Archive for the ‘Books I’ve read’ Category

Writing a memoir is an act of resurrection. I was privileged to hear three authors of memoirs speak at a superb session at this year’s WORD festival. The session was titled Whose life is it anyway? and facilitator Victor Roger was engaging and knowledgeable, telling us that he had laughed and cried when reading each of the three books.

I arrived early with time to browse the University Bookshop stall, where they were selling literary t-shirts, buy one, get one free. I was delighted to get a long-sleeved shirt with a quote from Hermione Granger which says When in doubt go to the library. For Stephen, a lifelong Science Fiction fan, I chose one featuring The War of the Worlds by HG Wells.

The three writers on the panel were Ruth Shaw (The Bookseller at the End of the World), Megan Dunn (Things I learned at Art School), and Clementine Ford (How We Love). I’d not read any of these, although two were already on my For Later list (to which the third has now been added). I was surprised that the theatre was only two-thirds full. The session was also being live-streamed, and I guess there are people who are still wary of being out in crowds, even though all the audience was masked.

Megan Dunn, Clementine Ford, Ruth Shaw, Victor Roger

Clementine explained she was wearing a hat because she’d been travelling for ten days and her hair needed attention. She also said her grandmother would have been horrified by this. I’d previously heard Clementine speak on a panel in 2015 where the topic was How to be a feminist. This time she spoke of how we often see our past selves in negative ways, carrying self-doubt inside. To have a relatable story with depth you have to get to know your inner self, ask them to forgive you, and they will, because all they’ve ever wanted is your love.

Megan said: Good girls write memoirs, bad girls don’t have time. Her father had suggested to her that some things are better left unsaid. In 1989 she was 14 years old and her family were living above an old persons’ home, when her uncle killed himself. Some of her writing is therefore about a child absorbing death. Her description of her own mother’s death was incredibly moving. This mother was never supported to reach her potential or be publicly known, and Megan is now honouring her in this book, so that thousands of people know her and cry for her.

Ruth said she was able to draw on lots of diaries and letters, but recalling the emotions was tricky. She often imagined the person she was writing about standing beside her, together with those who would become her readers. After being raped she became pregnant at 17, and found her mother’s reaction difficult to understand, but her mother later explained the difficulty of living in a small community among the families of the perpetrators.

Megan pointed out there are many lonely people in the world, and suggested one way to combat loneliness is to buy these books.

Clementine said that if you know someone you can be a witness to their life, and that is an important form of love. She recommended the film Beaches as an example of this. Clementine would like to write about her father, who re-married after her mother died. She hopes he will die before his second wife does so she can write the book and that woman can read it.

When questioned about censoring what you’ve written Ruth said she had changed the names of her four husbands and son, to protect their privacy.

All the authors were amazingly open about their stories, and I had tears in my eyes on several occasions. This was a stimulating and very worthwhile session, and I look forward to the pleasure of reading each of their books. Have you read these memoirs?

Their stories came right from the heart
there’s more to read – a further part

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Any genealogist would find the beginning of this book delightfully intriguing. I was fascinated to follow the author’s family research, including his use of databases which are available on the internet, and I can relate to his obsession with the quest to discover more. His emotion on making contact with previously unknown relatives reminded me of similar experiences I have had.

When I read of the amazing amount of family correspondence Richard discovered in various archives I felt envious. He describes being a kind of time-travelling commuter, secretly shuffling back and forth between the present day and the world of his eighteenth century family.

Detective biography is the perfect label for this book. The author gives details of how his ancestors gained wealth through their slaves in the West Indies, and how shocking he found this. His descriptions of the transport and sale of slaves are harrowing. I thought smugly of my own Rout ancestors who were abolitionists.

I admit I skipped through many of the pages which dealt with British politics, the financial crisis of 1772, and the American Revolution, where an earlier Richard Atkinson supplied the Royal Navy and troops with rum and other provisions.

