Monday, 23 June 2014

Book #22 Hons and Rebels by Jessica Mitford

Hons and Rebels

As my growing obsession with The Mitfords continues my next stop was Jessica Mitford's autobiography Hons and Rebels which runs from her childhood through to her husbands departure to fight in World War Two, a conflict he died in.

I read Hons and Rebels in one sitting and it doesn't read at all like a standard autobiography more like a quirky novel about posh people, and as such is eminently easy to read. Autobiographies can prove difficult, particularly celebrity ones and the Mitfords were that in their day, as the author can often be disingenuous particularly if fellow subjects are still living.

In Charlotte Mosley's collection of the Mitford sisters letters, Debo and Diana are both scathing of Decca's portrayal of their parents which they see as hostile. For my part I couldn't really see that, both Muv and Farve come off as eccentric but no more so than anyone else of their era with their suspicion of doctors, anyone who wasn't Upper Class and the lack of merit in educating women. Muv herself was said to have enjoyed it, so I can't really see what the problem was.

Inevitably the first two thirds of the book are the best those parts which cover the girls childhood and then Decca's elopement.

She reveals a closeted, isolated existence as the Mitfords, careful who their aristocratic daughters could associate with, largely only allowed them each others company and the company of cousins. Inevitably this led to all the girls developing the eccentricities which they became famous for, Decca recalls being kept in the schoolroom or the nursery as loud battles raged on over something that Diana or Nancy had done, and being clueless as to what was happening.
Bored and frustrated she was desperate to run away, Unity was desperate to meet Hitler,  and Debo was desperate to marry a duke, all of which, bizarrely came to fruition. Particular highlights include how all three girls ran off a succession of governesses, until one came that was a useless teacher but whose one significant contribution to their education was to teach them to shoplift, so they made her life easy so that she would stay; all of their efforts to embarrass their mother when she takes them on a cruise and Unity's habit as a teen of giving the Nazi Salute and shouting Heil Hitler to everyone including those who served her in the post office.   

To be honest if anyone comes off badly in this autobiography it would be Decca's first husband, her cousin Esmond. This doesn't seem to have been intentional on Decca's part either. She becomes infatuated with Esmond before ever even meeting him via reports of his Communist exploits and subversive underground newspaper for Public Schoolboys.

When she does finally does meet Esmond from the start he comes across as financially motivated and largely self-interested. My low opinion of him increased once they emigrated to the States whereupon the narrative gets a little dull. Decca's account of their elopement is quite brilliant though, particularly how a British Captain was sent on a destroyer to bring her home and tried and failed to lure her aboard with a Roast Chicken!

Many people enjoy reading autobiography above fiction and if you are one of these people I heartily recommend this one, if you do have a preference for fiction anyway this autobiography is written and reads like a good novel anyway.

Marvellous 10/10   

Book #21 The First Phonecall From Heaven by Mitch Albom

The First Phonecall From Heaven

In summary of the plot, The First Phonecall From Heaven by popular American writer Mitch Albom is about a group of people from a fictionalized Clearwater, Michigan who begin to receive phonecalls from loved ones who are deceased and the ensuing consternation, scepticism and media coverage.

This is not a book that I would ever have voluntarily chosen but it was selected for Book Club this month. Normally, when I take a dim view of a book before reading I chastise myself for prejudice and book snobbery and hope, sometimes correctly, that I will be proven wrong.

Unfortunately, my prejudices against this novel were entirely borne out. This book is so badly written that I cringed. It is tripe of the highest order, complete and utter bilge. It is easily the worst book I've read in the last 3 years since the blog began in 2011, and would probably rank highly as one of the worst books I have ever read in my whole entire life.


Verdict : 0/10

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Book #20 Tampa by Alissa Nutting


I bought Tampa by accident on a buy one get one half price - I didn't read the back cover and had literally no idea what it was about. I started it on the train and was in minutes mortified both by what I was reading and that anyone I knew should see me reading it!

Tampa is without a doubt one of the most controversial and shocking novels I've ever come across - it is also by far and away the filthiest, and I have read The Fifty Shades Trilogy. If you are easily offended, I do not recommend this book.

