Penelope Fitzgerald is one of my favourite writers, and I am sadly reaching the end of her oeuvre. However, there are a couple of titles which have proven themselves rare enough that I haven’t been able to get my hands on a copy in the past. Thank goodness that my library’s county store had a copy of the biographical Charlotte Mew and Her Friends!
I have not read a great deal of poet Charlotte Mew’s work – again, it has been rather difficult to find – but I have very much enjoyed what I have been able to find. Virginia Woolf called Mew ‘the greatest living poetess’, and she has been admired by writers as diverse as Thomas Hardy, Ezra Pound, Edith Sitwell, and Siegfried Sassoon.
Mew was born in 1869, and grew up in ‘genteel poverty’ in Bloomsbury, London. Fitzgerald focuses, in the opening chapter, on her father, Fred, who worked as an architect. As a child, Mew is described as ‘the tiny Lotti, curly, brilliant, irresistible and defiant’. Her life was quite difficult, in some respects; two of her siblings, Henry and Freda, were tormented by mental health struggles, and spent much of their lives in institutions.
Carefully selected quotes and stanzas of Mew’s have been placed throughout. Fitzgerald offers measured observations and clear-eyed assertions about particular poems, setting these against events which Mew experienced. She also masterfully uses wider social context to explore Mew’s choices and lifestyle, writing: ‘She never left home for long, never became – for example – a suffragette or even a suffragist, never made any attempt to claim political or sexual freedom or defend herself either against society or her own nature. On the contrary, with fierce self-suppression she inherited the fate of the world’s minorities and suffered as an outsider, an outsider, that is, even to herself.’ Fitzgerald goes on: ‘Though Charlotte never wanted to get rid of her responsibilities, she preferred not to be answerable to anyone. She needed, in fact, not independence but freedom.’
Charlotte Mew and Her Friends is filled with a wealth of such charming details: ‘Certain colours, particularly white and red, always obsessed Charlotte Mew. She was more sensitive to colour than she wanted to be. She “knew how jewels tasted”.’
On reading Charlotte Mew and Her Friends, I am completely certain that Fitzgerald could have turned her hand to any subject and made it incredibly compelling; she handles, marvellously, every character and genre she explored. It perhaps goes without saying for anyone at all familiar with Fitzgerald’s work that her research is thorough, and she weaves everything together so deftly. Fitzgerald was the perfect author to handle this biography, with her clever turns of phrase, and the power of her prose. It feels as though she has such an understanding of her subject throughout.
I read the entirety of this book with such interest. Mew is a fascinating subject for such a character study, struggling with her lesbianism, and turned down twice by women she was infatuated with. Fitzgerald explores these relationships, and others – her tumultuous friendship with author May Sinclair, and gaining an ‘elderly admirer’ from the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, for example – with empathy and understanding.
I cannot help it; I am drawn, time after time, to books about books. I have been a bibliophile for as long as I can remember, and love to read about other people’s adventures within the world of books. It will come as no surprise, then, that Paul Collins’ Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of Books – a memoir of moving his family to the Welsh book town of Hay-on-Wye – was high on my to-read list.
I found it a lovely touch that every review adorning the hardback edition of Sixpence House was written by a bookseller. They say, variously, that this book includes ‘remarkable wit’, is ‘viscerally funny and intellectually engaging’, and is ‘an astonishingly entertaining book that touches on everything to do with books.’
In 2003, Collins and his family left their house in San Francisco to move to the ‘town of books’ in Wales, a place to which they had made ‘yearly pilgrimages’ beforehand. The small market town of Hay-on-Wye boasted just 1,500 inhabitants – ‘a large population of misfits and bibliomaniacs’ – but an astonishing 40 antiquarian bookshops. Collins, along with his partner Jennifer and young son, moved into a sixteenth-century apartment above a rambling bookshop.
After a few weeks, he begins to work for Richard Booth, the ‘self-declared King of Hay’, and the owner of the world’s largest ‘and most chaotic used-book warren’. Collins is tasked with the impossibility of organising the American fiction section in the bookshop, which he describes as ‘a rambling monstrosity of half-opened shipping boxes, bindings ripped to shreds, of unguarded treasures left tossed in spiderwebbed corners. There are something like half a million books in this building – but nobody’s really counting any more.’ At this point in time, Collins is awaiting the publication of his first book in the United States.
Sixpence House is rather a quirky book, complete with a set of incredibly precise chapter headings. These range from ‘Skips a Tiring Train Journey and Alights in the Welsh Countryside’, to the final chapter, entitled ‘Ends with a Subtle Hint of Further Mishaps in the Future’. The whole is relatively entertaining, and I appreciated all of the anecdotes of bookselling which he provides. Extracts from the more obscure antiquarian books which Collins finds have been placed throughout too.
