Annabel's House of Books

Noli domo egredi, nisi librum habes – Never leave home without a book.

Tag: Memoir (page 1 of 8)

Give Dame Maggie an Oscar now!

The Lady in the Van

Firstly apologies for having gone AWOL for a fortnight. Life took a hectic turn (annual school fireworks extravaganza one week for which I’m Health & Safety Manager, at the same time as preparing for school inspection this week). I’ve been too worn out to blog, but have built up a pile of books to talk about now! But first, a few words about The Lady in the Van

lady in van film poster

I’ve been looking forward to seeing this since first hearing about it, and had to see it on the day of its release. I took my daughter, and she loved it too.

I just couldn’t think of a better pair of actors to play Miss Shepherd and Alan Bennett than Maggie Smith and Alex Jennings – both were pitch perfect. Although Maggie Smith is queen of the put-down with her impeccable tone and hauteur, she also doesn’t need to say anything – her face is just so expressive, it was a triumph of acting. Seen in close-up on the screen, it was very moving.

The film, made at Gloucester Crescent in Camden itself in and around the house still owned by Alan Bennett where he let her park her van temporarily – she stayed for 15 years, was adapted from Bennett’s stage play, in which fifteen years ago, Maggie first played Miss Shepherd – I do wish I’d got to see the original play. The film has built upon the stage play by expanding on the fact that Miss Shepherd had been a concert pianist, and in one moving scene near the end Maggie plays the piano – for real.

The story is narrated by Alan Bennett – who is split into two – ‘the one that does the writing and the one that does the living’ which is a really clever way of taking it.  The two Bennetts are quietly bitchy and supportive of each other at the same time.

I won’t say much more about the film, except that there are cameos for almost all of the History Boys, and the neighbours are a riot!  Go see it and enjoy the masterclass in acting from Dame Maggie.

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lady van gentlemanI first read The Lady in the Van  in Alan Bennett’s collection of memoir and essays Writing Home, published in 1994, although The Lady in the Van had been published separately previously on its own in 1989.  I’d thoroughly recommend Writing Home and Untold Stories which came afterwards.  But, although I already own a book with it in, freed from the inspection yesterday afternoon, I went to my lovely local indie bookshop and they had copies of a new edition of The Lady in the Van.  Apart from a film tie-in paperback, Faber have also brought out a hardback, illustrated by David Gentleman, and including loads of stills from the film, intro from director Hytner and film diaries by AB – and they had copies signed by Bennett – SOLD!!!

Capturing her memories…

Shockaholic by Carrie Fisher

shockaholicIn my review of Fisher’s previous slim volume of anecdotal memoir, Wishful Drinking, I wished she would write a full memoir a couple of years down the line. Instead, she has done more of the same, but you know what, I don’t care that it’s not the full memoir I previously craved, I loved being back in her company, however briefly.

In this volume she tells us about half a dozen episodes in her eventful life, all recounted with her characteristic tell-it-like-it-was wit, very self-deprecating humour and plenty of insight and true emotion too.

At the end of the introduction, she neatly paraphrases Proust to nail the flavour of the following pages:

So, before I forget, what follows is a sort of anecdotal memoir of a potentially more than partial amnesiac. Remembrances of things in the process of passing.

As you might guess from the title, she starts with an account of what it’s like to undergo ECT (Electro Convulsive Therapy), which is often seen as a treatment of last resort and portrayed in the media often as if it had never moved on from the original violent fitting effects when it was first devised.  Now carried out under mild anaesthesia, it takes just minutes. It blows away many of the effects of depression and mania, but at the cost of memory – mostly recent memory and an inability to form new memories for a short period.

Another thing is that I find myself forgetting movies and books, some of which I only recently enjoyed, which, if you think about it, is really not that bad, because now I can be entertained by them all over again. And grudges? How can you hold on to something you don’t remember having to begin with!

Having got the pretext of ECT out of the way, we dive into the episodes, starting with a story about briefly dating a senator in the mid-80s and holding her own at dinner against a usually dominating Ted Kennedy who continually tried to quiz her about sex – this was hilarious.