For my part I found it genuinely disturbing but it is tremendously well written with that.

I have never read Nabokov's Lolita but I have some idea what happens in it, and Tampa is a similar novel with a woman at the centre. I have never read a book about a paedophile before and certainly have never read much of any kind about the female sex offender. 

What struck me as I read this book is the number of times cases both in this country and in the USA have emerged of teachers having relationships with underage pupils. Are these men and women in love as they profess to be with their young charges or are they simply perverted predators?

Alissa Nutting quickly dispenses with the idea that her protagonist Celeste Price is anything more or less than a paedophile who is only interested specifically in fourteen year old boys, and is not interested in long term relationships with them or any relationship extending beyond them hitting puberty proper.

Written as a first person narrative Celeste Price is clearly delusional and a sociopath with literally no interest in anything beyond sexual gratification and not being caught.

This book was a very intense, often uncomfortable experience but as a piece of original and unique creative writing is also worth reading. In her review for the Times Helen Rumbelow says "by the time I got to the end I was traumatised and in awe" and I can only echo that I think. Dazed and Confused also called it "truly dangerous fiction".

Because it made me uncomfortable as it would I think any normal person I would hesitate to recommend it, however, though I was reminded at some points slightly of Notes On A Scandal, there is no book like this, you will never read a book like this unless you read this one. The other questionable thing about Tampa I suppose is that if this protagonist or this author were male - this book might well have been banned, which leads to an interesting debate.

For that  a 9/10 verdict with a warning that it is utter unrelenting filth, and from the point of view of both parents and teachers pretty scary filth at that.     


Book #19 The Mitfords : Letters Between Six Sisters ed. Charlotte Mosley

The Mitfords : Letters Between Six Sisters

I will start by saying that I was utterly obsessed by and engrossed in this book. After I, for no apparent reason read the letters between Deborah, Duchess Of Devonshire and Patrick Leigh Fermor, I had to know more about both Debo and her sisters.

Most people have very ordinary lives : school, job, house, car, marriage, children. The same cannot be said for the Mitfords who each had extraordinary lives.

Their letters are touching as they often write to each other using their childhood pet names 'Dear Boud', 'Dear Hen', 'Dearest Woman', 'Dear Honks' and so on, on some occasions the letters are mind blowing, particularly the pre-war ones written by Unity.  Though later letters have neither the same energy nor the same level of bonkers they are still excellent from a historical perspective.

Why would anyone be interested in reading a book about 6 sisters you may not have heard of? I'll give a short biography on each, which may explain why this book enthralled me so much.

Nancy :

Though Nancy was a successful writer she was quite bitter and jealous of her younger siblings, largely of their romantic successes in comparison to her own. She had a fake engagement to a gay man, a short lived marriage to a man who only cared about her money and status and an ongoing affair with a Colonel she adored to whom she was merely one of many. She informed on her sister Diana to the British Government during the war, something Diana, who cared for her devotedly towards the end of her life never knew. Of her Debo says "When you take away the books, she had a miserable life really"

Pamela :

Known as Woman, Pamela seldom writes but through the letters of her sisters I built an image of a Miss Trunchbull type character who is large, strides about with dogs in tow, hates children and is obsessed with food.
Diana :

Diana married young to the heir of the Guinness fortune, but, feeling stifled, left him following an affair with Oswald Mosley the fascist, whom she later married (in Goebbels house!) Both massive Nazi sympathizers they were interred at Holloway for the duration of the war as threats to the British nation. Following this, they became pariahs and lived in Ireland and France.    

Unity :

Unity and Diana bonded over their mutual affinity for fascism, and their letters to one another are by far the strangest and most alarming to read. Unity had what was tantamount to a schoolgirl crush on Hitler and her letters about him read like a teenager talking about a member of a boyband. "I heard he was in a cafe so I rushed straight there" When war breaks out Unity shoots herself in the head in Berlin, she doesn't die, but has the mental age of child and is prone to rages. The brunt of caring for her falls to her Mother and Debo whose letters reveal how terrible it was. There is a strong sense that no-one in the family besides Diana and their mother, ever took Unity remotely seriously and Debo comments that she hates how Unity is only ever associated to the 'Hitler thing'.