Collins’ humour throughout is dry and sarcastic, and sometimes a little deprecating and derogatory – particularly on the subject of the British. He is rather scathing of the people around him; he writes, for instance, ‘… Britain is a realm of nice stammering fellows: Hugh Grant has immortalized them for all posterity’. He reverts to stereotyping Brits a lot – their love of tea drinking, and a supposed penchant for incredibly dated kitchens ‘distinctly of 1950s vintage; you half expect an Angry Young Man with a Yorkshire accent to step out and start yelling about working down in the bloody mines‘. I’m not sure why. Comments of this ilk continue throughout the book, and do make it feel rather dated.
Those who enjoy Shaun Bythell’s memoirs on bookselling in the designated Scottish book town, Wigtown, are sure to enjoy Sixpence House. Both authors have a similiar pessimism about them, and aren’t shy with how they refer to the people who provide them with a living.
The Sixpence House of the book’s title is a tumbledown pub in the centre of town which Collins attempts to buy. After many setbacks, the family decide that sadly, it just isn’t worth it, and they end up moving back to the United States. Still, what Hay offered them was an adventure, into a town which has, quite literally, built itself around the book trade.
I would certainly be interested to see how much the Hay of today differs from what Collins depicts; after all, almost twenty years have passed since Sixpence House‘s publication. I have still not visited Hay, which seems a little shameful for a bookworm to admit. Fingers crossed I’ll get there one day – hopefully with an empty suitcase in tow to fill with treasures.
Amy Licence describes herself as an ‘historian of women’s lives’, and has written about individuals from a wide span of periods, from the late fifteenth to the early nineteenth century. The Three Extraordinary Women at the heart of Licence’s 2017 biography, Bohemian Lives, are Ida Nettleship, Sophie Brzeska, and Fernande Olivier. This book marks her second foray into the early twentieth century, and follows a title which I have been coveting since its 2015 publication – Living in Squares, Loving in Triangles: The Lives and Loves of Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group.
I am always keen to read about women, particularly those who subverted convention, as each of the subjects here did to some degree. I am fascinated by the period in which these women lived and loved, a world of drastic change where, as Licence writes, ‘individual rights and personal freedoms were being redefined, where women like them were seeking new ways of arranging their private and professional lives, questioning the traditional roles of dependence and maternity.’ Interestingly, the women whom Licence has chosen to focus on all moved in similar circles, and called Paris their home during the same period, but there is no evidence that they ever met one another.
In Bohemian Lives, Licence has set out to follow ‘the achievements and sacrifices of the three women and how their lives overlapped and contrasted, in education, childbirth, illness, marriage – and psychological disintegration.’ Each of the women acted as a great influence upon their artist partners and so, says Licence, ‘challenged the accepted model of male-female relations of the time.’
At the outset, Licence sets out what she believes Bohemianism consisted of; it was, she writes, ‘a philosophy of opposition’, and its ‘essential component was its cultural “otherness”‘. Each of the three women profiled in Bohemian Lives ‘chose some aspects of bohemian living but not others. In rejecting traditional marriage, they suffered jealousy and censure, in rejecting material wealth they struggled to keep themselves fed and clothed. They were by no means the only notable bohemians of their era; they belonged to a whole legion of women pursuing art and love on a mixed journey of dazzling highs and crippling lows.’
Ida Nettleship is an individual whom I have long wanted to learn more about; she married licentious artist Augustus John, who is said to have fathered up to 100 children (!). In marrying John, and bearing five children in just six years, Ida gave up her own promising artistic career. She also became part of a menage á trois, when John insisted on moving his mistress into the family home. Ida sadly died following childbirth in 1907, when she was just thirty years old. Unlike the other women here, Ida’s childhood was a relatively prosperous one; she was brought up in London, into a learned family, and her parents encouraged her ambition to become an artist.
Fernande Olivier was the first love of Pablo Picasso. Born illegitimately as Amélie Lang, she was unwanted by her mother, and went to live with her aunt and uncle. After they attempted to arrange an unwanted marriage for her, Amélie ran away, and attached herself to a violent man, marrying when she was just nineteen. After escaping his clutches, she changed her name to Fernande Olivier to hide from him, and began to move in the artistic circles of Paris. Her relationship with Picasso, which began in 1904, lasted for seven years, and was categorised as highly tempestuous. She sat as a model for him on several occasions.
Sophie Brzeska, born in the Polish city of Krakow, was a writer who lived with the French artist Henri Gaudier, who was known as Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. The pair met in Paris, where Sophie, the only daughter in a family of boys which had fallen on hard times, moved to work as a governess. Sadly, Henri was killed in the trenches during the First World War, at the age of just twenty-three. Sophie, almost twenty years his senior, began a ‘slow descent into mental instability’ after his death, and remained in an asylum until her death in 1925.
Bohemian Lives is undoubtedly fascinating, and it has given me a relatively good understanding of three women whom I knew comparatively little about beforehand. I did, however, have a few niggles with the book, particularly the way in which Licence relies so heavily upon conjecture. This is particularly true with regard to Sophie’s life, of which very little fact has been recorded. The first chapter, which focuses upon Sophie as a young girl, is composed of anecdotes which she told to others, and a narrative which she fashioned herself. When Sophie moves to the United States to work as governess to a family, Licence makes a lot of guesses as to which family she might have worked for, but has no concrete evidence. In this manner, Sophie’s biography sadly feels a little vague, and I do not feel as though I knew much more about her when I had finished reading. It must be tricky to craft a biography around an individual whose life was largely obscured, and who left few facts behind them, but I have seen it done a little more successfully in other work.
