Baa ram ewe.
Publisher: Text Publishing
First Published: 30th September 2013
Date Reviewed: 22nd November 2016
British-born, Polish and Scottish rooted, Australian household name Magda Szubanski writes about growing up as the daughter of a man who rebelled against the Nazis – leading him to want the best for his children – finding herself as a comedian after years of academia, working through her sexuality, and the stories of her ancestors.
As the purposefully long heritage-detailed sentence hopefully shows, Reckoning is a book of both Szubanski’s own life, and the life of her Polish relatives living during World War Two. It’s a stunning book that is all the more poignant for the historical information Szubanski includes and it’s a bit of a literary experience to boot.
Szubanski, known best outside Australia for her role as Esme Hoggett in the film Babe as well as Sharon in Kath & Kim, details her life as her family made the move from gloomy Britain to brighter Australia right up until recent professional work. Weather differences, A-grade tennis, convent school. The author sports an open, easy writing style that shows off all her influences. It’s a text full of general cultural and more specific references – films old and new, classical literature – that help to bring clarity to what she says and makes it very readable. Brontë spars with black and white Polish cinema and the book is soaked in philosophical references, the latter in particular owing to Szubanski’s educational choices.
One of the themes is sexuality; in Szubanski’s telling of her life story you see the contention and confusion of a lesbian woman – or, as she puts it, ‘gay gay gay gay gay not gay gay’ – growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, the way Szubanski came to understand her feelings and the changes in society’s views. It’s a constant element that looks right back to childhood and right up to her coming out during which she details what was going on in her head, the confusion, her discomfort and later embrace of terminology. Another theme is Szubanski’s weight, as she talks openly about the way her size has often corresponded to the goings on in her life and also the way she has and is happy with her weight, indeed feels more like herself. Szubanski’s career in comedy lends the book a certain slant; the way the humour is written, opinions conveyed.
The book is also harrowing. One of the most important aspects of it is the look at the German occupation of Poland. Szubanski’s Polish heritage and in particular her father’s life, means that her work is full of information of the sort that is often forgotten.
We arranged to meet up again and I rejoined my family. As we shuffled through the cemetery, something caught my eye. A long line of wonky headstones, uniform and yet misaligned.
‘What does it say? Who are they?’ I asked Uncle Andrzej.
‘Girl scouts,’ he replied. ‘Among the first to be killed by the Nazis. Enemies of the Reich. This is how they frighten people. Killing girl scouts.’
Szubanski’s telling of the occupation and her father’s role in the Polish resistance is hard-hitting and superbly told. She leaves out nothing; there is a lot of shocking violence in this book that puts the spotlight on things that get lost in amongst the publication of the larger scale happenings. The killing of children, the choice to kill or be killed, the constant acting required of young people delivering anti-German information. To see this solely as a memoir of a modern day icon would be a mistake.
‘…a very evil man put this number on me.’
‘Because he wanted to kill me.’
‘Because I am a Jew.’
I didn’t really understand what a Jew was. Or why anyone would want to kill such a nice lady. Was she related to the Little Jewish boy Dad was always going on about?
‘I am telling you this, Magda, because it must never happen again.’
I nodded. I felt bad that this had happened to the nice woman. And I agreed it should never happen again. And I remember now – as I looked up, the other women all held out their arms and showed me their numbers.
At least on the face of it, Reckoning is bound to appeal more to Australian readers and those outside Australia who are familiar and interested in its popular culture, but if there’s one memoir you should read this year regardless of whether or not you know the author, it’s this one.
I received this book for review from FMCM Associates.
Almost every mountain.
Publisher: Faber & Faber
First Published: 14th June 2016
Date Reviewed: 15th August 2016
Dan Richards discovers his great-great aunt by marriage, Dorothy Pilley, was a well-known mountaineer in the early 1900s. He sets out to find out more, staying in Cambridge to read the letters and articles left there by his aunt and her husband, Ivor, interviewing friends and family, and making various journeys of his own to cover the routes taken all those years ago.
Climbing Days is a humorous and intelligently written book that blends biographical history with a personal journey and nature writing. For its mix of subjects and the overall tone, it has wide appeal.
The book sports history in abundance. Richards spends a good few chapters sharing his research and the day to day of his time in Cambridge before he goes on to detail his own climbing ventures, adhering to his own chronology to set the scene. This means there’s a lot to get through but it’s peppered with anecdotes; the pace is swift. When it comes to Dorothy and Ivor themselves, the author favours subject over timeline, sectioning his text by mountain climbed. Richards writes from his own interests, telling the stories from a certain viewpoint with the result that you feel you know the couple very well. And he’s big on facts, using quotations liberally so you’re always hearing the thoughts of others.
