Monthly Archives: December 2013

Literary round up 2013

book spinesWith two children, a four-day-a-week job, a blog and a myriad of chores, I find it a miracle that I actually manage to read at all. This is one of the few upsides of living in London and commuting by packed Tube – I can actually read for almost an hour each way, although sometimes this means reading a book next to someone’s armpit. I’m also in two book clubs, which meet monthly, so I hardly have a lot of time to read for myself, but I try.

This is what I liked in 2013:

The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler: This is certainly not a new book and has dated slightly, but the story of a man trying to rebuild his life after the failure of his marriage and the death of his son is touching. I thought it was an excellent book – well written and with well-rounded characters who jump off the page. I will be seeking out more books by Tyler. I also blogged a review here.

Heartburn by Nora Ephron: I really enjoyed this light read about another failed marriage, which is semi-autobiographical. (I’m not sure what this says about my life with the English Husband!) Ephron manages that rare thing – to be funny about a bleak time in her life. It’s very witty and a great account about how her husband, famous journalist Carl Bernstein (Watergate saga), cheated on her with her close friend when she was about to have their second baby. Ephron wrote the screenplay to When Harry Met Sally among many other things. She was a prolific writer and blogger. I wrote about her here.

The Hand That First Held Mine by Maggie O’Farrell: A big success when it came out in 2010, O’Farrell’s story about two women separated by 50 years is well worth a read. One woman is coming into her own in 1950s Soho with a group of artistic friends. Another is coping with the aftermath of a traumatic birth and how her baby has inextricably altered her life. O’Farrell convincingly ties these lives together.

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett: I’ve read almost all of Patchett’s books, mostly because I totally fell in love with her novel Bel Canto. Not all of her books have equalled this one, with an exception being The Magician’s Assistant (also highly recommended). But I did enjoy State of Wonder, a story that takes a young doctor to the Amazon on a quest. The journey there and the things she encounters completely alters her life and makes her reconsider what is important. It also has a very good twist.

An Awfully Big Adventure by Beryl Bainbridge: Despite the rather jolly title, this is not a book I would recommend if you are feeling depressed. The narrative starts off ordinarily enough – a girl in 1950 Liverpool is hoping to find fame in a theatre company’s Christmas production of Peter Pan. What you learn about her life is at once shocking and profound.

Regeneration by Pat Barker: Although novels about the First World War are about two a penny, this one is different. It focuses on the psychological aspect of the war, since the story is set in a hospital for traumatized soldiers. With the 100-year anniversary of WWI in the new year, this novel (the first in a trilogy) will leave you with a lasting impression you’re not likely to get from other books about the war.

The Book of My Lives by Aleksandar Hemon: An autobiographical book about a boy who grows up in Sarajevo. Hemon moves to the United States during the Bosnian War and writes very movingly about being an immigrant coming to America, in deceptively simple prose. A chapter on his daughter’s illness is also one of the very best I have ever read. You will struggle to read this without shedding a tear.

And the books that didn’t quite do it:

May We Be Forgiven  by A. M. Homes: I really wanted to love this one and it was certainly top of my reading list once I had a bit of time to plough through its 500 pages. It gets off at a blistering pace with a fatal car accident, an affair and a very shocking event; you do wonder if Homes will be able to sustain the momentum and suspense. She can’t. I tried hard to like the characters and particularly the ending, but the book lost it for me some 200 pages off the end. I did finish it, but I was left feeling disappointed. I liked her short stories better – Things You Should Know.

Gone Girl by Gillian Reynolds: Most people read this huge bestseller before me, so I kind of knew what I was letting myself in for: a seemingly perfect couple are not what they seem, with the wife disappearing halfway through the book and the husband suspected of foul play. Like the book above, the novel has a very promising beginning and I was instantly hooked. Unfortunately, I also felt like the ending of the book let it down. I struggled to finish it, because I couldn’t care about the characters by the end. It hasn’t put me off seeking out more by Reynolds, though, so I’ll be hoping to read Dark Places in 2014.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce: This book had a lot of positive press in the UK and was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, one of the biggest literary awards of the year. Like the title suggests, Harold Fry goes on a journey, walking 600 miles from Devon to Berwick-upon-Tweed because he receives a letter from a dying friend. He thinks that by walking he might be able to save her. I was not totally convinced by the story, which I found a little cloying and contrived at times. I had high hopes, but just didn’t love it.

Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James: The master crime writer gives us a murder-mystery sequel to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. I am a huge Austen fan and a lover of crime fiction, so I thought this would be a sure-fire hit. I was wrong. There are much better books out there by P.D. James. Death Comes to be Pemberley was just adapted for BBC One this Christmas season. I didn’t watch it, but perhaps the TV version was better than the book.

What I’m looking forward to reading in 2014:

  • Goldfinch by Donna Tartt – from the author of The Secret History comes this highly praised book.
  • Luminaries by Eleanor Catton – if I can ever find the time! This door stopper of a book won the Booker Prize in 2013. Catton is the youngest ever recipient of the prize and, yes, I’m pretty awed by her talent (and a little jealous).
  • Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple – a refreshing take on what it means to be a mother and a woman, told through a series of letters, emails, snippets and IM exchanges. Very modern and apparently very funny.
  • Stoner by John Williams – the greatest novel you’ve never read, according to London’s Sunday Times. This was a Christmas present from the English Husband. I also got him a copy for Christmas too. Great minds think alike. Published in 1965, this novel has been rediscovered and was named book of the year by a top bookseller in the UK.
  • And anything at all by my very favourite short story writer, Alice Munro, who deservedly won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2013. Congrats, Alice!

If you have any books you’re really looking forward to reading, I’d love to hear what they are.

To all my readers, Happy New Year! And happy reading in 2014…

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The Christmas comedown

Robbie the cat

The cat didn’t ask for much at least

I was really looking forward to spending a nice Christmas with the kids, but there is inevitably a downside and the downside is that we have created mini monsters. I feel not unlike the mad scientist after he’s made Frankenstein and his beloved creation turns on him.

Our Christmas Day has the hallmarks of a long car journey. Whenever we get in the car, the kids always kick off a refrain of ‘When are we going to get there?’

For Christmas, all you need to do is substitute that question for this one: ‘When can we open another present?’ This repeats itself more often than the chords of Jingle Bells.

I know they are little, so I cut them a bit of slack; but by that evening I’m not feeling like a jolly old elf. I realize at some point that they resemble drug addicts searching for their next high. Their drug of choice happens to be opening presents. But the high will never be as good as the first hit or that first drink – so it all goes downhill.

The Chatterbox loses it at around 8pm when her sister has finally opened her last gift: a Lalaloopsy doll. Despite the fact that Santa has brought the Chatterbox a Kindle Fire HD for her main gift, she is hysterical that she didn’t get a doll too. Perhaps the whole day was just a bit too much. A friend tells me that you always need to buy girls almost identical gifts or it often ends in tears.

I fall back on my remedy of choice in these situations: a good stiff gin and tonic. I reflect on the fact that Christmas hit its high about two weeks ago when I bought a homeless person a fruit juice. He was incredibly grateful and wished me a merry Christmas, a genuine smile lighting up his face. I felt good all day and I haven’t quite felt as good about giving since.

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I don’t believe in Santa Claus

Christmas treeLike a dictator might do with his generals, I was doling out my daily bribes to get the kids to behave. At Christmas the bribes tend to be more effective. ‘Santa is watching you right now,’ I’ll warn when the kids are being particularly bad. This tends to get better results than issuing vague threats such as ‘I will take one of your toys away’ or ‘You’ll get a time out.’

The other day the Chatterbox was acting less like a seven-year-old and more like a sassy teenager. I brought out my old standby Santa line when she casually said: ‘I don’t know if I believe in Santa anymore.’

I’d been half expecting something like this, but I’m still taken by surprise. It feels so quick. I’d like to think I have the energy to stage some elaborate ruse to get my seven-year-old to believe again, but I’m kind of short of ideas. Perhaps I could leave muddy Santa prints on the floor of our tiny living room, knowing that a half-eaten cookie and empty glass of milk is probably not going to cut it anymore.

The reality is that this will maybe buy me a year, but it’s likely she won’t be deceived next Christmas.

