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Non-Fiction November: ‘Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay and a Mother’s Will to Survive’ by Stephanie Land ***

As far back as I can remember, I have always tried to read the book before I watch the adaptation. Sometimes, though, this just doesn’t happen – as in the case of Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay and a Mother’s Will to Survive by Stephanie Land. The book has been somewhere on my to-read list since I heard about it, but I only picked up a copy after watching the excellent Netflix adaptation, ‘Maid’.

Maid is a memoir which details Land’s life as a struggling single mother, working long hours as a housekeeper in order to give her daughter some stability, and at the mercy of the often ridiculous grants and benefits in Washington state. Alongside her work, Land wrote; she noted down stories of the people she cleaned for, alongside her own experiences of welfare, from a perspective which was difficult to find elsewhere. This is an individual memoir, yes, but in writing about herself, Land also writes about so many voiceless people in the United States.

Maid is told in retrospect, written from a position of emotional and financial security. Land continually asserts that her incredibly hard work, and the many hoops which she had to jump through, were the only things which allowed her to leave her life of poverty behind. At the end of the memoir, we see her move to Missoula to attend a Fine Arts college, and to study Creative Writing. She had planned to do so just before she found out she was pregnant, at the age of twenty-eight, with her daughter, Mia, and had to give up her place.

Land escaped from a violent relationship with Mia’s father in 2008, when her daughter was just seven months old. The pair moved into several unsuitable homes in the town of Port Townsend, sometimes damp, and sometimes dirty, and had to learn to rely on a dizzying series of handouts from their local authority. At the outset, Land and Mia are moving from a temporary home in a rundown cabin, into transitional housing. Half of the residents are moving out of homeless shelters, and the other half have just been released from jail.

Able to work a certain number of hours per week, Land soon found a job as a housekeeper, earning barely anything by working for a series of people who ‘had financial cushions beneath them’. She also worked part-time as a landscaper for a family friend. However, nothing was set in stone, and no hours were guaranteed. Port Townsend, around two hours from state capital Seattle, is a small city which appeals to tourists; therefore, much of its employment is seasonal, and is often difficult to come by.

Land is incredibly frank and forthright from the outset. Her memoir begins: ‘My daughter learned to walk in a homeless shelter.’ When she goes on to discuss her money troubles, and how exhausting the process of applying for welfare and proving your need is, she writes: ‘I had looked under every stone, peered through the window of every government assistance building, and joined the long lines of people who carried haphazard folders of paperwork to prove they didn’t have money. I was overwhelmed by how much work it took to prove I was poor.’ Later, she says: ‘I was on government assistance, having regular anxiety attacks, still unable to process much of the emotional abuse I’d just experienced or know the depths to which it had affected me. My life was at some sort of standstill in its new identity; in being consumed with motherhood, which I wasn’t sure I really even liked.’

Land is clear that she had very little support at this time; whilst she hears from her parents occasionally, she acknowledges very early on that they left her ’emotionally orphaned’ during her childhood. Her slip into poverty was something unseen, though: ‘… after one kid and a breakup, I was smack in the middle of a reality that I didn’t know how to get out of.’ She writes about the societal stigma attached to welfare, particularly the use of food stamps: ‘It felt like a weighted vest I couldn’t take off, or like someone had hidden cameras on me all the time… When people think of food stamps, they don’t envision someone like me: someone plain-faced and white. Someone like the girl they’d known in high school who’d been quiet but nice. Someone like a neighbor. Someone like them.’ She is humiliated throughout by no fault of her own when using these stamps in the supermarket, and also in other situations – for instance, when her mother and her husband fly over from France to help her move into the transitional accommodation, they expect her to pay for a dinner out for them. Land can barely afford the $10.59 which her own burger cost.

The author details the start of her relationship with Mia’s father, Jamie, and the way in which she moved into his trailer so quickly. She was wooed to do so by the copies of ‘Bukowski and Jean-Paul Sartre in a line of books above the table.’ She falls pregnant just four months into their relationship, and Jamie tries to force her to get an abortion. It is from this point that the relationship starts to become emotionally abusive, and later, physically. At this point, she reveals: ‘In spite of all my hopes for a different path, I softened in the days that followed and began to fall in love with motherhood, with the idea of me as a mother.’ As her confidence in motherhood, and her own ability, grows, she still questions whether she is a good enough mother, and whether she is making enough effort for Mia.