There is also perhaps a little too much emphasis upon the situations in which the three women could have met one another. I did not feel that this was quite necessary. I do feel as though more attention to the chronological timeline would have made a more successful, and easier to follow, narrative; as it is, each chapter largely follows one different woman, and we therefore jump around a little in time.
There is a great attention to detail in Licence’s work, and I admire the way in which she has focused on little-known women, who have fallen to the wayside of history. Bohemian Lives has been meticulously researched, and there is an excellent attention to detail where the facts exist. Licence excels at setting the scene, and I am looking forward to picking up some of her other books in the near future. I just hope that there is a little less guessing involved in the lives of her subjects.
A Fifty-Year Silence: Love, War and a Ruined House in France has been hailed both ‘a rich and evocative portrait of Mouillot’s family spanning three generations’, and ‘a heartbreaking, uplifting love story spanning two continents’. In her debut work, Mouillot ‘seeks to confront and illuminate a shadow that haunts every family: the past, which is at once sharply present and maddeningly vague’.
A Fifty-Year Silence presents an ‘honest account’ of her grandparents’ separation, and the consequent problems which their offspring and only grandchild, Miranda, were caused. Anna and Armand purchased an old stone house in the south of France after surviving the Nazi occupation during the Second World War. Five years after they had moved, Anna left, ‘taking the typewriter and their children. They never met again’.
In her author’s note, Mouillot tells us that this ‘is a true story, but it is a work of memory, not a work of history’. The whole has been based, for the most part, upon letters, diaries, and conversations had with her grandparents, as well as her own memories of them. Mouillot is descended from a family of Holocaust survivors, ‘with a lot of bad memories to cope with’. These feelings were passed down to her; she tells us: ‘I kept my shoes near the front door, so I could grab them quickly if we had to escape in a hurry, but then I’d lie awake and worry we’d have to use the back door instead’, and ‘the unspoken question that nettled me was not whether such a thing [as losing a house] could happen but how many houses you could lose in a lifetime’.
A Fifty-Year Silence begins in a manner which immediately gives us a feel for Mouillot’s grandparents: ‘When I was born, my grandmother tied a red ribbon around my left wrist to ward off the evil eye. She knew what was ahead of me and what was behind me, and though she was a great believer in luck and the hazards of fortune, she wasn’t about to take any chances on me’. She then goes on to say: ‘My grandmother practiced a peculiar and intensive form of self-sufficiency. She wasn’t a wilderness type; she just knew that in the end, the only person she could truly rely upon was herself’. Her seeming incompatibility with her stubborn, set-in-his-ways grandfather, is discussed at length. Mouillot believed that her grandparents were ‘more than opposites, or perhaps less; they were like the north poles of two magnets, impossible to push close enough together in my mind to make any kind of comparison, let alone a connection’.
From the first, Mouillot’s narrative is engaging, and she presents her voyage of self- and familial-discovery marvellously. The flashbacks of her grandparents’ comments, and musings about their early lives have been woven along with her own youth. She weaves in the tale of how she herself fell in love with La Roche, the decrepit, crumbling house two miles away from the nearest village, and an hour north of Avignon, whilst visiting as a teenager, and how she has now made the region her home. A Fifty-Year Silence is incredibly interesting, and it has been so lovingly written that it truly is a treat to settle down with.
I very much enjoy Eudora Welty’s fiction, but know comparatively little about her childhood. I read the wonderful What There Is To Say We Have Said a couple of years ago, which features much of the correspondence between Welty and another favourite author of mine, William Maxwell. This autobiographical work, which is composed of a wealth of memories largely from Welty’s Mississippi childhood, works as a wonderful companion volume.
Of One Writer’s Beginnings, William Maxwell writes, ‘It is all wonderful… The parts of the book that are about her family… are by turns hilarious and affecting. They are a kind of present… from Miss Welty to her audience.’ Penelope Lively believes it to be a piece of ‘entrancing reading’, and Paul Binding writes in the New Statesman: ‘A writer for whom “genius” is for once a not inappropriate word… A book of great sensitivity – as controlled and yet aspiring as a lyric poem.’
In One Writer’s Beginnings, which was first published in 1984, Welty decided to tell her story in one ‘continuous thread of revelation’. The book provides, says its blurb, ‘… an exploration of memory by one of America’s finest writers, whose many honours include the Pulitzer Prize, the American Book Award for Fiction, and the Gold Medal for the novel.’ This book consists of three essays – ‘Listening’, ‘Learning to See’, and ‘Finding a Voice’ – which have been transcribed from a set of three lectures which Welty gave at Harvard University in April 1983.