Jessica :

'Decca' was a Communist but was closest to Unity and never parted ways with Unity the way she did with Diana. There is a sense that this is not only due to what befell Unity but because Diana was the more sincere fascist and therefore the more dangerous. Decca eloped with her cousin and after various relatives were unable to persuade them home, married him. Decca was beset by tragedy, but became a civil rights activist, one photo shows her playing Boggle with Maya Angelou! Her Americanisation caused her to both distance herself and become distanced from her sisters who remained quite traditionally British Upper Class.  Though unable to ever forgive Diana her far right views; and following upset caused over her autobiography, difficulties among all her family relationships, Jessica bonded with Nancy in later life over the shortcomings of their parents and their anger over never receiving a formal education.

Deborah :

Debo had the happiest childhood of all the sisters, but as the youngest was repeatedly impacted by their outlandish deeds, telling Decca in later life that her elopement was one of the worst things that ever happened to her. Their father once commented : "Whenever I hear of a peers daughter in a scandal I already know it's going to be one of you". She married Andrew Cavendish and when his brother died in the war they became Duke and Duchess of Devonshire. She often socialised with the great and the good, and now in her 90s still does. She was also related by marriage to both JFK and Harold Macmillan, all the Mitfords were also related to the Churchills. I read an article by Guy Walters regarding her memoir which heavily criticises her for not condemning either Diana or Unity for their politics. Having read two sets of Debo's letters, Debo both couldn't care less about politics and loved her sisters no matter what and is the most unilaterally loyal of all and to all of them. When asked by Princess Margaret why Oswald Mosley is in attendance at a soiree, Debo is alleged to have replied with : "Well, he IS my brother in law" As they all aged and passed away, Diana became Debo's last link to her childhood, hardly surprising she would not condemn her and hardly fair to ask her to.      
Sometime during the Seventies, there is a resurgence of public interest in the sisters and this leads to a massive falling out, chronicled in letters over both a biography of the departed Unity and a missing scrapbook which Pamela has accused Jessica of stealing. From the Thirties onwards Jessica refused to speak to Diana as their politics drove them apart, in later years, due to rifts, Debo, the most well adjusted of the sisters becomes the hub, and it is sad to watch the letters peter out until only Diana and Debo are alive and then just Debo alone.

This is a fascinating chronicle of a group of women, from a historical perspective, a class perspective and a female perspective and if I haven't whetted your appetite here with my descriptions of them then there's something wrong with you.

Verdict : 10/10 - and the blog is likely to feature a host of Mitford related items over the next year, as I have become slightly obsessed with them.  (Though I was dashed to find no mention of Debo's friend Sybil Cholmondeley anywhere)   

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Book #18 This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz

This Is How You Lose Her

I wasn't planning on reading 'This Is How You Lose Her' because I didn't get on with miserabilist 'The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao' at all. My friend Nana, however is a big Diaz fan and convinced me to give him another try.

A collection of short stories all save one revolve around Yunior, Oscar's sister Lola's boyfriend from the novel. It becomes hard not to see Yunior as an alter ego of Diaz's as he shares so many autobiographical similarities.   I did not like the character of Yunior much in the novel, he got on my nerves, but this collection feels somewhat different.

Every story is in some way about the tragedy of love in its various forms from loveless marriages and couplings to being in love with someone and being unable to make them happy, to continuing to pine over someone five years after the end of the relationship.

As in Oscar Wao, Yunior is incapable of conventional fidelity even as he acknowledges it is destroying all his hopes of happiness. 

Pathos surrounds the work as a whole, and I thought the stories were very sharp and beautifully written, as a result I will probably read more Diaz and I'm rather sorry it wasn't this one I read first.

