It’s a memoir for this week’s pick – and it’s really good but it’s also heartbreaking. So bear that in mind when picking a moment to read it – I ended up a snotty mess more than once.
Depending on how old you are, you’ll know Richard E Grant for something different. Withnail and I, Spice World, Girls or if you’re my sister me: Jack and Sarah. He was nominated for an Oscar in 2019 for his role in Can You Ever Forgive Me. But what I didn’t know was that he had one of those rare things: a long and happy marriage in showbiz. And I only found that out when I saw his post on social announcing that Joan had died. A Pocketful of Happiness is a memoir of his wife’s illness, intercut with stories from their life together.
Joan Washington was one of the acting world’s leading dialogue and accent coaches. She and Richard met when she taught him at acting school, soon after his arrival in the UK from Swaziland. Ten years older than him and recently divorced, they fell in love when she coached him to help iron out his accent and they stayed together for 38 years.
Richard’s love for Joan shines through in every page of this – but you can also see how loved she was by other people and how much impact she had on their lives. At the end Richard has included some of the tributes to her from people that she worked with – some of which were gathered when her friends tried to get her an honour from the Queen before she died. It’s a memoir of grief and nursing someone through a terminal illness – but it’s also full of wonderfully showbizzy stories. Richard’s unashamed joy at being nominated for an Oscar was obvious at the time – but in this you see the behind the scenes as he goes to the awards season events and meets every famous actor he’s ever dreamed of working with – but also his all time heroine: Barbra Streisand. The showbiz stories help break up the heavy bits but also tie together with the story of the last few months of Joan’s life. It’s one of the best actor memoirs I have recently read – and as you know, there have been a few on the pile!
This Recommendsday post has been a long time in the making, but actually really fits in with the theme of this month in a way – I’ve written about the theatre and careers on the stage a fair bit – but also featured a children’s film starring one of the actors in it!
Forever Young by Hayley Mills
So lets start with that one – Hayley Mills is the star of my favourite version of The Parent Trap, but was also the biggest child star of her day. She was born into an acting family – her father was Sir John Mills, her Mother Mary Hayley Bell and her sister Juliet is also an actress. She won a Bafta for her first film role and was signed by Disney. This book takes you through her childhood career and what happened when she grew up. It’s got plenty of Old Hollywood and British Acting Royalty detail in it as well as all the sorts of thing you want to know about being a child star and what sort of effect it has on you. It doesn’t talk a lot about her life after the mid-1970s, but given that most people are probably reading this because they’ve watched her juvenile performances, and by that point she’s all grown up and married, that’s probably a reasonably wise decision unless the book was going to be much longer. The good news is that I came out of the end still liking her, although some of the decisions she made in her early adulthood were not the best!
Home Work by Julie Andrews
From the star of one of my favourite childhood films to the star of two of them! This is the second memoir that Julie Andrews has written – and the first of them, Home, finishes just before she becomes a major star. So as the Sound of Music and Mary Poppins are among my favourite movies, I was looking forward to reading this to see what the experience of making them was like for her. And that is in there – but just not in as much detail as I was expecting. Andrews and her co-writer, her daughter Emma, rattle through 30 years of her career and personal life at breakneck speed and without ever really letting you in on what Andrews was thinking or feeling. She’s been in psychoanalysis since the 1960s, so you would assume that she has more insight into what was going on than she is telling you, but she’s definitely keeping you at an arms length and preserving that Old School Hollywood aloofness that some old school stars like her have cultivated since the early days of their career. Now whether some of her reluctance to talk about what must have been the very real difficulties of her second husband’s prescription drug dependence are because she was writing this not long after his death (or even before) and she doesn’t have the perspective yet, I don’t know. But for all that the details of making Mary Poppins and SoM are satisfying (in as much of them as you get, and I’m not sure there’s masses here I didn’t already know) the lack of everything else holds this back.