When ‘Listening’ begins, Welty’s words set the scene immediately: ‘In our house on North Congress Street in Jackson, Mississippi, where I was born, the oldest of three children, in 1909, we grew up to the striking of clocks.’ Throughout, Welty’s voice is lyrical, candid, and often quite moving. She reveals her deep love of books, which was present even when she was a tiny child. ‘I learned,’ she writes, ‘from the age of two or three that any room in our house, at any time of day, was there to read in, or be read to.’ Welty’s writing is particularly beautiful when she discusses her love of stories: ‘It had been startling and disappointing to me to find out that story books had been written by people, that books were not natural wonders, coming up of themselves like grass. Yet regardless of where they came from, I cannot remember a time when I was not in love with them – with the books themselves, cover and binding and the paper they were printed on, with their smell and their weight and with their possession in my arms, captured and carried off to myself. Still illiterate, I was ready for them, committed to all the reading I could give them.’
In a series of vignettes, Welty talks about stargazing, singing, childhood illness, learning the alphabet, religion, schooling, and the quirks of her in some ways unconventional parents, amongst other things. The imagery which she conjures up is often lovely; for instance: ‘All children in those small-town, unhurried days had a vast inner life going on in the movies. Whole families attended together in the evenings, at least once a week, and children were allowed to go without chaperone in the long summer afternoons – schoolmates with their best friends, pairs of little girls trotting on foot the short distance through the park to town under their Japanese parasols.’ When she discusses the travels which she went on with her family each summer, she writes of their positive effect upon her later writing: ‘I think now, in looking back on these summer trips – this one and a number later, made in the car and on the train – that another element in them must have been influencing my mind. The trips were wholes unto themselves. They were stories. Not only in form, but their taking on direction, movement, development, change. They changed something in my life: each trip made its particular revelation, though I could not have found words for it. But with the passage of time, I could look back on them and see them bringing me news, discoveries, premonitions, promises – I still can; they still do.’
One Writer’s Beginnings spans Welty’s childhood, and includes comparatively brief reflections about her time at college, and the early days of her writing career. She is insightful about the creation of her characters, and the knowledge which one must have as an author to create enough depth. ‘Characters take on a life sometimes by luck,’ writes Welty, ‘but I suspect it is when you can write most entirely out of yourself, inside the skin, heart, mind, and soul of a person who is not yourself, that a character becomes in his own right another human being on the page.’
One Writer’s Beginnings is a beautifully written celebration of stories, of Welty’s own, and of those which filled her girlhood. I was pulled in immediately, transported to the Deep South in the early twentieth century. This is a joyous account, filled with depth and insight. Welty’s voice is utterly charming, and sometimes quite profound. I shall close this review with one of the most wonderful quotes from the book: ‘The memory is a living thing – it too is in transit. But during the moment, all that is remembered joins and lives – the old and the young, the past and the present, the living and the dead.’
Aside from being my favourite art movement, I have always been fascinated by those who began the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and the muses who so inspired them. Lizzie Siddal is perhaps the most iconic of these, serving as the model for such well-known figures as Ophelia and Beatrice, with her pale skin and cascading auburn hair.
Even as a history nerd, I must admit that I’ve not picked up one of Lucinda Hawksley’s books before. This seems odd, considering that whilst looking through her oeuvre, I wrote down almost every single title on my sprawling TBR list. Hawksley’s books and areas of research really appeal to me, and after my extremely positive experience reading Lizzie Siddal: The Tragedy of a Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel, I am keen to pick up more of her work soon.
Lizzie Siddal, born Elizabeth Siddall in Southwark, London, worked first for a milliner, modelling different styles of hats for wealthy clients. She was ‘discovered’ by the Irish poet William Allingham, who found that she almost perfectly fitted the criteria for a model his friend, Walter Howell Deverell, was seeking for a painting. Deverell was ‘despairing of finding a woman without prominent curves; he had also hoped to find a red-haired model’ for his depiction of Shakespeare’s Viola.
At first, Siddal was flattered but sceptical of Deverell’s approach, and it took his kindly mother to finally convince her to accept. Her scepticism was wound up with the fact that during the 1840s, ‘modelling for an artist was perceived as being synonymous with prostitution’. Her introduction to modelling for the group of artists, however, was a pleasurable one, and throughout, she demonstrated her fervent respectability. She had a desperation to be accepted.
Siddal went on to become one of the most famous faces in Victorian Britain, sitting for the likes of John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the latter of whom she eventually married after a tumultuous relationship. As Hawksley puts it, this brought with it ‘nine years of emotional agony’. She writes of their nervous inclination, and the clash of their personalities: ‘… both were headstrong and wilful; they were also depressive; prone to wild mood swings… [They] had a tendency to addiction and shared a destructively jealous need to be the most important figure in their – or, indeed, any – relationship.’
At the point of her marriage to Rossetti, Siddal had an addiction to laudanum, and was suffering from a debilitating, and quite mysterious, illness. Her illness was misdiagnosed by specialists as consumption and curvature of the spine in her lifetime. As Hawksley notes, it ‘has long baffled medics and scholars’. It is thought that she may have suffered from an eating disorder, or that ‘she was simply “neurotic” – a vague description that can encompass myriad symptoms and mental illnesses.’ The majority of the symptoms which she manifested, including nausea, dizziness, and a constant cough, can indicate a laudanum addiction. After giving birth to a stillborn daughter, and suffering much heartache, Siddal eventually committed suicide at the age of 32.
