Posts Tagged ‘Helen Macdonald’

Emilybooks of the Year

December 17, 2014

The thing about sleeping in 3-4 hour chunks is that time bends into something altogether new. So when I say it’s been an age since I last posted here, I mean an age in a peculiarly nebulous sense. It has been an amount of time of which I can’t really conceive. Life before Vita – what was that?

I had hoped to be writing here a little more regularly, but little Vita has proved to be rather a lot to take on and doing everything one-handed means it all takes twice as long. We’ve also moved house, and any writing time I’ve managed to carve out has been siphoned into a couple of journalism commissions which sprung up and couldn’t be refused. There’s one for the Spectator, which you can read here. And the other one is still in the pipeline, so watch this space…

But wow it’s Christmas next week, which is thoroughly disorienting. Not only is it the first Christmas after Vita and therefore, as I explained, it has approached in a strange new way, it is also the first time for years that I’ve not been working in the bookshop during what is always a madly busy, derangedly exciting time. So I thought I must stir myself from my semi-comatose state at least enough to be able to write my EmilyBooks of the Year – for that has become a Christmas tradition from which I would hate to part. So I hope you enjoy the round-up below. The links go back to my original reviews of them, in case you’d like a little more info on the various books.

Looking back on what I’ve read this year has proved both enjoyable and revealing. I think everyone ought to do it, as an exercise in self-reflection. If so, I’d love to hear how you get on and any of your picks for books of the year.

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns2014 introduced me to rather a large clutch of what I might fondly term ‘EmilyBooks’ – the oft-overlooked but brilliant novels that I adore reading. I picked many of these for the Walking Book Club, so thinking back to them now yields very happy memories of chatting away on Hampstead Heath. The Home-Maker and Fidelity, two Persephone Books, were both extraordinary. Both are set in small-town America at the beginning of the twentieth century, and both are about women who step beyond their allotted place – going out to earn the family’s living, or having an affair with a married man. Both books are good on how society struggles to handle these misfits, and how the misfits are strong enough to survive. (Incidentally, we were honoured to have a week of the excellent Persephone Post – the Persephone Books daily blog – inspired in part by Vita!) Other brilliant old novels discovered this year include Angela Carter’s Wise Children, Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, Doris Lessing’s The Grass is Singing (but only read it if you are ready for something seriously harrowing), William Trevor’s Love and Summer, Elaine Dundy’s excellent The Dud Avocado (a MUST if you are going to Paris) and – perhaps my two favourites – Meg Wolitzer’s brilliantly funny and very clever The Wife, and Barbara Comyns’ disarmingly simply told and terribly affecting Our Spoons Came from Woolworths. This last will definitely be a future walking book club book – it is tremendous!

The Letter for the KingI was pleased (and not surprised) to see how many of my books of 2014 are published by Pushkin Press. Those of you who’ve not yet discovered this terrific independent publisher, which specialises in bringing the best European fiction to our shores, should do so NOW. Red Love by Maxim Leo is a fascinating family memoir – I’d say it’s up there with The Hare with Amber Eyes for the way he manages to get the bigger picture of history through the filter of his immediate family. It’s all about the GDR and how the author’s two grandfathers – one a Nazi and the other a freedom fighter – could both come to believe so fervently in the new regime. There was also Gazdanov’s The Spectre of Alexander Wolf, strange and brilliant, and Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb, also strange and brilliant. Both have an eerie, dreamlike feel to them, and thinking back on the now it’s this special atmosphere of the books that has really stuck with me, rather than the ins and outs of the plots. A special mention should go to Pushkin’s children’s book The Letter for the King by Tonke Dragt. I started reading this as soon as I went on maternity leave, thinking that it would be the ideal gripping piece of escapism for my exhausted brain. It was, and I spent a heavenly few days on the sofa with it. In fact I enjoyed it so much that the husband wanted to read it as soon as I had finished. And then I went into labour. And rather a lot of that strange first day of labour, before we could go into hospital, was spent with me rolling around on a big pilates ball while the husband read the book and I kept asking him irritating questions about where he’d got up to, only he wasn’t allowed to be annoyed with me because I was in labour. Ha! Truth be told, I think having such a good distraction for a book was the only thing that kept him sane, so thank you Pushkin!

Where Angels Fear to TreadJourney by Moonlight is just one of several books I read that are set in Italy, as our blissful two month sojourn in Lucca called for a great deal of geographically appropriate literature. Looking back on it now, I still can’t really believe we got away with it – two months of eating ice cream and lazing around, reading, writing, sketching, sleeping … I wonder if Vita, who was wriggling around in utero, might grow to love these books too? Certainly I’m sure she will share her mother’s love of pasta.