Land writes extensively about the particularly grants and programmes which she applied for, and the differences which these made to her life. She says: ‘We were expected to live off minimum wage, to work several jobs at varying hours, to afford basic needs while fighting for safe places to leave our children. Somehow nobody saw the work; they saw only the results of living a life that constantly crushed you with its impossibility.’ Land found no opportunities to lift herself out of poverty, or away from the welfare state which she was forced to rely on. She tells us: ‘There was no incentive or opportunity to save money. The system kept me locked down, scraping the bottom of the barrel, without a plan to climb out of it.’

The book includes a foreword written by Barbara Ehrenreich, an investigative journalist who worked undercover in low-paid jobs, including housekeeping, and then wrote about doing so. She writes that maid ‘is a dainty word, redolent of tea trays, starched uniforms, Downton Abbey. But in reality, the maid’s world is encrusted with grime and shit stains.’ She goes on to remark that although such workers are invaluable to the middle- and upper-classes, ‘they remain invisible – overlooked in our nation’s politics and policies, looked down upon at our front doors.’ A short critique of class prejudice follows, before she focuses on what Land reveals in her memoir. Ehrenreich comments: ‘When confronted with an obstacle, she figures out how to move forward. But the onslaught of obstacles sometimes reaches levels of overload. All that keeps her together is her bottomless love for her daughter, which is the clear bright light that illuminates the entire book.’

Maid is readable, but it is very matter-of-fact. Land has chosen to discuss a lot of often repetitive cleaning processes in detail, and I did tire of reading these after a while. However, this is an incredibly important and eye-opening memoir, which exposes the faulty welfare system, and the unreliable work which so many people have no choice but to use.

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Non-Fiction November: ‘Letters from Tove’ by Tove Jansson *****

Tove Jansson is one of my all-time favourite authors, from her charming Moomin stories which I have adored from my earliest childhood, to her beautiful and assertive short stories. I had so looked forward to reading the edited collection, Letters from Tove, and although I did not receive a copy for Christmas (despite it being right at the top of my list!), I managed to reserve a copy from my local library.

Letters from Tove has been edited by Boel Westin – the author of a fantastic Jansson biography, which I reviewed here – and Helen Svensson, and is translated from the original Swedish by Sarah Death. This is the first time that the selected letters have been published in a single edition, along with commentary.

I wholeheartedly agree with Ali Smith – another of my absolute favourite authors – who writes: ‘It’s hard to describe the astonishing achievement of Jansson’s artistry’. I have loved every single piece of work of Jansson’s which I have read, and reading her letters, addressed to a number of varied recipients, proved a real privilege. In the introduction, Westin and Svensson write that Jansson ‘was a great correspondent, writing frequently and at length…’. They also comment about how important the letter is in Jansson’s fiction, from messages found in bottles in the Moomin books, to the epistolatory form which she sometimes used in her short stories.

Letters from Tove has been arranged chronologically by recipient. There are letters here to her friends, family, and lovers of both genders, spanning a vast period between 1933 and 1988. The collection includes letters written to her parents and brothers; the photographer Eva Konikoff, who was one of Jansson’s best friends; the director Vivica Bandler; the graphic artist Tuulikki Pietilä, with whom Jansson lived for many years; the translator Maya Vanni; and Jansson’s publisher, Åke Runnquist. Although every single year during this period has not been included, an exceptional portrait of a remarkable life is shown to us.

Given that this volume provides just an edited selection of Jansson’s letters, one can conclude that she was both prolific and patient – particularly given that every single letter she sent was written by hand! Added to this is the way in which Jansson responded to almost every single fan letter or question which she received, which amounted to almost 2,000 each year. Westin and Svensson estimate that Jansson would have answered around 92,000 such letters between 1954 – when the Moomins became a global success- and 2001, the year in which she died.

‘Jansson’s letters ‘tell us all about herself,’ write Westin and Svensson in their introduction. ‘They deal with love and friendship, loneliness and solidarity, and also with politics, art, literature and society. But a letter also documents a juncture in time, stops the clock an tells us about things that otherwise get forgotten or sink into the depths of memory.’ Whatever she writes about, or however the mood in these letters sits, Westin and Svensson say that ‘they rarely leave us unmoved’. The editors have included relatively thorough biographical and contextual information throughout.