Of course, the primary focus here is on Siddal. However, Hawksley gives a lot of valuable context about the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and its aims. They wished, she writes, ‘to paint vibrantly coloured works that would mean something to the viewer, subjects that would provoke the imagination and cause discussion.’ The Pre-Raphaelites wanted to return to the artistic ideals which existed before Italian painter and artist of the High Renaissance period, Raphael (1483-1520), the point at which they believed art had “gone wrong”.
Throughout, Hawksley gives a real flavour for the Southwark which Siddal grew up in – highly crowded, with no access to clean running water. Her family, though, was an aspirational one, and she did not grow up in poverty exactly. Siddal exaggerated about her unbringing, leading everyone around her to believe that she grew up in an impoverished slum. This, Hawskley suggests, was a ploy to ‘make Rossetti feel the need to protect her. She preferred to be known as a romantically tragic figure rather than reveal the truth about her family’s shabby working-class respectability.’ Hawksley moves through Siddal’s life with care and sensitivity, and does not simply focus upon her as a muse; she also writes of Siddal’s own artistry, as she was a painter in her own right. Indeed, John Ruskin purchased her entire portfolio of work in 1855, after he became her mentor.
Lizzie Siddal is a thorough and highly readable account of what became an incredibly sad life, marred by tragedy. The research and primary sources have been meticulously examined, and extra information – which tends to give more context, or further explain a brief point Hawksley makes – is often provided in footnotes. Hawksley’s book is relatively slim for a biography, standing at just over 200 pages, but such good use has been made of the original sources, and the whole feels intricately woven. Lizzie Siddal moves along so well, and is an excellent example of historical biography, which I would highly recommend.
I stumbled across Taran N. Khan’s Shadow City: A Woman Walks Kabul on my library app, and thought it sounded fascinating. Thankfully the ebook version was available for me to borrow, and I began it right away. First published in 2019, Indian author Khan arrived in Kabul, Afghanistan in 2006, three years after the Taliban regime was overthrown.
On her arrival in Kabul, where she embarked on a new work project with her husband at a local television station, Khan was ‘cautioned never to walk [around the city]. Her instincts compelled her to do the opposite: to take that precarious first step and enter the life of the city with the unique, tactile intimacy that comes from being a walker.’ As a Muslim woman, she was able to access parts of the city which were closed to other travellers. She continued to walk around different regions of the city until she returned to India in 2013.
In her memoir, Khan ‘paints a lyrical, personal, and meditative portrait of a city we know primarily in terms of conflict and peace.’ Shadow City has accordingly been split up into seven different sections, and begins and ends with a chapter named ‘Returns’. Throughout, Khan gives a comprehensive history of Afghanistan, and of Kabul specifically. The city is one which kept drawing Khan back, and even after short absences, she always longed to return.
In her foreword, Khan writes: ‘Memory returns in fragments. I remember walking through the half-empty streets feeling the sun on my back. I heard snatches of song on a radio, passed a group of young men lounging on a broken sofa they had pulled onto the street. I saw walls with bullet marks, and barriers across gates… Under my feet was the slush of the spring.’ She later describes Kabul as a place of hidden scenes: ‘It deceives you with its high walls streaked with brown mud… It hides behind the fine mist of dust that hangs over its streets and homes, so that the city appears as though from the other side of a soft curtain. Like a mirage, a place that is both near and far away.’
Khan’s ability to walk around Kabul was a sharp contrast to her strict upbringing in the city of Aligarh, India. The few outings which she was allowed on were strictly regulated, and she was always chaperoned. Of her past and present, she reflects: ‘The carefully cloistered routines of my adolescence corresponded seamlessly with the rhythm of the city in 2006… the things other women from abroad found difficult about the city often seemed quite natural to me.’
Khan comments: ‘Being told not to walk was another way in which Kabul felt familiar. To map the city, I drew on the same knowledge and intuition that had helped me navigate the streets of my home town… These were routes of discovery – maps of being lost. To be lost is a way to see a place afresh… To be lost in Kabul is to find it – as a place of richness and possibility.’ I can understand Khan’s outlook, as a fellow walker; one of my favourite things to do is to wander, sometimes aimlessly, particularly when I am exploring new places. Walking also allows Khan some freedom; she allows herself to walk, as a woman, around a male-dominated space, which ultimately gives her a lot of agency. She becomes a flaneuse, an observer of her new place.
An element of Shadow City which I particularly enjoyed was the way in which Khan notices and interprets absences; for instance, of those who have passed away, and who now reside in various graveyards – a ‘web of memorials’ – around the city. She also describes, quite wonderfully, how the city alters over her repeated visits: ‘With each return, my paths turned inwards as well. I learned to see Kabul in fragments, to move through terrains of the imagination while remaining motionless. I wandered through myths and memories…’.
