I still find “Negro” a word of wonders, glorious and terrible

Negroland: a Memoir
by Margo Jefferson

This is an unusual memoir. It’s heavily stylised, experimental even, but it’s also rather scholarly in its approach to the historical context of Jefferson’s own life.

Margo Jefferson was born in 1947 and raised in a well-to-do black family in Chicago, part of a black elite society with its own specific rules, norms and challenges. And this is what she documents. It’s an unusual subject for a memoir, and in keeping with that, often doesn’t feel like a memoir at all. Jefferson doesn’t bare her soul, or reveal any shocking family secrets. She doesn’t even stick to first person, slipping in and out of referring to herself in the third person.

There is a lot of background information provided about the formation of America’s black elite, which at first felt a little excessive and/or dry until I realised how recent it all was, and in fact most of the people she refers to turn out to be family friends. There is also a lot about physical appearance – how people with different types of hair handled it, how nuances of skin colour and facial shape could affect your place in society. Usually I could not be less interested in hair and make-up, but of course its relevance to this story is rather different. Because even though Jefferson was and is rich, educated and well-connected, she and her friends and family cannot get away from the fact that they are black and therefore different.

Continue reading “I still find “Negro” a word of wonders, glorious and terrible”

Sometimes we don’t want to be tethered to yesterday

spectaclesSpectacles
by Sue Perkins

This memoir by beloved comedian and TV presenter Sue Perkins jumped out at me when browsing one of our local charity shops, as I was looking to add some comedy to my book shelves and this seemed like just the thing. One the one hand, I was right that it would be funny, on the other it also made me cry no less than three times. Damn it Sue with your sweet, touching moments. And dead pets.

I’d like to claim to be an early fan of Sue, having watched her first TV shows Light Lunch and Late Lunch, back in the 90s, but the truth is that they followed years of stand-up comedy that I of course knew nothing about. Sue is yet another alumnus of the Cambridge Footlights society, and gives a brilliant description of the drab, dingy basement that is the Footlights theatre. This is also where she met long-time comedy partner Mel Giedroyc, who in this book (and, I assume, in life) is the butt of many a joke, primarily about her being two years older than Sue.

Sue is a good writer, whether talking about her family, her career, her loves or her pets. Her timing is spot-on, knowing when to hit the sad button and when to lighten the mood with a joke with the canny judgement of Spielberg. She’s not afraid of sincerity about tough subjects and the chapter about her break-up with a long-term partner after getting back into TV work and running a bit wild is a little painful to read as it seems to betray lingering feelings.

Continue reading “Sometimes we don’t want to be tethered to yesterday”

Autumn reads in brief

These are some very brief reviews indeed because I have had so much else on this month, I’m frankly amazed I’ve found time to read at all. Before I zone out in front of another half-dozen episodes of The Big Bang Theory, here is what I’ve been reading.

 

pride of baghdad

Pride of Baghdad
by Brian K Vaughan (writer) and Niko Henrichon (artist)

This is a beautiful, moving and unusual perspective on war. It takes as inspiration the 2003 news story that four lions escaped Baghdad Zoo during a bombing raid in the Iraq War. Vaughan and Henrichon give the lions names and personalities, and this does result in some anthropomorphising, but that can be forgiven because the result is so good.

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There were no slow degrees of consciousness

books baguettes bedbugsBooks, Baguettes and Bedbugs
by Jeremy Mercer

I’ve seen this book recommended by lots of people over the years, but I must admit, all I knew about it was that it’s about the Shakespeare and Company bookshop in Paris, a tourist attraction I’ve never visited, and knew of only as a famous bookshop associated with some famous authors and artists. So I learned a lot, and completely fell in love with the shop and its story.

I’ve been to Paris twice, and travelled through it another two or three times, and it’s a little crazy that a famous English-language bookshop near the city centre wasn’t on my list of attractions to visit. It certainly will be next time, though it won’t be quite the same shop that Mercer describes.

First, I learned that the current incarnation of the bookshop, on Rue de la Bûcherie, is not the same as the first bookshop by that name, which was opened and run by Sylvia Beach from 1919 until 1940. That shop had its own wonderful history with colourful characters who have popped up in various things I’ve read, but Mercer for the most part skips past all that to the second Shakespeare and Company bookshop, which was opened in 1951 by George Whitman. He originally called his shop Le Mistral, but changed it in 1964 to Shakespeare and Company in tribute to Sylvia Beach, following her death.

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Leaving a vacuum in the air where his voice had been

My-Turn-to-Make-the-TeaMy Turn to Make the Tea
by Monica Dickens

I have been looking forward to reading my beautiful if slightly fragile copy of the 1962 Penguin reprint of Dickens’ memoir of her year working for a local newspaper. Though it’s the first printing from this classic orange-and-white edition, it’s too tattered and stained to be worth anything. But I do love the knowledge that this has been read by a series of people over 53 years. That’s pretty cool.