The familial scenes which Jansson describes are lively, as are depictions of her extensive travels, and her studies before the Second World War. In one of the earliest letters, written to her ‘Beloved Ham’ – the affectionate name which she gave her mother – when she was an art student in Stockholm in 1933, Jansson says: ‘I am a part of you. More so than the boys… how can I care one jot about Sweden when you’re not here?… I’m coming home, and soon. I’m coming home, just the way I was when I left… it may well be that I can now understand you better, help you better, and painstakingly start to appreciate how lucky I am to have you and the rest.’ Even in these earliest letters, an alluring philosophical wisdom shines through.

Through reading her letters, I was swept into Jansson’s world. I was helped to understand, so acutely, what mattered to her, and the efforts she would go to for those she loved. As in her fiction, the writing in her letters is unsurprisingly rich, nuanced, and astonishingly beautiful. Jansson is searingly honest throughout, and we are given the ability to really see her grow as time goes on. Her letters are open and revealing, and are sometimes startlingly modern. There is much seriousness here, but a great deal of light and hope, too. Letters from Tove provided me with a great deal of joy; it felt like I was reading the words of a dear friend. I really love to read one-sided correspondence like this, and it is certainly a volume which I hope to come back to many more times in future.

I shall close this review with a quote from the volume, which really spoke to me. In 1941, in the midst of a discussion about the Second World War and the tumult which it created in her home of Finland, she writes to Eva Konikoff: ‘Strange that it will all just go on, we will paint, travel, love, grieve, collect money, buy things, grow old… whether we want to or not.’

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Non-Fiction November: ‘From Here to Eternity: Travelling the World to Find a Good Death’ by Caitlin Doughty ****

I will begin this review by pointing out that Caitlin Doughty’s rather niche work will not be for everyone. I thoroughly enjoyed her debut, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, which collects together her memories and thoughts from working in a crematorium. Doughty has made her living as a mortician, and owns a funeral home in Los Angeles. She writes about such serious elements – the majority of which revolve around death – with a lot of snarky and sarcastic humour, and one cannot help but be entirely entranced by her stories and experiences. Her second book, From Here to Eternity: Travelling the World to Find a Good Death also very much interested me as a reader.

She argues, in both of her books, that death is a topic which should be spoken about more, but is something which many in the Western world particularly shy away from. In From Here to Eternity, Doughty begins by signposting her fascination of our ‘pervasive terror of dead bodies’. She writes in her introduction: ‘One of the chief questions in my work has always been why my own culture is so squeamish around death… Our avoidance is self-defeating. By dodging the talk about our inevitable end, we put… our ability to mourn at risk.’

Her aim in this book was to visit different places around the world to see how other cultures are not scared of the process of death, but rather embrace it, and make it a part of their own living. She travels all over the world – from three locations in the United States, to Indonesia, Mexico, Spain, Japan, and Bolivia.

Early on, Doughty sets out that in the United States, death has become an incredibly big business since the advent of the twentieth century. Everything has long been associated with cost, and with upselling – a better graveyard plot, a more superior wood used for the coffin, many ‘extras’ sold by different funeral homes. She believes that we need to reform funeral practices in the West, moving permanently away from profit-oriented practices, to ones which ‘do more to include the family’. These family-focused death practices are common around the world, and it is this which she keeps coming back to. Doughty writes, with a great deal of sensitivity, about the ways in which confronting death can bring peace, particularly for those in Western cultures, where such an attitude is generally suppressed.

Some of the practices which Doughty writes about are rare for foreigners or tourists to be able to attend. Others have really embraced the onlooker, though. At a Torajan funeral in Indonesia, for instance, the body is ‘transferred in a replica of a traditional Torajan home. These houses, known as Tongkonan, resemble no residence you’ve ever seen, standing high on stilts with a roof that sweeps up to two points in the sky. This corpse, inside his mini-house, was carried atop the shoulders of thirty-five young men.’ A ‘death tourism industry’ has sprung up around the Torajan funeral, with visitors coming from far afield to watch.

Of course, Doughty attends a ‘Day of the Dead’ parade in Mexico, which was rather strangely inspired by James Bond. In Mexico, at the beginning of November, families invite their dead back to visit. Of one young man, who had passed away in the small city of Santa Fe de la Laguna, she writes: ‘He will continue to return as long as his family continues to show up, inviting him to come back among the living.’

On the other side of the world, at a Buddhist temple in Japan, technology has been used to enhance longstanding religious practices: ‘After the family keys in at the entrance,’ with a smart card, ‘the walls light up blue, except for one single Buddha shimmering white: no need to squint through names trying to find Mom – the white light will guide you straight to her.’ This white light leads to the ashes of a loved one, which can be kept in the temple for a long time. Also in Japan, a company called I-Can Corp has married together death and technology: ‘presents a Sims-like experience in which your ancestor’s virtual gravestone appears on screen in a green field. The user can, according to taste, light a virtual incense stick, place flowers, sprinkle water on the stone, and leave fruit and glasses of beer.’

