherwise would not have been able to find very easily. I would highly recommend that if you are interested in the following books, you should try and find the audio version. However, I’m sure they would be just as good on the page too!

The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying by Nina Riggs
‘Nina Riggs was just thirty-seven years old when initially diagnosed with breast cancer–one small spot. Within a year, the mother of two sons, ages seven and nine, and married sixteen years to her best friend, received the devastating news that her cancer was terminal. How does one live each day, “unattached to outcome”? How does one approach the moments, big and small, with both love and honesty.

Exploring motherhood, marriage, friendship, and memory, even as she wrestles with the legacy of her great-great-great grandfather, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nina Riggs’s breathtaking memoir continues the urgent conversation that Paul Kalanithi began in his gorgeous When Breath Becomes Air. She asks, what makes a meaningful life when one has limited time?

Brilliantly written, disarmingly funny, and deeply moving, The Bright Hour is about how to love all the days, even the bad ones, and it’s about the way literature, especially Emerson, and Nina’s other muse, Montaigne, can be a balm and a form of prayer. It’s a book about looking death squarely in the face and saying “this is what will be.” Especially poignant in these uncertain times, The Bright Hour urges us to live well and not lose sight of what makes us human: love, art, music, words.’

Death and the Seaside by Alison Moore
‘With an abandoned degree behind her and a thirtieth birthday approaching, amateur writer Bonnie Falls moves out of her parents’ home into a nearby flat. Her landlady, Sylvia Slythe, takes an interest in Bonnie, encouraging her to finish one of her stories, in which a young woman moves to the seaside, where she comes under strange influences. As summer approaches, Sylvia suggests to Bonnie that, as neither of them has anyone else to go on holiday with, they should go away together – to the seaside, perhaps.

The new novel from the author of the Man Booker-shortlisted The Lighthouse is a tense and moreish confection of semiotics, suggestibility and creative writing with real psychological depth and, in Bonnie Falls and Sylvia Slythe, two unforgettable characters.’

I Want You To Know We’re Still Here: A Post-Holocaust Memoir by Esther Safran-Foer
‘Esther Safran Foer grew up in a home where the past was too terrible to speak of. The child of parents who were each the sole survivors of their respective families, for Esther the Holocaust loomed in the backdrop of daily life, felt but never discussed. The result was a childhood marked by painful silences and continued tragedy. Even as she built a successful career, married, and raised three children, Esther always felt herself searching.

So when Esther’s mother casually mentions an astonishing revelation–that her father had a previous wife and daughter, both killed in the Holocaust–Esther resolves to find out who they were, and how her father survived. Armed with only a black-and-white photo and a hand-drawn map, she travels to Ukraine, determined to find the shtetl where her father hid during the war. What she finds reshapes her identity and gives her the opportunity to finally mourn.

I Want You to Know We’re Still Here is the poignant and deeply moving story not only of Esther’s journey but of four generations living in the shadow of the Holocaust. They are four generations of survivors, storytellers, and memory keepers, determined not just to keep the past alive but to imbue the present with life and more life.’

Salt Slow by Julia Armfield
‘This collection of stories is about women and their experiences in society, about bodies and the bodily, mapping the skin and bones of its characters through their experiences of isolation, obsession and love. Throughout the collection, women become insects, men turn to stone, a city becomes insomniac and bodies are picked apart to make up better ones. The mundane worlds of schools and sea side towns are invaded and transformed by the physical, creating a landscape which is constantly shifting to hold on to the bodies of its inhabitants. Blending the mythic and the fantastic, the collection considers characters in motion – turning away, turning back or simply turning into something new.’

The Wolf Border by Sarah Hall
‘Rachel Caine is a zoologist working in Nez Perce, Idaho, as part of a wolf recovery project. She spends her days, and often nights, tracking the every move of a wild wolf pack—their size, their behavior, their howl patterns. It is a fairly solitary existence, but Rachel is content.

When she receives a call from the wealthy and mysterious Earl of Annerdale, who is interested in reintroducing the grey wolf to Northern England, Rachel agrees to a meeting. She is certain she wants no part of this project, but the Earl’s estate is close to the village where Rachel grew up, and where her aging mother now lives in a care facility. It has been far too long since Rachel has gone home, and so she returns to face the ghosts of her past.

The Wolf Border is a breathtaking story about the frontier of the human spirit, from one of the most celebrated young writers working today.’

The Glass House by Eve Chase
‘Outside a remote manor house in an idyllic wood, a baby girl is found. The Harrington family takes her in and disbelief quickly turns to joy. They’re grieving a terrible tragedy of their own and the beautiful baby fills them with hope, lighting up the house’s dark, dusty corners. Desperate not to lose her to the authorities, they keep her secret, suspended in a blissful summer world where normal rules of behaviour – and the law – don’t seem to apply.

But within days a body will lie dead in the grounds. And their dreams of a perfect family will shatter like glass. Years later, the truth will need to be put back together again, piece by piece . . .

From the author of Black Rabbit Hall, The Glass House is a emotional, thrilling book about family secrets and belonging – and how we find ourselves when we are most lost.’

Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald
‘Helen Macdonald’s bestselling debut H is for Hawk brought the astonishing story of her relationship with goshawk Mabel to global critical acclaim and announced Macdonald as one of this century’s most important and insightful nature writers. H is for Hawk won the Samuel Johnson Prize for Nonfiction and the Costa Book Award, and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Kirkus Prize for Nonfiction, launching poet and falconer Macdonald as our preeminent nature essayist, with a semi-regular column in the New York Times Magazine.