Every parent tells you that children grow fast. I’m reeling by how fast. One moment she’s a toddler with chubby little hands, the next she’s a long-limbed girl who likes to listen to Katy Perry. It’s frightening, and I’m not just talking about her taste in music.

I find a letter sent to the editor of the New York Sun many years ago. Eight-year-old Virginia wrote it to the newspaper, at the suggestion of her father, when she had doubts about Santa. The editor wrote her a thoughtful and touching reply, which is well worth reading.

My friend in Los Angeles also sent me a standout letter (see below) from one mom and dad to their disbelieving child.

In the meantime, of course, Santa is still spending his money, whether the children believe in him or not. I suspect this will not change with the passing of years.

Santa letter

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Isabella Blow exhibition – London

A poster advertising the Isabella Blow exhibition at Somerset House

A poster advertising the Isabella Blow exhibition at Somerset House

I’ve been in hibernation – and the blog has suffered. In London the winter months are categorized by shades of grey (not like the bestseller book). The sky goes from bruised purple to whitish grey, the colour of a string of dull pearls. So I spend many days lacking motivation. But today the sky was bright blue, sharp and hopeful. If I swallowed the sky today, it would taste like a refreshing and cool mint. So I’m writing again.

A few days ago I went to the Isabella Blow exhibition in London. If you don’t know Isabella Blow, she was a famous fashion stylist and editor, friend to British designer Alexander McQueen and milliner Philip Treacy. She was rebellious, outrageous and fearless. Her fashion sense was inimitable and daring. She wore stunning hats that were more like pieces of art. She loved textures and colours and mixing things that you wouldn’t necessarily think would go together. She was, for want of a better word, original.

What do you wear to the exhibition of a fashionista? I felt distinctly dowdy in my parka coat and comfortable boots. More like a mother going to the park than a woman who wears clothes because she utterly loves them.

A brief biography (excuse me if you already know it): Isabella Blow came from an aristocratic family, extraordinarily privileged. But her grandfather – who was accused of murder but acquitted – had squandered much of the family’s vast wealth. He committed suicide.

The tragedy didn’t stop there. Isabella’s little brother, Johnny, died at two years old in a shallow pool in the garden of the family home. Isabella, only five, was in charge of watching him at the time.

Despite her connections and her family’s name (she was born Delves Broughton), Isabella went to work because her father essentially cut her off from the inheritance. With her pedigree and eccentric tastes, she ended up working at Vogue and Tatler, becoming an assistant to THE Anna Wintour.

The exhibition showcased some of Isabella’s incredible clothes and reflected on her collaborations with many of the industry’s hottest young talent. According to one report, she bought all of Alexander McQueen’s graduate collection for £5,000 and paid it off in £100 instalments.

She loved Manolo Blahnik shoes and pink pens. Isabella was flamboyant and exotic, so it’s little surprise that she favoured bold colours and feathers – these were costumes more than clothes.

I was particularly struck by a hat – made by her lifelong friend Treacy – that was shaped like a huge ship with several billowing sails; it was made out of delicate black feathers.

There was also a beautifully cut Galliano jacket; a dress that resembled armour; and a hat shaped like pouty lips. There were lace corsets and early gothic McQueen designs that had a lock of hair sewn into the inside, a small reference to Jack the Ripper.

A spiky ankle bracelet that looked more dangerous than dainty had apparently left Isabella with several lacerations when she wore it. This was fashion for those who aren’t faint-hearted.

The most memorable and unbelievably beautiful dress was made from bird of paradise feathers, part of a collection made in tribute to Isabella after her death. The McQueen creation swished at the bottom, fanning out like a tail. It was stunning. It was topped off with a jewel-encrusted bird hat. Animal activists would probably want to stay away.

Isabella killed herself by swallowing weed killer at the age of 48 in 2007. She was diagnosed manic depressive and also had been told she had ovarian cancer. It was not her first suicide attempt. (McQueen, a close friend, killed himself three years later, in February 2010.)

Her husband Detmar Blow had told the fashion icon, on their very first meeting, that his father had killed himself by swallowing weed killer. One can only speculate…

(Note: no cameras are allowed inside the exhibition, which runs until March 2014. It’s half price on Mondays).

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