Perhaps one of the most interesting elements of From Here to Eternity is the focus which Doughty places on the United States, and the way in which just a few individuals – for now, at least – are challenging the status quo. In Colorado, there is a single town which promotes the outdoor cremation, using a movable wooden pyre. In North Carolina, a group of medics and research scientists toe the line between ‘death-innovation and the deranged’, with a plan to “turn corpses into compost”, as the New York Times put it. Behind this is something called the ‘Urban Death Project’, an architectural blueprint for being able to compost human bodies in built-up urban areas, which have little – or no – space to bury their recent dead.

Throughout, Doughty poses many questions about how the individual would wish to be treated after their death, and the many options which are available to them – even in the reserved Western world. In Barcelona, for instance, stands an enormous funeral home which handles almost a quarter of all deaths in the city. They display dead ones behind glass, akin to something out of Snow White, which allows families to stay with them all day. A Spanish-style ‘viewing’ displays ‘a loved one in their coffin, surrounded by flowers, behind one large pane of glass, akin to a department store window.’ A Catalan-style viewing moves the open coffin into a glass display case in the centre of the room.

I haven’t read anything quite like From Here to Eternity before, but it reminded me somewhat of the rather funny Netflix travel series, ‘Dark Tourist’. The series, too, shows a Torajan funeral – rather squeamish to the Western viewer, perhaps, but fascinating nonetheless. Throughout, Doughty’s prose is clear and informative, and one can see that she is both passionate about her subject, and keen to impart her wisdom. I must admit that I did find From Here to Eternity a little gross in places, as Doughty certainly does not shy away from discussing fluids and the like, but it is ultimately fascinating, and eye-opening.

This is a great volume to dip in and out of, and to learn from. Some of the rituals which Doughty writes about are really quite beautiful, and I for one feel more comfortable discussing death as a result of reading this. It is perhaps an odd volume to choose during a pandemic, but what Doughty writes here is important – particularly as we face death on such a large and upsetting global scale.

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Non-Fiction November: ‘Lizzie Siddal: The Tragedy of a Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel’ by Lucinda Hawksley ****

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.

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Non-Fiction November: ‘A Notable Woman: The Romantic Journals of Jean Lucey Pratt’, edited by Simon Garfield *****

I remember reading an article about A Notable Woman: The Romantic Journals of Jean Lucey Pratt when it was first released, and have had my eye out for a copy ever since. I ended up finding a gorgeous hardback edition on a remaindered books website, and read its 700 pages over the space of a few days.

I love reading journals; they convey an excellent social history. Jean Lucey Pratt’s are no exception. She began to keep a diary at the age of 15, and continued – in 45 exercise books purchased from Woolworths for sixpence each – until a few weeks before her death in 1986. The output is astonishing, and she wrote over a million words during her lifetime. Most of her journals were personal ones, which her family and friends were unaware of, but she also kept a specific journal during the Second World War. Pratt also contributed to the Mass Observation Project, which began in 1937, and aimed to capture everyday life in Britain.

Pratt was born in Wembley in 1909, and lived for most of her life in a small and ramshackle Buckinghamshire cottage, named Wee Cottage. She looked after her niece, Babs, for some years whilst the girl’s parents were stationed abroad, but largely lived alone, her only company her cats. Pratt had a fascinating life; she trained as an architect, worked as a publicist and journalist, and went on to run a small bookshop in a street in Slough. She specialised in cat books, and continued to send these out to customers for many years after her ‘retirement’. As Garfield notes in his introduction, ‘what she really wanted to do was write and garden and care for her cats.’

In her teenage years, Pratt touchingly addresses portions of her journal to her late mother. She laments over her father’s choice of new wife, in Ethel, a woman of whom she is suspicious from the outset. In 1925, Pratt sweetly kicks off with a list of her ‘beaus’, which have been written in a secret code. One gets a feel for her character, and for what matters the most to her, straight away. She is in touch with herself throughout.