In Vesper Flights Helen Macdonald brings together a collection of her best loved essays, along with new pieces on topics ranging from nostalgia for a vanishing countryside to the tribulations of farming ostriches to her own private vespers while trying to fall asleep. Meditating on notions of captivity and freedom, immigration and flight, Helen invites us into her most intimate experiences: observing songbirds from the Empire State Building as they migrate through the Tribute of Light, watching tens of thousands of cranes in Hungary, seeking the last golden orioles in Suffolk’s poplar forests. She writes with heart-tugging clarity about wild boar, swifts, mushroom hunting, migraines, the strangeness of birds’ nests, and the unexpected guidance and comfort we find when watching wildlife. By one of this century’s most important and insightful nature writers, Vesper Flights is a captivating and foundational book about observation, fascination, time, memory, love and loss and how we make sense of the world around us.’

Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener
‘At twenty-five years old, Anna Wiener was beginning to tire of her assistant job in New York publishing. There was no room to grow, and the voyeuristic thrill of answering someone else’s phone had worn thin. Within a year she had moved to San Francisco to take up a job at a data analytics start-up in Silicon Valley. Leaving her business casual skirts and shirts in the wardrobe, she began working in company-branded T-shirts and hoodies. She had a healthy income for the first time in her life. She felt like part of the future.

But a tide was beginning to turn. People were speaking of tech start-ups as surveillance companies. Out of sixty employees, only eight of her colleagues were women. Casual sexism was rife. Sexual harassment cases were proliferating. And soon, like everyone else, she was addicted to the internet, refreshing the news, refreshing social media, scrolling and scrolling and scrolling. Slowly, she began to realise that her blind faith in ambitious, arrogant young men from America’s soft suburbs wasn’t just her own personal pathology. It had become a global affliction.

Uncanny Valley is a coming of age story set against the backdrop of our generation’s very own gold rush. It’s a story about the tension between old and new, between art and tech, between the quest for money and the quest for meaning – about how our world is changing for ever.’

Have you read, or listened to, any of these books? Are you a fan of audiobooks? Which is your favourite?

2

‘Jigsaw: An Unsentimental Education’ by Sybille Bedford ***

Jigsaw: An Unsentimental Education is the first book by Sybille Bedford which I have picked up.  It straddles the line between fiction and non-fiction, presenting as it does an exaggerated version of Bedford’s own childhood and young adulthood.  Jigsaw was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 1989.

9780907871798Bedford was born in Germany, and educated in Italy, England, and France.  Jigsaw subsequently takes place in each of these countries.  The novel-cum-memoir has been split into five sections, which largely follow the author’s geographical journey.  It begins with a series of her earliest memories.  Whilst in the Danish seaside town of Skagen as a toddler, the narrator recollects: ‘What I wanted was to get into the water.  But between the sand and the water there lay a thick band of small fish, dead, wet, glistening fish.  The whole of me shrivelled with disgust.  Nanny, who wore boots and stockings, picked me up and lifted me over the fish.  I was in the water – coolness, lightness, dissolving, bliss: this is the sea, I am the sea, here is where I belong.  For ever.’

We move from Denmark to a southern corner of Germany, where the three-year-old narrator is living with her parents in 1914.  The uncertainty of war forces the family to stay with relatives in Berlin the following year, in a ‘large, dark house, over-upholstered and over-heated; the inhabitants never stopped eating.  Some were exceedingly kind, some were critical of our presence.’  The context, both historical and social, has been woven in well, and it proved to be the element which I was most interested in within Jigsaw; the inflation of German currency, convoluted train journeys during wartime, moving around a lot due to money troubles, and being sent away to school particularly fascinated me.  I also enjoyed reading about the differences which the narrator discusses between places which she had lived in.  I took in, with interest, the allusions Bedford made of not feeling as though she had a homeland, as she moved around so much as a child.  However, the emphasis upon this element was spoken about far too briefly for my personal taste.

The narrator is open about her relationships with her parents.  She realises that her father loved her in retrospect, ‘but – this is the unhappy part – he could not show his affection, only his anxieties, his fretting, his prohibitions…  And I with some curious callousness, with the arrogance of a lively, ignorant, if intelligent child, felt impatience with him and contempt.  He also created fear; perhaps because he was not reachable by any give and take of talk, perhaps because of the aura of solitariness about him.  Today we might call it alienation.’  Her interactions with her mother too are far from what she would have liked: ‘I was interested – and influenced – by my mother’s general opinions, but dreaded being alone with her.  She could be ironical and often impatient; she did not suffer little fools gladly.  That I was her own made not a scrap of difference…  Compassionate in her principles, she was high-handed even harsh in her daily dealings.  Between her and my father there had come much open ill feeling…  So in my early years (our rapport came later) I was afraid of my mother, more afraid of her, and in a different way, than I was of my father.’  Her parents go on to divorce when she is quite young, and she has to deal with the consequences.

There is a warmth, even a chattiness, to the narrative voice in Jigsaw.  Whilst compelling in its way, it never became something that I did not want to put down.  Not knowing what was true and what was fabricated, or exaggerated, was something that niggled at me.  Some of the scenes in Jigsaw seemed far too strange to be real, but there was no way of being sure.  Another thing which I really did not enjoy about the book was the continuous name-dropping which Bedford embarks upon rather early on.  I do not feel as though these people, most of whom were mentioned only as asides and not part of the current scenes or plot, added a great deal to proceedings.  This, like other parts of the book, felt rather superficial.

Jigsaw is not a badly written piece, but I cannot say that I enjoyed Bedford’s prose.  The phrasing and descriptions which she employed were largely fine, but there was no vividness or vivacity to the things which she described.  There was less description in Jigsaw than I was expecting, as it is far more focused upon people than place; the latter often quickly becomes a dull background, and is barely discussed.  Some elements were sped through; others were talked about at length, and therefore felt repetitive.

