It's a tricky time for everyone at the moment - and as a book fan it's hard to ignore quite how much Covid-19 has thrown the publishing world into disarray - publishing dates are being postponed, many independent bookshops have closed completely during this time, and a lot of people, myself included, struggled to concentrate on reading in this time of immense change and uncertainty. But, things are going to continue as they are for quite some time, and now my mental state has just about adjusted to our "new normal", I wanted to take a look at a book that came out on the 19th of March - so pretty much as all of this kicked off. It's a brilliant read that deserves to be shared - so let me tell you a little bit about it.
Celebrity, with its neon glow and selfie pout, appears hypermodern. But the famous and infamous have been thrilling, titillating, and outraging us for much longer than we might realise. Whether it was the scandalous Lord Byron, whose poetry sent female fans into an erotic frenzy, or the cheetah-owning, coffin-sleeping, one-legged French actress Sarah Bernhardt, who launched a violent feud with her former best friend - the list of stars whose careers burned bright, long before the Age of Television, is extensive and thrillingly varied.
Greg Jenner is a historian, broadcaster, author, and an Honorary Research Associate at Royal Holloway, University of London, where he does occasional teaching. I've been listening to Greg Jenner for a while now, as his BBC Comedy podcast "You're Dead to Me" has proved hugely eye-opening and exciting both for history buffs like me, and for friends who perhaps haven't been so keen on history in the past. The podcast allows anyone to discover fascinating facts about historical figures - but the way it's set up means that those who maybe got put off history after a bored teacher repeated dates to them ad infinitum, will hopefully have a new interest sparked by the compelling way in which the tales are told.
Telling people's stories in a compelling fashion is clearly something that Jenner excels at - and in Dead Famous he's able to combine an overarcing study of the way celebrity has grown and changed over the centuries, with intimate glimpses into the lives of those who have been raised up and celebrated for a huge variety of reasons - both good and bad.
Jenner is the historical consultant to the brilliant Horrible Histories tv show, and it's clear that he has a telent for comedy as well as history, with witty asides peppered throughout the book. It works well - this is clearly a hugely well researched piece of work, but the warmth and humour ensures that it doesn't read like a dry textbook - it has a clear focus, and the compellingly human lives that Jenner resurrects on these pages ensure that it's a page turner - he skillfully weaves fascinating facts throughout every single page, leaving me with a long sheet of people I'm keen to do more research on.
Books that combine history with humour can, in my experience, occasionally err on the side of cruelty - poking fun at the figures they reference in order to entertain readers. That certainly isn't the case here - Jenner allows fact to speak for itself with little room for harsh judgements - and that ensures that Dead Famous is a compelling piece of social history that educates just as much as it entertains - it's one of the best history books I've read in some time.
If it sounds like your cup of tea, - grab a copy where you can, and check out "You're Dead to Me" whereever you get your podcasts. The author has also just started a history podcast called Homeschool History that aims to get children interested in history during this rather difficult time - if you're in the UK it should be available on the BBC Sounds App.
Tim Waterstone is one of Britain's most successful businessmen, having built the Waterstone's empire that started with one small bookshop in 1982. In this memoir he recalls the childhood experiences that led him to become an entrepreneur and outlines the business philosophy that allowed Waterstone's to dominate the bookselling business throughout the country. Tim explores his formative years in a small town in rural England at the end of the Second World War, and the troubled relationship he had with his father, before moving on to the epiphany he had while studying at Cambridge, which set him on the road to Waterstone's and gave birth to the creative strategy that made him a high street name, and Waterstone's the largest booksellers in Europe.
I've never been a big fan of the business memoir - I've never found "rags to riches" tales particularly exciting and as someone who has always been far more interested in the creative side of life as opposed to the business side, it's not a genre I've dipped my toe in very often.
However, as a huge lover of books, a regular shopper in Waterstones (there are 3 within a ten minute walk of my office, which, for someone with a love of books and no impulse control, is dangerous!), and as a former bookseller in a Waterstones, I was intrigued to read the tale of how Tim Waterstone (Sir Tim Waterstone now) turned a single bookshop into an empire -and I was pleased to find that "The Face Pressed Against the Window" is half personal memoir, half account of years spent running and growing his bookshops. Tim Waterstone has, unsurprisingly, rather a unique voice -and the account of his life is well told, with spirit, warm humour and a careful balance of tone that conveys both the nostalgia and the harsh realities of life in post-WWII Britain
From childhood, through University, and then a brief spell in India, Tim Waterstone comes onto his time running bookstores -but what's important is that he doesn't allow himself to wallow in his own success, but instead celebrates his staff - of the culture and creativity that his bookstores have inspired, and of the mere fact that, in this "Digital" age his idea has endured and, in recent years, thrived. A testament to the power of learning and reading - "The Face Pressed Against a Window" is a surprising, moving and heartwarming read from an industry leader.