Although Pratt hints at possible publication following her death, she makes it clear that at present, the journals are for her alone: ‘And why have I that feeling at the back of my mind that no one will ever read this? But if anyone does read this – if you ever do – Reader please be kind to me! I am only 16 at present, and just realising life and beginning to think for myself. It’s all very chilling in its strange newness.’ She is candid and honest, and rather frank regarding taboo subjects, like her sex life. She is a very modern woman. In 1927, for instance, she writes: ‘I don’t want to get married – not at least to the struggling domesticated life which seems to belong to every man I know.’ Later, in 1931, she comments: ‘Even to my socialistic mind I think it would be better to be married – more convenient, double rooms being usually cheaper than singles.’

From the earliest entries, too, her writing is gorgeous. In April 1925, on a trip to Torquay, Pratt reflects: ‘We came back along the coast… And I felt tired and sad and a little exhausted, but the level, smooth stretch of sea peeping between the graceful lines of the cliffs seemed to comfort the innermost recesses of my soul. And when we lost sight of it behind high hedgerows I ached for one more sight of it.’ There is a lot of humour in A Notable Woman, too; in 1926, for instance, she writes of a new pair of cream silk stockings that she ‘unfortunately wore them for tennis yesterday and made irrevocable ladders.’

She has all of the usual teenage worries, but discusses them in a manner which is full of wisdom. We really see her grow – and flourish – as time moves on. I loved the way in which she mixes social commentary with what is happening in her own life; this begins far before the Second World War period, which is comprehensively covered. Throughout, Pratt is philosophical; in 1933, she asks herself: ‘What is one to do when one seems possessed of ideas and ideals too big for one’s meagre capabilities?’

Until A Notable Woman was published, nobody had read Pratt’s journals. Their publication is a gift; I dare anyone to not be entirely charmed by Pratt, and her words. They are, as Garfield comments, ‘a revelation and a joy’. Garfield goes on to say that when friends would ask about Pratt’s writing style, he could think of nothing better than ‘Virginia Woolf meets Caitlin Moran’ – two authors whom I very much enjoy. Had I not already been intrigued by learning more about Pratt, this comment certainly would have made me pick up a copy of A Notable Woman.

I would love to read the rest of Pratt’s original journals; this edition contains only around a sixth of what Pratt penned. Her observations throughout are so clear, and I was fascinated to learn about what filled her days. I cannot recommend A Notable Woman highly enough; it is filled with the colourful, descriptive, vivid, and heartfelt reminiscences of a fascinating character, who lives her entire life with hope and warmth.

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Non-Fiction November: ‘The Shelf: Adventures in Extreme Reading’ by Phyllis Rose ****

As many of my reviews proclaim, this particular book has been one I’ve wanted to read for years. I have had no luck tracking down Phyllis Rose’s The Shelf: Adventures in Extreme Reading in three local library systems, and have never seen a copy in a new bookshop, so I decided to purchase a relatively inexpensive secondhand copy to settle down with – at last.

Rose has written a lot of non-fiction titles which interest me, and she also edits the Norton Book of Women’s Lives. Her reading career, she tells us early on, has been spent chasing tomes from different syllabuses. Here, however, she decided to embark on a project which was a little different, deciding to ‘read like an explorer’. She chose the New York Society Library, of which she is a member, and selected a shelf of fiction – authors LEQ to LES – which met her rather strict guidelines. She then read her way through it, in no particular order as she wished to give herself ‘complete freedom’. The Shelf details her experience.

Rose wanted to steer a course away from the usual ways in which readers find their next books; her intention here was to ‘read my way into the unknown – into the pathless wastes, into thin air, with no reviews, no bestseller lists, no college curricula, no National Book Awards or Pulitzer Prizes, no ads, no publicity, not even word of mouth to guide me.’ She goes on to say: ‘Let me, I thought, if only for a change, choose my reading almost blindly. Who knows what I will find?’

The guidelines which Rose set herself made it relatively difficult to locate a single shelf from which to read. She perused almost 200 of them before she found one which fit her criteria. On reflection, she notes: ‘Visually, the shelf I had focused on was a pleasing mix of old-style bindings, gold-stamped library-bound hardcovers, and modern books whose colorful jackets were wrapped in Mylar.’

As one would expect, what Rose found from her shelf was incredibly varied in topic and author. She selected her shelf based on a classic which she had never read but wanted to – Mikhail Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time (my review of which can be found here). Her project introduced her to books about French Canadian farmers, upper-class Austrians, and detectives working in California.