With a slightly different approach taken by the author, or a clear delineation between what is real or imagined, I feel as though I could have really admired this book.  As it was, I found it a little off and jarring; I would have personally preferred to read a straight biography, and not some strange, unknown mixture of biography and novel.  Jigsaw simply failed to stand out for me.  On the face of it, it sounded like a fascinating concept, but its execution left something to be desired for me as a reader.

Purchase from the Book Depository

2

‘Negroland: A Memoir’ by Margo Jefferson ***

Margo Jefferson’s memoir, Negroland, was the winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography following its publication in 2015.  In this, her second book, Pulitzer Prize-winning Jefferson has set out to explore the idea of “Negroland”, which she defines as ‘a small region of Negro America where residents were sheltered by a certain amount of privilege and plenty’. The book’s blurb calls Negroland ‘at once incendiary and icy, celebratory and elegiac – here is a deeply felt meditation on race, sex, class and American culture old through the prism of the author’s rarefied upbringing and education.’

9781783783021Jefferson sees herself as a ‘chronicler’ of “Negroland”, ‘a participant – observer, an elegist, dissenter and admirer; sometime expatriate, ongoing interlocutor.’  Of her choice to invent the term “Negroland”, she writes: ‘I call it Negroland because I still find “Negro” a word of wonders, glorious and terrible.  A word for runaway slave posters and civil rights proclamations; for social constructs and street corner flaunts.  A tonal-language word whose meaning shifts as setting and context shift, as history twists, lurches, advances, and stagnates.’  She later comments: ‘”Negro” is the magic word, the spell.  The small grow large, the mundane turns exceptional, and the individual becomes cosmic.’

In his review, Hilton Als writes: ‘Jefferson has lived and worked like the great reporter she is, traversing a little-known or -understood landscape peopled by blacks and whites, dreamers and naysayers, the privileged and the strivers who make up the mosaic known as America.’  Aminatta Forna comments: ‘It would be too easy to call Negroland a groundbreaking work and yet this is exactly what it is.  In her descriptions of a life lived on the nexus of race and class Margo Jefferson tells a tale of how people create, defy and survive systems of exclusion and inclusion, of the human toll that must be exacted.’  Eula Biss believes that Negroland provides ‘… the record of a powerful mind grappling with all the trouble of being awake.’

Jefferson herself grew up in a wealthy family in Chicago, to a doctor father and well-educated, ‘fashionable socialite’ mother, who opted to stay at home and look after her two daughters.  She is concerned throughout about the way in which others perceived her upbringing and her family’s societal position.  She comments: ‘Nothing highlighted our privilege more than the menace to it.  Inside the race we were the self-designated aristocrats, educated, affluent, accomplished; to Caucasians we were oddities, underdogs and interlopers.’

Negroland was a real step away for me from the usual non-fiction which I consume.  I have read rather a few memoirs of late which have been set in the United States, but these have dealt almost exclusively with the stark realities of poverty and racism, and the disadvantages which the lower classes often have.  I found it fascinating, therefore, to be given a completely different view of American society, of the upper-class black community who lived in wealthy parts of Chicago.

Jefferson begins her memoir by discussing the perils and contradictions which one must face when writing about oneself: ‘I think it’s too easy to recount unhappy memories when you write about yourself.  You bask in your own innocence.  You revere your grief. You arrange your angers at their most becoming angles…  So let me turn back, subdue my individual self, and enter history.’  She goes on to address elements of black history specific to the United States, and moves on to write about racial stereotyping, general ignorance, media portrayals, and beauty regimens, amongst other themes.

Negroland is a memoir both personal and universal to those of the author’s class and race.  Jefferson sets her own memories, largely of childhood and her years as a young adult, against the wider political and social landscape of America at its ‘crucial historical moments – the civil rights movement, the dawn of feminism, the fallacy of post-racial America’.  When she writes about historical occurrences, she does so using the present-tense.  This is something which I had not seen in a memoir before; there is usually such a distinction between past and present.

When Jefferson grew up, during a highly tumultuous period for black people in the United States, she reflects that children in “Negroland” ‘were taught that most other Negroes ought to be emulating us when too many of them (out of envy or ignorance) went on behaving in ways that encouraged racial prejudice.’  She justifies the choices which she makes in this memoir not to reflect too much upon the present day, and instead focus upon the past, by writing: ‘… I belong to an earlier generation, that of the fifties and sixties: it’s us and our predecessors I want to write of.  Most whites knew little about us; only a few cared to know…  We were taught that we were better than the whites who looked down on us – that we were better than most whites, period.  But that this would rarely if ever be acknowledged by white people, with all their entitlement.  Not the entitlement a government provides, but the kind history bestows.  This is your birthright, says history.’

What I found fascinating, and incredibly sad, was the discussion about other black people Jefferson’s family knew, who felt more comfortable hiding themselves within society by posing as white people: ‘So many in my parents’ world had relatives who’d spent their adult lives as white people of some kind.  Avocational passing was lighthearted.  Shopping at whites-only stores, getting deferential service at whites-only restaurants.  You came home snickering…’.  Also chilling is the space which Jefferson gives to discussing the prevalence of suicide attempts amongst black youths of her generation, and her revelation of her own contemplations of suicide.