As a reading experience it’s a delight. Richards’ style is friendly and inviting. There are footnotes aplenty, sometimes for reference purposes but mostly because the larger story surrounding the one being told he finds too good to leave out:
My mother’s Scottish grandmother, Margaret Greenland, was also famous for wearing a hat but she wore hers whilst she did the housework so that, should anyone come to the door, she could claim that she was ‘just on her way out’ and so not have to invite them in. She was a great exponent of ‘You’ll have had your tea’ as well, I’m told, from earliest afternoon onwards.
The writing is incredibly readable with the sort of attention to detail that means errors are few. It’s got that literary factor, good language, and articulation that at times may require a dictionary but never suggests the author used a thesaurus – there’s no pretentiousness here.
I picture the Pinnacles assembling – travelling to North Wales by train and motor car, collecting each other like raindrops on a window pane.
A lot of learning is part and parcel to the reading experience. Much of the studious detail is down to Ivor’s career in academia. Want to know why we as students in school and university have those difficult, often annoying exams in which we must study poems without knowing the context or who the poet is? Ivor Richards. Author Dan includes his own schooling, his time following the exam structure without knowing he was related to the man who created it.
‘In those days, even up in the Lakes, a girl couldn’t walk about a village in climbing clothes without hard stares from the women and sniggers from the louts.’1
Naturally there’s a lot of focus on women and independence. Women were not allowed to venture up a mountain alone so Dorothy’s younger brothers had to learn to climb. She left them far behind her when the time came. There is information about the first ladies’ climbing clubs, one of which Dorothy co-founded. And there are the blue prints for Richards’ 21st century follow-up journeying – Dorothy’s memoir, the original Climbing Days.
The climbs themselves see Richards travel to The Dent Blanche, The Lake District, and Barcelona among other places. Not a climber by nature, there are technical details included but a lot more about the room for error and danger, about training, and the process of climbing when you don’t know what you’re doing, all contrasted with Dorothy and Ivor’s passion and competence in a time when there were fewer safety measures.
It is Richards’ passion that makes Climbing Days what it is, that creates the broad appeal and enjoyment. There are no big surprises, no plot-like thrills, just that overall pleasure of reading, of the slow progress of the journey. It’s both escapist and anything but.
1 Taken from Pilley, Dorothy, ‘The Good Young Days’, Journal Of The Fell And Rock Climbing Club, no. 50, Vol. 17 (III), 1956; cited on page p.67.
Running to rather than from.
First Published: 31st December 2015
Date Reviewed: 25th April 2016
Understanding she has become dependent on alcohol and that despite earlier thoughts it’s not making her feel better, rather it’s making her feel worse, Amy Liptrot enrolls at a treatment centre and then decides to move back home to Orkney from London to see if bettering her location can help her recover from her addiction. In moving back she becomes in tune with nature, enjoying all the things she’d left, helping her father on the farm, taking long coastal walks, and helping the RSPB in their research.
The Outrun is part memoir, part nature book, that Liptrot wrote whilst back in Orkney. It’s got a lovely atmosphere to it and it’s full of information both historical and natural, about addiction and the journey to sobriety with all its struggles.
The first thing you notice is that Liptrot can really write. Whilst writing was therapeutic for her in her time of upheaval, in its publication it could be said to have become therapeutic for the reader too. There’s nothing particular about it – one can’t say she uses big or small words or the work is peppered with such and such – it’s more the general feel of it. The book’s written atmosphere is shaped in part by its theme – flocks of birds, windy but beautiful days, talk of old stones and cliffs and everything of the sort the Brontës would have championed, which of course play a big role – as it is by Liptrot’s sheer raw talent. The text ebbs and flows, never gaining a momentum it could lose, and at many points you’d think you were reading an award-winning novel.
This said there’s a great deal of repetition in the book. Writing for herself, it makes sense that there would be rambling and repetition, but as a publication the book could’ve done with being a bit shorter, more linear (it’s very easy to become confused as to where you are in time). The self-absorbed feel to the book is more a case of this repetition than Liptrot’s feelings, or at least it certainly seems that way. (Some self-absorption is of course par for the course.) For this repetition the book can be easy to put down and difficult to resume.