The next story tells of what you’d think of as an unlikely friendship with the ‘otherly’ Michael Jackson. However, both being addicts from dysfunctional families, they had a unique understanding and she personally witnessed him as a great father to his own children. Jackson had some redeeming features for her, despite his alleged inappropriate friendships with kids and the consequences; she gives her take on that, which is fascinating.

Another of Michael’s friends was of course, Elizabeth Taylor. She was Fisher’s step-mother for some years, Eddie Fisher having dumped Debbie Reynolds for Taylor, who later ran off with Richard Burton.  Taylor, famously loved to receive jewelry (Fisher’s spelling) and Michael Jackson obliged.  However Fisher recalls some other jewelry:

I remember coming into her dressing room one time and she was wearing this diamond as big as a doorknob that she always wore – the famous diamond Burton had given her. ‘What did you do to get that?’ I asked her. And she smiled sweetly and softly said, ‘I was loved.’

Presumably, this was Taylor’s ring containing the Krupp diamond (33+ carats) bought for her by Burton in 1968.

Taylor and Fisher had always had a distinctly frosty relationship until one day at an Easter Egg hunt at her ranch, Taylor pushed Fisher into the swimming pool for making fun of her in a speech at an AIDS benefit. This finally broke the ice, and Fisher has the photographs of the event to prove it.

Running through this collection of anecdotes though are memories of her father who died in 2010. Largely absent during her childhood, they would later get together when his star began to fade and she was turbulently married to Paul Simon:

Eventually (and/or after a year) my father moved to an apartment around the corner from Paul. And it was not too long after that that he began sneaking drugs to me.  This was when, like most fathers and daughters, we begain doing coke together. Our relationship had started with me longing for him to visit, eventually evolving into my being desperate for him to leave, setting finally and comfortably into us being drug buddies.

The final chapter is again about her father, but this time his last months, when addled by marijuana use and suffering dementia she became a carer, and she reflects how glad she was that they had managed to develop a relationship despite that difficult childhood.

Whereas Wishful Drinking was derived from her successful stageshow and sometimes came across as a performance on paper, Shockaholic is still just as wise-cracking but, tempered by the loss of her father, comes across as more thoughtful in tone. I do hope for more installments to read of Fisher’s fascinating life. (8/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (affiliate link):
Shockaholicby Carrie Fisher (2011). Simon & Schuster 2013. Paperback, 176 pages.
Wishful Drinking by Carrie Fisher (2008).


Non-fic Shiny Linkiness

Yes, there’s more Shiny Linkiness today. One of the things I do love about reviewing for Shiny New Books is that it introduces me to some great non-fiction which I don’t read enough of, and the latest issue is no exception. Please feel free to comment here, or even better – follow the links to the full reviews and comment there.  Thank you!

Birth of a Theorem by Cédric Villani

birth-of-a-theorem-198x300I realise that a memoir about winning the Fields Medal for mathematics will not be to everyone’s taste – especially as it contains pages of equations… BUT – they are just illustrations, treat them sections from a musical score and pass them by whilst appreciating the complexity you’ve just skimmed over and it does make some kind of sense to see them on the page.

Cédric Villani is a flamboyant Frenchman who likes flashy clothes and music and brings his recent career to life so we can understand a bit about what mathematicians really do!

I was rather excited by this book and you can read my full review here.

The Knowledge by Lewis Dartnell

the-knowledgeI was able to kill two birds with one stone with this book. We discussed it this month at our book group – I didn’t choose it, but was very glad to have read it, and as the new issue of Shiny New Books coincided with its paperback release, I could review it there and then discuss with the group.

This book is a thought experiment about rebooting civilisation’s lost science and technology following a world-disaster like a flu-pandemic. It’s a primer that’ll give you the basics – or point you in the right direction largely through re-examining how we discovered key processes the first time around in history. You’ll really get to appreciate how important being able to make soap and lime are after the end of the ‘grace period.’