Dickens is funny and open, delighting in revealing the details of her life as a “cub reporter”. This includes life in her rented room, and the relationships between the building’s various tenants, as well as the intricacies of a hokey local newspaper.

“I put away my things and tried not to feel bleak. My first night in that room stretched before me with too many hours, and I found that I was looking forward to going to work tomorrow. At the Munts’, I had often craved solitude, and dreaded hearing the creak of the stair and the whimsical tattoo on my door that meant Mrs Munt had come up for a pow-wow, but up here on the top floor, a stranger to the rest of the house, I felt unwanted and alone.”

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The essence escapes but its aura remains

i know why the caged bird singsI Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
by Maya Angelou

Once again, I thought I had read this before and that this would be a re-read, but nope, it was all new to me. I guess that sometimes happens with much-talked-about books. Anyway, now I actually have read it and it is just as amazing as everyone always said it is.

This is the first book in Maya Angelou’s seven volumes of autobiography, covering her childhood in Arkansas and California. Hers was an eventful life, and yet her writing is beautiful enough that the book hardly needs events to make it a great read.

Angelou was sent with her brother to live with their grandmother when she was three, and this is where her story begins. She was very aware of her status as a black girl with a plain face and writes with a tense humour about the white side of town. But she had a comfortably-off family (her Momma ran a successful general store) relative to many others in Stamps, Arkansas – a downtrodden, dirt-ridden place from her descriptions.

“A light shade had been pulled down between the Black community and all things white, but one could see through it enough to develop a fear-admiration-contempt for the white ‘things’…But above all, their wealth that allowed them to waste was the most enviable.”

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A dam-burst of ideas, memories, impulses and thoughts

The Reason I JumpThe Reason I Jump: One boy’s voice from the silence of autism
by Naoki Higashida
translated from Japanese by K A Yoshida and David Mitchell

This was one of those random finds that make a great bookshop great. Not that it’s the best book ever, but it’s genuinely interesting and different and, despite being fairly new and translated by one of my favourite authors (plus his wife), I hadn’t heard of it. But it was on display in the non-fiction shelves and Mitchell’s name jumped out at me.

This is somewhere between a memoir and a factual study of autism. Higashida is autistic and at the time of writing was just 13 years old. He struggled with vocal communication, behaviour problems and even written communication, but had worked with his mother and a teacher to create an alphabet-grid system whereby he pointed at words or letters to be understood. (He did also learn to type on a computer and started a blog, so this book isn’t entirely miraculous.) With this book he found a way to explain his experience of autism that was fresh and new to parents and other adults who have regular contact with autistic children. It’s written in the form of questions and answers, with a few very short stories dropped in. There’s some lovely sections about how important nature is to Higashida, partly because it places no demands on him.

“Why do people with autism often cup their ears? Is it when there’s a lot of noise?

…The problem here is that you don’t understand how these noises affect us. It’s not quite that the noises grate on our nerves. It’s more to do with a fear that if we keep listening, we’ll lose all sense of where we are. At times like these, it feels as if the ground is shaking and the landscape around us starts coming to get us, and it’s absolutely terrifying. So cupping our ears is a measure we take to protect ourselves, and get back our grip on where we are.”

For many readers, Higashida’s words were a true breakthrough in their understanding of their own autistic child, and the book was a minor hit in his native Japan. One of those readers was Yoshida, and she immediately started to translate the book so that she could share it, initially with her husband and friends in Ireland, and then, once Mitchell had done some polishing and written an introduction, they published it to reach a much wider audience. There has apparently been some controversy about how much Mitchell polished, with some readers saying this doesn’t sound like a child’s writing. I must say I wholly disagree. Higashida sounds if anything surprisingly typical for his age – presumptive, repetitive and a little self-obsessed, thinking he’s learned to see the wider world but not really anywhere close to that yet.

I don’t mean to sound unkind. This is a very interesting and readable book about a condition that is incredibly difficult to understand. While nothing Higashida has to say was totally revelatory for me and he presumes to speak for all children with autism as if his own experience is universal, I’m really glad I have read it and can definitely see how valuable it could be to anyone who deals with autism. But let’s face it, Mitchell’s introduction is the best bit.

“Imagine a daily life in which your faculty of speech is taken away. Explaining you’re hungry or tired is now as beyond your powers as a chat with a friend… Now imagine that after you lose your ability to communicate, the editor-in-residence who orders your thoughts walks out without notice. The chances are that you never knew this mind-editor existed but, now that he or she has gone, you realize too late how they allowed your mind to function for all these years. A dam-burst of ideas, memories, impulses and thoughts is cascading over you, unstoppably.”