I Was Better Last Night by Harvey Fierstein
Most of us probably first saw Harvey Fierstein in Mrs Doubtfire – or heard his voice in Mulan, but Fierstein is something of a Broadway legend – he wrote the play Torch Song Trilogy, the book for the musical version of La Cage aux Folles and won a Tony as the original Broadway Edna in Hairspray. His memoir follows him through growing up in 1950s Brooklyn through all those big moments and achievements. It’s a long and hard journey – with addiction and loss along side spectacular highs but as well as being a personal story, it also shows the development and evolution of New York theatre in the last third of the twentieth century and the changing face of gay culture.
Mean Baby by Selma Blair
At the other end of the spectrum to Julie Andrews is Selma Blair’s memoir. Blair doesn’t hold anything back – her drinking from an incredibly young age, her fraught relationship with her mum, her self destructive behaviour – it’s all here along along with the professional successes you already know about, or at least that you know about if you’re my age – Legally Blonde, Cruel Intentions, Hellboy – and her activism after her diagnosis with MS three years ago. It’s a story of resilience through adversity and proof that no matter how someone’s life might look like on the outside – movie roles, front row seats at fashion shows – you never know what is going on in secret and the struggles that are going on behind the scenes.
And that’s your lot for this post. I do have several more actor memoirs sitting on the pending self, so there may well be a follow up at some point, but who knows when that might be given my current track record!
Ok so I haven’t finished this yet, but I wanted to give a mention to Dr Janina Ramirez’s new book, Femina, which is out today. She’s one of my favourite historians at the moment – I’ve enjoyed her TV shows and podcasts that she’s presented and been a guest on and I’m really enjoying her examination of the Middle Ages, looking at the women history has forgotten (or ignored). The Middle Ages are not one of the areas that I studied in much depth at university (I tended to stick to post 1485) but she has a very readable style and I’m learning a lot!
As you probably guessed from the fact that I’ve already started reading it, My copy came via NetGalley, but you should be able to buy Femina from all the usual places – Kindle, Kobo etc – and I’m hoping it will be in the bookshops too, like Foyles, even if I can’t see any click and collect copies at the moment.. Oh and Janina reads the audiobook herself.
I offer you a non fiction book this week – and after a few weeks where I’ve been recommending new (or newish) releases, here’s one that’s not quite as new a release because it came out in October…
Anyway, Greg Jenner’s latest book does exactly what it says on the tin – it answers fifty questions from history that are the sort of thing that most people actually want to know – as opposed to the sort of history people thing they ought to know. So you can find out how women dealt with their periods in the past – but also how historical periods got their names, where history starts and pre-history ends and why people are so obsessed with the Tudors (see also the question about how many nipples Anne Boleyn had) and then more horrible histories type stuff like how much horse manure was created each day in London or what the Flintstones got right. And because it’s fifty questions it makes for great bite sized reading – I read a couple of questions a night before bed.
As I’ve mentioned before, Greg and I overlapped at the same university and we did student radio at the same time although in different departments (I was news and he was speech) so we didn’t really hang out together although we were in the Langwith bar at the same time a few times after the weekly meeting. I really like the niche he’s carved himself as a public historian – he is incredibly knowledgable but wears it very lightly and his writing style is fun and accessible. And he’s the sort of history writer who wants to appear like he knows it all right off the top of his head – he’s not afraid to show his working and tell you which historians or other experts he spoke to in the main text and not hidden in the footnotes. And if there’s something you’re particularly interested in, there’s always a further reading list at the back – complete with notes about which are the more academic books as opposed to the more lay person friendly ones. As well as working for the grownups, I think this is also the sort of book that would appeal to a kid who read horrible histories and is now looking for something else fun and historical. It’s got a few swear words in it, but I think that teens and tweens will love that (and parents: they’ve heard all the words already at school, that ship has sailed)
My copy (complete with signed book plate) came from Big Green Books, but it should be fairly easy to get hold of from any reasonably sized book shop as well as on Kindle and Kobo. And if you read it and like it, then try Greg’s other books Dead Famous (definitely more for the adults) and A Millions Years in a Day. And as a bonus Greg reads his own audiobooks, which is always delightful – if you listen to his podcast You’re Dead to Me you know what he sounds like and it would be weird for it not to be him narrating!
