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Nicholas Royle – Mother: A Memoir

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A memoir and then some.

Publisher: Myriad Editions
Pages: 209
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-912-40857-3
First Published: 14th May 2020
Date Reviewed: 13th May 2020
Rating: 5/5

Owing to the title of this book and in addition its contents (necessarily discussed below) I’m leaving my usual synopsis paragraph to this one sentence.

Royle’s third narrative book, his first narrative non-fiction (I say ‘narrative’ because the author has also written many academic works), does both what it says on the tin and what it implies on the tin if you were to look at the tin more closely. Mother: A Memoir is a mixture of straightforward memoir about the author’s mother but also a book about the concept of a mother – particularly, of course, his mother – and the concept both of writing a memoir and of memoir as a written form. It’s about writing. What this means in brief, is that this is a highly experimental, artistic, and language and linguistics related book that is nevertheless also a standard memoir.

But ‘standard’, in any quantity, doesn’t really explain this book. The only book that this one comes anywhere close to being similar to, at least to my admittedly limited knowledge, is the Royle’s previous book, An English Guide To Birdwatching. The book succeeds in being something very special: from the title, it’s a memoir of the author’s mother, Mrs Royle. (I’ll be referring to Nicholas Royle as ‘the author’ from now on to limit any confusion.) However as you read through it you might be forgiven for thinking that it’s only half about Mrs Royle, until you’ve read enough to discover that in actual fact it may be more of a memoir and more of a tribute to her than you could have imagined.

The book is also about a love of reading and literature in general; some of the best passages discuss times when the author and Mrs Royle conversed about texts, and there’s a lot of enjoyment to be found in the many references to novels and poems that are included without further comment. It can take a few pages to get into it, with its various versions of wordplay, but it’s very easy once you’ve got the hang of it. It’s very appealing and often quite fun.

The writing style is great; there are stylistic choices deliberately chosen and accounted for. The most obvious is in punctuation; the book is devoid of commas, there are none except in quotations, because, as the author says on page 25 (bracketed text mine):

But in writing about my mother I have been compelled to respond to what was quirky and singular about her own language. I have experienced a kind of unfettering. And stumbling into a new closeness to her in the very reaching out to shape words and syntax – idioms and ironies – in the wake of her voice and her laughter. In the remembered tricks and turns of her vivacity. I discovered I had to write – for better or worse – without commas. Things linked without notifications or signposts. Continuous but broken. Making more use of dashes. In sentences sometimes lacking main verbs. Or subjects. Discandying flux. Even if at the same time I cannot write a sentence without wanting to pay homage to my father’s lifelong Maxwellian [both Royle’s and his brother’s word for their father’s passion for the English language, based on his name] vigilance as Grammaticality Enforcement Agency.

(The extract shows the other effect of the lack of commas – the book is quite often very poetic. It also quite often changes the ‘natural’ emphasis in a sentence to highlight what is truly important in it.)

Perhaps – likely? – the author’s father wouldn’t have appreciated the way the book was written, which in the context of the family and the addition of Mr Royle’s letters to newspapers, is an interesting idea in itself. But there’s also an interesting question that this reviewer found herself asking – does the author’s focus on his mother’s language, given the father’s was the language deemed more correct (and thus important), question the traditional ideas of the relative values of men and women’s work and so on? (I should point out the author never says this, it’s just something I took away with me.) It certainly questions whether Mr Royle’s use of language is necessarily better (employed in Mrs Royle’s correspondence, his corrections in the letters she wrote are shown in the author’s discussion and reproduction of one of them).

This is perhaps the time to also note that Mrs Royle was a dedicated, passionate nurse who was well loved by many. Stories of her work are many, are lovely, and are spread throughout the book. (The narrative is not linear – the content is divided into chapters each on a theme – and scenes and elements of Mrs Royle’s life are returned to.) Quite a number of the photographs show Mrs Royle at various stages of her career.