First published in Japanese in 2007.
This translation published 2013 by Sceptre.

Source: The Melton Bookshop.

Silence sits immense upon my soul

The Story of My Life

The Story of My Life
by Helen Keller

I had of course heard of Helen Keller and, knowing that she became a highly respected feminist, socialist and equal rights activist, I thought the story of her life might be pretty interesting. However, this book was written when she was in her early 20s, still studying at university, so really it’s all about her being deafblind. And that could still have been good, but, well, I found it odd.

That’s not to say it’s badly written, or even bad. For those not familiar with her, Helen Keller was the first deafblind person to receive a bachelor of arts degree, back in 1904. The fact that she was educated at all was pretty unusual for the time, and when she showed intellectual promise she became a bit of a sensation, which I guess is why she was able to publish an autobiography when she was still so young.

“When I try to classify my earliest impressions, I find that fact and fancy look alike across the years that link the past with the present. The woman paints the child’s experiences in her own fantasy.”

It’s certainly interesting to read a first-hand account of her early education – being introduced to the concept of words and language is already something I find fascinating, but how do you bring that concept to someone who can neither see the objects nor hear the words?

“Children who hear acquire language without any particular effort; the words that fall from others’ lips they catch on the wing, as it were, delightedly, while the little deaf child must trap them by a slow and often painful process. But whatever the process, the result is wonderful.”

The answer is largely via touch. Keller lost her sight and hearing aged 19 months and didn’t begin her education until she was 7. In-between she had formed her own understanding of the world through touch and an improvised sign language and remembers happily playing with the cook’s daughter and her own little sister. But once her family employed Anne Sullivan, a partially blind woman who had attended a special school for the blind, as her governess, she finally discovered language.

“There is nothing more beautiful, I think, than the evanescent fleeting images and sentiments presented by a language one is just becoming familiar with – ideas that flit across the mental sky, shaped and tinted by capricious fancy.”

It does suffer from being written by someone so young. It’s a bit naïve and quite defensive – I get the impression negative things had been written about her in the press and one of the aims of this book was to redress those points, which is understandable but doesn’t make for great writing. She also generalises quite a lot, not acknowledging that her situation is unusual not just because of her disability but equally because of the help she received.

It may seem like an odd reaction, but it bothered me that Keller didn’t seem aware of her advantages in life – clearly her family had money to invest in her education and her little bit of fame helped her too. Admittedly, the final chapter is basically one long acknowledgements section, but really many of those names and anecdotes should have been integrated into the main story, rather than it appearing that she got everywhere she did under her own steam. I know it’s not her fault that she is so often dependent on others, but I found it very odd to read, for example, the sentence “I enjoy a spin on my tandem bicycle” with absolutely no mention of the fact that someone else would always have to cycle it with her.

It is weird now how she was considered such a sensation purely for her disability, and perhaps I am a little hard on her because the tone is so very much in the vein of ‘look how much I’ve achieved’, which I find grating. Knowing that she later used her education, fame and experience to help others softens me toward her, but she isn’t yet that person when writing this. I am also a little put off by the religious overtones and language, which are partly of course a product of her time, and possibly even the nature of the books available to her in Braille.

The book is genuinely interesting when she discusses how she interacts with the world and how she learned to communicate – I would have liked more detail about that. In the early chapters you might be forgiven for not being sure what her disability is, as she often describes sights and sounds. It is quite a long way through the book when she acknowledges that “so many of my impressions come to me through the medium of others’ eyes and ears”. I loved the descriptions of her conversing with others by placing a hand on theirs as they sign words letter by letter using ASL. Or of her reading lips using her fingers. It is so hard to imagine and she manages to at least open the door to her world a crack.

“Silence sits immense upon my soul. Then comes hope with a smile and whispers, ‘There is joy in self-forgetfulness.’ So I try to make the light in others’ eyes my sun, the music in others’ ears my symphony, the smile on others’ lips my happiness.”

First published 1903.

Source: Project Gutenberg.

Challenges: This counts towards the Rory Gilmore Reading Challenge.

Non-fiction in fiction’s guise

War is Boring
story by David Axe, artwork by Matt Bors

I am starting to acquire a collection of this “graphic novel style journalism” and I’m really liking it thus far. If anyone has any recommendations for more titles, let me know!

That said, this is not my favourite of the bunch. It’s a slim volume by war correspondent Axe and flits quickly through Chad, Iraq, Lebanon, East Timor, Afghanistan and Somalia, with really only a few short scenes in each place. Which is the point of the book but still not what I was expecting. I suppose I was hoping for a little more background behind each war; in fact I say “more” but in some cases we learn no more than “it’s a war zone”.

