The Disaster Artist by Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell

My friend Mel and I have a history of buying each other the same presents. One Christmas we both (without consulting each other, but having set a £1 budget for gifts) bought each other a wind-up man on a penny farthing. This birthday (our birthdays are six days apart) we both got each other the non-fiction book The Disaster Artist (2013) by Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell.

This one is perhaps less of a coincidence – we have both enjoyed the so-bad-it’s-good film The Room, and its a genre of films, indeed, that we love. There’s nothing quite like watching a movie that defies logic in its staggering ineptitude, and if you can find one where the writing, acting, directing, audio, visual, and scene-building all combine into being a horror show of terribleness, then you’ve hit the sweet spot. Such, if you don’t know it, is The Room. Here’s a (fan-made) trailer…

The history of this 2003 ‘masterpiece’ is a bit bizarre – the lead actor/director/writer Tommy Wiseau funded it being screened in a cinema for an age, and had a billboard advertising it for five years in Hollywood. Over time, it became a sleeper cult hit – the twice I’ve seen it were at special screenings at a cinema in Leicester Square, where people fling plastic cutlery at the screen, join in with many of the lines, and dress in costume. But how did it get made, and what was behind so many of the odd choices in the film?

The world is likely to become a lot more alive to this film soon, as The Disaster Artist is a film coming out in the next few weeks – but it is based on this book by Greg Sestero (who played Mark, the second lead actor) and a journalist Tom Bissell – by which we can probably assume that Bissell wrote most of it and Sestero’s contributions were in interview form, but who can say.

The Disaster Artist wisely jumps between two timelines, rather than being entirely chronological, so that we get chapters about the making of The Room from the outset – interspersed with chapters which show how Greg and Tommy met, and the story of their friendship. It is an odd one. They met in an acting class, and became oddball friends. Greg was a young, handsome man embarking on an acting career against the advice of his parents; Tommy was a loner who refused to give his real age, nationality, or where he’d acquired enormous amounts of wealth from – and, to this day, he won’t say those things.

An unlikely friendship developed, though every step would be a huge warning flag in a film about a stalker. Tommy let Greg use his apartment, which had almost no furniture, but wasn’t happy if Greg spoke to any other friends. He would drive Greg around until late at night, and get upset if he asked too many questions. He was clearly jealous when Greg started to have minor success as an actor, and would ramble to him for hours on the phone about it all.

Somehow Greg agreed to make a movie with him.

Undoubtedly, it’s the chapters about The Room that are the most entertaining (if you’ve seen it before, at least). Tommy’s behaviour is entirely bizarre – Greg’s involvement on screen only came about because Tommy wanted to replace the original second lead. Rather than fire this unfortunate (or perhaps fortunate) gentlemen, though, Tommy just filmed the same scenes twice – one with Greg, one with this guy – but didn’t use film for the latter. Eventually, shockingly, he was rumbled.

Tommy would ask for sets to be dismantled then demand they be put together again. He filmed on a terrible alley set, despite there being an available alley immediately next to it – because this is a ‘real Hollywood film’. He wouldn’t let anybody deviate from his nonsensical script, and he auditioned actors by screaming “you’ve just won a million dollars!” at them, and hoping they would act in response. And, despite his script-despotism, he couldn’t remember his own lines – it took him over thirty takes to deliver this 13-second scene:

The Disaster Artist is a hilarious and fascinating exploration of how appalling scenes came to be as they were, how the crew was replaced twice, and explains enigmas like the ubiquitous framed photos of forks, and an actor being replaced halfway through the shoot. Alongside, it is also a portrait of a man so unusual that he would be unbelievable in fiction. Because Tommy Wiseau seemed delighted with the result of his efforts. We don’t comprehend him because he is impossible to comprehend. But we see something of the frustrating composite that Greg saw. And they must still at least speak to each other, as they’ve made a new film: Best F(r)iends. Greg’s written this one…

The one major flaw in The Disaster Artist is that it’s written with the assumption that Tommy was the sole problem with The Room. Occasionally Sestero will acknowledge that (say) the sound guys were terrible, but blames this on poor guidance and lack of experience. More awkwardly, he doesn’t really acknowledge that his own performance in The Room is pretty shoddy. Yes, nobody else comes close to the surreal ineptitude of Tommy Wiseau, but Sestero ain’t great either. There were plenty of bad cogs in this machine.

In the end, Wiseau is something of a sad figure – lonely, driven by desperate ambition that can never be fulfilled. But Sestero makes him seem more like a man so deluded that he is protected from realising how much his dreams have failed. And, indeed, have they failed? I’d love to read a book that shows the aftermath of the film – how they dealt with its unexpected and slightly warped success – but, however that fame has manifested itself, Tommy Wiseau has undoubtedly made a film that has brought joy to millions. This is a unique Hollywood story.

A Life of My Own by Claire Tomalin

This evening I went to Blackwells to hear Claire Tomalin talk about her latest book, and it reminded me that I have yet to write about it. So… well, I suspect you’ve worked the rest out for yourself. Here we are, and here we go.