Our book group found this fascinating and dry in equal measure. Although it is a science book written by a scientist, the others would have liked some more social science and comment incorporated – but it ‘does what it says on the tin’ and I enjoyed it a lot.

Read my full review here.

The Year of Reading Dangerously by Andy Miller

andy miller book Lastly, again, to coincide with publication of the paperback, I revised my review of Andy Miller’s book which I originally posted about here. I may have had problems with one tiny section, but I did really enjoy reading this book.

Read my revised Shiny review here.

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Source: Top – publisher – thank you. Middle and bottom – own copies.
To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (affiliate links):

Birth of a Theorem: A Mathematical Adventure by Cédric Villani (trans Malcolm De Bevoise), Bodley Head, March 2015, hardback, 260 pages.
The Knowledge: How To Rebuild Our World After An Apocalypse by Lewis Dartnell, Vintage paperback, March 2015, 352 pages.
The Year of Reading Dangerously: How Fifty Great Books Saved My Life by Andy Miller, 4th Estate paperback, April 2015, 253 pages.


A man of letters…

Dear Lupin… Letters to a Wayward Son by Roger Mortimer and Charlie Mortimer

dear lupinMemoirs told in letters are an endangered species these days. Who still writes letters to their nearest and dearest?  We tend to send a quick e-mail instead, and then we tend not to archive them. Our e-mails tend to be less formal and less revealing. There’s something especially poignant and attractive about reading other people’s letters, getting a little glimpse into their lives.

A huge hit of recent times has been Love Nina, by Nina Stibbe (my review here). Nina’s letters, sent home to her sister when she was nannying in London in the 1980s are witty, youthful and full of enthusiasm – it was a great time to be in London in your early twenties. A couple of years before Nina’s epistles came another bestselling volume of letters …

Roger Mortimer, who died in 1991, was a WWII veteran serving in the Coldstream Guards and after that a racing correspondent for the Sunday Times for nearly thirty years. His son, Charlie was born in 1952 and somewhat surprisingly, he had kept all his father’s letters to him over the years. Those published in Dear Lupin cover around twenty-five years, starting in 1967 when Charlie was at Eton.

Before I go further, I should explain that the title of the book Dear Lupin, comes from George and Weedon Grossmith’s comic novel Diary of a Nobody published in 1892. Lupin is the preferred name of the son of Mr Pooter. Pooter, a clerk in the City, is a Captain Mainwaring type, rather self-important and he doesn’t approve of his son’s social life. One day I must read this book – such is Pooter’s literary fame. Mortimer père comes across as having a very dry sense of humour in allying himself with Mr Pooter and his son with Lupin.

The book begins with a foreword by Charlie telling us about his father, then a dramatis personae – for many mentioned in the letters seem to have at least one nickname. This was useful to refer back to on some occasions. The letters follow, most with a comment by Charlie afterwards explaining some of the circumstances therein. Charlie, as becomes clear, is mainly a fan of the telephone. The letters begin in 1967 as Charlie is shortly to leave Eton without any qualifications at all. A few years later in 1970, his plan is to join the army, but not until he’s had a final fling in Greece. Roger writes with a long list of advice:

5. Try not to look like some filthy student who has renouced personal hygiene completely. The unwashed with long hair are looked upon with great hostility in certain European countries and it would be silly to be stopped at a frontier because you like wearing your hair like a 1923 typist.
6. If you do get into trouble, Interpol will soon find out you have a police record and that could be awkward. …
8. Take a small medicine box and plenty of bromo. You are one of nature’s diarrhoea sufferers.
9. Make sure all your headlights are adapted to the rules of the country you are in. [and so on]

[Charlie comments]
This is a final fling before rather an impetuous decision to join the Coldstream Guards as a squaddie in October. Due to a conviction for possession of marijuana I am not able to join as a potential officer. As the Colonel in Chief remarks to me in an interview, ‘If you were merely an alcoholic we wouldn’t give a damn.’