But I’m being unfair. Axe’s actual journalism about all these places was published elsewhere. This is not that. This book is about the effect of war on him, on his way of seeing the world. Or perhaps it’s not about war itself but solely about him and the type of person he is. You see, from the start his maxim is “War is boring, peace is much worse” and despite coming perilously close to bullets, explosions, rockets and deadly knives, this view of things doesn’t change.

While he calls himself a war junkie, Axe doesn’t seem to get a thrill from war, it’s just that a direct attempt on his life is the only thing that makes him feel alive. I can’t really understand that but then I’ve never experienced it; I suspect my whole world view would change.

I do empathise with Axe’s aim, which is to bring world conflicts and the people affected by them to wider attention. He genuinely cares and is deeply upset by what he sees when he travels to these places. His website, warisboring.com is part webcomic, part blog from the warzones that he continues to travel to and, with all the space of the internet, it seems to get deeper into the minutiae of each conflict visited, or even just Axe’s experience of each. There are photographs of soldiers in action and straight journalistic accounts alongside the panels of the comic and this combination works better, for me, than the comic alone.

As with previous examples of this genre, the artwork is excellent – detailed and illuminating without showing a lot of graphic violence. And the depiction of Axe himself is self-deprecating and self-aware and more likeable than not. Maybe he has since struck a better balance in life, but the book ends with a frighteningly bleak statement about the awfulness of humanity and the senselessness of violence that made me want to tell him to go see some beautiful things in-between wars – but then, I’m an optimist.

First published August 2010 by Penguin Books.

Not that Herzog one again

It’s Only a Movie
by Mark Kermode

I bought this book at an author event for the Bath Literature Festival just before I launched this website. I thought about writing up the talk and book signing but writer’s block prevented me and I figured I’d just combine it with the book review I’d surely be writing in the following few weeks. And then the book sat around for 8 months before I read it. So all I can really remember about the event was that I had a great evening, Kermode was good fun, smug and self-deprecating at the same time, and I failed to think of anything to say to or ask him when I got my book signed. Hey ho.

This book, and indeed the talk about it, are really just like extended versions of listening to Kermode on the radio, which is something that I have enjoyed doing for about 16 years. He has a genuine deep-rooted love of and enthusiasm for film but he doesn’t come across as snobbish or exclusive in any way. I have always preferred his reviews to anyone else’s, even if I don’t agree with him any more or less often than other critics, and this book helped me to see why.

Firstly, he’s immensely knowledgeable on the subject. He has a PhD and is a visiting lecturer in film studies and all he has ever really wanted to do is review films. He genuinely enjoys watching as many films as he can and still finds time to watch his favourites over and over (and over). His favourite films aren’t highbrow inaccessible fare but the rather more approachable The Exorcist, Mary Poppins and Local Hero but he can argue intelligently and cogently why they are great films.

He’s also a good storyteller. He recognises good anecdotes and knows how to tell ’em well. He opens the book with the admission/warning that he has a bad memory and is prone to exaggeration, so this is the story of his life as seen through his own viewpoint, or rather camera angle. He uses the analogy of this being the film of his life (complete with who would play all leading roles), which is a fitting, if slightly cheesy, way of looking at it.

Some things I learned that I hadn’t previously realised (though perhaps if I was paying more attention over the years I’d have figured this out) – Kermode is an ardent feminist and formerly a bit of a political radical (a “red-flag-waving Bolshie bore” in his own words), a vegetarian (or “near-vegetarian”, according to Wikipedia) who keeps chickens as pets and he has an appalling lack of geographical knowledge (he once flew to Moscow to get to a film set in the Ukraine, failing to realise that Odessa is significantly closer to London than Moscow). Really the only one that’s a surprise and yet clearly affects his response to films is the feminism and I’m not sure why this surprised me. I certainly don’t disapprove; it’s good to see a high-profile, reasonable man talking feminism rather than it being a fight between extreme and less-extreme women.

This isn’t a very personal autobiography, it lives up to its title in that respect. While his wife and children get occasional mentions, this really is the story of Kermode’s love affair with film and his resultant career. Which is what he’s good at talking about, so fair enough. It’s structured thematically, with an almost chronological order, and really my only problem with it is that it starts and ends with that Werner Herzog incident, the one I watched on The Culture Show and read about in the paper and listened to Kermode talk about in various interviews since. Yes, it was interesting, shocking even, at the time, but it’s not the only interesting event in Kermode’s life and I do wish he’d stop banging on about it.

Published 2010 by Random House