Katharine Smyth was a student at Oxford when she first read Virginia Woolf's modernist masterpiece "To the Lighthouse" in the comfort of an English sitting room, and in the companionable silence she shared with her father. After his death -a calamity that claimed her favourite person - she returned to that beloved novel as a way of wrestling with his memory and understanding her own grief.
Smyth's story moved between the New England of her childhood and Woolf's Cornish shores and Bloomsbury squares, exploring universal questions about family, loss and homecoming. Through her inventive, highly personal reading of "To the Lighthouse" and her artful adaptation of its ground-breaking structure, Smyth guides us towards a new vision of Woolf's most demanding and rewarding novel - and crafts an elegant reminder of literature's ability to clarify and console. Braiding memoir, literary criticism and biography, All the Lives we Ever Lived is a wholly original debut: A love letter from a daughter to her father, and from a reader to her most cherished author.
ClearVirginia Woolf that evokes a range of feelings in people - some love her for her remarkably ahead of time writings, and her outspoken drive for women to be offered equality in a time when it was denied them. Some only know her for her suicide - walking into the water to end a life of mental illness and and the fears caused by World War II. For me she's an incredible writer and a powerful woman -her writings still fresh and contemporary a century after they were written. Author Katharine Smyth understands that -and her love and respect for Virginia Woolf allows her to weave a cleverly considered criticism of Woolf's work with a personal narrative of grief and loss. Clear, considered prose tells a tale of family, love and loss and commands emotion almost as powerfully as Woolf does - waves of grief and raw emotion conveyed with startling clarity.
Comparisons to Helen McDonald's "H is for Hawk" are inevitable and apt -both works of loss and grief that centre around a love for a long-dead author, but the transatlantic setting of "All the Lives We Ever Lived" gives it a very different feel that seems to fit Woolf to a tee -waves both literal and emotional crashing against the pages with palpable power. Moving, powerful and destined to stick in the mind long after the book has closed, "All the Lives We Ever Lived" is a tribute to a father, an author, and a powerful work in its own right.
A young woman moves into a Paris apartment and discovers a storage room filled with the belongings of the previous owner, a certain Madeleine who died in her late nineties, and whose treasured possessions nobody seems to want. In an audacious act of journalism driven by personal curiosity and humane tenderness, Clara Beaudoux embarks on The Madeleine Project, documenting what she finds on Twitter with text and photographs, introducing the world to an unsung 20th century figure. Along the way, she uncovers a Parisian life indelibly marked by European history.
When Clara Beaudoux moved into an apartment in Paris, she was informed that she extra storage available elsewhere in the building. Accessing the storage, she found it full of the previous tenants belongings and, with their loves ones permission, she began to explore the contents, sharing her findings on Twitter and fascinating thousands with the mementos and snapshots of a woman's life in the 20th Century. This book collects those Twitter posts, along with some additional information regarding the author's journey to meet those who knew Madeline.
Telling the story through the Twitter posts is an interesting choice - it makes is a speedy read, and also a modern one - despite Madeline's story taking the reader back to the Second World War. It moved me rather unexpectedly - and the joy of using the Twitter snippets is that both the reader and the author can be genuinely surprised by new discoveries as they come along. Madeleine's life is a fascinating one, and and Beaudoux treats it with immense care and respect - the two seeming to form a friendship through the ages as the discoveries continue. Looking into the life of someone deceased is always tricky - but Beaudoux is careful never to be too intrusive - discoveries instead coming organically and with the blessings of Madeleine's loved ones - turning what could have been a ghoulish intrusion into a read that's uplifting, hopeful, and filled with a fierce kind of joy that left me smiling long after turning the pages. Many thanks to the publishers for the copy.
My mother, my family and Judaism are nested inside each other. I am Jewish and always Jewish; it's analogous with family, however hard it is, and however strained, it can never be disavowed... I remain, as my therapist put it, 'enmeshed', all tangled up in the family hoard. This book has been both a continuation of my conversations with them, and an attempt to untangle myself.
This is Joanne's account of coming to terms with her brother's suicide and through that process, the entirety of her family life. In Small Pieces Joanne explores her childhood, her Jewishness and her mother's death as well as that of her brother.
The life and family Joanne describes is a complex combination of conflicting influences - both scientific and literary; Jewish and humanist impulses; and middle America and North London settings.