Thinking of pasta, there was The Leopard, with its infamous macaroni pie, a wonderful novel, which I loved discussing on a walking book club at the Perch Hill Feast. There was Penelope Fitzgerald’s Innocence – obviously good, because everything by her is good, but perhaps not quite as good as her others. Christ Stopped at Eboli – a classic piece of anthropological observation, which made Southern Italy in the 1930s seem like another world entirely. There was Portrait of a Lady, which was good but something about James’ coldness, and the nastiness of it all, made it seem rather sour. Best of all the Italy books was the double-Forster hit of A Room with a View and Where Angels Fear to Tread – it was such a treat to have an excuse to revisit them.

H is for HawkI loved re-reading various classics this year, as well as the Henry James and the EM Forsters, there was Brideshead Revisited – so much more enjoyable to read for pleasure rather than studying it for A Level – and Jane Eyre, every bit as good as I remembered, and also Pride and Prejudice. This last was wonderful, and the other thing we did when I went into labour was watch the boxset of the BBC adaptation – a great way to pass quite a lot of time!

There was a substantial chunk of non-fiction: The Examined Life, which was the perfect January book – ideal for a bit of sober self-examination. How to be a Heroine – a paean to many brilliant novels, written so charmingly that you end up feeling that Samantha Ellis is a bit of a heroine herself. The Rings of Saturn, which was a rare instance of a book being both heavy-going and brilliant – I kept wanting to say thank you Sebald, for stretching my brain in so many of these bizarre directions. And, finally, two wonderful memoirs: The Past is Myself by Christabel Bielenberg – astonishing insight into Germany during the war, written by an English woman who’d married a German – and H is for Hawk, which I adored so much that I nearly called my daughter Mabel in homage to the hawk. I was very happy to see that this won the Samuel Johnson Prize.

How to be Both by Ali SmithI also enjoyed some new novels: the wonderful Chop Chop by Simon Wroe, who I should say is a friend, and I should also say has just been shortlisted for the Costa Prize – hurrah!!! And also Homecoming by Susie Steiner, which I started off thinking would be all about sheep farming, but actually it’s about families and change. And there was, of course, the supreme treat from Ali Smith: How to be Both. How I adored this book. Smith has a way of writing that makes modern fiction seem so exciting and makes me feel lucky to be a reader.

Last but not least, comes a book which is particularly special to me: Park Notes by Sarah Pickstone. Not only is this a beautiful book about women writers finding inspiration in Regent’s Park, but it also features my first ever piece of work to be published in a book!

I hope this little round up might provide some inspiration for Christmas reading, or indeed shopping. Once we get to 2015, Emilybooks will be back for real, and so will the walking book club – our next meeting is on 25th January to discuss Margaret Drabble’s The Millstone. Vita’s rather excited about it!

Park notes

Love and Summer … and other books of the summer

September 8, 2014

September is here and Emilybooks is back! And the sunshine means that life doesn’t feel too horribly back-to-schooly, though I have only just managed to resist the annual urge to go out and buy a pencil case and other snazzy new stationery.

I hope you had a good book-filled August. Mine was a feast of reading delights, which included:

The Sound and the FuryThe Sound and the Fury by Faulkner. A bookshop colleague’s favourite book, therefore a must-read. I think I was only just up to the challenge, however, for it is a strange narrative and demands a great deal of careful attention and work from the reader … Ultimately it is of course a brilliant, unusual and memorable book – well worth persevering with, but perhaps it wasn’t the right pick for a holiday read.

High Wages by Dorothy Whipple. This was read almost entirely on a train journey from Cornwall to London, while sitting opposite the husband who was ensconced in another excellent Persephone BookThe Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher. About half-way through, we discovered some surprisingly yummy cheese on toast was available from the buffet car and so sat there in heaven, noses in beautiful grey covers, scoffing delicious snacks and even more delicious words. Best train journey ever.

The Dud Avocado.inddThe Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy. Another wonderful feel-good book. You cannot fail to warm to the exuberant and charmingly disorganised Sally Jay Gorce, whose voice leaps off the page and races through you like the thousand volts she feels when Larry touches her hand over coffee one morning, when she is, of course, in her evening dress because all her other clothes are still at the laundry. It’s the ultimate girl-about-town novel, set in Paris in the fifties and as I read it, mostly in the bath, with my sizeable bump kicking away, I felt the peculiarly pleasant tug of nostalgia and longing for those wild days of disorganised freedom now well and truly gone.

H is for HawkH is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald. Have you seen all the rave reviews for this? The last time I saw such a fuss about an unusual-sounding hard-to-pin-down non-fiction book was for Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes. So of course I had to read it. And it is indeed staggeringly good.