Shadow City is an impressive debut, which sings with the glory of being in charge of one’s own agency, even in a geographical location which is often threatened by external forces. Khan’s narrative is both rich and thorough, and gives a different, and worthy, perspective to the Kabul which many of us in the Western world are aware of. Shadow City is fascinating, and serves to open a window onto both geography and society, politics and remnants of war. Khan gives her readers an insider’s view of a city which most of us have largely seen in the wake of destruction. She writes about the wonderful people which she meets, a sometimes fruitless search for reading material, and the way in which Kabul is slowly regaining itself.
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?
I recently came across this very interesting reading list, published by TED in 2018. It is wonderfully varied, and certainly contains quite a few niche genres which I certainly have not read before. Although the list specifies that these choices are aimed at summer reading, I thought that I would look through it and pick out ten titles which I would like to get to over the next year or two.
1. A Lucky Man: Stories by Jamel Brinkley ‘In the nine expansive, searching stories of A Lucky Man, fathers and sons attempt to salvage relationships with friends and family members and confront mistakes made in the past. An imaginative young boy from the Bronx goes swimming with his group from day camp at a backyard pool in the suburbs, and faces the effects of power and privilege in ways he can barely grasp. A teen intent on proving himself a man through the all-night revel of J’Ouvert can’t help but look out for his impressionable younger brother. A pair of college boys on the prowl follow two girls home from a party and have to own the uncomfortable truth of their desires. And at a capoeira conference, two brothers grapple with how to tell the story of their family, caught in the dance of their painful, fractured history. Jamel Brinkley’s stories, in a debut that announces the arrival of a significant new voice, reflect the tenderness and vulnerability of black men and boys whose hopes sometimes betray them, especially in a world shaped by race, gender, and class–where luck may be the greatest fiction of all.’
2. Sophie’s Misfortunes by Comtesse de Ségur ‘Les Malheur de Sophie (Sophie’s Misfortunes) describes the life of Sophie before the events of Les Petites Filles Modèles, when she still lives with her parents in the French countryside. She is a lively, adventurous child who keeps getting into mischief with the critical complicity of her cousin Paul. Each chapter, with a few exceptions, follow a similar pattern: Sophie does something bad or stupid; she is found out or confesses her mischief; and she gets punished –or not – by her mother Mme de Réan, who uses each incident to teach a moral lesson.’
3. Eunice: The Kennedy Who Changed the World by Eileen McNamara ‘A Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist examines the life and times of Eunice Kennedy Shriver, arguing she left behind the Kennedy family’s most profound political legacy. While Joe Kennedy was grooming his sons for the White House and the Senate, his Stanford-educated daughter Eunice was tapping her father’s fortune and her brothers’ political power to engineer one of the great civil rights movements of our time on behalf of millions of children and adults with intellectual disabilities. Now, in Eunice, Pulitzer Prize winner Eileen McNamara finally brings Eunice Kennedy Shriver out from her brothers’ shadow to show an officious, cigar-smoking, indefatigable woman of unladylike determination and deep compassion born of rage: at the medical establishment that had no answers for her sister Rosemary; at the revered but dismissive father whose vision for his family did not extend beyond his sons; and at the government that failed to deliver on America’s promise of equality. Granted access to never-before-seen private papers—from the scrapbooks Eunice kept as a schoolgirl in prewar London to her thoughts on motherhood and feminism—McNamara paints a vivid portrait of a woman both ahead of her time and out of step with it: the visionary founder of the Special Olympics, a devout Catholic in a secular age, and a formidable woman whose impact on American society was longer lasting than that of any of the Kennedy men.’
4. The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying by Nina Riggs ‘Poet and essayist Nina Riggs was just thirty-seven years old when initially diagnosed with breast cancer–one small spot. Within a year, she received the devastating news that her cancer was terminal. How does a dying person learn to live each day “unattached to outcome”? How does one approach the moments, big and small, with both love and honesty? How does a young mother and wife prepare her two young children and adored husband for a loss that will shape the rest of their lives? How do we want to be remembered? Exploring motherhood, marriage, friendship, and memory, Nina asks: What makes a meaningful life when one has limited time? “Profound and poignant” (O, The Oprah Magazine), The Bright Hour is about how to make the most of all the days, even the painful ones. It’s about the way literature, especially Nina’s direct ancestor, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and her other muse, Montaigne, can be a balm and a form of prayer.’
5. The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown ‘For readers of Unbroken, out of the depths of the Depression comes an irresistible story about beating the odds and finding hope in the most desperate of times–the improbable, intimate account of how nine working-class boys from the American West showed the world at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin what true grit really meant. It was an unlikely quest from the start. With a team composed of the sons of loggers, shipyard workers, and farmers, the University of Washington’s eight-oar crew team was never expected to defeat the elite teams of the East Coast and Great Britain, yet they did, going on to shock the world by defeating the German team rowing for Adolf Hitler. The emotional heart of the tale lies with Joe Rantz, a teenager without family or prospects, who rows not only to regain his shattered self-regard but also to find a real place for himself in the world. Drawing on the boys’ own journals and vivid memories of a once-in-a-lifetime shared dream, Brown has created an unforgettable portrait of an era, a celebration of a remarkable achievement, and a chronicle of one extraordinary young man’s personal quest.’