For me, the personal anecdotes were more engaging that the wider political and war details, though I admired the thorough research and the many illustrations. It was moving to read of the moment when Richard touched the hair of his Great-great-great-great Aunt. His commentary on DNA testing was interesting especially when he found so many distant cousins were of West African ancestry.

This book would be enjoyed by anyone curious about British colonial history, but there is a special attraction for family historians.

A decade is the time it took
to research and to write this book

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This is a monumental work of fiction, that is totally believable. It often reads like a biography, and includes many interwoven stories. The main one is about Marian Graves, who triumphed over all kinds of obstacles to become a woman flyer in the first half of the 20th century. Another story is about a Hollywood starlet who is to play the part of Marian in a film 50 years later. At first I found the movement between the two stories disconcerting, but they slowly drew me in and eventually melded together into a satisfying whole – a great circle, perhaps.

The Great Circle of the title is a flight around the earth, encompassing both north and south poles, which Marian plans to take. All the characters drew me in, especially Marian’s brother, and those involved in World War Two. There are loves lost and found throughout, and I came to feel resentful when the story returned to the present day.

At 589 pages this is a substantial book, and towards the end I had to read it sitting up because it was too lopsidedly heavy to read lying in bed as I usually do.

The detail is meticulously researched, to the extent that I began to wonder whether in fact Marian was an actual person. If you enjoy historical books about strong woman characters, you will like this one.

Beginning from a shipwrecked berth
she planned to fly all round the earth

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This book took me straight into the heart of Nigeria, at least the part of Nigeria that is in London. I’m always attracted to books set in that city, but this is a very different London, where a group of three Nigerian women share friendship, food, and fun. When a fourth woman joins their group strange things start to happen.

The book moves at a fast pace, and I finished it in a couple of evenings. There were interesting insights into the lives of part-Nigerian women, but I got annoyed with the way they interacted with each other, and with their men. A Guardian review recommended that this was one of the best recent crime thrillers, but it was a bit light for me. While there was a mystery it was well smothered. Still, it’s interesting to read about another culture, and there was enough to keep me engaged.

Wahala translates in to trouble
when someone new enters their bubble

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This book was not for me. It came well-recommended, with an Australian setting, and an author born and living in Aotearoa. I was well prepared to enjoy it, but somehow my brain just couldn’t encompass the fantasy. Perhaps that’s a sign of ageing?

The lack of speech marks gave reading it an added hindrance, and I gave up at page 22. I wonder who else has read it, and what did you think?

This book was simply not for me
I did not like the fantasy

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I found much that I could relate to in this inspiring, honest, and thoughtful memoir. It’s written spasmodically in patches, with many quotes from Renée’s writing and that of others. It’s not set out chronologically, but with different snippets from different times. There are many reminders of feminist times in Auckland with people I used to know, and of community theatres.

Stephen was involved in amateur drama for many years, and one time Cathryn and I went on stage as well. She would have been about eight or nine. The play was The Crucible and we were part of the crowd scene at the hanging.

Renée’s observations on growing old are compelling, e.g. accepting the need for a shopping trolley. I wonder if one of those might be easier than a backpack for transporting my library books? Now more than ninety years old, Renée has a constant struggle to be recognised as a living, breathing, intelligent human being. “Just because I’m ninety doesn’t mean I lose the power to feel, to experience, to know when I’m being patronised.”

When she wrote about how sisters giggle when they get together I was reminded of giggling with my Values Party “sisters”, especially those from New Plymouth.

Filling out a form to join the University of the Third Age Renée saw that one of the criteria was to be retired. She had no intention of ever retiring, so didn’t go any further with the form. I don’t recall that being on the form I filled out, but they did ask what my occupation had been.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading about Renée’s life, and warmly recommend her memoir.

Her life’s been a dramatic play
no wonder she has lots to say

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I relished this biography of Jeanette Fitzsimons on several different levels. It was exciting, even breathtaking, to read about and recall the birth of the Values Party. There were memories of past elections, especially 1978 and 1981, and so many names of people I used to know.