Jefferson’s writing is elegant, and certainly has a journalistic flair to it.  She puts across such interesting perspectives, some of which I had never considered before.  Jefferson’s authorial voice is strong, and after I got used to the fragmented style which some of her sentences hold, I found myself pulled in.  At first, Negroland does not take the form of a linear narrative – rather, it is more playful – but the later sections which deal with elements of the author’s schooling have been presented chronologically.  The oft-broken structure has connecting themes within it, and the whole does come together relatively well.  Regardless that there is so much of importance within the book, I did not quite connect with it in the way that I’d hoped.  I felt as though there was a level of detachment within the book, due largely to the creativity which Jefferson employs.

So much has been considered in Negroland, and there is a lot for the reader to mull over long after the final page has been read.  I shall end this review with a most poignant question in Jefferson’s book: ‘What manner of man and woman are we?  Wherever we go we disrupt order.’

Purchase from The Book Depository

0

‘As Green As Grass: Growing Up Before, During and After the Second World War’ by Emma Smith ***

I had read two of Emma Smith’s books – one written for adults (The Far Cry) and the other for children (No Way of Telling) – prior to picking up one of her memoirs.  Whilst As Green As Grass: Growing Up Before, During and After the Second World War (2013) is not chronologically the first of her autobiographical works, it highly interested me, and was also available in my local library.

9781408835630Elspeth Hallsmith, as Emma Smith was born, moves with her family from Newquay in Cornwall to a Devonshire village named Crapstone.  Soon afterwards, her father suffers a nervous breakdown, and the family are left to deal with the far-reaching consequences.  There is also the outbreak of the Second World War to contend with, and Smith’s crisis that she has no idea how to help the war effort.  Her elder sister joins the WAAF, and her brother enlists with the RAF after a period of flirting with pacifism.  At this point, Smith is only sixteen years old.  She goes to secretarial college, which ‘equips her for a job with MI5’, but which she finds stuffy and dull.  She ‘yearns for fresh air and joins the crew of a canal boat carrying much-needed cargoes on Britain’s waterways.’  After the war ends, and her freedom is returned to her, Smith travels to India, moves to Chelsea in London, falls in and out of love, and writes, of course.

Smith has used a structure of short vignettes, which follow particular episodes in her life – for instance, travelling to London to be a bridesmaid; making a best friend at school; horseriding; playing sports; dancing classes; being left behind when her sister grows up and begins to study at art college; her father’s bad temper and fits of rage; and the longing which she often has to be alone.  When her family move to Devon, Smith describes her delight at being able to attend a ‘proper school’ with her sister, which comes with a uniform requirement: ‘And the fictitious girls in such Angela Brazil novels as I succeeded in borrowing from Boots’ Lending Library – they too wore gymslips on the illustrations I pored over, and now I shall be able to feel I am the same as those heroines.’

Of her father’s breakdown, she reflects: ‘Almost the worst part of the anguish is the sense of there being nobody I can share it with.  I don’t know how much the Twins are troubled, or indeed if they are troubled at all, by the blight that has fallen on our family.  I don’t know what either of them is thinking.  Pam has become uncommunicative, barely exchanging a sentence with me; Jim has deserted to the group of his cheerful friends… and Harvey – Harvey is only six.  I put my arms around him, hugging him tightly for comfort – my comfort, not his.  He wriggles free.’

In Smith’s fiction, I have been struck by her narrative voice, and I imagined that I would be here too.  Whilst some of her writing is certainly lovely, and sometimes revealing, other parts are comparatively simplistic.  There was no real consistency here.  I did feel at times as though Smith was holding back somewhat.  There was a sense of unexpected detachment in As Green As Grass, and it did not always feel as though there was sufficient explanation as to the many characters which flit in and out of its pages.

I also found it a little strange that Smith had largely employed the present tense with which to set out her memories.  Whilst As Green As Grass is certainly readable, and Smith’s voice is warm and engaging, I must admit that I was a little put off by the use of present tense, which made the whole seem imagined and exaggerated rather than truthful.  Had Smith approached this memoir from the perspective of herself as an adult looking back, I’m almost certain that I would have enjoyed it more.

Smith’s work is highly praised, but does not appear to be widely read, which is a real shame.  Whilst there were elements of As Green As Grass that I wasn’t overly keen on, I found it interesting overall.  However, I must say that As Green As Grass was not quite the book which I had hoped it would be, and I was made to feel a little uncomfortable by some of the antiquated and racist language which she uses – ‘native-born Indians’, for example.

Whilst As Green As Grass is by no means amongst the best war memoirs which I have read, I did enjoy the recollections of Smith’s childhood and teenage years.  The parts on the canal boat, which I expected to really enjoy and get a lot out of, were quite repetitive.  To date, I have enjoyed her fiction more, but I’m still relatively keen to pick up another of her memoirs; I am particularly intrigued by her recollections of her Cornish childhood in Great Western Beach.

Purchase from The Book Depository

0

‘Heart Berries’ by Terese Marie Mailhot ****

Roxane Gay has deemed Terese Marie Mailhot’s memoir, Heart Berries, ‘astounding’, and it ranks amongst the favourite books of both Kate Tempest and Emma Watson.  The New York Times calls it a ‘sledgehammer’ of a book, and believes that Mailhot has produces ‘a new model for the memoir.’  I had heard only praise for the book, Mailhot’s debut, and was therefore keen to pick up a copy myself.

9781526604408Heart Berries is described as ‘a powerful and poetic memoir of a woman’s coming of age on an Indian Reservation in the Pacific Northwest.  Having survived a profoundly dysfunctional upbringing only to find herself hospitalised and facing a dual diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder and bipolar disorder, Terese Marie Mailhot is given a notebook and begins to write her way out of trauma.’  It sounded incredibly hard-hitting, and indeed, that is the overarching feeling which I have of the memoir.