Rose reflects: ‘The first thing I learned from my experiment – aside from the weakness of my will or, by the same token, the strength of my impulse toward enjoyment – was that in the age of the Internet, it is very hard to stick with a book without consulting an outside source. Reading is more centrifugal than it used to be.’ She also notes that prefaces can irrevocably alter the reading experience; specifically for her, this revolves around Vladimir Nabokov’s introduction to Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time, which robbed her of any excitement, and added diverting, and sometimes unnecessary, comments to the reading experience.

One of the most interesting elements of The Shelf, aside from the general idea behind it, are the varied differences which Rose writes about between differing translations of the same book. During her project, she came to three versions of A Hero of Our Time, one of which she did not enjoy, and one of which thrilled her. Throughout, Rose wonders about and researches the authors and books on her shelf, many of which are new to her. She even strikes up a couple of friendships with contemporary women authors.

I really like the central idea in The Shelf, and it is one which I would love to personally replicate – although with only a local library branch at my disposal, I’m not sure I would come across an entire shelf which fully interested me. The chances of reading mainly bestsellers and popular fiction in a local library setting would, of course, be far higher than Rose encountered in her private library, which has been in existence in New York since 1754. Regardless, The Shelf was an incredibly enjoyable, and rather fresh experiment, which I thoroughly enjoyed reading. Rose’s crisp prose, and the curiosity which she displays at all times, balanced the whole wonderfully.

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Non-Fiction November: ‘Sea Room: An Island Life’ by Adam Nicolson ****

I received a copy of Adam Nicolson’s Sea Room: An Island Life (2001) for Christmas. Sea Room is a non-fiction account of a series of three remote Scottish islands – collectively known as the Shiants, found five miles away from the larger island of Lewis and Harris – which the author was given by his father on the occasion of his 21st birthday. I settled down with Sea Room during the third lockdown, wishing more than anything that I still had the freedom to travel, and to explore places as uninhabited as the Shiants.

Interestingly, Sea Room provides the first instance in which anyone has written at length about the islands. Early on, Nicolson pronounces that this book forms ‘an attempt to tell the whole story, as I now understand it, of a tiny place in as many dimensions as possible: geologically, spiritually, botanically, historically, culturally, aesthetically, ornithologically, etymologically, emotionally, politically, socially, archaeologically and personally.’ Suffice to say, he has not left much out, and the history which he provides feels thorough and complex.

In his introduction, Nicolson writes at length about the perception others have of the Shiants. He comments: ‘The rest of the world thinks there is nothing much to them. Even on a map of the Hebrides the tip of your little finger would blot them out, and if their five hundred and fifty acres of grass and rock were buried deep in the mainland of Scotland as some unconsidered slice of moor on which a few sheep grazed, no one would ever have noticed them… [But] they stand out high and undoubtable…with black cliffs five hundred feet tall chopping into a cold, dark, peppermint sea, with seals lounging at their feet…’.

These islands offered only a single rustic bothy for accommodation, without either heating or water. The last permanent inhabitants of the Shiants left in 1901, the way of life no longer sustainable. He looks into how the very small community would have lived upon the islands; how they would have relied on a diet of fish and seabirds, and how difficult it was to grow fresh food. There is a focus upon migratory patterns of both birds and humans, and a real emphasis upon the anthropological.

The Shiants have made an enormous impression upon Nicolson: ‘I have felt at times, and perhaps this is a kind of delirium, no gap between me and the place. I have absorbed it and been absorbed by it, as if I have had no distance apart from it. I have been shaped by those island times, and find it difficult now to achieve any kind of distance from them.’ He writes beautifully about the islands, commenting: ‘The sea makes islands significant. They are defined by it, both wedded to it and implacably set against it, both a creation and a rejection of the element which makes them what they are.’

There is a lovely, circular feel to the Shiants. Nicolson’s father, Nigel – the son of Vita Sackville-West – purchased the islands for £1,400 during the 1930s, from novelist Compton Mackenzie, no less, and was adamant that they would form Nicolson’s 21st birthday present. The author writes that he is going to be passing the islands onto his own son, a teenager at the time of writing.

Sea Room was a wonderful diversion from the world, and whilst I did not love it as much as Nicolson’s focused account The Seabird’s Cry, I still got an awful lot out of it. Sea Room is a love letter to a place and space which many have not encountered before. It is a thoughtful, almost meditative account of what a place can mean, and its precise and lyrical prose is a real joy to escape with.

