Category Archives: Memoir

What days are for – Robert Dessaix

What days are for - Robert Dessaix

What days are for – Robert Dessaix

I have never read anything by Robert Dessaix and I am not sure if I would have sought him out on my own, but this was a gift, so I gave it a go and I am very glad I did.

Here is the blurb …

Witty, acerbic, insightful musings from Robert Dessaix, one of Australia’s finest writers.
One Sunday night in Sydney, Robert Dessaix collapses in a gutter in Darlinghurst, and is helped to his hotel by a kind young man wearing a T-shirt that says F**K YOU.
What follows are weeks in hospital, tubes and cannulae puncturing his body, as he recovers from the heart attack threatening daily to kill him. While lying in the hospital bed, Robert chances upon Philip Larkin’s poem ‘Days’. What, he muses, have his days been for? What and who has he loved – and why?
This is vintage Robert Dessaix. His often surprisingly funny recollections range over topics as eclectic as intimacy, travel, spirituality, enchantment, language and childhood, all woven through with a heightened sense of mortality

This book has a lovely conversational style – I always enjoy hearing people’s stories and when it is as eloquent as this, then it is a joy to read.

More reviews …

http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/books/robert-dessaixs-new-memoir-what-days-are-for-20141111-11jfde.html

http://www.theaustralian.com.au/arts/review/robert-dessaixs-what-days-are-for-is-an-illuminating-memoir/news-story/b9a96a866b7ecb01654a14059f130b16

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H is for Hawk – Helen MacDonald

H is for Hawk - Helen MacDonald

H is for Hawk – Helen MacDonald

Several people suggested that I read this, but I resisted. The blurb (see below) didn’t really appeal to me – I am not all that interested in birds and I had a terrible relationship with my Dad, so I didn’t want to be reminded of what I didn’t have, but eventually I gave in and read it. I am glad I did because it is not just about birds and grief, it is about finding your way to live in the world.

Here is the blurb …

When Helen Macdonald’s father died suddenly on a London street, she was devastated. An experienced falconer, Helen had never before been tempted to train one of the most vicious predators, the goshawk, but in her grief, she saw that the goshawk’s fierce and feral temperament mirrored her own. Resolving to purchase and raise the deadly creature as a means to cope with her loss, she adopted Mabel, and turned to the guidance of The Once and Future King author T.H. White’s chronicle The Goshawk to begin her challenging endeavor. Projecting herself “in the hawk’s wild mind to tame her” tested the limits of Macdonald’s humanity and changed her life.
Heart-wrenching and humorous, this book is an unflinching account of bereavement and a unique look at the magnetism of an extraordinary beast, with a parallel examination of a legendary writer’s eccentric falconry. Obsession, madness, memory, myth, and history combine to achieve a distinctive blend of nature writing and memoir from an outstanding literary innovator.

So this is about Helen MacDonald overcoming her grief by training a goshawk, but it is also a memoir of T.H. White. And both of those are about making peace with yourself (accepting your nature and desires) and making a contented life for yourself.

I am quite nosy so I do like reading about other peoples’ lives – how they live and what they thought etc. This is a very personal story – I am in awe of anybody who can put so much of themselves into the world.

More reviews …

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/aug/04/h-is-for-hawk-review-helen-macdonald-taming-goshawk-mabel

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/22/books/review/helen-macdonalds-h-is-for-hawk.html?_r=0

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My Salinger Year – Joanna Rakoff

My Salinger Year - Joanna Rakoff

My Salinger Year – Joanna Rakoff

This memoir came highly recommended by several people and as I had read and liked My Life in MiddlemarchI thought this would be just the book for me.

I bought it as a reward for finishing me second half-marathon (this one) – it was really hard.