Helen Macdonald is overwhelmed by grief after her father dies and so decides to buy and train a goshawk. Yes, I know, for many of us that’s not the most obvious decision, but Helen has been hooked on hawks from a young age, so to her it makes sense. So Mabel enters the scene, with her feathers:

the colour of sunned newsprint, of tea-stained paper … patterned with a shower of falling raindrops … [and with] a strange grey tint to her that is felt, rather than seen, a kind of silvery light like a rainy sky reflected from the surface of a river.

Helen retreats from other people and becomes almost part-hawk herself as she trains Mabel. It is an astonishing piece of writing about the special intimacy of a relationship with an animal, along the lines of books like Gavin Maxwell’s The Ring of Bright Water. But the book it really draws upon is T.H. White’s The Goshawk, which I’m ashamed to say I’ve not read. Fear not, for Helen tells us the haunting story of T.H. White’s life and his goshawk as we go.

It’s not easy to explain why this book about hawks and death and T.H. White is quite so brilliant, just as it was hard to pinpoint what was so great about a book about a family history and a load of netsuke, but then I rather like that difficulty. For it means that only those with a true sense of curiosity and an urge to take a risk on something unusual will get to read H is for Hawk. And perhaps it’s only them who deserve the fruits of such a wonderful book.

Love and Summer by William TrevorFinally, Emily’s Walking Book Club met yesterday for a meander across Hampstead Heath while discussing William Trevor’s Love and Summer. Though it took me some time to get into the book – I needed a little while to adjust to the slow pace of 1950s rural Irish life and the fragmented style that sees each short chapter concern itself with a different character – once I was in, I loved it. This seemed to be the consensus amongst the walking book clubbers too.

It is a doomed love story. Florian Kilderry cycles into the quiet village of Rathmoye and asks directions from Ellie Dillahan. Ellie was a foundling, brought up in a convent. She went to work as a servant for Dillahan, whose wife and child were killed in an accident on his farm, and then married him. She is ‘content but for her childlessness’, working efficiently on the farm and looking after her husband, until she finds herself haunted by this meeting with a stranger. He invades her thoughts:

Fourteen more eggs had been laid and she collected them in the cracked brown bowl that had become part of her daily existence. Closing the gate again when she left the crab-apple orchard, she slipped the loop of chain over the gatepost. He had a way of hesitating before he spoke, of looking away for a moment and then looking back. He had a way of holding a cigarette. When he’d offered her one he’d tapped one out of the packet for himself and hadn’t lit it. The rest of the time he was with her he’d held it, unlit, between his fingers.

Slowly, both hands clasped round the brown egg-bowl, she returned to the house.

The relationship between Ellie and Florian develops and they take to meeting in the crumbling gate-lodge of a derelict grand old house. But they are not wholly unobserved. Local busybody Miss Connulty sees they are up to no good, and the crazy old wise man Orpen Wells, who lives in a confused timeless world, senses something is up too. Florian’s intentions aren’t particularly honourable, planning on selling up his own decaying house, inherited from his bohemian parents, and leaving for Scandinavia; he is not so much in love with Ellie as enjoying her innocent love for him. We know it can only end badly … and yet, this is what is so clever about the book: although the atmosphere is suffused with the quiet melancholy of sadness and compromise, subtle strains of happiness begin to surface.

Take busybody Miss Connulty, for instance. When she was a young woman, a doomed love affair meant her father took her to have an abortion. Her mother called them both murderers and then spent the rest of her life punishing them. Her mother’s funeral is at the beginning of the novel and so, at last, Miss Connulty is able to come into her own, running the family’s guest house how she’d like, rather than according to her mother’s instructions, and wearing her much-coveted jewellery. When she suspects Ellie and Florian are up to no good, at first she presses her brother to interfere. Her brother reflects, ‘it might be her mother talking, expressions used he hadn’t heard since the time of the trouble’. Miss Connulty is set to continue in the pattern of her mother – fierce disapproval, interference, judging Ellie for her lost innocence … but then she changes. She decides instead to help her:

If there’s a child don’t let anyone take the child away from you. Born as Dillahan’s own since he believed it was, the child would make a family man of him again, and make the farmhouse different. And her own friendship with Ellie Dillahan would not be strained … the friendship would be closer, both of them knowing it could be, neither of them saying what should not be said and never would be.

It is a moment of redemption, of choosing to go against the grain of what is expected of her and in helping another, so helping herself. This refusal to follow the expected path occurs again and again in the book. Trevor sets up an expectation of what his characters will do, and then quietly confounds it. And in all its essential anti-drama, it makes for unsettling, brilliant reading. As I pointed out, in a moment of inspiration during yesterday’s walk: It’s not Downton Abbey. The dramatic plot lines involving drowning or eloping or suicide are all pointed to but not fulfilled. It’s a beautiful, subtle, poignant and minutely observed portrait of lives invented for their essential reality rather than spurious fiction. (Not that I’m not looking forward to the new series of Downton!)

William Trevor walking book club