To the subjects, then, and as said, the nature writing is lovely. In many ways this book seems more about the nature and history of Orkney than Liptrot’s addiction which, given what I’ve said about self-absorption, works in its favour, though by no means does the recovery take a back seat. Liptrot is adept at blending her personal life with the nature of Orkney; they become one and the same when she can find a way to speak in metaphors, but equally there are times when it all just seems so natural to blend them together. Liptrot’s focus is on the wildlife of the islands, specifically the birds – there is less on farming than you might expect though she does talk at length about methods and the journey from bog-standard farming to organic. (Any lamb you happen to buy from the north of Britain may well have come from Liptrot’s family farm.)
The hill is studded with craters from when it was used by the Royal Navy for target practice in the Second World War and test shells were fired from ships onto the island. The holes are filled with rainwater in the winter and range from the size of a paddling pool to that of a jacuzzi. It is said that one bomb came further south than intended and just missed a farmer’s wife but killed her cow. After the war, a sailor from one of the launch ships
could not believe their target island had been inhabited.
In focus, too, is astronomy. Perhaps inevitably given the location, Liptrot becomes a connoisseur of the night sky, speaking of stars, the planets, and also cloud formations and the Northern Lights. And then there’s the Neolithic history all over the isles: Skara Brae, a settlement of stone-built homes under the earth to protect from the harsh weather, ancient tombs, standing stones. Tragedies at sea, wherein ships crash against the cliffs, result in their own historic stories and findings. There is so much to this book, something for most people, and because of Liptrot’s determination to make her book as informative as it is personal, you learn a lot.
Lately I’ve noticed a gradual reprogramming. In the past when I was under stress, my first impulse was to drink, to get into the pub or the off-license. A house-moving day years ago once ended a month-long attempt at sobriety. Now, sometimes, I’m not just fighting against these urges but have developed new ones. Even back in the summer, set free after a frustrating day in the RSPB office, my first thought was sometimes not a pint but ‘Get in the sea’. Swimming shakes out my tension and provides refreshment and change. I am finding new priorities and pleasures for my free time. I’ve known this was possible but it takes a while for emotions to catch up with intellect. I am getting stronger.
I wanted to focus on the wider aspects before dealing with the alcohol side of the book. Liptrot details her time as an alcoholic with a fierce openness; she discusses parties and a break-up that haunts her for years, and also an attack, sexual encounters, and other incredibly personal details. There’s a picking apart of right and wrong, missteps, but never any self-pity beyond a few what ifs. This isn’t to say that any other way of speaking is wrong, it isn’t, but Liptrot’s manner means her book may interest people who might not be otherwise interested. The recovery is spoken of in detail, too, so this could be considered both a self-help aid without the negative associations often levied on self-help books, and a book with a wealth of information for those who want to know what it’s like. The book may well aid another’s recovery as well as help a person who knows someone with addiction develop more empathy and an understanding to help them assist and show support.
The Outrun is an impressive work in many ways for many reasons, its beauty slipping out from every crevice. It may lose its way textually at times but never errs in its wonder.
I received this book at the Wellcome Book Prize blogger’s brunch.
Just don’t tell this monarch she’s a strong female character…
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
First Published: 9th October 2014
Date Reviewed: 26th November 2015
Hilton looks at Elizabeth I and her court, aiming to show how the queen was more of a prince than a princess (in keeping with the monarch’s own view).
Elizabeth: Renaissance Prince is a fairly good read that examines much of the period but has a tendency to follow forks in the road rather than remain focused on the Queen herself.
Let’s start with the writing style. Hilton writes in a way that is both highly academic and very colloquial. ‘Big’ words join phrases such as ‘he gave out that’, making for a book that suggests authority whilst remaining easy enough to read. Sometimes the text can be very dry – the prologue, laborious, in particular shouldn’t be considered an example of the book as a whole – but the fun episodes slotted in throughout keep it from becoming too much.
The vast majority of statements are backed up in some way, be it by primary or secondary sources. Hilton does tend to favour the research of others rather than her own, which can seem as though she needs to rely on other people’s thoughts when what she’s saying is sound, but it does add up the points in her favour so far as evidence is concerned. Sometimes the evidence is sketchy, for example her use of Bernard to make a point – Bernard’s the man who bases books on hunches – and, as another example, her use of what Anne Boleyn said in the tower in her last days as proof of what Anne believed (which again follows Bernard and, as I mentioned in my review of his book, one can’t really take as fact words said in times of trial). The author sometimes neglects other evidence or mainstream opinion without re-enforcing it, such as her statement that Anne Boleyn was not an active reformer and her talk of the gospel to Henry VIII was but part of courtly love (most historians see it as a subtle way of influencing the easily-influenced king’s mind, possibly on behalf of her family).