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Non-Fiction November: ‘Prague Winter’ by Madeleine Albright ****

Madeleine Albright, a Democrat who served as the first female Secretary of State in US history (1997-2001), has written an incredible memoir of her early life in Prague Winter. Subtitled ‘A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1945’, it deals with her family’s experiences during and after the Second World War, and also serves as a wider history of what was then Czechoslovakia, and is now Czechia.

Before she was twelve years old, Albright’s once settled life was upended by the Nazi invasion of Prague, where she was living with her mother and father. Other pivotal incidents which occurred during her early life were the Battle of Britain, ‘the near-total destruction of European Jewry, the Allied victory in World War II, the rise of communism, and the onset of the Cold War.’ When the Nazis invaded Prague, and went on to absorb the entire country of Czechoslovakia into Germany, Albright notes that her parents temporarily sent her to live with her grandmother, ‘and did their best to do what their beloved country had done: disappear’.

Her family spent the Second World War in London, as her father’s job in radio broadcasting allowed them an opportunity to relocate. He worked on BBC broadcasts, which many could still pick up – although illegally – in their homeland. Of her father during this period, Albright reflects: ‘My father worked hard because his of passion for democracy but also because we needed money; the more he wrote, the more he was paid, which was still not much.’ Being in London meant that Albright and her younger sister were now in the path of the Blitz, but both thankfully emerged relatively unscathed. The Korbels later moved to quieter towns on the outskirts of London, which were far more peaceful.

In her memoir, Albright has chosen to make extensive use of a number of sources – her own memories, the written memoirs of her parents, interviews with her contemporaries, and documents which have recently become available to the public. She begins her memoir by giving a rather thorough history of how Czechoslovakia, as she knew it, came to be; in its earlier chapters, at least, Prague Winter feels more like a sweeping history book of a geographical location rather than a personal memoir.

In something which seems astonishing, but is perhaps not due to the circumstances in which the Korbel family lived, Albright was unaware of her family’s Jewish heritage until ‘many decades after the war’. It was only when she began to serve as the US Secretary of State at the age of 59, that she learnt that over twenty of her own relatives had perished in the Holocaust. She comments: ‘I had been brought up to believe in a history of my Czechoslovak homeland that was less tangled and more straightforward than the reality.’

Touchingly, Albright’s thorough and heartbreaking memoir has been dedicated ‘to those who did not survive but taught us how to live – and why.’ As one would expect, there is much emphasis on Hitler’s rise to power within the pages of Prague Winter, and its effects are felt throughout, both on a personal level, and throughout her home country. I was a scholar of this period in history for many years, and still read about it keenly. I am pleased to note that Albright’s account did offer some historical context which I was previously unaware of, and proved quite a learning curve in several places.

Split into four distinct parts, Prague Winter moves chronologically between the pre-war period, and November 1948, when the Korbel family emigrated to the United States. Really well situated historically, and evidently a product of extensive detailed research, Prague Winter is a readable and accessible memoir. I very much admired the way in which Albright places herself within the narrative; she is both part of the action, and an overseer. I also liked the way in which she intertwines the personal and political, and the way in which she deals with such a fractious, and fractured, time. Her prose is filled with confidence and certainty, and is a wonderful choice to pick up for anyone interested in this period, or in Czechia generally. Prague Winter is very moving, and highly recommended.

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Non-Fiction November: ‘Girl in the Dark’ by Anna Lyndsey ****

I spotted a copy of Anna Lyndsey’s memoir, Girl in the Dark, whilst browsing in my local library. I hadn’t heard it before, but was drawn to both the title and design, and decided to pick it up. A work of memoir, Girl in the Dark has been described as, variously, ‘beautifully affecting’ (Observer), ‘a gift, a testament to the power of art as a saving grace’ (Susannah Cahalan), and filled with ‘melodic, penetrating prose’ (New York Times).

Lyndsey, who writes here under a pseudonym, had a full, normal life; she was working in a policy job for the government, and was under the spell of a budding new romance. However, she began to experience quite unusual symptoms, which sometimes got worse, and sometimes disappeared altogether for a long period, before coming back with a vengeance. She spent time away from work, and sought the opinions of many experts, who batted around diagnoses.

These symptoms were the beginning of her developing an extreme sensitivity to light, which has forced her to have to spend most of her time in a darkened room, with blacked-out windows, and no screens. During her best periods, Lyndsey is able to venture outside at dawn and dusk; at others, though, she has to spend months indoors, being incredibly careful when she ventures from the safety of her dark bedroom. Lyndsey is, after some time, diagnosed with a disorder called photosensitive seborrhoeic dermatitis, a skin disease caused by light.