6. The Overstoryby Richard Powers
‘An Air Force loadmaster in the Vietnam War is shot out of the sky, then saved by falling into a banyan. An artist inherits a hundred years of photographic portraits, all of the same doomed American chestnut. A hard-partying undergraduate in the late 1980s electrocutes herself, dies, and is sent back into life by creatures of air and light. A hearing- and speech-impaired scientist discovers that trees are communicating with one another. These four, and five other strangers-each summoned in different ways by trees-are brought together in a last and violent stand to save the continent’s few remaining acres of virgin forest. In his twelfth novel, National Book Award winner Richard Powers delivers a sweeping, impassioned novel of activism and resistance that is also a stunning evocation of-and paean to-the natural world. From the roots to the crown and back to the seeds, The Overstory unfolds in concentric rings of interlocking fables that range from antebellum New York to the late twentieth-century Timber Wars of the Pacific Northwest and beyond, exploring the essential conflict on this planet: the one taking place between humans and nonhumans. There is a world alongside ours-vast, slow, interconnected, resourceful, magnificently inventive, and almost invisible to us. This is the story of a handful of people who learn how to see that world and who are drawn up into its unfolding catastrophe. The Overstory is a book for all readers who despair of humanity’s self-imposed separation from the rest of creation and who hope for the transformative, regenerating possibility of a homecoming. If the trees of this earth could speak, what would they tell us? “Listen. There’s something you need to hear.”‘
7. No Pity by Joe Shapiro ‘In No Pity: People with Disabilities Forging a New Civil Rights Movement, Joe Shapiro of U.S. News & World Report tells of a political awakening few nondisabled Americans have even imagined. There are over 43 million disabled people in this country alone; for decades most of them have been thought incapable of working, caring for themselves, or contributing to society. But during the last twenty-live years, they, along with their parents and families, have begun to recognize that paraplegia, retardation, deafness, blindness, AIDS, autism, or any of the hundreds of other chronic illnesses and disabilities that differentiate them from the able-bodied are not tragic. The real tragedy is prejudice, our society’s and the medical establishment’s refusal to recognize that the disabled person is entitled to every right and privilege America can offer. No Pity‘s chronicle of disabled people’s struggle for inclusion, from the seventeenth-century deaf communities on Martha’s Vineyard to the enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1992, is only part of the story. Joe Shapiro’s five years of in-depth reporting have uncovered many personal stories as well. ‘
8. A Kind of Mirraculus Paradise by Sandra Allen
‘Writer Sandra Allen did not know their uncle Bob very well. As a child, Sandy had been told Bob was “crazy,” that he had spent time in mental hospitals while growing up in Berkeley in the 60s and 70s. But Bob had lived a hermetic life in a remote part of California for longer than Sandy had been alive, and what little Sandy knew of him came from rare family reunions or odd, infrequent phone calls. Then in 2009 Bob mailed Sandy his autobiography. Typewritten in all caps, a stream of error-riddled sentences over sixty, single-spaced pages, the often-incomprehensible manuscript proclaimed to be a “true story” about being “labeled a psychotic paranoid schizophrenic,” and arrived with a plea to help him get his story out to the world. In A Kind of Mirraculas Paradise: A True Story about Schizophrenia, Sandy translates Bob’s autobiography, artfully creating a gripping coming-of-age story while sticking faithfully to the facts as he shared them. Lacing Bob’s narrative with chapters providing greater contextualization, Sandy also shares background information about their family, the culturally explosive time and place of their uncle’s formative years, and the vitally important questions surrounding schizophrenia and mental healthcare in America more broadly. The result is a heartbreaking and sometimes hilarious portrait of a young man striving for stability in his life as well as his mind, and an utterly unique lens into an experience that, to most people, remains unimaginable.’
9. Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien ‘Master storyteller Madeleine Thien takes us inside an extended family in China, showing us the lives of two successive generations–those who lived through Mao’s Cultural Revolution and their children, who became the students protesting in Tiananmen Square. At the center of this epic story are two young women, Marie and Ai-Ming. Through their relationship Marie strives to piece together the tale of her fractured family in present-day Vancouver, seeking answers in the fragile layers of their collective story. Her quest will unveil how Kai, her enigmatic father, a talented pianist, and Ai-Ming’s father, the shy and brilliant composer, Sparrow, along with the violin prodigy Zhuli were forced to reimagine their artistic and private selves during China’s political campaigns and how their fates reverberate through the years with lasting consequences. With maturity and sophistication, humor and beauty, Thien has crafted a novel that is at once intimate and grandly political, rooted in the details of life inside China yet transcendent in its universality.’