However when Hilton gets it right, she really gets it right. She is very biased against certain people others favour but relates stories in such a way that show why she is right to be biased – she may call Katherine Parr’s ‘collusion’ with Seymour during the tickling incidents ‘nasty’ but she makes plain the reason why without resorting to name-calling or manipulating the narrative of the event. She points out that, okay, perhaps Anne could have been a reformer but that there is no evidence of her individual involvement, for example, in ‘promoting sympathetic clerics to bishoprics’.
As a book on the whole it’s good; the problem comes with the title and stated focus: this book is not so much a biography of Elizabeth as it is a book about Elizabeth and her courtiers. So much time is spent detailing other people instead of looking at what the queen was doing and thinking, which is almost inevitable when we’ve no diaries and so forth, but does weaken the argument being made. The assertion of princeliness is compelling and believable but beyond a couple of quotations and repetitions of ‘Machiavellian’, the proposal isn’t strong enough to warrant a whole book about it, as shown by the amount of time devoted to other subjects. Instead, unfortunately, we have a book in which a queen does come across as more of a man but there is so much planning and law-making by the actual men, often away from the queen, that it can look like an afterthought.
Away from this believable but hard to show statement of manliness is a competent non-fiction that whilst it needs to be read with the knowledge it’s one person’s work – as most history books are – succeeds in being informative and a good choice for those looking to learn more about the Queen and the upper classes. Hilton’s background in television gives her book an edge others lack, making it, as suggested, both academic and commercial, and the amount of research undertaken practically oozes from it.
Elizabeth: Renaissance Prince is one to look for once you have a good grasp of the basics (the opinions mean you’ll appreciate it more if you’ve read the mainstream views first) and a good reminder for those who’ve been away from the history for a while. Granted, not all that much is new, but the handling of the information and the presentation of it is on the whole excellent; reading this book is a bit of an experience in itself.
I received this book for review from the publisher.
Figuring out the past. Concerning the present.
Publisher: Chatto & Windus (Random House)
First Published: 7th May 2015
Date Reviewed: 21st November 2015
I’ve never reviewed a book of poetry before, never reviewed a poem at all. As you may know I’m not a big reader of them – technically I like them a lot, the words, phrasing, beauty – but they often confuse me.
I’m giving it a go this time; Howe’s poetry is on the short-list for the Young Writer Of The Year award and having heard the poet read one of them herself, being able to hear her voice in my head and knowing when to pause, helped me a lot.
So, then, Howe’s collection is about her mother’s early life in China as an unwanted and later adopted girl. It’s about Howe’s own experiences as a young child in Hong Kong before the family moved to Britain. It’s a bit about politics, a bit about history, and a bit about Howe’s relationship with her husband. Many of the poems are also based around the divisions of animals as proposed by Dr Franz Kuhn. (The descriptions are included before the poetry begins.)
And whilst some of it flew over my head, I can still say it’s incredible. Howe makes use of various styles. She writes in one-word lines, she writes in a sort of way that echoes prose more than poetry, she uses long sentences, short ones, indented lines. The style that’s most compelling is the one used in the title poem. This is a poem wherein she’s listening to her mother talk about her life and near the end she writes as her mother speaks, using white space between words and phrases to show where her mother is pausing. You get a really good sense of how this conversation played out in reality.
Howe’s written voice moves through perspectives. She often writes from a distance, the third person. Sometimes she writes in the first; but the best times are when she questions the audience directly, or questions herself, or speaks in a particularly intimate way that defies description. It’s really lovely and makes you feel as though you’re privy to something special.
One of the standouts is Tame – hard-hitting, excellent. This is a poem in which Howe uses a quotation about how it’s better to raise geese than a girl as her base and works a fairy tale from it, dark, brutal ending and all. She wraps around the subject, coming full circle. Another is Innumerable wherein Howe remembers going on a day out around the time of Tiananmen; she contrasts the two and brings them together to show how things can be swept under the literal rug but not really.
About half the poems are stories, the other half tiny glimpses. The glimpses work well, you need to keep your wits about you to discover their true meaning.
The writing is quite flowery as you would expect, and very, very literary. Howe’s writing may require you to use a dictionary and you do have to pause sometimes, more than you usually would, to really make sense of what she’s saying – sort of the first step in the discovery program.
It’s a brilliant collection which I can confidently rate top marks even though I didn’t get it all.
I received this book at the Young Writer of the Year award blogger event.