It’s been a while since we had a memoir as a Book of the Week, but it makes a change and having already written about the new Mhairi McFarlane and with a lot of rereads on last week’s list, it’s really a good thing that I enjoyed reading this so much!
This was actually on my pre-order list, and as I mentioned in that Martha Wainwright is a singer songwriter who has had a special place in my heart for a long time now. In the book she describes her self as a “child of… twice over” as both of her parents are well known musicians, and added to that her brother Rufus had mainstream success at a time when she was also trying to make it in the music business. This memoir looks back at her life and the decisions she’s made and the people she knows. She comes from a fiercely competitive family, with lot of competing egos and careers and it is very, very interesting to get the inside scoop on all that – from her point of view at least.
And the title isn’t joking – she’s probably already regretted some of this, as an earlier manuscript of the book was used in her divorce. It’s probably the most honest and unvarnished memoir I’ve read since Viv Albertine’s first book. Wainwright is fairly self aware and with the benefit of time, can see patterns in her own life and how things have affected her. And of course her music has always been the same way – but there’s a difference between a three minute song and a 200 page piece of extended writing. As well as the career and her relationships with her siblings and parents, it also looks at the pressures of juggling a career and motherhood – which is not exactly new, but it does feel a bit different because the arrival of her oldest son was unexpected and traumatic and came at a really difficult time in her life – as her mother was dying of cancer – and when she was in the UK rather than at home in Canada. All in all, a really interesting read for a fan like me – and I suspect there’s enough here for people who aren’t fans too.
As I said, I had my copy preordered so got it on the day it came out two weeks ago – but Foyles now have signed bookplate editions with a couple of quid off and everything, so I’m almost regretting that. But I have a ticket to see her live in London later in the year, so maybe I’ll take it along to that. I do already have a signed ticket from the last time I saw her (at the small but brilliant Stables in Milton Keynes where I would have gone to see her again if it wasn’t for the fact that the evening she’s playing there is the same day as we’re seeing The Glass Menagerie in the West End. Why does this always happen?) so it’s not like I’m missing out really. Or at least that’s what I’m telling myself. Anyway, it’s out now in hardback, Kindle, Kobo and audiobook read by Martha herself.
I know I said that I was mostly reading romance and mystery at the moment, but I’m veering outside that today for this week’s BotW, with a new release book that’s looking at the influencer economy and how it is changing our daily lives.
This is a sobering look at the changes that social media has brought to the world – particularly when it comes to the blurring of lines between real and fake and the Wild West of promotions, adverts and sponcon. Symeon Brown is a correspondent at Channel Four news and in his first book he examines realities of influencer culture – and what lies behind the carefully curated lives that people are presenting on social media platforms. And it turns out that what is behind the glossy facade is even murkier than you are imagining. For every success story, there are countless people handing over their own money in the hopes of being the next big thing.
Across the course of the book, Brown takes you through the full range of online smoke and mirrors – from predatory plastic surgery firms taking advantage of young women who want to look more like their filtered photos, the promises of quick riches through crypto currencies or various new types of MLMs, streamers who get paid to be racially abused, influencers who are making serious money out of activism and much, much more. But at the centre of it all there are a lot of vulnerable people desperate for a better future who are being preyed on or exploited.
I’ve recommended books about scammers or frauds here before, but they’ve usually been about single people or companies perpetuating a con – whereas this covers a huge range of ways that people are being bamboozled as part of online hustle culture. It’s well written and hard to put down – and it’s going to give you a lot to think about. Very, very sobering.
Get Rich or Lie Trying came out last week – my copy came from NetGalley – but it’s available now in hardback and on Kindle and Kobo.
Do you know when you can’t find a book and it’s really annoying you? In last week’s Bookshelfie I spoke about the fact that I didn’t have to even check the shelves much to know what was on there. And no, I don’t know all of my shelves that well, but I do know where roughly most of my books should be. So when stuff is not there it gets frustrating.