His spell in the Army doesn’t last long! Soon Charlie is living in Devon and trying out lots of other jobs – paint salesman, farming ‘of sorts’ and being a second-hand car dealer. Roger writes:

Dear Charles,
I suppose that writing a serious letter to you is about as effective as trying to kick a thirty-ton block of concrete in bedroom slippers, but I am a glutton for punishment as far as you are concerned.

Roger really does worry about his aimless and rather feckless son. He is concerned too, that it could all be his fault. Charlie’s mother, Cynthia, nicknamed Nidnod for some reason, is always off hunting and seems to hit the bottle in the evenings a lot – however she is beyond reproach.  Charlie continues to drift along, trying this and that, and Roger keeps him going with generous contributions along with demands to pay the phone bill after the occasions Charlie had stayed with his parents. Roger’s last letter of 1977 is particularly brief …

Dear Little Mr Reliable,
Thanks a million for doing the wood baskets as promised. My word, your employer is going to be a very lucky man!

[Charlie] It takes real skill and irony to craft such an effective dressing down in so few words.

To quote more gems from these pages would be to over-egg things. The letters continue into Roger’s retirement and last years, his sense of humour and air of genteel frustration never dimming. Charlie is a commitment-phobe in all senses of the word, gamely going through life from one small crisis to another, being bailed out by his long-suffering Dad who obviously loves him to bits, and Charlie loves him back. Charlie doesn’t really change much over the decades – he’s now in his early 60s, describing himself as a ‘middle-aged, middle-class spiv (mostly retired).’

Roger has a unique almost stream of consciousness flow in his letter writing – going from admonishments, to advice, to who has died recently, to his wife’s riding exploits, to gossip about the neighbours, to more advice, to news about the family pets and so on… without stopping to start new paragraphs – just everything butting up to together. This butterfly approach to letter writing, full of these non-sequiturs, could be compared with Charlie’s career!

I loved being in Roger’s company hearing about his unique-sounding family. The good thing is that Charlie’s two sisters, one older, one younger have also kept their letters and two more volumes of epistles from the Mortimer family are now available to read – Dear Lumpy: Letters to a Disobedient Daughter  and Dearest Jane: My Father’s Life & Letters – I shall be reading them both. (9/10)

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Source: Own Copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (affiliate links):
Dear Lupin…: Letters to a Wayward Son by Roger & Charlie Mortimer. Constable, 2011, paperback 208 pages.
Dear Lumpy: Letters to a Disobedient Daughter by Roger & Louise Mortimer. Constable, 2013, paperback 208 pages.
Dearest Jane…: My Father’s Life and Letters by Roger & Jane Mortimer. Constable, 2014, hardback, 432 pages. (pbk in May 2015)

Life with the Hawkings

Travelling to Infinity by Jane Hawking

Travelling to InfinityI already posted about the wonderful film The Theory of Everything about the life of Stephen and Jane Hawking here. At that time I wasn’t far into the book, Jane Hawking’s memoir, which the film was based upon. It took me some time to finish the book, read between other fiction novels over a fortnight or so, for it is a bit of a chunkster at 490 densely packed pages.

Jane Hawking first published her memoir in 1999 and the story ended in 1990 after the separation between her and Stephen was made official – this happened after the ending of the film which (started and) finished with Stephen being made a Companion of Honour by the Queen in 1989. In this new abridged version, a postscript brings us up to date.

It takes a special kind of strong woman to fall in love with a man who has been given just two years to live, but that’s what happened to Jane Hawking. Stephen was diagnosed with motor-neuron disease before they married – there is no cure, but amazingly Stephen is still living over fifty years later – a medical phenomenon, even amongst those who contract the rarer, more creeping form of the disease. They didn’t know that would happen then though, and were determined to live life to the full.

Jane looks after Stephen through thick and thin, through the vagaries of university life going from one post to another, relocations around Cambridge, and always the gradual decline of Stephen’s mobility. A fiercely proud man, he totally relied on Jane, and to a lesser extent his research students, to help him get about between home and college. At first Jane was managing to keep her own studies in medieval languages up alongside, but once they had a baby it started to get really difficult. Stephen was very reluctant to start using a wheelchair – but the day came, as did two more children. Stephen’s condition goes up and down – he is prone to frequent choking fits. Gradually the decline results in him needing a tracheostomy to breathe and not choke and in time Stephen meets the computer generated voice that has spoken for him ever since.