While there might be more political detail than some readers want, I hope this book will be required reading for the new history curriculum as it recounts so many of the societal dilemmas and changes of the past fifty years.

I knew Jeanette in Auckland in the 1970s and 1980s – my younger daughter and her elder son were childhood playmates. It’s inspiring to be reminded of Jeanette’s absolute integrity and commitment to the vision of a society that is just, sustainable, and community-based. Now we have young Green women Members of Parliament who continue to carry that inspiration forward and give us all hope.

She stayed true to the Values dream
and earned universal esteem

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I was confused by this book as I was uncertain how much of it was based on fact, and how much was fiction. It’s the story of a bohemian group living on the Greek island of Hydra in 1960. Characters include singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen and his muse Marianne Ihlen, as well as a couple of Australian writers Charmian Clift and George Johnston. These four are all historical figures, and the author’s acknowledgements at the end of the book make it clear she has done careful research into their lives.

However, other characters and dialogue are presumably imagined, and some parts would qualify as chick-lit. There are lyrical descriptions of the island which are beguiling – even the dust glitters. Some characters have fascinating names, such as Dionysus the dustman. The description of a pagan ritual intrigued me, as did the introduction where the narrator, now old, says how she watches her steps on the steep path: a stumble can easily become a fall, a thought that disgusts the gazelle still living within my stiffening body. I found this particularly apposite as we are in the process of having rails installed on our brick steps.

I enjoyed the book for all the above reasons, but my enjoyment was tempered by my confusion as to its authenticity.

This book is based on history
but some parts are a mystery

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My preference for relaxation reading is always for a novel, and it takes a change of attitude for me to read short stories. This is an unusual book, and it’s unusual for me to be reading anything by a male author, although I do sometimes make an exception for a New Zealander. I presume this one got onto my ‘For Later’ list after I read an enticing review. On a warm sunny Queen’s Birth-day the temperature was 18°, and no wind meant it was perfect for sitting outside and reading.

These short stories are mainly set in 19th century Aotearoa, and sometimes have a spiritual link to the present day. Each one has its source in some historical document, and all demand careful consideration. They are Frontier Tales whose characters experience strange happenings, occasionally with time shifts.

Not a book I’d thoroughly recommend, but I’d be interested to know if anyone else has read it.

This book was not my usual fare
but thought-provoking themes are there

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This is an absorbing story of Juliet’s adjustment to getting older. We all eventually face old age, except for those whose lives are cut short. I learned recently that our age can be estimated from our DNA because our chromosomes get shorter as we age.

Juliet suggests that the simple pleasure of being in the moment can be more frequent as we age. She also advocates the need to surrender to fatigue and allow ourselves a rest day when required. I like her idea that we can have rest days and test days, and I’ve had both of those recently. I can also relate to the idea that the limb that opens childproof lids and cans may drop off as we get older. Mine went some time ago.

The links and tendrils of connection are important, like the fungi that communicate beneath the earth through the roots of trees, creating a thriving ecosystem. This reminded me of my recent pleasure in meeting an old friend, unseen for years, who suggested a lunch date next week. Spirituality is another important support as we grow older.

I found it hard to read of Juliet experiencing continual pain, and am grateful not to be dealing with that, although over the last few weeks Stephen and I (and Ziggy) have all had hospital appointments in preparation and follow-up for various surgeries. While I don’t have chronic pain I’m aware that parts of me no longer work the way they used to and anything strained or damaged takes longer to heal.

Juliet’s few poems had an inspiring resonance for me. In her last chapter Juliet invites us to keep a reflective journal, writing about the challenges of life. I used to write Morning Pages, but rarely do these days. This blog has become my journal, although I avoid sharing anything too personal here.

We learn just how this author copes
and gently cultivates her hopes

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