I used to loan books out a fair bit in the before times, but then I would forget who had what and end up with missing books or duplicate copies. You may remember when my copy of Gone with the Windsors went awol and it was A Drama. I have three copies now because I cried about it on Twitter and Laurie Graham saw it and sent me one, which was too nice to read and so I bought another copy of it and then I got the original one back as well. So now I have three copies and I started a list of who I had loaned what to. Which helps. But occasionally, there’s a book that I can’t find and I don’t know why.
At the moment it’s Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves. It was one of the extended reading list books for my A Levels – where we did a module on War Literature. I read all the books on that list. And for years while I was at university and slightly beyond, my copy of Goodbye to All That lived on the bookshelf that ran across my bedroom wall above the door with the other books from that module. Then when I moved into my own house I took all the books with me. Well I did a bit of a weed. But of that collection of books from that module, the only one I ditched was Testament of Youth. Because I hated it.
So now they lived on the downstairs bookshelf at the old house. And it should be on the same bookshelf now. But it’s not. And it’s really annoying me. Especially since my copy of Strange Meeting returned to base the other week (even if my mum didn’t realise it was mine, despite the fact my name was written in the front of it!). So where have I put it? And what do I do? I could buy a new copy, but it wouldn’t be the same edition – and I want the same edition. And of course if I do, the original one could turn up. Although I’ve been waiting for years for my copy of Regeneration to turn up as it was one of a matching set and it hasn’t yet so what do I know.
Maybe the act of writing this will magic my copy back to me? It’s a turn of the century small paperback sized Penguin one, with the black and white photo of the trenches on the front. It’s completely the wrong size for all the other books from that module, but I don’t care because it’s the *right* version for me. Thanks.
Say hello to a non-fiction pick that is both a hardback and a book that I got for Christmas – and so hasn’t lingered on the pile at all. Now that may be because it was a book that I specifically asked for, or it may just be a fluke but, hey lets celebrate small wins when we get them.
You’ll know Anderson Cooper as a news anchor on CNN, but he’s also part of the Vanderbilt family and this book, written with Katherine Howe, as the subtitle suggests is a look at the rise and fall of the dynasty. It is not a complete and comprehensive examination of every member of the family, but more a look at the key figures and key moments in the family’s fortunes from making their money, through breaking into New York society, to the various court battles and all the way to Cooper’s own childhood as the son of Gloria Vanderbilt. It takes you from seventeenth century New Amsterdam through to the present day, but with its main focus from the mid-ninteenth century onwards.
I knew bits and bobs about some of the Vanderbilts, but not a whole lot so this was really interesting to me – even before the personal aspect that Cooper’s own connection to the story adds. I’ve read a lot of books at various points about the British nobility in the nineteenth century, and portions of this story are the American equivalent to that – and they interface at some points too, for example when Consuelo Vanderbilt is married off to the Duke of Marlborough. If you’ve got an interest in this sort of history, it’s definitely worth a look – even if it’s not the most comprehensive account and may well leave you wanting to read more about some of the characters you meet. But that’s never a bad thing really is it? We’ve all already got to-read piles bigger than we should have, so what difference do a couple more books make…
My copy of Vanderbilt was a Christmas gift from my parents (thanks mum and dad!) but you can get it now in hardback, Kindle and Kobo. It’s also on audiobook read by Anderson Cooper himself, which sounds delightful from the sample. I still haven’t been into a bookshop this year, but I suspect it’ll be a case of ordering it in – I’ve put a Waterstones link as I know that’s where mum got it from so I know it will actually work.
After a string of Christmas-themedrecommendations for BotW, I’m starting the new year with a non-fiction pick, and it’s a title that you may be rather familiar with as it’s been on the ongoing list for quite some time – but don’t hold that against it. Why then has it taken me so long to read? Well firstly because it is long (500+ pages!) and secondly because non-fiction requires proper concentration and for me to be in the right mindset – which has been difficult recently but in 2021 in general – as previously discussed.
Anyway, Paula Byrne’s latest book is a biography of the author Barbara Pym. Pym wrote a series of novels about everyday women in the middle of the twentieth century, was briefly acclaimed, then forgotten and then rediscovered in the years immediately before her death in 1980. If you haven’t read any of them, then you really should – she’s been compared to Jane Austen. She was nominated for the Booker Prize in 1977 for Quartet in Autumn, but I’ve mostly read her earlier books – my favourite of hers Excellent Women, which I have in a rather delightful Virago Designer Hardback edition.
