Archive for the ‘book review’ Category

Three true stories

January 11, 2018

‘Why are you directing us around the IKEA car park?’ the husband asked on that day when it was suddenly snowing, just after Christmas.

We were on our way home from Norfolk, where we had spent a few days with my in-laws in a trio of rented cottages strung out in a row on the Broads. The drive up had been at night, the children fast asleep in the back, while the husband and I had a picnic and an actual conversation, alive with the excitement of a night drive away from the busy end of the working year.

FitzcarraldoThe drive down began at 9 a.m., ejected from the cottages to make way for the cleaners readying it for the next round of guests; it took four and half hours rather than the two it took to get up. As we sat in standstill traffic amidst the falling snow, while the children were unimpressed by the beauty of the newly whitened fields and were, instead, vociferously cross and hungry, I suggested we stop for an early lunch at the pretty market town of Saffron Walden, a mere 2.5 miles away. Only Google Maps went on to inform me that it would take 57 minutes to drive there. We were unable to leap off the motorway and forge across the fields, but instead would have to go halfway down the motorway to then turn around and head back north. I thought for a moment of the film Fitzcarraldo, when they carry the massive boat across the hill. Then I proceeded to dripfeed breadsticks to everyone in the car, while engaging Vita in an exhausting mash up game of The Lion King/Rome and Juliet, where I had to ‘be’, variously, Timon (the meercat), Mufasa, Tybalt and Juliet. The husband claimed to be too busy driving to be able to take part. This game was reaching its zenith, an hour later, as we entered London’s outskirts.

‘It says to get off here,’ I told the husband, who was consuming rather more than his allotted share of breadsticks.

‘You’re not being Juliet!’ from Vita in the back.

‘Sorry. I meant, we must turn off here to reach the Capulet’s house for the big party.’


‘Yes. Then left, and left again.’

‘But where’s the Capulet’s party?’

‘And round the roundabout. Third exit. Here.’

‘Romeo wants to be at the party. Then we can dance together Juliet! Will there be sausages?’

‘Why are you directing us around the IKEA car park?’

The problem with being so into words is that it has left me rather deficient spatially. So I am quite rubbish at driving and even worse at map reading. Now I resort to just repeating to the husband whatever the phone tells me, although it can still be tricky, at times, to get left and right the right way round. I have no idea why we were going around the IKEA car park, but luckily, the phone eventually got us out of there, and we were back on our way to the Capulet’s party.

At the moment, life with Vita is bursting with fiction. We are forever inhabiting warped adaptations of stories and films, roles being dealt out, lines performed, and ending usually in some kind of chase, dance, duel or being put to bed. So, unusually for me – a fiction nut, I ended 2017 reading books looking for a world more real than my own.

No Place to Lay One's HeadFirst of all, I read No Place to Lay One’s Head by Francoise Frenkel. (This was to review it for The Spectator – here.) Frenkel was a Polish Jew, whose love of French literature led her to open Berlin’s first French bookshop in 1921. Life in 1930s Germany became increasingly difficult, and she eventually fled to Paris in August 1939 – just in the nick of. Frenkel describes the trials of a life in hiding, physical and also emotional: How hard not to have word of one’s family, not to know who to trust or whether you will ever be free, and not to lose the will to keep on going. Frenkel did eventually reach Switzerland, where she wrote this memoir in 1943-44, and I think the book owes much of its power to the events described being so recent. I’ve written about it at length in the Spectator review, but, briefly, what I found so intriguing about this book was Frenkel’s attempt to understand the people of France, a country she so obviously loved. She writes of the many who helped shelter her and those who bravely resisted the German Occupation, but also of the police who hunted down defenceless human beings ‘with a peculiar and savage bitterness resembling joy’, and the many individuals who inhabited a darkish grey area – sheltering her but demanding extortionate rent, or suddenly threatening to turn her in unless she paid a vast sum. Of course it makes you wonder how you would act in the situation. For once, I feel that being Jewish almost lets me off the hook: I would be the one asking for shelter rather than having to balance the complicated equation of self-interest versus such high-risk help.

The Reading CureCloser to home, and every bit as brave, is Laura Freeman’s forthcoming memoir The Reading Cure. It’s coming out at the end of February, but Laura kindly sent me a proof, which kept me company over Christmas. (I should mention here that Laura and I are friends, ever since she commissioned me to write an article about my beloved tortoise (RIP).) I hope you have already read some of Laura’s wonderful writing in places like The Spectator and The Times – her journalism features beady-eyed observations, a razor sharp brain, precision of language and a dry sense of humour, that lets her wear her learning lightly.

