Annabel's House of Books

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

Tag: Memoir (page 1 of 9)

Getting hygge…

The Year of Living Danishly by Helen Russell

DanishlyThis was our book group’s read for January, chosen when our of our group had just come back from Copenhagen enthusiastic to learn more about the Danish way of life. The whole group enjoyed reading it – it’s very easy and the author has a nice line in self-deprecation. We also found plenty to discuss.

Helen Russell was a journalist for one of the women’s glossy magazines when her husband was offered a year’s contract to work for Lego at their HQ in Billund on Jutland. He was keen, and Helen knowing that they wanted to plan a family decided she could make a go of going freelance.  So off they went arriving in the depths of winter in what feels like a ghost town. Billund is famous for two things – Lego and having Denmark’s second largest airport (because of Legoland), otherwise situated as it is in the rural heartland of Jutland, it’s rather looked down upon by the more cosmopolitan capital.

Helen and ‘Lego Man’ as she calls her husband, ask where all the people are?  ‘They’re getting hygge,’ she’s informed by a cultural integration coach she consults.  ‘It’s a private, family time in Denmark and everyone hides behind their front doors. Danes are very wrapped up – literally and metaphorically – from November until February, so don’t be surprised if you don’t see many people out and about, especially in rural areas.’

Hunkering down and getting cosy in candlelight (a big hygge feature) with family for three months which peak at just under 8 hours daylight struck many of us as like an overlong Christmas holiday – too much time for family arguments and feuds to develop.

One thing that came through very clearly in this book was that Danes love, and I mean really love, rules. From not being served in an empty shop until she’d taken a ticket, to an hilarious episode when they wanted to fly a Union Jack – there are rules for everything.  The Danes work hard – but only for a very short working week – staying late is just not on.  The lowliest workers are paid a decent wage which encourages them to excel at their jobs, (one reason why a meal at Noma will cost a fortune). Their taxes are also very high  but everyone is happy to pay them because they are so well looked after. The Danes are also a pragmatic race – if a relationship isn’t working out they can divorce easily – they have a high divorce rate but lots of rules to get through it without fighting.

Talking of fighting though, Helen finds out that the Danes turn out to be a rather violent people.  Men fight men, women fight women, men fight women and women even fight men sometimes. As one of Helen’s contacts says, ‘We are Vikings.’  Viking culture is still very macho and alcohol-fueled and Helen confesses, ‘This glimpse of the darker side of life in Denmark has made me feel a little lost.’  She had been asking every Dane she consulted about their happiness rating – most said 9 or 10 out of 10, an 8 is rare and I can’t remember a single lower rating in the entire book. Questioned like that, the Danes seem extremely happy, but there are obviously unhappy undercurrents – some of which have recently come to the fore with the right-wing government pushing through legislation to seize refugee’s assets and make immigration stricter.

Another intriguing section dealt with the Danes’ attitudes towards animals – they are remarkably unsentimental.  You may remember an outcry a couple of years ago when they put down an otherwise healthy giraffe who wasn’t suitable for breeding, rather than sell him to a sub-standard zoo or institution.  The Danes went one step further:

So on 9 February 2014, the young giraffe was given a last meal of some quintessentially Danish rye bread before being shot in the head with a bolt gun. All in front of an audience of zoo visitors. After this, staff conducted a public autopsy, enthusiastically attended by crowds of Danish children and their parents curious to see the inner workings of the creature. Marius was dissected and fed to the lions – again, in full view of all who cared to watch.

There aren’t many vegetarians in Denmark.

Given that the subtitle of this book alludes to Denmark’s status as the world’s happiest country, I’ve unwittingly tended to dwell on the less positive (to us anyway) aspects of Danish life above. As well as her serious look about how Denmark works as a country, between the covers of this book are many lovely and fun moments – from the joy of eating real Danish pastries to dancing cows, Lego (of course) to Danish design, and not forgetting adult night at the local swimming baths!  As for what happens at the end of their year, I can’t tell. This book is a lovely blend of memoir and reportage told with wit and I can thoroughly recommend it. (9/10)

To round off our discussion we went around the table saying whether we’d like to live in Denmark. It was around 50/50. I’d love to visit Copenhagen, but I’d get cabin fever in the dark winter and pickled herrings rather put me off the idea of living there. However, I really ought to catch up with The Bridge which seems to be universally loved, but I’ve not had time for.

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Source: Own copy.

Helen Russell, The Year of Living Danishly (Icon Books, 2015).  Paperback, 354 pages.

It’s a Shiny Christmas

holly

Just to tell you that the Shiny New Books Christmas Extra Shiny edition is now online with 34 new reviews and articles for your delectation. There’s a bit of an ‘Oscar-Fest’ (Wilde that is) going on here here and here, plus a wide variety of other book in the mix.

I’ve contributed five pieces to this edition:

  • spectaclesNumber 11 by Jonathan Coe – a brilliant social satire about 21st century living and the economy
  • The Winter Place by Alexander Yates – an excellent YA novel that incorporates Finnish folklore into a contemporary tale of New York teens’ grief and going to live with the Finnish grandparents they never knew existed.
  • A Lion Was Learning to Ski by Ranjit Bolt – a book of read out loud limericks from the playwright/translator.
  • Spectacles by Sue Perkins – a fun but also thoughtful memoir from the Sue we know and love from GBBO.  Wonderful cover too!
  • The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs & Real Life Rock by Greil Marcus. Not one, but two books, by one of the best writers about popular music.

 

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!
D

[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)

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