Joanne Limburg is a British writer and poet based in Cambridge. She's published several volumes of poetry, and her debut novel was published in 2015.
Grief is a journey. That's what we're lead to believe at least, an unpleasant journey which no one wants to face, but one we're all sent on at various point during our lives.
For author Joanne Limburg, it's a journey she was sent on by the suicide of her brother - an unexpected event made even harder by the fact that he was the other side of the world from Joanne and her Mother at the time, meaning that her journey became both literal as well as mental. Tie into that thoughts and recollections of family life, as well an exploration and examining of the Jewish faith (something exacerbated by Joanne's brother having been cremated before they could arrive in America.
It would be easy for this to be a miserable, brutal read - with the author truly allowing the reader full immersion into her thoughts. As you may imagine, they're often raw - full of the rage, shock and despair that comes from such a horrific situation, but these are balanced well throughout, and Limburg is measured enough to not overwhelm the reader. Balancing the blackest moments of grief with touching, immediately relatable recollections and family moments allows Limburg to play with light and shade far more effectively that one may imagine given the subject matter, with a skill that prevents the reader from feeling too overcome by the situations depicted.
This is a book about death - both the journey from it and the journey to it, and one in which the subject is examined to an intense degree - with snippets of conversation and poetry that proved both haunting and enlightening to me.
I've experienced grief, but I certainly wasn't expecting to feel quite a strong a connection to the author as I did here, and I think that's due to her voice throughout the book - one clearly marked by pain, but always clear, relatable, and at all times original.
I won't say that this is an uplifting read - but I don't think that's the point of it at all. It's a fascinating exploration into a situation that, sadly, we'll all find ourselves in some variation of during our lives. Limburg has a unique and immensely gifted voice, and her willingness to convey immensely personal situations allows her to explore and ruminate on her subject matter, whilst her clear talent as a writer ensures that this book is always readable - and rewarding even at its toughest points. Many thanks to the publishers for the copy.
Lucina, a young Chilean writer, has moved to New York to pursue an academic career. While at a party one night, something that her doctors had long warned might happen finally occurs: her eyes haemorrhage. Within minutes, blood floods her vision, reducing her sight to sketched outlines and tones of grey, rendering her all but blind. As she begins to adjust to a very different life, those who love her begin to adjust to a very different woman - one who is angry, raw, funny, sinister, sexual and dizzyingly alive.
Author Lina Meruane is a prominent writer in her native Chile -she's published three novels, had short stories appear in various anthologies and won several prestigious prizes. She gained a PhD in Latin American Literature from New York University, and currently serves there as professor of World and Latin American Literature and Creative Writing.
The autobiographical novel is a rare beast - they're not seen all that often, and some I've read in the past have not been brilliant - the line between reality and fiction too blurred. Author Lina Meruane initially intended to write a memoir about having gone blind temporarily but, according to an interview with TheNation, found the genre too constricting - so moved over to the world of fiction. It's a choice that works remarkably well, as the truth behind the fiction here allows real passion and emotion to burn through the pages straight to the reader - a raw and bloody urgency and passion grabbing you by the throat.
The main theme of blindness allows Lina (and through her character Lucina) to explore a myrida of fascinating themes throughout - from the terms put open her in order to keep her eyes safe, through to the exploration of a relationship layered with dependency and fear, through to a woman discovering herself and learning how to live again. Location and time plays a huge part too - with the book taking place between Chile and New York and touching upon historical and cultural milestones as the character and the reader naturally come across them.
The characters here are real - raw and often unlikeable, but combined with her rather dazzling prose - gristly, elegant and bloody, it makes for a dizzying, vital read that lingers long in the mind. Many thanks to the publishers for the copy
Oscar-nominated Charlotte Rampling most recently appeared in hit ITV drama Broadchurch, the BBC’s London Spy and HBO’s Dexter, and the feature film 45 Years.
Her career has spanned popular entertainment and arthouse cinema, having starred in English, French and Italian films from 1966’s Georgy Girl (opposite Lynn Redgrave), to films with French director François Ozon, including 2003’s Swimming Pool.
Having shied away from biographies and autobiographies (“too personal”) Rampling has now written Who I Am, an intimate self-portrait via reminiscences, translated from the French it was originally written in.
The characters that Rampling has played on screen over the years - from the shallow, vain Meredith in Georgy Girl through to the distracted, pained Kate in 45 years, are filled with a sense of mystery - Rampling's intelligence always shining through in order to instantly add layers of depth and intrigue.
Here, that intelligence is used to good effect in a memoir that is exquisitely written and filled with fascinating glimpses and moments from a life that is just as intriguing as one may imagine when looking at an image of Rampling.