After growing up in Shropshire, Barbara Pym went up to Oxford in the early 1930s. There she threw herself into student life – and into love. She travelled to Germany in the 1930s, was a Wren during the war and then worked for years as an assistant editor for a journal of anthropology. Her novels often feature anthropologists, as well as vicars – whether she’s writing about London’s bedsit land or English country life. In later life, she was friends with Philip Larkin – which in part led to her rediscovery in the late 1970s
Using Pym’s own diaries and papers, Byrne has written a comprehensive re-examination of Pym’s life piecing together her relationships, friendships and love affairs as well as her career in publishing. It’s a fascinating insight into the life behind the writer – and how her personal life bled into her novels. Considering that she never married and that her books focus on unmarried or in some way frustrated women, you may be surprised by what you discover about her. Two of Byrnes other books – Kick (about Kathleen Kennedy) and Mad World (about Evelyn Waugh) are on my keeper shelf of history books already and this would join them, if it wasn’t an ebook! And if I haven’t already won you over with my thoughts, it was on the Times’ list of best books of 2021 too.
As an added bonus for me, given my current Wimsey phase, Pym was an undergraduate at St Hilda’s just a couple of years before Gaudy Night is set. Through her experiences you can get a glimpse of what the students of Shrewsbury College might have been getting up to out of sight of the dons.
My copy of The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym came via NetGalley, but you should be able to get hold of the hardback fairly easily – Foyles have it available as click and collect at a lot of their stores and will even knock a couple of quid off the cover price if you order it via their website. If the hardback price is a bit rich for you, then I’m so behind hand with my NetGalley list that it’s actually out in paperback in April, so you could hang fire for that. Or of course it’s available in Kindle and Kobo and as an audiobook.
Well. I’m going to preface this with a Not For Everyone warning, and I’m going to depart from my recent well trodden path of crime and romance recommendations and go with a nonfiction memoir. And I’m only about four years behind, which is fairly par for the course for me to be honest as you all well know.
Educated is Tara Westover’s memoir about growing up in a doomsday prepping, fanatically religious household in Idaho and about how she struggled free. Her father is convinced that the end of days is coming, and that the government is plotting against him. This means that Tara is home schooled, but home school actually often involves working in the family junkyard. Her father also doesn’t believe in doctors or the medical profession in general and so injuries and illnesses go untreated. Eventually Tara manages to escape to university and finds herself in a world that she is ill equipped to deal with and lacking basic knowledge that others take for granted. But conflict with her family remains and she has to find a way to navigate that.
This needs all the warnings. I don’t think it’s giving too much to say that there is an incredible amount of violence in this – and whatever injuries you’re imaging went untreated, you are not imagining anything bad enough. I had been warned by my sister and I still wasn’t prepared. So go into this expecting: child abuse, child neglect, sibling violence, bullying and pretty much any behaviour that triggers a mandatory child protection referral if a teacher were to suspect it was going on. But of course Tara wasn’t in school so, yeah. It just goes on.
But if you want to know more about survivalists and some of the extremes of some of the offshoots of Mormonism then this will give you that. And some. Tara Westover has built a fresh life for herself and, spoiler alert, has managed to build healthy relationships – some of which are with some of her family. Unsurprisingly perhaps, her parents disagree with her descriptions of her childhood – and her mother has in fact written her own book in response to this, which she has self-published and in doing so has given all the real names of the people who Tara had given pseudonyms to. If you fancy an interesting half hour, after you have finished Educated, you can go and read the reviews of that on goodreads. I’m not sure you need to do any more than that because I think you’ll be able to draw your own conclusions from that.
Now I’m fairly sure my copy of Educated came from NetGalley, but so long ago now that it’s not even funny. You can get Educated everywhere. It has been on all the lists, been recommended by everyone who you could want to recommend it. I’ve seen it in pretty much every bookshop and some supermarkets too. And of course it’s on Kindle and Kobo.