Anyway, here is the blurb …

Poignant, keenly observed, and irresistibly funny: a memoir about literary New York in the late nineties, a pre-digital world on the cusp of vanishing, where a young woman finds herself entangled with one of the last great figures of the century.
At twenty-three, after leaving graduate school to pursue her dreams of becoming a poet, Joanna Rakoff moves to New York City and takes a job as assistant to the storied literary agent for J. D. Salinger. She spends her days in a plush, wood-paneled office, where dictaphones and typewriters still reign and old-time agents doze at their desks after martini lunches. At night she goes home to the tiny, threadbare Williamsburg apartment she shares with her socialist boyfriend. Precariously balanced between glamour and poverty, surrounded by titanic personalities, and struggling to trust her own artistic instinct, Rakoff is tasked with answering Salinger’s voluminous fan mail. But as she reads the candid, heart-wrenching letters from his readers around the world, she finds herself unable to type out the agency’s decades-old form response. Instead, drawn inexorably into the emotional world of Salinger’s devotees, she abandons the template and begins writing back. Over the course of the year, she finds her own voice by acting as Salinger’s, on her own dangerous and liberating terms.
Rakoff paints a vibrant portrait of a bright, hungry young woman navigating a heady and longed-for world, trying to square romantic aspirations with burgeoning self-awareness, the idea of a life with life itself. Charming and deeply moving, filled with electrifying glimpses of an American literary icon, My Salinger Year is the coming-of-age story of a talented writer. Above all, it is a testament to the universal power of books to shape our lives and awaken our true selves.

This is an account of year in Ms Rakoff’s life when she worked at Salinger’s literary agency.

It reminded me a bit of The Best of Everything – young people in New York working in the publishing industry.

It is charming. From descriptions of her freezing (and then gas polluted apartment) in Williamsburg to her rare interactions with Jerry, her transition from writing form letters to fans to writing individual letters, her shock at her parents taking out a student loan in her name and finding herself living with her boyfriend without really discussing or agreeing to it – it is all delightful.

The writing is beautiful – deceptively simple (I am sure it is very difficult to master a simple style).

More reviews …

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/jun/06/my-salinger-year-joanna-rakoff-review-memoir

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/08/books/review/my-salinger-year-by-joanna-rakoff.html?_r=0

 

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The Coat Route – Meg Lukens Noonan

The Coat Route - Meg Lukens Noonan

The Coat Route – Meg Lukens Noonan

I first heard about this book at a school fund raiser and I was intrigued by the whole coat making process.

Here is the blurb …

In today’s world of fast fashion, is there a place for a handcrafted $50,000 coat?

To answer that question, Meg Noonan unravels the story of the coat’s provenance. Her journey takes readers to the Sydney studio of John Cutler, a fourth-generation tailor who works magic with scissors and thread; to the remote mountains of Peru, where villagers shear vicunas (a rare animal known for its soft fleece); to the fabulous Florence headquarters of Stefano Ricci, the world’s greatest silk designer; to the esteemed French textile company Dormeuil; to the English button factory that makes products out of Indian buffalo horn; and to the workshop of the engraver who made the 18-carat gold plaque that sits inside the collar.

These individual artisans and family-owned companies are part of the rich tapestry of bespoke tailoring, which began in 17th-century London. They have stood against the tide of mass consumerism, but their dedication to their craft is about more than maintaining tradition; they have found increasing reason to believe that their way is best — for customers, for the environment, and for the workers involved.

Fascinating, surprising, and entertaining, The Coat Route is a timely love song to things of lasting value in our disposable culture.

As I am interested in textiles, I found this book fascinating. I hadn’t even heard of Vicuna, but I now appreciate why it is so expensive (although I do want to know if it is available in colours other than black, navy and brown). All of the steps involved in making the coat were interesting and very labour intensive. It is quite unsettling that these people might be the last people to make these objects. Surely the world will be a worse place if all we have is cheap fashion made by people who don’t earn a living wage. And what a fabulous opportunity for John Cutler – to be able to make the perfect coat (with no financial considerations).

I know it does sound a bit obscene a $50 000 coat, but what about a $6 000 coat the lasts for thirty years? I can understand the argument for good quality clothing that lasts a long time.

As an Australian, I found Australia being described by an American a bit odd. Robert Hawke who’s that? Oh she means Bob! And John Thompson? Surely she means Jack and I don’t think I have ever heard of Manly being described as a resort town six miles north of Sydney. But, this book is written for a global audience and not ‘know it all’ Australians.

I think if you are interested in Textiles, Bespoke Tailoring, Slow Fashion or just traditional crafts, then I think you will find this book interesting.