10. Sorry, Not Sorry by Haji Mohamed Dawjee ‘Why don’t white people understand that Converse tekkies are not just cool but a political statement to people of colour? Why is it that South Africans of colour don’t really ‘write what we like’? What’s the deal with people pretending to be ‘woke’? Is Islam really as antifeminist as is claimed? What does it feel like to be a brown woman in a white media corporation? And what life lessons can we learn from Bollywood movies? In Sorry, Not Sorry, Haji Mohamed Dawjee explores the often maddening experience of moving through post-apartheid South Africa as a woman of colour. In characteristically candid style, she pulls no punches when examining the social landscape: from arguing why she’d rather deal with an open racist than some liberal white people, to drawing on her own experience to convince readers that joining a cult is never a good idea. In the provocative voice that has made Mohamed Dawjee one of our country’s most talked-about columnists, she offers observations laced with acerbic wit. Sorry, Not Sorry will make readers laugh, wince, nod, introspect and argue.’
Which of these books take your fancy? Have you read any of them?
After Barbara Pym’s death, American author Anne Tyler wrote: ‘What do people turn to when they’ve finished Barbara Pym? The answer is easy: they turn back to Barbara Pym.’ Although I have not quite completed her oeuvre, I very much appreciate this perspective; Pym’s novels have so much to offer, and her strength of place and character, as well as her delicious wit, are worth revisiting over and over again.
I realised some months ago that there are many authors whose work I have greatly enjoyed, but whom I know very little about as individuals. Trying to remedy that, I requested a copy of Hazel Holt’s biography A Lot to Ask: A Life of Barbara Pym from my local library, and settled down with it on a peaceful afternoon.
In this biography, says the blurb, ‘… we come to know a person whose humour and sharp observation were uniquely combined with a compassionate acceptance of human nature – qualities that made her such an outstanding novelist.’ It is promised that Pym ’emerges from these pages as an entertaining companion with an insatiable curiosity and an unquenchable delight in the eccentricities of her fellows.’
Holt was a good friend to Pym, and also acted as her literary executor, before passing away in 2015. In her introduction, Holt writes: ‘It seemed right… to try to put Barbara into her own setting, to define the manners and mores of the social scene around her (one day her novels will be a rich source for social historians), to describe her friends and colleagues, and to show how her books were moulded by her life, as well as the other way around.’ The book includes many entries from Pym’s private papers, as well as a lot of her correspondence; this is particularly true in the case of the friendship between herself and poet Philip Larkin. Even in the briefest correspondence, Pym writes beautifully and compassionately to her intended.
Rather than focus entirely on Pym, Holt gives some of the rather colourful history of her parents and grandparents. Pym’s own childhood, in a small market town in Shropshire, was ‘comfortable and conventional’, quite by contrast to the life of her illegitimate father, and filled with ‘a great deal of quiet affection’. When she moved to Oxford to study English Literature at University, however, Pym became somewhat more alive. She kept a diary, which she regularly filled with ‘sightings’ of men whom she liked, and certainly had a great deal of adventures with them. Whilst at University, Pym occasionally attended Labour Party meetings, but ‘more for the young men than for the politics’.
Holt continually asserts how important Pym’s imagination was to her; she often preferred her conjured fantasies and imagined relationships with others to whatever was happening in reality. Holt follows Pym through various love affairs; here, she observes, Pym often ‘made the mistake of expecting more than the other person was prepared to give, of building a great romantic castle on shifting sand.’
In some ways, Holt writes, Pym was rather naïve, and this was particularly true when it came to politics, or the problems of the wider world. When she moved to Poland to work as a governess in the tumultuous days of 1938, she largely ignored the threat of war: ‘Although she notes without comment that the Germans had entered Prague she gives equal space in her diary to the fact that she had been served fried potatoes with yoghurt.’ Holt captures, quite vividly, Pym’s travels around Europe, which become extensive following the Second World War, as well as the war work which she completed in Naples, Italy.
In A Lot to Ask there is, as one might expect, a lot of commentary about Pym’s books and her writing practices, which I found rather enlightening. Holt quotes at length from many of Pym’s books, in order to further illustrate points. It is clear that even as a teenager, Pym was already developing her signature prose style, capturing scenes and individuals in such vivid detail in just a sentence or two.
Pym wrote thirteen novels, four of which were published posthumously, after her untimely death from cancer in early 1980. There was, however, a painful fourteen-year period in which Pym could not find a publisher for her books, and which impacted her greatly. She is a novelist who has thankfully, and deservedly, risen to prominence once again in the twenty-first century, and I for one feel grateful that I still have several of her books yet to read.
First published in 1990, A Lot to Ask is a biography of the loveliest measure. One can tell how fond Holt was of Pym, yet the biography still feels as considered and far-reaching as it would be had the pair never known one another at all. Like her subject, Holt writes with a great deal of warmth and understanding. So absorbing, and highly readable, A Lot to Ask has so much depth to it, and feels entirely harmonious. Holt’s biography is a sheer delight, both charming and satisfying. I would dearly like to read more of her work, as well as the remainder of Pym’s correspondence in the near future.