As well as a form of therapy, Heart Berries was written as a ‘memorial’ for the author’s mother, as a way of reconciling with her estranged father, ‘and an elegy of how difficult it is to love someone while dragging the long shadows of shame.’  In the book, Mailhot finds herself able to discover ‘her own true voice, [and] seizes control of her story, and, in so doing, re-establishes her connection to her family, to her people and to her place in the world.’

Mailhot married for the first time when she was a teenager, and living on the Seabird Island Indian Reservation in British Columbia, Canada.  Her husband was violent, and took their young son away from her.  She writes of the way in which this led to her entire life collapsing: ‘We mined each other, and then my mother died.  I had to leave the reservation.’  Mailhot goes on to declare, ‘It’s too ugly – to speak this story…’, and then to ask, ‘How could misfortune follow me so well, and why did I chase it every time?’

From the outset, Mailhot’s voice is authoritative and firm.  She begins by writing: ‘My story was maltreated.  The words were too wrong and ugly to speak.  I tried to tell someone my story, but he thought it was a hustle…  I was silenced by charity – like so many Indians.  I kept my hand out…  The thing about women from the river is that our currents are endless.  We sometimes outrun ourselves.’  Some of the imagery which she goes on to create is nothing short of startling: ‘That’s when my nightmares came.  A spinning wheel, a white porcelain tooth, a snarling mouth, and lightning haunted me.  My mother told me they were visions.’

I found the memoir insightful, particularly when it came to explaining the place in the world of the First Nations community, and the author’s comparisons drawn between her people and the whites who live around them.  She also considers how the First Nations people have had to adapt to the modern world: ‘Our culture is based in the profundity things carry.  We’re always trying to see the world the way our ancestors did – we feel less of a relationship to the natural world.  There was a time when we dictated our beliefs and told ourselves what was real, or what was wrong or right.  There weren’t any abstractions.  We knew that our language came before the world.’  Her wider culture helped her to overcome, or at least to work through, some of the abuse which she suffered: ‘The only thing, the right thing – the thing that brought about my immunity – was the knowledge that something instinctual would carry us back.  The awareness that our ancestors were watching was vital.  I don’t feel the eyes of my grandmother anymore.’

So many things form an integral part of Mailhot’s story: poverty, anger, being viewed as ‘Other’, objectification, vulnerability, self-perception, motherhood, heartbreak, loss, and mental health, to name but a handful.  The structure which she has used throughout Heart Berries, which is made up of a series of loosely connecting essays, works well; it demonstrates that one’s memory is never exact, but can be warped and moulded.  The almost stream-of-consciousness prose, and turns of phrase, allow the reader to keep in mind just how troubled Mailhot was when writing.  She shows this in harsh, heartbreaking phrases, such as ‘I feel like my body is being drawn through a syringe.  Sometimes walking is hard.’  She comes across as brusque yet sincere, laying her grief bare upon the page: ‘I fit the criteria of an adult child of an alcoholic and the victim of sexual abuse.  I reiterate to the therapist several stories about my eldest brother’s abuse and my sister’s.  I often have felt, in proximity to their violations, that I mimic their chaos.’

Heart Berries is a slim memoir, filling just 130 pages.  There is so much to be found within its pages, however, and I feel that I got more from it than I have in memoirs three or four times its size.  Heart Berries presents a searing and honest portrait of a troubled life.  It is both brutal and bitter in what it portrays.  What is included here is presented as the prose which she wrote whilst receiving help for her diagnosed disorders, and is addressed to her husband, Casey: ‘I’m writing you from a behavioral health service building.  I agreed to commit myself under the condition they would let me write.’  There are many trigger warnings throughout Mailhot’s memoir, but she never goes into detail about the kinds of abuse which she suffered; rather, she has kept this part of her story hidden.  Heart Berries is a dark yet admirable book, which has a real sense of poignancy.

Purchase from The Book Depository

1

‘The Bookshop That Floated Away’ by Sarah Henshaw ***

In 2009, Sarah Henshaw approached a ‘pinstriped bank manager’, asking for a loan of £30,000 to buy ‘a black-and-cream narrowboat and a small hoard of books.’  The manager said no, scorning her creative business proposal which was made to look like a book.  However, her family and then-boyfriend Stu soon lent her the money to purchase ‘Joseph’ from the Internet, and get her idea off the ground (or onto the water, so to speak).  Six months later, Henshaw and Stu opened The Book Barge.

The Bookshop That Floated Away begins with a hand drawn map, which includes the route that the Book Barge took on its 2011 voyage.  The key which accompanies it reads: ‘1,079 miles, 707 locks, 1,395 books bought/bartered.’  In her introduction which follows, Henshaw sets out just how often she was asked why she owned a bookshop on a boat – almost daily, it turned out.  ‘Usually,’ she writes, this curiosity was exercised to ‘preface a pun they actually believe to be original – about it being a “novel” idea.  Or one “hull” of an idea.  Or, when the American tourists are in, a “swell” idea.’  Her response was generally to point out the cost effectiveness of taking a bookshop onto the water rather than to pay extortionate rates for high street premises, ‘or how the quirkiness attracts greater footfall, [and] the advantages of being able to move on when business is slack.’

9781472108050Although this may sound like an idyllic life, Henshaw’s is rather a frank memoir.  At first, she is moored in Burton-on-Trent, where her family live, but business proved to be rather slow.  Despite starting off relatively well, she recognised the way in which the book industry was ‘changing fast’, particularly with the advent of the eReader.  She took to the water, deciding to spend six months ‘chugging the length and breadth of the country.  Books were bartered for food, accommodation, bathroom facilities, and cake.  Along the way, the barge suffered a flooded engine, went out to sea, got banned from Bristol and, on several occasions, floated away altogether.’