It’s also perhaps the time to note that as much as the book is about Mrs Royle, it’s also about her husband, the author’s brother, who sadly passed away at a young age, and many other members of the family. There’s a lot to be said for the cover photograph showing the nuclear family. This book covers the affects of a mother on lives – the affect of Mrs Royle on the author, his father, his brother, and inevitably somewhat the whole family on who the author is.

To be sure, despite the small number of pages – just over 200 – Mother: A Memoir is a book you will probably want to take a bit of time with; it’s a good one to savour. That’s related to the major point to make – this book is brilliant.

I received this book for review.

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Dolly Alderton – Everything I Know About Love

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…And indeed the things scribbled out.

Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 358
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-241-98210-5
First Published: 1st February 2018
Date Reviewed: 14th May 2019
Rating: 3.5/5

Dolly had a privileged upbringing, living in the suburbs north of London. As she becomes an adult, life changes; in a number of non-linear chapters she tells us the stories of her twenties from the early days to her thirtieth birthday, the drinking, partying, drugs, sex, that in the course of time led to her maturity and growing wisdom. And throughout it all she chronicles her friendships, the steadfast women who have helped her through the rough times, those whom she has helped in return.

Everything I Know About Love is Alderton’s first book, a memoir bringing us to her present day (the paperback includes a new chapter). Most often a love letter to female friendship, the book includes romantic love but more often short relationships – Alderton has said that we think so much about the spark that keeps romance going but that we don’t spend enough time on our friendships in the same way. A journalist, writer for television, and podcaster, Alderon’s book also includes the early days of her work in the industry, the backdrop of many escapades.

Alderton begins her book with little introduction; most likely the book will appeal to those already familiar with her work and thus this won’t be a problem. However, to anyone who may otherwise be interested (as I was, having heard her speak at a festival) this is a work that can grow on you – the first chapters may be difficult, lacking in detail, but you soon become familiar with the writer enough that the ‘requirement’ to know about beforehand becomes a lot less important. More to the point is the ability to relate to her childhood – Alderton acknowledges the privilege herself on various occasions – the attendance at a boarding school, and relative ease of access to the places she begins to work (for example she gets a placement on a TV show with no details included as to how); again, though, there is a however – as the years pass and she has to network and so on, there are more details of this kind included. The details by themselves may not affect every reader but will help a good number.

The writing is casual and the pages fly by. It’s conversational, Alderton preferring ease of understanding over perfected prose. The content of the chapters tends to be compiled by subject matter rather than timeline, leading to a slice of life effect, however it’s not hard to find your bearings in any given set of pages.

Alderton is adept at imagery, and you become well-versed in her friendships over the course of the book; she’s also good at making it easy to keep track of who’s who – the book has a large cast of characters with enough detailing and stories to remember. You start wanting to hear more about some people and, obviously allowing for the natural changes that will affect it, Alderton’s choices in narrative correspond to this.

A lot of Alderton’s experiences in adulthood are average, very everyday – this is where her concept for the book and her stories of her friendships comes in. She includes some moments of her life that have impacted those she loves more than they impacted her, making a fair amount of the book about others rather than herself (this sounds against the idea of a memoir and may not always be apparent when reading, but it’s true). There are some stories of particular depth and heart in them. One person in Alderton’s life was Florence, her best friend’s sister, who sadly died of leukemia before she entered the excellent adulthood that was clearly awaiting her – Alderton has dedicated her book to Florence as well as a whole chapter that looks at Florence’s early achievements, the love of her family, and the ripple affects of her death. The writer includes an extract from an article Florence wrote that contains this fantastic piece of advice:

Be the person you wish you could be, not the person you feel you are doomed to be. (p. 203)

Amongst the various prose chapters are dotted recipes (skip-able), a chapter of silly or drunken text messages (also skip-able), lists of things learned (good to read), and some very on-the-mark pretend missives to groups of people (bridal parties and wedding guests, baby shower invitees) that show the reality behind plans made without self-awareness that often cause minor conflict. A paraphrased example: ‘please don’t feel you need to bring a present… but here is where we are registered… for expensive items’. These on-the-mark missives are pretty brilliant to read.