Jane has had many battles throughout, and proved to be a tough cookie. She was never really accepted by Stephen’s own family though. Atheists through and through, they could never understand her own needs as a practising Christian. This competition between God and science is one theme that runs through her memoir.

During the middle decades of their marriage, with Stephen on the conference circuit earning his keep at the college, and the demands of motherhood and running the household, it’s not wonder that she was exhausted. Her sense of frustration comes off the page, yet she never says she regrets putting her own life on the back-burner for Stephen. This middle part of the book is undeniably less exciting than the beginning or the end, and the endless detail over every conference and each little obstacle for Jane and Stephen does wear a little thin here.

Relief comes in Jane meeting Jonathan – the local choirmaster who begins to give their son Robert piano lessons, and soon becomes indispensable. Jonathan will eventually become Jane’s second husband, but there is much heartache to come before their developing relationship can be acknowledged. Indeed by the time it was obvious that Stephen now needed wrap-round nursing care, Jonathan had had to go.

It was the arrival of the nursing team that opened the rift between Jane and Stephen. Freed from looking after him round the clock, Jane is momentarily at a loss – and eventually one nurse in particular, Elaine, will edge her out of their marriage for good. It is enough to say that Stephen’s short marriage to his nurse didn’t work out either, there is a sense of schadenfreude about that, but due to having three children together, the Hawkings became friends again.

This is primarily a memoir about a remarkable family and Jane doesn’t let the fact that Stephen is arguably the greatest living scientist get in the way of that. He does come across as pig-headed and proud sometimes – but he is also a loving husband and father, one with his head often in the clouds thinking though. I got a distinct sense that he has used his disability to his advantage – freeing his mind to think.

The fullness of this memoir is, in its way, commendable – it really brings home to us how difficult life was living with someone disabled in this way through decades which weren’t sensitive to such needs. Whether such quantity was needed, I’m not so sure, but Jane Hawking has written a fascinating memoir, and shows us how much she cares for her former husband on (nearly) every page. (7.5/10)

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Source: Publisher – Thank you.
To explore further on Amazon UK (affiliate link), please click below:
Travelling to Infinity: The True Story Behind the Theory of Everything by Jane Hawking. Abridged edition pub Dec 2014 by Alma Books, paperback 490 pages.



A brief blog post about time

Just a quick blog post today to say that yesterday I went to see the film The Theory of Everything – the story of Jane and Stephen Hawking.


Its two young stars – Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones were exceptionally good.

Theory-of-Everything_612x381Redmayne’s transformation as Hawking’s disease took hold was masterly, but Jones’ steely determination to make the best of their lives together, then later frustrations shone out of the screen too. Both have been nominated for Oscars – my fingers are crossed.

The film was well structured and beautifully shot with a great supporting cast including David Thewlis and Emily Watson amongst a group of other younger actors I am less familiar with.

I took my 14yr old daughter and she was transfixed throughout the whole film too. My eyes did brim with tears at several moments, but did manage to hold them in.


Travelling to InfinityIt so happens, and not coincidentally, that I’m about quarter of the way through reading the new edition of Jane Hawking’s book Travelling to Infinity, which the film is based on.

Jane’s book is quite a chunkster at just under 500 pages, and carries on beyond the film, which stops in 1987 when Stephen was made a Companion of Honour. Originally published in 2007, this new edition published to tie in with the film has been abridged and added to.

I’m enjoying it so far, and can recognise many of the stories within from the film, which although having to compress things seems true to Jane’s life story. I hope the book continues to hold up.

Have you read the book or seen the film?

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Source: Publisher – Thank you.
To explore further on Amazon UK (affiliate link), please click below:
Travelling to Infinity: The True Story Behind the Theory of Everything by Jane Hawking. Abridged edition pub Dec 2014 by Alma Books, paperback 490 pages.

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