Henshaw speaks plainly of her lack of toilet and shower facilities on the boat, and the problems which the business – and her lack of expertise in running it – had with Stu, leading to their breakup, and then to her largely solo journey.  There were also a few days when she just wanted to pack it all in and go home.  Overall, however, the experience is largely a positive one; she reflects: ‘… I felt complete confidence and satisfaction in what I was doing.  It made me indescribably happy.’

I found the first section of The Bookshop That Floated Away to be highly readable, and although some of the jokes which Henshaw makes were a little cheesy, it had a great tone to it.  My enjoyment changed, however, when I got to the second section, which is narrated from the (obviously fictional) perspective of the Book Barge.  It is relatively brief, but I did not feel as though it added anything particularly to the memoir.  Rather, it reads like an experiment in creative writing, included ‘just because’.  Reading it felt rather cringeworthy, and it did lessen my enjoyment of the whole.  There are also some rather strange imagined conversations which she has with various wildlife throughout; again, these added nothing to the whole for me, and felt a little jarring.

Henshaw does have a flair for the (melo)dramatic, and I did find that this became rather tiresome as the book went on.  There was also only a loose structure at work, and the memoir jumped back and forth in time at odd intervals.  There are some nice moments here, though – for instance, when she takes a detour by bicycle to the bookish town of Hay-on-Wye, in order to help a writer friend sell his own memoir, and when she recounts some of the odd experiences which she has with the general public.  I found some parts of The Bookshop That Floated Away far more engaging than others, and overall it did feel as though there was a kind of inconsistency to the book.

Purchase from The Book Depository

3

‘Lab Girl’ by Hope Jahren ***

My interest in Lab Girl: A Story of Trees, Science and Love piqued when I seemed to see it everywhere at the start of the year.  I am currently on a huge non-fiction kick, and am really getting into nature writing of late too, more reasons which pushed me to borrow Hope Jahren’s memoir from my local library.  Lab Girl, states its blurb, is ‘a book about work and about love, and the mountains that can be moved when those two things come together.’  It is described as a memoir at once ‘visceral, intimate, gloriously candid and sometimes extremely funny’.

9780349006208Lab Girl has been split into three separate sections – ‘Roots and Leaves’, ‘Wood and Knots’, and ‘Flowers and Fruit’ – which are sandwiched by a prologue and epilogue.  In the rather brief prologue, Jahren asserts: ‘Plant numbers are staggering: there are eighty billion trees just within the protest forests of the Western United States.  The ratio of trees to people in America is well over two hundred.  As a rule, people live among plants but they don’t really see them.  Since I’ve discovered these numbers, I can see little else.’

In ‘Roots and Leaves’, Jahren begins her discussion proper by letting her readers know that she grew up in her father’s physics laboratory, ‘nestled within a community college in rural Minnesota’, where he taught for over forty years.  She then goes on to set out a concise family history, which she admits she knows little about.  Her great-grandparents travelled to Minnesota from Norway, as part of a mass-immigration that began in the 1880s: ‘The vast emotional distances between the individual members of a Scandinavian family are forged early and reinforced daily.  Can you imagine growing up in a culture where you can never ask anyone anything about themselves?  Where “How are you?” is considered a personal question that one is not obligated to answer?’

As the youngest of four children, she barely noticed when her three considerably older brothers moved away, as they often went days without speaking to one another.  As a child, Jahren recognised an absence in her life, but cannot quite articulate what it is, or why it exists: ‘Back at home, while my mother and I gardened and read together, I vaguely sensed that there was something we weren’t doing, something affectionate that normal mothers and daughters naturally do, but I couldn’t figure out what it was, and I suppose she couldn’t either.  We probably do love each other, each in our own stubborn way, but I’m not entirely sure, probably because we have never openly talked about it.  Being mother and daughter has always felt like an experiment that we just can’t get right.’

When she moved away to University, Jahren chose to study science, ‘because it gave me what I needed – a home as defined in the most literal sense: a safe place to be.’  She talks with love about the numerous labs which she has personally created over the years, and discusses at length the ways in which she prefers them to be run: ‘In my lab, whatever I need is greatly outbalanced by what I have.  The drawers are packed full with items that might come in handy.  Every object in my lab – no matter how small or misshapen – exists for a reason, even if its purpose has not yet been found.’  She also notes the challenges which have befallen her during her career: the struggles for applying for a government grant to enable her to hire staff, buy equipment, and go on research trips, and the lack of money which the US assigns to ‘curiosity-driven research’.

Chapters which focus on her personal memories, and what her life as a scientist entails, are interspersed with shorter chapters regarding trees, seeds, and facts about the natural world.  I found these pieces on the musings of the power of nature lovely in their approach, and came to prefer them far more to Jahren’s personal story.  I must admit that I did find some of the conclusions which she drew between nature and her own life a little preachy, and too sentimental, however; for instance, when she writes: ‘Each beginning is the end of a waiting.  We are each given exactly one chance to be.  Each of us is both impossible and inevitable.  Every replete tree was first a seed that waited.’  I tended to find certain parts of her writing a little jarring, and others patronising in their tone.  It is as though, at times, Jahren forgets her target audience, and starts writing to young children about what their lives could hold if they just take care of themselves.  In this manner, and in others, Lab Girl was not quite what I was expecting.

Lab Girl seemed to be randomly pieced together in places.  There were also elements which were not fully explained.  In a couple of instances, Jahren would mention a particular field trip which she took students on following the completion of her PhD, in which she assumed that the reader already had knowledge of the participants when they had not previously even been referred to.  I found this lack of explanation a little confusing, and it could have been so easily remedied.  The narrative arc is also only loosely chronological at times, so I had the sense that the book jumps around too much.