Verdict : 8/10

Monday, 16 June 2014

Book #17 Orange Is The New Black by Piper Kerman

Orange Is The New Black

Piper Kerman's prison memoir which inspired the Netflix series of the same name is, unsurprisingly not nearly as eventful as the series it gave inspiration to. Kerman's real life experience is a much tamer affair though there are several moments which translated straight to screen.

Notable differences include that Piper was close to 'Pops' who inspired 'Red' and certainly was never 'starved out' by her and 'Pennsatucky' a vulnerable girl who Piper tried to help.

Nevertheless the story of a middle class woman whose intense lesbian affair with a drug dealer in her 20s caused her to commit a minor felony, before she came to her senses and left the relationship; only to find her past actions catch up to her, was absolutely ripe to be made for television.

And an entertaining, mind boggling tale it is, so unusual that really you couldn't make it up. An easy, quick and enjoyable read, I would recommend it especially if you enjoy autobiography, and I definitely recommend the show.

Verdict : 8/10

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Book #16 Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut

Slaughterhouse 5

Slaughterhouse 5 has long been pinned in the back of my mind as 'To Read'. It appeared on that bygone BBC list of books that must be read for a start, and that came out when I was still at school. A friend of mine is a massive Vonnegut fan and I ended up buying it for a train journey a while ago.

There the problem started, I read about half of it on that journey, and at roughly 173 pages it shouldn't have been hard to finish at yet somehow it was.

About the serious folly of war and the damage that it inflicts on the individual fighting it, the novel has a lot of merit; even the science fiction element wasn't what grated because I thought it was a clever way of illustrating the nature of PTSD and its feeling of being outside your linear chronology.

I couldn't and in many ways still can't explain why I couldn't engage with this book, why its prose disengaged me so. At one point, with all the restarts I must have read the section where Billy wakes up to find his 'fat, ugly' fiance Valencia, at the bottom of his bed eating chocolate FIVE TIMES.

This book took me with about 4 restarts and one mid book reconvene about 8 weeks to read, twice I went to my monthly book club and told my friend 'still haven't finished  Slaughterhouse 5' and seriously that must be some kind of record for me.

With that, I acknowledge the importance of the book and its message. So why didn't I like it? Why did it get on my nerves so much?  I still don't know. If you've also read Slaughterhouse 5 and didn't like it, I'd love to hear from you.

Verdict : 4/10

Book #15 Let's Explore Diabetes With Owls by David Sedaris

Let's Explore Diabetes With Owls

Let's Explore Diabetes With Owls is the third David Sedaris short story collection I have read following Naked and Me Talk Pretty One Day. Of the 3 I have read it is probably the most consistently enjoyable.

Included are four short stories, though whilst authored by Sedaris are not his usual style - one is from the point of view a selfish teenager and another the POV of an ignorant American mother. These are a bit weird, Sedaris says he has included them as offerings for teenagers who might be doing "Forensics" at school which sounds nothing like its title and is more like the Speaking and Listening portion of GCSE English. None of these work particularly well as short stories and all illustrate an extreme of some kind.

The main body of the work is the sort of stories I've come to expect from Sedaris. What differed this time round is that whereas in Naked, and Me Talk Pretty there were stories that I thought were brilliant and others which I thought terrible or boring, all of the stories in 'Owls' are good. Whilst this means there are no standout boring ones, it is also true that there's no standout amazing one either. They are all of a similar average.

The best Sedaris stories by far are the ones about his Greek immigrant family living in Raleigh, North Carolina and the best in 'Owls' are, customarily, the ones about his Dad. All however are imbued with his customary strong wit. Sedaris recently read in Liverpool and I couldn't go because I had to honour a prior commitment, reading 'Owls' has made me more sorry that I couldn't.

Whilst the reference to Owls in the title is for reasons that become obvious, I can't fathom what diabetes had to do with anything. There isn't a diabetes story, that I noticed. Anyone?

Verdict : 7/10


Book #14 The Five People You Meet In Heaven by Mitch Albom

The Five People You Meet In Heaven

Next months choice for Book Club is The First Phonecall from Heaven by Mitch Albom - having not read any of his, I thought it best to read 'Five People' first as everyone from Book Club read it ages ago.

