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.

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Recent reads in brief

While I am slowly making my way through more than 600 pages of Sophie’s Choice, I am actually a little behind on book reviews, so here are some brief thoughts on recent reads.

Letters to a Young Poet
by Rainer Maria Rilke
translated from German by Stephen Mitchell

This small volume was written 1903–1908 but its advice still feels relevant and wise, which is presumably why it quickly became a classic.

Franz Xaver Kappus was put in touch with Rilke by the chaplain at his military academy, who had known Rilke when he too was a student at the school 15 years earlier. Kappus aspired to write and Rilke was a revered (rightly so) poet. These 10 letters constitute Rilke’s advice on how to look at life as well as how to write and some non-advice observations from Rilke such as his thoughts on Rome (he was not a fan) and other places he travelled to (all the letters seem to be written from a different location, and often include reference to months spent somewhere else in-between).

What most caught my attention was Rilke’s thoughts on gender equality. He was a feminist if ever I read one. He truly believed that the two sexes were created equal and that society still unfairly favoured men as a relic from a bygone age when man’s superiority of strength and size was relevant to everyday life. Rilke not only believes that the time will come when women will be considered equal in all respects to man, he also thinks that in time women will take their turn as the gender running the show.

Rilke is sweet, earnest, but also troubled. He’s also extremely eloquent. Because he’s Rilke.

“Things aren’t all so tangible and sayable as people would have us believe, most experiences are unsayable, they happen in a space that no word has ever entered, and more unsayable than all other things are works of art, those mysterious existences, whose life endures beside our own small, transitory life.”

Briefe an einen jungen Dichter published 1929 by Insel Verlag.

This translation first published 1984 by Random House.

Source: Shakespeare & Sons, Berlin.

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Tell me, is she a genuine eccentric?

lady-in-the-vanThe Lady in the Van
by Alan Bennett

This is my third Alan Bennett and, honestly, my least favourite. It’s also the first of his non-fiction memoirs that I’ve read, which doesn’t bode well for completing his backlist as that’s the bulk of his work.

This particular story, made into a film last year starring Maggie Smith, is about the decidedly odd Miss Shepherd, who lived in a van on Bennett’s driveway from 1974 until 1989. First published in 1989, this is essentially annotated and edited excerpts from Bennett’s diaries in those years. He is fighting very hard not to judge the elderly “Miss S.” for her eccentricities, and he is certainly extremely tolerant in the face of her difficult temperament. And she is extremely difficult.

October 1969. When she is not in the van Miss S. spends much of her day sitting on the pavement in Parkway…She sells tracts, entitled ‘True View: Mattering Things’, which she writes herself, though this isn’t something she will admit…She generally chalks the gist of the current pamphlet on the pavement, though with no attempt at artistry…She also makes a few coppers selling pencils. ‘A gentleman came the other day and said that the pencil he had bought from me was the best pencil on the market at the present time. It lasted him three months. He’ll be back for another one shortly.’ D., one of the more conventional neighbours…stops me and says, ‘Tell me, is she a genuine eccentric?’ ”

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I began to wonder why Man had evolved at all

letters-from-menabillyLetters from Menabilly: Portrait of a Friendship
by Daphne du Maurier and Oriel Malet

I bought this book while we were on holiday in Fowey back in July. It’s described on the cover as written by Daphne du Maurier, edited by Oriel Malet, but Malet’s contribution is far more than editing du Maurier’s letters.

Malet was in some ways du Maurier’s opposite: a fellow writer, she was critically lauded but never sold well; where du Maurier was such a homebody she even resisted trips to London to do research, Malet moved to Paris to live out the dream of being a true artist. They first met at a publishing party in the early 1950s, when du Maurier was in her 40s and Malet in her 20s. Du Maurier took the younger author under her wing, inviting her to stay at Menabilly when she became unwell and needed to get out of London.

The book opens with a glossary of Daphne du Maurier “codewords” and the letters are indeed riddled with them, from “Tell-Him” for a long boring story, to “Silly Values” for anything selfish, superficial or materialistic, and most notably “Peg” for a person in real life who inspires a fictional character. Malet provides a fairly lengthy introduction to their friendship, including a detailed description of her first visit to Menabilly, but that isn’t her only interjection.

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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.

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We find ourselves through the process of escaping

reasons-to-stay-aliveReasons to Stay Alive
by Matt Haig

I had come across some very smart, funny, insightful blog posts by Haig that had put him on my to-read list, so when I saw that he was going to be at Toppings bookshop in Bath, I suggested to Tim that he might want to buy me tickets to the event. I am a helpful gift-receiver that way.

This book is a few things at once – it’s part memoir, part essay, part self-help – with depression as its subject. Haig said that the reader he had in mind was himself aged 25 having his first terrifying experience of depression and anxiety. So the chapters are short, the factual bits are never condescending, the literary quotes on the topic are accessible; it’s all very readable.

But most importantly, the trajectory of the book is upward. There is no “before” – the story starts at Haig’s rock bottom, aged 25 and not understanding at all what was happening to him. From there it is largely, though not entirely, chronological so that we end with Haig’s current state, which is that of course he still has depression but he has lots of ways to deal with it, he knows the bad times pass, and he is even thankful in some ways for having depression – for one, it made him a writer.

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But I want to look like this

never goodnightNever Goodnight
by Coco Moodysson

This graphic novel is set in 1982 and tells the story of three young girls who start a punk band. If that sounds oddly familiar, it may be because Coco Moodysson’s husband, Lukas Moodysson, adapted it into his 2013 film We Are the Best! (It’s an excellent film, I highly recommend it.) Having seen the film first, I was initially confused by some of the differences I found in the book but I’m trying not to compare the two.

12-year-old Coco lives with her divorced mother and her 17-year-old sister Magda. Their mum’s a bit of a party animal and gives the girls a lot of freedom. Coco’s best friend since third grade is Klara. Klara’s big sister Matilda (her age is never given but it’s implied she’s very close in age) often hangs out with them, and the three of them have decided to start a punk band. None of them can play an instrument but it’s punk, so that doesn’t matter.

The story is about female friendship first and foremost, touching on a few coming-of-age moments such as trying alcohol and starting to see parents as human beings. These girls have turned to punk because they are outsiders by nature, and they’re proud of it. They’re scathing of mainstream music and they talk about politics and environmental issues. The day they first heard the Clash they all cut their hair into spikes and dyed it black. But they’re also a little socially awkward, reliant on each other because they can’t really talk to anyone else.

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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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