Whilst I feel as though I have learnt a lot with regard to the scientific data and facts which make up the interim chapters, I found that Jahren’s narrative voice became rather grating quite quickly.  Whilst it is well written, there were certainly repetitions which I felt could have been cut to benefit the book, and there were other points at which it felt as though Jahren was trying too hard to write flowing, poetic prose.  I did not personally find this a humorous read; whilst quips and asides have been inserted, Jahren and myself clearly have a very different sense of humour.

There was not the consistency within Lab Girl which I would have liked, and with regard to the reviews which I have seen of the book, I expected to like it far more than I did.  I gave Lab Girl a three-star rating because I so enjoyed the pieces about nature.  Had this been a straightforward memoir which omitted the natural world, however, I doubt I would have been so generous.

Purchase from The Book Depository

0

‘This Really Isn’t About You’ by Jean Hannah Edelstein ****

Olivia Laing calls Jean Hannah Edelstein, author of the memoir, This Really Isn’t About You, ‘one of the most brilliant writers of her generation.’  This, her second book, revolves around her father’s death from cancer, and discovering six months afterwards that she had inherited the gene for Lynch syndrome, which causes many different kinds of cancer to form.

9781509863785Edelstein, who was thirty-two at the time, moved back to the United States in 2014, when she was told her father was dying from lung cancer.  Up until this point, she had spent her entire adult life abroad, and was settled in London, where she worked as a freelance journalist, supplementing her passion for writing with temporary office jobs.  Six weeks after she arrives back at home, and almost simultaneous to her renting an apartment in New York City, her father passes away: ‘I was in Brooklyn looking for love on OKCupid when my father died.’

She goes on to reveal: ‘That night in February, I had a rare feeling of contentment, or something like it…  I was beginning to feel like it might be time to build my real life in America…  Maybe my life was almost under control.’  She reflects here on her father’s death in the family home in Baltimore: ‘My father tried to eat dinner, and then he told my mother that he was really not feeling well, and then he stood up from the easy chair where he had been spending most of his days for the last few weeks, and then he collapsed and died on the wooden floor in the space between the dining area and the family room.’

Edelstein begins her memoir by writing about her family history; she does this with humour and love.  She discusses, in part, her Jewish father’s relationship with his faith: ‘As far as I know, the ways in which my father was Jewish were mostly food ways: he ate briny fish and cold beet soup from jars.  Pumpernickel bagels, grainy dark breads.  My father drank little alcohol – Jews don’t really drink, he’d say, which was maybe less of a fact than a rumour – and he avoided pork products.  When pressed, he claimed it was less a fear of God than a fear of trichinosis.’  Amongst other elements, she talks of summer holidays spent with her Scottish grandmother in rainy Dumfries, moving to London for graduate school, and falling in and out of love.

Finding out that she had the gene for Lynch syndrome was, as one would expect, difficult to come to terms with. Her siblings and cousin, when they were tested, were found to be clear of the gene.  Edelstein is convinced, however, from the moment at which her father suggests that she goes to see her doctor, that she carries it: ‘… I had decided not to get tested while Dad was alive.  I couldn’t imagine telling him that I had the thing that was killing him.’  She goes on to explain: ‘My father had been dead for six months before I was brave enough to go and get the test.  I was no longer in a state of deepest grief.  I didn’t cry every day any more.  Just some of them.’

Lynch syndrome is a gene mutation, which around 1 in 400 people carry: ‘It’s found in all kinds of people, but in particular it’s found in people who can trace their origins to certain “founder populations”.  Folks who built families with people like them.  People from Finland.  People from Iceland.  French-Canadians.  The Amish.  Ashkenazi Jews.’   Following her own diagnosis, Edelstein was forced to confront some incredibly tough questions about both her present and her future: ‘How do we cope with grief?  How does living change when we realize we’re not invincible?’

This Really Isn’t About You has been variously described as heartbreaking, filled with hope, and ‘disarmingly funny’.  I found it to be all of these things; it is a rich memoir, full and quite revealing at times.  I enjoyed her brand of humour, which tends to be quite dry and sarcastic.  Edelstein’s authorial voice is consistently warm and candid, and a real pleasure to read, despite the more difficult scenes which she has described.  Her writing feels like a cathartic exercise; she has to come to terms with so much, and is open about it all to her audience.  Edelstein’s tone, and her intelligent and measured prose, coupled with the substance of the memoir, makes This Really Isn’t About You both an easy, and very difficult, book to read.

Purchase from The Book Depository

1

Two Memoirs: ‘The Argonauts’ and ‘Love, Loss, and What I Wore’

The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson ** 9780993414916
I really enjoyed Maggie Nelson’s The Red Parts, and was quite keen to get to another of her non-fiction books; thus, I borrowed The Argonauts from my local library. From the outset, the writing here is intense, far more so than I was expecting. Nelson gives a series of short reflections or memories, along with sections of philosophical musing on her part. These are interspersed with more critical work on feminists and gender; yes, there is a lot of Judith Butler here. Whilst some of these short paragraphs continue their threads for a while, others are quite fragmented, and seem almost to have been randomly pieced together.

One cannot argue that Nelson is not a highly intelligent writer, but I must admit that I did not find The Argonauts an overly approachable book. It felt more like a piece of criticism which I would read for my thesis, rather than one which I could relax with in the evening. It took me quite a while to get into, particularly as the narrative voice jumps around so much: parts of this are addressed to Nelson’s partner, artist Harry Dodge in a second person voice; other sections of it use a critical, omniscient voice; and others still use the first person perspective.