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The Hare with the Amber Eyes – Edmund De Waal

The Hare with the Amber Eyes

The Hare with the Amber Eyes

This was recommended to me a while ago and I wasn’t interested, but then it was selected by my book club and I am glad it was I really enjoyed it.

I think what gave me the most enjoyment was Mr De Waal’s writing style – he has a lovely personal anecdotal style.

264 wood and ivory carvings, none of them larger than a matchbox: potter Edmund de Waal was entranced when he first encountered the collection in the Tokyo apartment of his great uncle Iggie. Later, when Edmund inherited the ‘netsuke’, they unlocked a story far larger than he could ever have imagined… The Ephrussis came from Odessa, and at one time were the largest grain exporters in the world; in the 1870s, Charles Ephrussi was part of a wealthy new generation settling in Paris. Charles’s passion was collecting; the netsuke, bought when Japanese objets were all the rage in the salons, were sent as a wedding present to his banker cousin in Vienna. Later, three children – including a young Ignace – would play with the netsuke as history reverberated around them. The Anschluss and Second World War swept the Ephrussis to the brink of oblivion. Almost all that remained of their vast empire was the netsuke collection, dramatically saved by a loyal maid when their huge Viennese palace was occupied. In this stunningly original memoir, Edmund de Waal travels the world to stand in the great buildings his forebears once inhabited. He traces the network of a remarkable family against the backdrop of a tumultuous century and tells the story of a unique collection.

This is a fascinating story spanning interesting historical times – Paris in the 1870s (Renoir and Degas…), Vienna during WW1 and WW2 and finally Japan. I was intrigued by the craftsmanship involved in making the netsuke and would have liked more on that (although  I might be along in finding the slow, detailed work interesting). I enjoyed the story being told through a group of objects – something tangible that remained after everything else was gone (how Anna saved them and even the fact that she wanted to save them is extraordinary).

More reviews …

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/jun/06/book-review-de-waal-memoir-japanese-netsuke

http://laurasmusings.wordpress.com/2012/12/26/review-the-hare-with-amber-eyes-by-edmund-de-waal/

 

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Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal – Jeanette Winterson

I saw Jennifer Byrne interview Jeanette Winterson about this book and I was keen to read it.

Here is the synopsis …

 In 1985 Jeanette Winterson’s first novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, was published. It tells the story of a young girl adopted by Pentecostal parents. The girl is supposed to grow up and be a missionary. Instead she falls in love with a woman. Disaster. Written when Jeanette was only twenty-five, her novel went on to win the Whitbread First Novel award, become an international bestseller and inspire an award-winning BBC television adaptation. Oranges was semi-autobiographical. Mrs Winterson, a thwarted giantess, loomed over that novel and its author’s life. When Jeanette finally left her home, at sixteen, because she was in love with a woman, Mrs Winterson asked her: Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? This book is the story of a life’s work to find happiness. It is a book full of stories: about a girl locked out of her home, sitting on the doorstep all night; about a tyrant in place of a mother, who has two sets of false teeth and a revolver in the duster drawer, waiting for Armageddon; about growing up in an northern industrial town now changed beyond recognition, part of a community now vanished; about the Universe as a Cosmic Dustbin. It is the story of how the painful past Jeanette Winterson thought she had written over and repainted returned to haunt her later life, and sent her on a journey into madness and out again, in search of her real mother. It is also a book about other people’s stories, showing how fiction and poetry can form a string of guiding lights, a life-raft which supports us when we are sinking. Funny, acute, fierce and celebratory, this is a tough-minded search for belonging, for love, an identity, a home, and a mother.

This is a touching story full of sadness, abuse and thwarted passion, but told with a light, positive touch. I even had some sympathy for Mrs Winterson (who is a complete monster). It is a story about learning to be loved, finding one’s place in the world, and coming to terms with adoption (ultimately realising that her life is probably better than it would have been if she hadn’t been adopted.

I think this book will lead me back to Winterson’s novels.