And then comes this book, which she was so shy about, refusing to tell me anything about it until the deal was signed. And now I can see why. Laura writes bravely, honestly, inspiringly and very movingly about her long long struggle with anorexia, and how books got her through it. At the beginning, she writes that this is not about the ‘anguish’ of anorexia, but ‘about the pouring in of sunlight after more than a decade of darkness and hunger’. But, for all the happy occasions of drinking real milk, inspired by Tess of the D’Urbervilles, or enjoying the homely comfort of a tin of sardines, thanks to Mole and Ratty, a sadness endures. Still, she can’t bring herself to eat chocolate. Still, the battle with that part of her brain which at its worst has brought her to the point of being too weak to be able to walk around the garden, continues. It is only ever in remission, never entirely cured.

I read this book at the end of what has been in some ways a very hard year for me. Post-natal depression is tough, however much counselling and support one has from professionals and friends. It is always helpful to read of someone else’s battles with the voices in their head, and reassuring to know that other people also live with black clouds threatening to break overhead. Laura agrees:

When I came to read Virginia Woolf, it marked the difference between feeling a coward and failure because I let myself be bullied by these voices, and drawing strength from knowing that others have had their demons, their galloping horses, their aches low down in the back of the head. Better to write about these things, then say: it is not a life sentence. It will not always be like this.

Important words to remember.

CharlotteFinally, I had another Holocaust book to review, this time for the Guardian (here). Charlotte by David Foenkinos is an unusual, intense and unbelievably brilliant novel inspired by the life of German Jewish artist Charlotte Salomon. Tragically, this story doesn’t end like Frenkel’s in an escape to Switzerland, but in being gassed in Auschwitz, while pregnant. She did at least manage to leave behind her an extraordinary work: Theatre? A Song-play, a lightly fictionalised family memoir told via hundreds of paintings, drawings, texts and musical annotations, made during the two years she spent in hiding in the South of France. She entrusted it to her doctor with the words: ‘it is my whole life’. Charlotte has been a smash hit in its native France, and deserves to be one here too – it has the same feel as The Hare with Amber Eyes, and certainly left me itching to buy several copies to give to friends.

So three mighty, hardcore books in a row! I think I would have picked up some PG Wodehouse or something similarly daft to begin this year, if it weren’t for a proof of Zadie Smith’s new collection of essays sitting there waiting for its review to be written…

Do you have any reading ambitions or resolutions for 2018? Mine is to harness the combined power of childcare and coffee to read more, write more, and to trust more in the power of good words, well used. Even if that means we reach the Capulets’ party via the IKEA car park.

One last thing to say: Belsize Library have very kindly asked me to give a talk about building communities around books. If you happen to be free and in North London at 7.30pm on Thursday 18th January, please please come along and say hello. Here is the poster they’ve made:

Emily Rhodes Belsize Library 2


Four excellent debut novels

October 25, 2017

Spain! Our holiday in sunny Andalucia seems like a different world now we are back in London and very much ‘back to school’. Ezra has just started going to a nanny share on the two days a week that Vita goes to nursery, and I finally have some proper time to think. Well, I say think, but really I mean sleep. These are probably the most expensive naps I will ever have, given the cost of double childcare, but I try to justify it with the lurking throb of shingles threatening to resurface and, more often than not, one child or the other wakes up screaming in the night, either hungry or with a nightmare.

Life has very much shrunk to a family scale, only every now and then I come up against the bigger reality, such as the other day when our greengrocer wouldn’t take my old pound coin, and only then did I realise we have shiny new ones. The other major event of recent times has been our first trip to A&E. Ezra dived off the climbing frame and I managed to catch him just in time, thereby saving a smashed skull, but dislocating his arm in the process. We were seen straight away, the arm was clicked back and we were back to normal within an hour or so. Thank you NHS.

Usborne shakespeareMeanwhile, Vita has become obsessed with Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet – we have this beautiful Usborne edition of Shakespeare stories – and so we spend most of our time playing at killing each other in various roles. I’m not sure this is especially healthy, but I am certainly enjoying revisiting the stories, and it leads to some funny comments, e.g. this morning when I explained that snoring Dad must be in a very deep sleep, and she said, ‘Just like Juliet.’