Alderton’s awareness of issues naturally progresses as the book continues and she displays openly the problems as well as the changes made to fix them:

‘Why did you do it?’
‘I don’t know. To feel close to people? To make conversation? Maybe to feel powerful,’ I said. ‘That’s the only reason people gossip. I obviously did it to feel powerful.’ (p. 234)

The best part of the book is the last section, wherein Alderton ends her stories to write an extended reflection on what she’s learned. In a way, it’s a pity the stories end, but this is where everything comes together and you see just why she wrote the book and why people have been excited about it. Alderton puts into words things we often think about but rarely put into words ourselves. She gives a voice to things that are a part of many people’s lives that are things we don’t really think about (or think about at all). It’s a beautiful conclusion and makes more obvious the structure of the work. The only problem here is that the reflections go on a bit – whilst already a summation, the content is repetitive and could have done with more editing.

Everything I Know About Love might not look like it’s a book for the many, but it is. It’s a book with a lot of good advice, a book that includes the low points and why things can be a problem whilst not suggesting those things be avoided (Alderton has said she wanted to talk about drink, drugs, and so on openly). Read it alongside a subscription to the magazines she writes for, or after a brief bit of research, and you’ll get the most out of it.

I received this book for review.

 
Solomon Northup – Twelve Years A Slave

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Whilst I’ve formatted this post as I do my reviews, this isn’t quite a review, more an information post.

Publisher: N/A
Pages: N/A
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: N/A (Collins is 978-0-007-58042-2)
First Published: 1853
Date Reviewed: 27th February 2018
Rating: 5/5

Twelve Years A Slave is Solomon Northup’s account of his time as a slave in Southern states America, the Bayou Boeuf to be exact. It was used by the abolition movement though not necessarily written for it1; like so many others, Northup was forced into slavery and his story has a specific background – he was one of a number of Northern states freemen who were kidnapped and sold into bondage.

Every sentence in this book has been thought through. Debate has surrounded who exactly wrote this book – whilst unarguably Northup’s account, there are a few possibilities due to the presence (most definitely in the preface) of an ‘editor’, one David Wilson. There’s the possibility Wilson took Northup’s story and wrote it up, which seems most likely, reading around the subject [see end note]; the possibility it is completely Northup’s work; the possibility that it’s a bit of both. These possibilities are apparent upon reading the preface and then subsequent work and situating the book in its political and social context; in the same way the work of other former slaves – such as Olaudah Equiano who wrote 60 years prior to Northup – seeks to reassure the reader that there are good white people out there, including some masters, so too does Northup.

The book is as harrowing as you’d expect though a lot may well have been left out; you get a report of horrors but there were surely more details. Included also are the good days, the few days of leisure in which Northup expresses the normality of his fellow slaves, demonstrating further how inhumane slavery is, how everyone is the same.

Northup drops out of history ten years after this publication – we know that he was often a speaker at abolition events but the records then start to become ambiguous. Someone saw him at someone’s house once – that sort of thing. History believes he was kidnapped back into slavery or simply died of natural causes. You can’t but hope it was the latter possibility and that it happened in due course rather than soon after Northup was freed. The first doesn’t bare thinking about.

As Northup himself did, so too did the book fall into obscurity2. It’s quite possible that, with slavery abolished, Northup’s book was deemed to have served its purpose and was dually forgotten. It was rediscovered in the 1960s.

Certainly you have to be prepared to read between the lines on occasion and this is one of those few books that would be difficult to read out of context. It’s an incredibly important book.

If you’re interested in finding out more about the authorship, David Fiske’s article on the book is an interesting read. It says that Wilson was not an abolitionist – which would suggest a less political motive on that man’s part, and goes further into general reasoning and the way the book was written.

