I’ll read (almost) anything by Neil Gaiman, so I’m the perfect audience for this non-fiction collection of random bits and bobs Gaiman produced over the years: essays, introductions for other writers’ books, album liner notes, speeches given at professional events, autobiographical pieces and many more. I’ve enjoyed Gaiman’s writing over the years, but in addition to being a wonderful writer Gaiman is an interesting character with a distinctive voice and many things to say, which he does, passionately, in his trademark articulate, thoughtful and often humorous way. Many of his books I’ve read came with introductions that give you an insight into the man behind the words, so this is basically 500 pages of similar.
Our latest book club reading was this extraordinary, beautifully written memoir about growing up in rural Idaho in a family of Mormon survivalists.
One frequent comment in the discussions I had was that to many Educated felt like reading fiction rather than a memoir. This is in no way a swipe at its credibility, but rather a compliment to the quality of Westover’s writing, which is a few notches above your typical memoir or autobiography. The impression could also be partly due to the voice of the narrator, which is rather distanced, matter-of-fact and remarkably perceptive. Perhaps it comes from looking back at a life that feels like a different life altogether. In many ways, this memoir is a book about memory and its fragility, and trying to piece together a portrait of the family from the often contradictory recollections.
This book left me with mixed feelings; though I found it mostly enjoyable and touching there were two big things that didn’t sit well with me and somewhat soured the reading experience.
One is the blatantly misleading cover and title. I haven’t watched the 2013 film Philomena starring Judi Dench, but I’ve heard enough to expect, as the front cover puts it, “the poignant true story of a mother and the son she had to give away”, or as the back cover puts it, “the touching story of a mother’s fifty-year search for her son”. At first Sixsmith’s book seems to back it up, opening in the 1950s Ireland with the story of Philomena Lee, a young girl who gets pregnant out of wedlock and gets sent to a convent. After giving birth to a baby boy, she is forced to work at the Magdalene laundry to “pay for her sins”, and eventually give up her son for adoption, with no hope of ever contacting him again. A truly tragic story that makes your blood boil.
I haven’t seen much of Amy Schumer’s comedic material, but her turn in Trainwreck was memorable enough for me to read this enjoyable autobiographical collection of essays and recollections, told with frankness, humour and quite a bit of raunch and cussing. There’s always a measure of scepticism when one reads a memoir by a celebrity – particularly a performer – in how much of it is a carefully edited performance and how much is genuine. As far as my impressions went, Schumer at least doesn’t come off as a person who pretends to be someone they’re not.
One of the joys of travel is finding things you’re never going to encounter at home. I spotted this book at a supermarket checkout while in Alaska, and I think it’s safe to say I wouldn’t have come across it anywhere else. I’ve read quite a few stories about the famous Alaskan gold rush, but this book offers a very unique perspective on the time and place, focusing, as the title suggests, on the women of the demimonde who flocked to the Far North’s gold camps in the late 1890s and early 20th century. It aims to shed light on the “off the record” history of the pioneers, and women who in their own ways influenced the frontier life.
My history education back in Russia fell on the period where, in my primary school during the last years of the Soviet Union, we were fed the rosy idealised stories about “Grandfather Lenin”. There were school excursions to lay the flowers at the city’s Lenin monument, the red star-shaped pins with Lenin’s portrait in the middle that every kid had to wear at school, and so on. Once the USSR was no more, immediately after there came a weird transitional period where they couldn’t quite figure out what version of history to teach; as an example, my history book somehow managed to have one oblique mention of Stalin in the entire post-revolution part. My idea of Lenin therefore was always rather lopsided; I figured that the idealised version wasn’t true but had little to replace it with, especially after moving to Australia. I was then quite interested to read this biography by Hungarian-born, UK-raised Sebestyen; while complete objectivity is non-existent I thought that the book provided a fairly balanced view of Lenin’s undeniably remarkable life.
Another I-moved-to-another-country book, this one by a London woman who moved to Denmark after her husband got offered a job with Lego – and rather than exchanging one capital city for another, they move to the “real” Denmark, a tiny town of 6,100 in the rural Jutland (the European peninsula part of Denmark). Unlike many other books of the similar sort, which are rather rambling in nature and simply concern themselves with the author’s experiences in a foreign country, this one has an actual focus: uncovering the secrets of Danish happiness. According to the statistics, the potential new home of Helen and her husband (nicknamed Lego Man) is officially the happiest country in the world, with most of the Danes Helen interviews in the course of the book ranking their happiness at 8, 9, or even 10 out of 10. To Helen, who is supposedly living her dream with a high-flying job as an editor on a glossy magazine but instead feels overworked and overstressed, this is an attractive mystery to explore.