At the start of the novel, an elderly man named Eddie, a maintenance man at a fairground dies, and meets five people whose lives he impacted along the way.

The clear purpose of this novel is to give rather a spiritual lesson to its readers on how all lives intersect and how everyone impacts each other. At times this feels trite, earnest and worthy. Also I found it highly American in its moralising.

However when I reached Eddie's fifth person, and the ultimate spiritual lesson of his life, my blood ran cold,  and I got rather emotional.

It's a good book, and a very short, quick and easy read, it reminded me a bit of one of Paulo Coelho's lesser efforts though.

It's all rather wholesome and rather cheesy, but I think has had a great deal of popular appeal, and the reasons for this are clear whilst reading.

Verdict : 7/10    

Book #13 In Tearing Haste ed. by Charlotte Mosley

In Tearing Haste

Sitting here, about to write my review of In Tearing Haste, I am trying to figure out how I ended up buying it. I had certainly never heard of it before the day I did, and I bought it on Kindle so I downloaded it somehow without even actually searching for it, I think it came up as a recommended or something and I thought it sounded interesting.

Charting the lengthy correspondence of Deborah, Duchess Of Devonshire and the writer Patrick Leigh Fermor who first met in the 1940s, the letters between them run from 1954-2007, at the time In Tearing Haste went to press they were still corresponding but 'Dear Paddy' died aged 96 in 2011, Deborah, the last surviving of the famous Mitford sisters, still going strong in 2014 aged 94.

Patrick Leigh Fermor was a spy in World War Two, and went on to be a successful travel writer, but though his letters are the more erudite and lengthy, I did find myself less interested in his travelogues and such like then I was in the high society hilarity dashed off with no particular care by 'Darling Debo'

Debo's life is one to marvel at, really and truly. Her letters include reference to 'Dear Evie' and how he sent her a copy of his latest book which he 'felt sure' would not offend her this time. 'Dear Evie' was Evelyn Waugh, and the copy he sent her blank.

On another much later occasion she is at dinner with Jon Snow (Channel 4 News) and when he gets a phonecall at dinner they all 'presume Blair has gone and started another war'.

She attended JFK's inauguration, was devastated by his death, and travelled to his funeral on a private plane with the Prime Minister and 'the D of E'.

Quite early on in the correspondence she recounts being forced to chat to "Cake" and saying loudly "Oh Dear, now I'm stuck" - later she sits in pride of place at Cake's funeral and 'can't think why'.
Cake, for reasons which are never made clear is what the Mitford Sisters called The Queen Mother.

She refers to both her homes, one being Chatsworth, the other being Lismore Castle as 'the dump' without the merest hint of irony. She is quite consistently a hoot.

On the strength of Debo alone, and through the references she makes to her sisters, I've gone and downloaded, The Mitfords : Letters Between Six Sisters. Already, it is absolutely brilliant. Debo herself would probably be scandalized that I found her the star of this show and never quite took to PLF, but the little glimpses of bygone days are quite wonderful. We find out for example through Debo's potted biography that PLF was expelled from school. Why? Because he held hands with a greengrocer's daughter in public! SCANDALOUS!

I find all this fascinating and can't wait to read all the quaint historical moments of the lives of all sisters. Also I simply must know all there is to know about Sybil Cholmondeley who sounds like a proper ledge.


Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Book #12 The Heart Of The Matter by Graham Greene

The Heart Of The Matter

The Heart Of The Matter by Graham Greene was my Book Club's choice this month. It is the third Graham Greene novel I have read after The End Of The Affair and The Human Factor. Having read those novels, I had some idea of what to expect here, and indeed the novel shares a number of deep similarities to The End Of The Affair.

Having since googled this, four of Greene's novels, including Heart Of The Matter and End Of The Affair examined Catholic themes with Heart Of The Matter being the final one. Some at my Book Club could not understand why the protagonist becomes so deeply religious towards the end, but I, having grown up in modern Catholicism with an awareness of its history, could.