Footnotes

1 Lieblich (2015) says the book “…achieved a remarkable degree of success as an abolitionist indictment against slavery […] In the wake of newspaper reports of his rescue from slavery, Henry Northup (a white attorney and lifelong friend from New York whose family had once owned Solomon’s father), Solomon Northup, and David Wilson collaborated and published his story within the first few months of his return to the North. Henry Northup gave Wilson an incentive to publish the book as quickly as possible in the wake of news reports of Solomon’s rescue. The attorney rightfully figured that information from the book would quickly reach readers who could, and who eventually did, identify the kidnappers.”
2 More information can be found on Wikipedia.

Online References

Lieblich, Mollie (2015), The Cultural Significance of Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave, US History Scene, accessed 1st March 2018.

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Chitra Ramaswamy – Expecting

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Bun in the oven and all those typical phrases.

Publisher: Saraband
Pages: 181
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-910-19221-4
First Published: 1st April 2017
Date Reviewed: 29th September 2017
Rating: 4.5/5

When Ramaswamy and her partner felt the time had come to have a baby, they got married (a necessity for same-sex couple looking to conceive) and started the process. The author chronicles those following nine months, detailing the day-to-day, the ways things about pregnancy and childbirth are often not known until a woman is already on the road, and the social factors, all with an eye to the story as a literary experience.

If you’ll pardon the pun, this book is not what you may be expecting from a book about pregnancy. This is a book that has true appeal for a great many people. Ramaswamy has written a book that manages to explore a specific subject in the kind of detail an interested party would expect but with enough – more than enough – of things on the periphery to intrigue others.

Very much a literary memoir, the appeal of Expecting is evident from the first moment. Ramaswamy fills the pages with quotes and other references to pregnancy, from Victorian views to Sylvia Plath’s poetry, to Virginia Woolf, Frida Kahlo’s work, and even Leo Tolstoy’s reverence of childbearing. It’s one of those memoirs that’s an absolute delight to read for its academic elements, a real book about books.

This is where Ramaswamy’s journalistic background comes in – the book is just beautiful. Full of imagery and lovely writing, it’s like reading a mid-20th century classic, and due to Ramaswamy’s various holidays in Scotland (where she lives – this isn’t a book full of exotic locations, and indeed there’s only a couple of trips abroad for work) it’s also somewhat of a nature book. At times it could give Amy Liptrot’s recent The Outrun a run for its money. And because of Ramaswamy’s literally burgeoning pregnancy, there’s often a wonderful juxtaposition of busy-ness and calm.

In addition to this, the author looks the two sides of the same coin, life and death, straight in the eye:

On foot, I had to walk up a vertiginous hill to get there, which meant arriving with my heart kicking at my breast, making me feel as appallingly flushed with life as you could be when entering a place where people go to die. I feared walking in there, hearing the doors shoosh closed behind me, sealing normal life out. Yet once I was in it was not such a fearful place. Entering a hospice was like being let in on a secret. There was a certain amount of privilege involved in being permitted early entry to a club to which, eventually, we would all belong. It had the power to level and soothe, like the calm one enjoys walking through a graveyard, reading strangers’ headstones and feeling a secondary sadness that is not so different from an appreciation of life.

There is only one area in which Expecting isn’t quite as good. One is the way that the detailing and explanation, so great when the author’s dealing with place, falls a bit flat when it’s to do with pregnancy details that are very much common knowledge, enough that they don’t need to be addressed.

Apart from this, there is a lot Ramaswamy notes that may seem obvious, a ‘why didn’t you know that before?’ situation, that can be odd to read – indeed why didn’t she know? – but in fact just goes to show how much society keeps from women, a topic the author addresses on a number of occasions. (These details are different to the common knowledge facts I discussed in the previous paragraph.) The lengthy bleed that occurs after birth that she doesn’t find out about until well into her time; the discomfort, exhaustion, and pain. Things that everyone should be told as a matter of course long before they come to decide whether or not they want children. In many ways this book is as much a social questioning as it is a memoir.