More reviews …

http://literaryminded.wordpress.com/2012/05/01/dallas-angguish-on-why-be-happy-when-you-could-be-normal-by-jeanette-winterson-guest-review/

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/25/books/review/jeanette-wintersons-new-memoir.html?pagewanted=all

 

 

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One Pair Of Hands – Monica Dickens

I’ve read Mariana (the Persephone edition), which I enjoyed, so when a friend lent me this I was keen to try it.

Here’s the blurb …

 What does a young, well-off English woman do with herself when she’s thrown out of acting school and is tired of being a debutante? Well, if you’re Monica Dickens, you become a cook. She makes the plunge to a life “below the stairs,” confident in her abilities to be a cook because she once took a course in French cuisine. She quickly learns the difference between school learning and real life. Scalded milk, dropped roasts, and fallen souffles plague her in her domestic career, but she perseveres. What makes this book so delightful is the sense of humor and drama Monica Dickens brings to her work. From dressing up for job interviews in a “supporting-a-widowed-mum look” to eavesdropping on dinner guests, she tackles her work with an enthusiasm for discovery. To her descriptions of battles with crazy scullery maids, abusive employers, and unwieldy custards, she brings a humorous and pointed commentary about the delicate and ongoing war between the wealthy and their servants. Written in 1939, this true-life experience reveals a writer who wasted no opportunity to explore daily lives and dramas. Her keen eye for detail, youthful resilience, and sense of the absurd make One Pair of Hands a deliciously inside look at the households of the British upper-class.

There are some fabulous laugh out loud moments in this memoir. It is worth reading just for the social history and when she tries to act the part at the interview (it always involves a sensible and frumpy hat).

It is written in a really chatty style – you can imagine sitting down with Ms Dickens over tea and being regaled with these stories. The work was hard and long – she arrived early to prepare breakfast and needed to stay to tidy up after dinner parties (which she cooked and served). This was all in a time before dish washers!

It’s definitely worth reading this memoir – it’s light, entertaining and a quick read. And now I know what a Cook General is meant to do.

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The Girl on the Wall – Jean Baggott

I read about this book on another blog ( http://dovegreyreader.typepad.com/dovegreyreader_scribbles/2010/03/the-girl-on-the-wall-0ne-lifes-rich-tapestry-jean-baggott.html) and thought it sounded interesting. It’s fascintating for some many different reasons; the social history, the embroidery skills, etc.

 

Here’s the blurb …

Jean Baggott is ‘the girl on the wall’ – a 1948 photograph taken of her when she was eleven – whose life was never going to be remarkable and the pinnacle of whose achievements would come from being a wife and a mother. Almost 60 years later, with her children gone, dealing with the loss of the love of her life, Jean began the education denied to her as a girl. Inspired by ceilings of Lincolnshire’s Burghley House and by the History degree she had begun, Jean began to stitch a tapestry which looked back at her life and the changing world around her. It took sixteen months to complete. The tapestry consists of over 70 intersecting circles, each telling some aspect of her life. Some represent extraordinary events such as the moon landings or world historical news stories like the Cuban Missile Crisis; some circles comment on famous people and places she remembers, others about the music she loves – Pink Floyd – and the games she played as a child, and growing up during the second world war with her brothers. Each chapter of “The Girl on the Wall” features a circle from the tapestry and Jean’s accompanying narrative, exploring the circle and the memories it evokes. It reveals an ordinary life in extraordinary detail. The result is a truly unique, touching portrait of a seemingly average British woman’s life. To stand back and look at the tapestry is to be struck by the richness of one human journey – from 1940 to the present day. The girl on the wall would be proud. The book includes a full-colour pull-out of Jean’s tapestry inside the back cover.

This is an amazing memoir if only for the sheer ordinariness of Jean’s life. I really enjoyed reading about her childhood during the war, the rationing (and the fact that it continued for a long time after the war), the terrible winter, that you were expected to be a wife and mother by 21. It is the every day details that make this a great memoir – bits of every day life that historians would consider irrelevant.

I did find the book somewhat repeatitious, but I think this was because each chapter was designed to stand alone (and be about a circle) and some things were told twice.

I’m amazed that the entire tapestry was finished in 16  months! One circle would probably take me that long – what an amazing achievement and what a great legacy to leave for her grand children.

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