I have been reading various debut novels, which I always find so exciting – glimpsing these writers full of promise at the start of their careers. I wrote about four of them for a big review in last week’s Spectator. I was intrigued to see that so many of them engaged with the experience of migration – clearly the big issue of the day. Or, I ought to say, the bigger issue of the day, as opposed to how to launder a load of Ezra’s vomit out of every single piece of bedding in the house in time for bedtime. I am assuming you would rather read more about these novels than Ezra’s sick bug, so just click on the pic below to read the Spectator review – and I’d love to know if you too have recently come across any compelling fresh new voices.

Black Rock, White City


Madame Zero

September 8, 2017

Madame Zero 1

This weekend, we will be decamping to Spain for a week, to rent a villa with some dear friends. ‘How wonderful that you will have a rest,’ say my friends who don’t have children. On said holiday, there will be six adults, and seven children, the oldest of whom is only three. Well, if not a rest, then at least a change and a lot of sherry.

I will report back, but couldn’t bear to go away leaving you with the luke-warm review of Nicole Krauss. So here is my review of Madame Zero by Sarah Hall, which was in last week’s Country Life. This new collection of short stories is electric and surprising. Just what the doctor ordered to chase away any September blues.

Madame Zero


Forest Dark

September 1, 2017

I keep on reading books about women who are struggling to manage the jostling demands of children, marriages, and careers. Or perhaps, it is just that this is pretty much all I can see in a book at the moment – a stalwart reminder that one’s reading of a book is so subjective and influenced by one’s current situation. I remember at university, in the midst of writing a thesis on Virginia Woolf, half-watching an episode of Friends with some other students. ‘It’s JUST like The Waves,’ I exclaimed, in a moment of epiphany. The others briefly looked at me, raised a few eyebrows and then returned to watching the telly. This is why I am really looking forward to seeing the gang at Emily’s walking book club on Sunday, to discuss The Group – we will all be coming at it from such different places, and I long to know what you all make of it. Of course, I am mostly fascinated by the bit at the end when Priss and Norine run into each other in the park and struggle to reconcile their entirely different parenting strategies.

Thank you so much for the many kind wishes of recovery from the dreaded shingles and the rest of it. I have been resting a great deal and seem to be on the mend, if still utterly exhausted.

I reviewed Nicole Krauss’s much-anticipated new novel, Forest Dark, in this week’s Spectator. The book is only partly about the struggle of motherhood/marriage/writing, but to my mind this was the best part.  Click on the pic below to read the review.

Forest Dark

Silver and Salt

August 8, 2017

Silver and Salt

A speedy post while Ezra naps and Vita is at nursery, in part to stop me from falling asleep as it seems that if I nap now, then I lie awake at night listening to the rest of the family snoring, panicking that I am wasting this short time when I could be asleep NOT sleeping and worrying about fidgeting in case it wakes Ezra up earlier than the early time which he wakes to feed, while feeling a fierce, very unhelpful jealous rage towards the sleeping bodies which surround me.

I have got shingles, for the third time in the last six months. It’s mother nature’s way of telling you to take better care of yourself, says the doctor. I do try, I say, wanting to ask: Did mother nature ever have to be an actual mother, looking after two small children over and above herself? Are you getting enough sleep? he asks. I’d like a blood test, I say.

It is too easy to fixate on the negatives – the lack of sleep, the shingles, the mess, the milk leaking out of sore boobs, and the laundry, the dementedness of it all. I don’t know how you have time to read anything at all, people say in bewildered admiration. How could I survive otherwise? I ask. I make the time as it is so essential, for me, to have that time thinking about something else.

So here is my review of the novel Silver and Salt by Elanor Dymott (I love that spelling of the name), which was in Country Life this week. I try to smile at the irony that essentially looking after two small children helped send the mother in the book completely mad.

Silver and Salt review




Eureka by Anthony Quinn

July 27, 2017

I know I know … I have been worse than useless at writing my blog and it feels too boring to apologise (again) or list the many reasons why (well, in fact, the many reasons all sprout from just two – Vita and Ezra). So I thought I’d try changing tack here and publishing links to things I’ve written elsewhere, or indeed Emily’s walking book club news. The thing is, I am managing to write a little bit, but all the links are currently somewhat buried on different pages of this website, whereas I thought if I were to try to make this more of a ‘feed’ as they say, it might work a little better. See how you like it? Let me know? Forgive me?!

Ahem, so kicking things off with my review of Anthony Quinn’s dazzling new novel Eureka for this week’s Spectator. Click on the cover pic below for the review.