No standard celebrity memoir here - instead moments from Ramplings life are conveyed to the reader through snatches of conversation and memory, as Rampling wrote this with Christophe Bataille, a well known French writer. The "stream of consciousness" style may be off-putting to some - and at times it had me wondering if I truly would be learning anything about Rampling when reading. However, on reflection, recollections of the author's Father and revelations about the early death of Rampling's sister prove to be both intriguing and haunting. This isn't a book to read to find salacious gossip or recollections of a celebrity lifestyle - but instead moments of a fascinating life seen through the mysterious eyes of one of our greatest actors. Many thanks to the publishers for the copy.
Imagine feeling lost in your own body. Imagine spending years living a lie, denying what makes you 'you'. This was Ryan's reality. He had to choose: die as a man or live as a woman. In 2012, Ryan chose Ryannon. At the age of thirty she began her transition, taking the first steps on the long road to her true self, and the emotional physical and psychological journey that would change her for ever.
In 2017 we seem to have reached a new era of awareness and acceptance when it comes to Trans people - with media campaigners and writers like Paris Lees and Janet Mock alongside actors such as Laverne Cox and Rebecca Root, Trans issues are being talked about in the mainstream media, and, for the most part, being accepted and celebrated.
We're not there yet though - there's still a hell of a lot of ignorant people out there, and media coverage can often be tainted with a curiosity that swiftly veers into disrespect and unwelcome intrusion.
Step forward Rhyannon Styles, performance artist, dancer, hairdresser, clown - and now writer. She's been a columnist for "Elle UK" for the last two years, and brings her experience, expertise and considerable talent to "The New Girl", a memoir that entertains every bit as much as it informs.
Rhyannon was born Ryan, and throughout her life went on an emotional, psychological and ultimately physical journey to become the woman she is in today. It's a journey that Rhyannon tells with no holds barred - allowing the reader to get to know her very well indeed. As such, it removes any potential awkwardness for the reader who may not be all that familiar with the ins and outs of transitioning, and instead feels like you're catching up with a friend over coffee. That's not to say that Rhyannon's journey isn't difficult - parts of this read had me tearing up, and Rhyannon's frankness and honesty conveys in part the immense difficulties and huge life choices that people questioning their gender face.
For a subject that it so difficult, emotional and intensely personal, Rhyannon does a fantastic job of not making things get too heavy - she's clearly a funny, witty and warm person and as such the reader enjoys embarking on every step of the journey with her, no matter how dark and difficult it gets.
Transitioning is going to be an individual and different journey for anyone who chooses to embark on the process, and, as such, there's no way one could cover all the potential questions that one on the journey, or the family and friends supporting them, may have. Rhyannon, quite rightly, chooses not to try and cover every possible base, but concentrates on telling her story - one packed full of humour, insights and warmth that offers considerable support, hope and understanding for those reading, whether you're trans, questioning, or just an ally. The last year or so has seen some brilliantly good Queer literature published in the UK - and "The New Girl" is a shining example of that.
Seduced by politics, poetry and an enduring dream of building a better world together, the unnamed narrator falls in love with a university professor. Moving with him to a rain-washed coastal town, she swiftly learns that what for her is a bond of love is for him a contract of ownership. As he sets about reducing her to his idealised version of an obedient wife, bullying her and devouring her ambition of being a writer in the process, she attempts to push back - a resistance he resolves to break with violence and rape.
Meena Kandasamy is a poet, fiction writer, translator and activist who lives in Chennai and London. She's published two volumes of poetry, as well as another novel - "The Gypsy Goddess". An outspoken campaigner and a gifted poet, she's channeled her own experiences into a novel that burns, rages and grips the reader deep in their very soul.
Domestic Violence is rife in India. Reported figures vary, but it's no secret - and the consequences are horrific, with things like "Dowry Death" a very real possibility for millions of women. Here, the author uses her own experiences to tell a chilling tale of control, oppression and survival.
A tale like this is not an easy one to tell - in a lesser authors hands, it's entirely possible that a tale this dark could be almost unreadable in its bleakness. However, Meena Kandasamy is a skilled poet, and she uses her mastery of language to pull the reader by the hand and drag them through these horrific moments in a blaze of rage and fire. Every moment intended to break the narrator down seems, in a sense, to increase her strength, and this turns what could be incredibly dark segments of abuse into ones that, whilst still hard to read, aren't without an incredible sense of catharsis.