The Argonauts is certainly an important memoir, but overall, I feel as though it was not quite to my taste. What appears in the book is not at all what I expected; The Red Parts felt far better put together to me. Some parts of The Argonauts appealed to me far more than others.

 

9781565124752Love, Loss, and What I Wore by Ilene Beckerman ****
I came across Ilene Beckerman’s quirky autobiography, Love, Loss, and What I Wore, when browsing through my Goodreads homepage. I had never heard of the book, or of its author, before, but was immediately intrigued, and set off to find myself a copy. Here, Beckerman’s memories are woven in with her own illustrations of what she wore at a particular time of her life, or for a special occasion. We see her Brownie uniform, rag curls, a ballet outfit, her confirmation dress, a circle skirt which she made with a friend, ‘typical underwear’ which she often wore on dates, the bridesmaid’s dress for her best friend’s wedding, and a dress she wore during each of her six pregnancies, amongst many others.

I loved the approach which Beckerman makes here, with a short body of text and an accompanying illustration for each essay. I found it a really interesting, and quite unusual, way in which to present a memoir. Along with her own outfits at given points in time, she focuses upon the people who shaped her too – what her elder sister wore to a wedding, for example, and her grandmother’s chosen hairstyle. Love, Loss, and What I Wore is quite a quick read, but a very thoughtful one, and I appreciated the dry humour which Beckerman has sprinkled in.

 

Purchase from The Book Depository

0

‘The Girl Who Smiled Beads’ by Clemantine Wamariya ****

In 1994, Clemantine Wamariya, then aged six, and her fifteen-year-old sister Claire, fled the Rwandan genocide from their home in the country’s capital, Kigali.  They spent the following six years in seven different African countries, ‘searching for safety – perpetually hungry, imprisoned and abused, enduring and escaping refugee camps, finding unexpected kindnesses, witnessing inhuman cruelty.’  The sisters had no idea, during this period, whether their parents were alive, or what the fate of their other siblings had been.  Wamariya’s experiences are recorded in The Girl Who Smiled Beads: A Story of War and What Comes After.

9781786331472The Girl Who Smiled Beads has been described as ‘urgent, and bracingly original.’  Wamariya’s memoir, states its blurb, ‘captures the true costs of war…  But it is about more than the brutality of war.  It is about owning your experiences, about the life we create: intricately detailed, painful, beautiful, a work in progress.’

I was personally very young during the Rwandan genocide, and learnt nothing about it until long afterwards.  This is the first memoir which I have picked up about the horrifying conflict and its many victims.  When the conflict begins, Wamariya explains that she was in much the same boat; she noticed that things were changing around her, but nobody thought to even attempt to explain why this was the case.  She says, two years before she fled, ‘In my four-year-old imperiousness, I believed I could handle the truth.  I thought I deserved to know.  I demanded it.’  She is left to work things out by herself: ‘Houses were robbed, simply to prove that they could be robbed.  The robbers left notes demanding oil, or sugar, or a TV.  I asked adults to explain, but their faces had turned to concrete, and they nudged me back into childish concerns.’  To Wamariya, the conflict – at first, at least – is therefore comprised of a series of things which are suddenly forbidden, or taken away from her; for instance, her days at kindergarten, her best friend, electricity, and no more dinner guests.

The girls are taken in the dead of night from Kigali to stay with their grandmother, who lived near the Burundi border; they settle in, but soon have to move from here, too.  The sisters run into a nearby banana grove, which other people are already using for shelter, ‘most of the young, some of them bloody with wounds…  The cuts looked too large, too difficult to accomplish, gaping mouths on midnight skin.’  Her experiences of suddenly being homeless, and her change in status, are still difficult for Wamariya to articulate.  She writes: ‘It’s strange, how you go from being a person who is away from home to a person with no home at all.  The place that is supposed to want you has pushed you out.  No other place takes you in.  You are unwanted, by everyone.  You are a refugee.’

The sisters were granted refugee status in the USA when the author was twelve years old, and they settled in Chicago, Illinois.  Even when they move, and feel relatively safe, ‘the war’ is something which is very rarely mentioned between the sisters.  The memoir opens at an interesting point, when the family is reunited on Oprah’s talk show, after Wamariya enters an essay competition.  After this, the entire family, complete with young siblings that neither Clemantine nor Claire had ever met, assemble at Claire’s apartment.  Wamariya writes of the awkwardness and heartbreak of this situation: ‘I sat on Claire’s couch, looking at my strange new siblings, the ones who’d replaced me and Claire.  They looked so perfect, their skin unblemished, their eyes alight, like an excellent fictional representation of a family that could have been mine.  But they didn’t know me and I didn’t know them and the gap between us was a billion miles wide.’

Of her experiences, and the difficulties which she has in recalling everything which she went through, Wamariya writes: ‘… my own life story feels fragmented, like beads unstrung.  Each time I scoop up my memories, the assortment is slightly different.’  Looking back upon her experiences, she says: ‘I did not understand the point of the word genocide then.  I resent and revile it now.  The word is tidy and efficient.  It holds no true emotion.  It is impersonal when it needs to be intimate; cool and sterile when it needs to be gruesome.  The word is hollow, true but disingenuous, a performance, the worst kind of lie.’

The Girl Who Smiled Beads is a powerful memoir, filled with poignant scenes and musings.  Wamariya never glosses over any of her experiences; nor does she overdramatise them.  From the outset, she exercises her wise voice, and imparts her deepest and most private thoughts.  ‘I think back to this after,’ she writes, ‘in trying to make sense of the world – how there are people who have so much and people who have so little, and how I fit in with them both.  Often I find myself trying to bridge the two worlds, to show people, either the people with so much or the people with so little, that everything is yours and everything is not yours.’

Purchase from The Book Depository