The unforgiving Catholicism on show here, in the days of the Tridentine Rite and prior to the Second Vatican Council is one I think not easily understood by a lay reader, which I think makes the book lose something in translation to the non-religious or non-Catholic.

Aside from this issue the novel covers a number of other themes. First and foremost it is a novel about Colonials and Colonial society. Various Brits abroad, largely public school educated, despairing of the heat and disparaging of the natives, illustrating as they go via their behaviour the levels to which the British Empire damaged various nations and their peoples with their sense of paternalistic right and entitlement.  

Our protagonist is Scobie, and our colony is a "West African State" later revealed by Greene to be Sierra Leone. Scobie is that rare thing, an honest man who likes the people and seeks to do the job well,  something which makes he and his wife objects of unpopularity and scorn. As the novel turns, and Scobie is forced to act in an unprincipled way, his popularity increases, a remark perhaps aimed by Greene at the corrupt nature of those who enter Foreign Service.

It is a very male book set in a man's world and I found myself frustrated that we only see women in this book in the way Scobie views them, as needy and a burden. The two main female characters Helen and Louise are two-dimensional with only merest hints that they are more than Scobie is allowing them to be. Other men like Wilson, Bagster and Harris are priggish and annoying, and perhaps in some respects, stereotypes.

Despite this the prose itself is engaging, though the novel does not really become consistently readable until perhaps mid-way through. It has dated, but is also an interesting portrait of its time, both historically speaking and in terms of comparative literature.

It is an interesting book, and I enjoyed certain lines of prose very much, but this being my third Greene, I feel like I've got a certain handle now on the type of novel he wrote and can't say I'm eager to read his complete works.

Verdict 7/10

Book #11 The Invention Of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

The Invention Of Wings

The Invention Of Wings is the third Sue Monk Kidd novel I have read following The Mermaid Chair and the highly regarded The Secret Life Of Bees.

The novel works as a dual narrative, switching between daughter of wealthy plantation owners Sarah Grimke and her slave girl Handful whom she is "given" as a gift on her 11th Birthday to literally be her personal slave.

Where this story alters from standard slave/mistress or slave/master stories is that Sarah despite her background and upbringing is vehemently pro-abolition daring and incurring the wrath and disapproval of the society she finds herself in. She refuses the gift when Handful is presented to her only to be punished and to have the honour forced upon her in the coming days.

Both Sarah and Handful are beautifully drawn as the novel follows them from childhood right through to their early 40s. Sarah is a unique and fairly admirable character, repeatedly flying in the face of what would be the easiest and most comfortable for her and her own life to stand up for her rights as a woman and the rights of all women.

I was really glad to read this novel, for too often, stories like this are told in a pardon-the-pun black and white way. We rarely if ever hear the voice of the minority white in the slavery era, who thought slavery was abominable and strove to change it. It also stays honest, at times we see Sarah Grimke, though a heroine, her heart in the right place, act in the racist way that has been indoctrinated in her. 
I thought it was unique and clever and then wondered : But is this realistic, would a person with the background of Sarah Grimke ever have been able to do this? Ever acted in such a way in the face of such huge censure, at one point unable to return to her family home for fear of being lynched?

 Imagine my delight therefore to discover upon closing an Authors Note that revealed Sarah Grimke was in fact a very real person, who did many if not all of the things ascribed to her. I had never heard of her before and this seems a real pity as she truly was a heroine of her time. The novel also made me question, question if I had been born Sarah Grimke or someone like her, would I have been brave enough to stand up the way she did or would I have conformed? I really hope I would have been brave.

Whether Handful ever existed or certainly the Handful that is portrayed is unlikely and unknown which seems a shame - and a little like a betrayal of all the real Handfuls who did. The story begins with Sarah's refusal of her, a real event, and so in some ways it would have been a further betrayal of those women to have the girl who was offered and rejected be silent in the novel, but her story cannot be considered authentic in the way that Sarah's is.

I would love to see this made into a Hollywood film mainly because Sarah Grimke deserves to be more widely known, and the story of the women who were part of the abolition movement more widely honoured.

Verdict 10/10