It doesn’t take long to read Expecting, certainly compared to a pregnancy it’s over in a blink, and it’s incredibly well worth it. The cover may align with something light-hearted, and the book can be, but it’s also so much more.

I received this book for review. It has been shortlisted for the Polari Prize. The winner will be announced on 13th October.

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Tom Malmquist – In Every Moment We Are Still Alive

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Sudden changes.

Publisher: Sceptre (Hodder)
Pages: 277
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-473-64000-9
First Published: August 2015; 1st June 2017 in English
Date Reviewed: 25th May 2017
Rating: 4/5

Original language: Swedish
Original title: I Varje Ögonblick Är Vi Fortfarande Vid Liv (In Every Moment We Are Still Alive)
Translated by: Henning Koch

When poet Tom Malmquist’s fiancée became very ill late in her pregnancy, the couple thought it was flu. But when her breathing starts to become affected, Karin is taken to the ward. In the horror of the idea of loosing his lover, Tom must get to grips with the idea that he will be bringing up his daughter on his own.

In Every Moment We Are Still Alive is a sobering memoir told in a rush of words that communicates the effect of the events on a person’s mental state. I have termed it non-fiction but it’s also considered fiction – the events are real but the style of writing, beyond the words themselves, means the book is somewhere between the two.

Looking at the words and the style together, Malmquist has opted for stream of consciousness and a sort of distancing. In view of the communication of his mental state, both the lack of full stops and the lack of quotation marks mean that you, the reader, are inundated with the information Malmquist received in the same way he received it, putting you in his shoes. Sometimes it’s fairly easy to see what is happening – fairly, not completely – and other times it’s almost impossible but in this book your incomprehension is paramount to your understanding of the way Malmquist is feeling. It is frustrating to read on a literary level, especially considering the text never stops rushing towards you, but it plays its part – it might seem to be a book with a lot of telling but actually, it’s all about showing.

The length of the book is part of this display of showing, too; it’s fairly short – just like the few weeks that pass – but feeling longer than that – again just like the few weeks that pass. In terms of the action of reading it’s a swift one, easily read in a few hours, but it will feel longer.

Karin is going to miss so much, Livia was a black-and-white ultrasound photo, Karin only knew her something that moved inside her.

One can’t really review the story itself; suffice to say it’s told very well and Malmquist often looks back on his life with Karin. There are no clear time changes so sometimes it’s difficult to work out when a scene slots into the timeline but that doesn’t take much away from the overall experience.

Something that must be touched on, however, is the bureaucracy Malmquist details. Because the author was not married and because Karin was too ill and everyone too busy to so much as think about any paperwork, despite the obviousness of the author’s paternity he has to go through Tax lines – yes, makes no sense – in regards to his baby daughter. He has to call Social Services and courts and various other places to try and change her surname to his, to get reports, all that sort of stuff; you don’t get to hear the result, how it ends up, but suffice to say Malmquist now has custody of his daughter, however, according to what is written in the book, he has to check in often until she reaches her majority. The author’s writing style, that deluge of information, further shows just how bizarre the whole thing is. And this all happens whilst he’s reeling from the death, making it even worse. As far as the book goes, Malmquist’s examination and peeling back the layers for all to see, is brilliant.

This is a difficult book in many ways, and a bit more so when you know you’re dealing with a translation. The translation is okay but there are some grammatical choices and turns of phrase that are so English (language) it’s hard to forget you’re reading a translation. But the heart of the story, or, rather, hearts – that communication and fight for parental rights – is very good and well worth your time.

There have been books that have dealt with similar topics before, but In Every Moment We Are Still Alive puts you in the author’s head in a very different and meaningful way.

I received this book for review.

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