This isn't just a novel about the writer - it sheds a light on a side of Indian culture that, whilst discussed occasionally in the media over here, isn't often explored in works such as this -and as such is both enlightening and horrifying in turn. Moments containing the narrator's parents chilled me to the core - both due to their attitudes towards domestic abuse, but also due to the fact that these attitudes only exist due to long standing societal norms in the culture in which they live - leaving no-one blameless, but allowing the reader a certain amount of understanding into the situation that the parents are in, and also making the feel of hopelessness that the narrator finds herself in surge darkly around the reader.
Trapped inside both her house and her self, the narrator explores her life through letters to past lovers - allowing glimpses of warmth, humour and modernity to slip through the stormy clouds that make up the majority of this book. The contrast between the past life of the narrator and that with her husband is staggering - and these stark moments of contrast encourage the reader to root for the fiery, fun, modern, headstrong woman who is there, subdued by violence and fear but raging and ready to burn through the lies and pain that make up her marriage.
Kandasamy quotes Frida Kahlo at the start of a chapter, and it's Frida who I was most strongly reminded me of when reading this. Kandasamy, like Kahlo, has turned her rage, pain and fury into the most beautiful works of art, and as such "When I Hit You..." is a must read, and I think the best thing I've read in 2017 so far. Simultaneously heartbreaking and uplifting, it's a work of considerable power from an author whose mastery of prose is able to guide the reader through a dark, dark world and bring them out unscathed, but not unchanged.
Many thanks to the publishers for the copy
Faringdon House in Oxfordshire was the home of Lord Berners; composer, writer, painter, friend of Stravinsky and Gertrude Stein, and a man renowned for both his eccentricity and his homosexuality. Turning Faringdon into an aesthete’s paradise, exquisite food was served to many of the great minds and beauties of the day. Since the early 1930’s, his companion there was Robert Heber-Percy, twenty-eight years his junior, wildly physical and unscholarly, a hothead who rode naked through the grounds and was known to all as the Mad Boy. If those two sounded an odd couple, especially at a time when homosexuality was illegal, the addition of Jennifer Fry to the household in 1942, a pregnant high society girl who became Robert’s wife, was really rather astounding. After the child was born, the marriage soon foundered. Berners died in 1950, and Robert was left in charge of Faringdon, ably assisted by a ferocious Austrian housekeeper. This mad world was the one first encountered by author Sofka Zinovieff, Robert’s granddaughter. A typical child of the sixties, it was much to her astonishment that Robert decided to leave the house to her.
Histories of stately homes can always be fun reads – crumbling buildings filled with people far madder than one may realize at first glance, living lives that are grand, but often filled with the weight of expectancy and responsibility. Perhaps it’s the class system that has left so many of us intrigued by these lives, and it’s this mix of curiosity and nostalgia for days gone by that keeps programmes like Downton Abbey so popular, and has seen a resurgence in recent years of books that explore the lives of the high and mighty. Sofka Zinovieff’s book however, both caters to those needs and yet manages to be a completely different kettle of fish.
Granddaughter of the Mad Boy of the title, the author came to the house in her teens, and whilst her mother never enjoyed much of a relationship with the man supposed to be her father, Sofka became fond of Robert, and he her. So fond, in fact, that in his later years he revealed that he was leaving the entire estate to her. It’s through this fascinating relationship that Sofka is able to explore the history of the house and its inhabitants – the life of her fascinating grandfather and his partner, one filled with fun, drama and incredible guest stars. A look at the visitor’s book for Faringdon House would be a rather incredible thing, as the reader spies characters such as the Mitfords, Salvador Dali, Margot Fonteyn, John Betjeman, Cecil Beaton, Elsa Schiaparelli, Gertrude Stein… It’s rather dizzying, and reflective of the astonishing lives that Lord Berners and his Mad Boy lived together. Gay and partnered at a time when it was frowned upon by most in society, and also rather illegal, the lives of these men are fascinating and glamorous. The introduction of a woman (the author’s grandmother) to proceedings takes the book in a slightly different direction, and the quest for truth and information about family secrets leads the reader in directions that prove both comical and quietly moving.
Despite the fantastic eccentricities, beautiful buildings and lavish lifestyles that are contained in this book, aided in part by the lovely layout and multiple images that appear throughout, this is a book that at its heart is a warm and loving biography of very real people. Flawed, human and endlessly fascinating, the fact that author Sofka is related to these men (even if potentially not by blood) and knew characters at the very heart of this story make it one with deep emotional ties that really help the reader form connections with this extremely fun cast of characters, and it makes for a gripping and transporting read that’s very hard to put down indeed.
This review was first published on The Bookbag – http://www.thebookbag.co.uk