Girl in the Dark, first published in 2015, is the account of her ‘descent into the depths of her rare and terrible illness and how she has managed to find light in even the darkest of times’. I am always drawn to illness narratives, but have never read anything specifically about light sensitivity before. Throughout, Lyndsey educated me as to how difficult – almost impossible – it can be to create full, unnatural darkness. The first chapter, ‘Light Gets In’, sets out how infuriating the process of making her bedroom a safe space was: ‘The light is laughing at me; it is playing deliberate games, lying low to persuade me that I have made an area secure, then as soon as I move on, wriggling through some overlooked wormhole. The day beyond my window is an ocean, pressing and pulsing at my protecting walls…’.

When Lyndsey comes into contact with any light, natural or otherwise, her skin becomes hypersensitive, and the effects of exposure can stay with her for weeks. She tells us: ‘Immediately I leave my blacked-out room, a clock is ticking; my skin begins its twisted dialogue with light… There are no blisters and no blotches – I am free of visible signs of conflict. But agonisingly, with ever-increasing ferocity, over the whole covering of my body, I burn with invisible fire.’ Summers are almost unbearable, and she has to cover every single inch of her skin with fabric, even in the depths of a heatwave. She develops a dependence upon audiobooks, as she is unable to grant herself the gift of enough light to read by.

Lyndsey details her growing familiarity with living in total darkness, in honest and insightful prose. She writes of things I cannot personally dream of losing – the joy of a walk outside in the sunshine, the simple light of a lamp shining in a bedroom at night – in a narrative which made me feel as though I was experiencing everything alongside her. She writes that even being close to the presence of light is highly affecting, and details her joy when she is able to move out of her bedroom, even for the briefest while: ‘When I hover on the threshold between the inside and the out – opening or closing a fanlight, or beside an open door at night – the smell fizzes in my nostrils like champagne.’

Throughout, Lyndsey intersperses dated portions of memoir with her reflections and dreams. She moves from her present day back to the early days, before her diagnosis, when she was able to work and travel freely. The short sections which make up the structure of Girl in the Dark are effective, and largely deal with one particular element of her condition, or the ways in which she must now indefinitely live with it.

Lyndsey muses, quite heartbreakingly in places, about the pressure she is putting on her husband by dint of her condition. She writes: ‘By staying, by shirking the responsibility and effort of leaving, by continuing to occupy this lovely man while giving him neither children nor a public companion nor a welcoming home – do I do wrong?’

As one might expect, the entire memoir is incredibly reflective. Lyndsey writes: ‘And I think back to the life I had before, a live of very ordinary components, with the usual balance of frustration and contentment, the standard complement of light and shade. And I remember the beginnings of the darkness and where it planted its first roots, smack into the centre of that life.’ Other relationships break down, and she comments occasionally on the scepticism which others have upon learning of her condition.

Over time, she gets to know others with chronic illnesses, and different variations of light sensitivity: ‘Like me,’ she writes, ‘they had a life before that has been lost; now they wander in the twilight zone where doctors diagnose but cannot cure, and the faint miasma of societal suspicion, never attached to those with cancer, or with heart disease, hangs about them, that somehow it must all be psychosomatic, or that at a deep level they actually want to be ill.’

In Girl in the Dark, Lyndsey provides a fascinating and candid insight into her illness. Her prose is careful and measured, and there is a real lyricism to it. Whilst I cannot say that this was an entirely comfortable read, which really brought to my attention things that I perhaps take for granted, and which Lyndsey has lost, I feel that Girl in the Dark is an incredibly important memoir, and one which deserves to be read more widely.

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Non-Fiction November

I have taken part in Non-Fiction November – in which the aim is to actively try to read more non-fiction than one would ordinarily – for some years now, and always enjoy the process. Whilst I review quite a few works of non-fiction each year, and think I have struck a nice balance between it and fiction, both here and in my reading life, I have not made an effort to theme blog content around it before.

This year, I wanted to do something a little different. Therefore, each review posted during the month of November will be of a non-fiction title. These are not books which I will be reading this November – oh, the joys of scheduling posts ahead of time! – but ones which I have very much enjoyed in recent months. I have tried to vary their content as much as possible, to show just how wonderful non-fiction can be, and how it can appeal to every taste.

With that said, I very much hope that you enjoy the themed Non-Fiction November content, and that you feel inspired to pick up a factual tome or two during the month. Please let me know if you do!