Book of the Week, memoirs, new releases, non-fiction

Book of the Week: A Pocketful of Happiness

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!

My copy came from the airport, but it’s out now in hardback, Kindle, Kobo and audiobook – read by Richard himself.

Happy Reading!

book round-ups, memoirs, Recommendsday

Recommendsday: Actor Memoirs

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!

Happy Humpday everyone!

book round-ups

Favourite not-new books of first half of 2022

So yesterday we did the new releases, and today I’m back with my other favourite books of the year so far – the ones that aren’t new, but that I’ve read for the first time this year. And it’s a slightly random mix of the nearly new and the really old.

I’m going to start with the really old – and that’s two of my Persephone subscription picks. I’ve had five of my six books through now and read three of them and A House in the Country by Jocelyn Playfair and The Young Pretenders by Edith Henrietta Fowler both got five stars from me. The Two Mrs Abbotts got four stars – and that was mostly because I wanted more Barbara herself and even as I write that I wonder if I was being too harsh and I should upgrade it! All three of them – and the other two Miss Buncle books are great if you want low peril reading in your life at the moment – and who doesn’t to be honest.

Then there are two nearly new books that I’ve given five stars as well so far this year – there’s Greg Jenner’s Ask a Historian answering fifty questions about history that people have asked Greg. And then there’s very recent BotW pick Acting Up by Adele Buck, which is a theatre-set romance which I loved so much I immediately bought the next book in the series. Honestly June was such a good month of reading for me.

Close behind these there is also Emily McGovern’s Bloodlust and Bonnets if you want a gothic-spoof graphic novel – I mentioned Julia Quinn’s Miss Butterworth… in Quick Reviews the other day and they’re actually quite and interesting pair. Or there is Roomies by Christina Lauren if you want another hit of theatre-set romance after Acting Up. And an honourable mention to to Julia Claibourn Johnson’s Better Luck Next Time and Stephen Rowley’s The Editor.

It’s been a good year in reading so far folks.

Book of the Week, memoirs, reviews

Book of the Week: Year of the Fat Knight

My final BotW of 2019 continues the Year of Non-fiction, except this is one from the to read bookshelf and not from the library. If you’ve missed my look back at my reading obsessions over the year, you can find them here, and also my best books of the year. Coming up tomorrow, instead of the stats, is my look ahead to some new books coming in 2020. The stats will follow later in the week. Because I’m that good to you. Anyway, to the review.

Year of the Fat Knight on a bookshelf

Ever wondered what it takes to be an actor? Or more particularly if you’ve got what it takes to be an actor? You sort of half think it might be an easy life right? Wrong. Over the course of this book you watch (in your mind’s eye at least) Antony Sher agonise over taking a part, preparing for the part and playing the part. And as you read, you realise all the hidden hard work that goes into crafting a performance, an interpretation of words on paper.

The Fat Knight of the title is Falstaff, one of Shakespeare’s iconic creations. But not, as Sher muses, one that The Big Names often play. He muses that there are traditionally two tracks for Shakespearean actors – one leads to King Lear, via Macbeth and Hamlet, and the other to Falstaff (via parts like Bottom) and that never the twain shall meet. But here is Sher – who famously played Richard III as a young man (which Sher also wrote a book about) and who I saw play Macbeth just after the turn of the century* – considering an offer, from his partner (now husband) no less, to play Falstaff. Illustrated with Sher’s own drawings, it’s fascinating and eye opening and incredibly readable. Sher’s husband is Gregory Doran, a director who at the start of the book is just taking over the helm at the RSC so as well as the musings on Falstaff, you get a peek behind the curtain at the RSC and in the world of theatre generally. The two are named as a power couple in the media in a couple of lists during the book, which perplexes Sher but reminds the reader that there are fairly large stakes here professionally. The production – and Sher’s performance – were a success but that never feels anywhere near certain as you read it.

I raced through this and although I didn’t see the productions of Henry IV Sher is writing about, I have seen a couple of the others that are mentioned in it and have seen some of the other actors in other things which made for an added bonus as a theatre nerd.  I don’t know that you need to be a theatre nerd to enjoy this though – I think you just need to be someone who is interested in process and creation.  If you’ve ever wondered how a production of Shakespeare is put together, whether the actors really understand what they’re saying and how they create a character, this would certainly interest to you.  But if you’re a creator of something else, I think this would be worth a look as well – and you can compare your process in your field to this.  I’m sure you’d get something out of it.

I had this on the shelf – I think it came from a work book sale a year or so ago (it came out in , but you should be able to get hold of a copy fairly easily from a bookshop with a theatre section.  Mine is a hardback, but there is also a paperback edition now. If you want to buy online, may I suggest you go direct to Nick Hern Books, the publisher, where the price is within pennies of that of Amazon as I write this and will undoubtedly benefit them more direct.  They’ve got 20% off everything at the moment – so in one of life’s more predictable moments, I ordered myself Sher’s other two books on acting – the aforementioned Year of the King and his latest, Year of the Mad King about King Lear – when I went to check this out.

Happy Reading and Happy New Year!

*Gosh that makes me feel old saying that, but although the turn of the century automatically makes me think of the start of the 20th century, we’re far enough into the 21st now that I probably should get used to it.  I saw Macbeth with Sher and Harriet Walter at the Swan in Stratford sometime around 2000 – I still have the poster somewhere, but I’m not getting it out to check!