Since I moved house, I’ve had to start driving to work. Driving for about 40 minutes and walking for half an hour, actually, which has given me an awful lot more time for audiobooks and the like. I already listen to a lot of podcasts, but this has spurred me on to trying audiobooks more actively – starting, because why not, with Claire Tomalin’s A Life of My Own (2017).

I say ‘why not’ – I can actually give a pretty good reason why. I’d signed up for a trial with audiobooks.com because I wanted to hear The Disaster Artist by Greg Sestero. And it turns out that the recording was only available in North America. Doh! (I have subsequently been given and have read the book – watch this space.) So I had a credit to use… and my first thought was: who would I want reading to me in the car? The answer, naturally, was Penelope Wilton. And when A Life of My Own came up in the search results, I remembered that I’d been keen to read it. I might talk more about the crooked path of audiobook selection another day…

I’ve only read two of Tomalin’s many biographies – on Jane Austen and Katherine Mansfield – and, other than knowing about some of her titles (and the fact that she’s gone for enormous, much-biographied names like Hardy and Dickens), didn’t really know anything else about her. Oh, except that she is married to Michael Frayn, and is the grandmother (or, as it turned out, step-grandmother) of twins who used to run a YouTube channel, called Jack and Finn. It was quite fun going into an autobiography ‘blind’, as it were.

The problem with audiobooks, of course, is that I don’t have any quotations to share, and I can’t flick back through to see what I wanted to write about. But I do recall that she starts by talking about her parents – which I almost invariably wish any biographer would skip, since I’m not that interested. With an autobiographer, it is a least coloured with a real human connection – whatever the opposite of ‘dispassionate’ is (because ‘passionate’ doesn’t feel quite right – and it’s with genuine emotion that Tomalin describes her mother’s musical genius, her parents’ hasty courtship, and the bizarre honeymoon she learned about properly from her father’s latterday memoir, during which it became more or less clear that the marriage was a mistake.

Tomalin has a great gift, in this autobiography, for describing people and her relationship with them with complete honesty which is subjective (for how it could not be) yet never feels unfair. She writes about how her father disliked her, and it seems like the scrupulously just conclusions of somebody who was weighed the evidence properly. She has an emotional response to this, but the description is arrived at honestly. The same is seen in her marriage to Nick Tomalin – a man who the reader (or listener) cannot help intensely disliking, given his violence and selfishness, and his many affairs, but Tomalin has no bitterness – she tells us what happened and how it affected her, but clearly still loved him in some way, and excellently portrays the complex emotions and feelings she has towards his memory.

I wanted to read A Life of My Own because I thought it would be fascinating to learn about the craft of writing biographies. My main criticism of the book is what a small part this plays – almost all her books are tidied away discretely and discreetly into a single chapter, and I would have loved to hear more. As some form of compromise offering, there is plenty to fascinate in descriptions of her rise as a literary editor at the New Statesman and the Sunday Times (and the sexism she faced – not least in her supremely unqualified husband having the job before she did).

But Tomalin’s own life is so full and so expertly shown to us that it is certainly an acceptable substitute. As well as describing her upbringing, schooling, and marriage, she writes brilliantly about parenthood – the highs and the very low lows. I don’t know how she managed to write about her daughter’s suicide attempts, which ended with a successful one, but she did so extraordinarily movingly – and writes astonishingly about loving somebody with inescapable depression. Unsurprisingly, this period of Tomalin’s life was not discussed at the event I attended, but it is done with bravery and, yes, honesty in A Life of My Own.

It is such moments that show, I think, Tomalin’s skill as a biographer coming through. She knows that she cannot shirk periods like this if she is to portray her whole life – and something of the biographer’s objectivity weaves its way constantly through the subjectivity. It is deftly handled throughout.

Perhaps almost any life is fascinating, if written about well, and Tomalin’s indisputably is. And to her, I suppose, her success as a biographer is of less interest than her family, so it makes sense that she writes so much better and so much more about that. Go into the book with the right expectations, and I predict you’ll find it brilliant. And if Penelope Wilton is reading it to you, so much the better.

 

Jacob’s Room is Full of Books by Susan Hill

Jacob's Room is full of booksI was an enormous fan of Howards End is on the Landing by Susan Hill – a book all about her year of reading only books from her shelves that morphed into a series of short essays about anything and everything to do with reading. It was bookish, opinionated, and (I thought) an inevitable delight to anybody who loved reading. About that I was wrong – it divided people – but I have re-read and re-loved it, and have been waiting eagerly for the sort-of sequel for as long as I’ve known it might be a thing. Jacob’s Room is Full of Books (2017) was never in doubt as one of my Project 24 books.

I’ve been following the development of the book with interest. Ages ago, I saw Virginia Woolf is in the Kitchen listed on Amazon, and asked Susan about it on Twitter – yes, she confirmed, it was sort of a sequel to Howards End is on the Landing, but only about women writers. At one point it became Jacob’s Room is Too Full of Books, with a cover design on Amazon. Who knows when that changed, and when the title was changed, but what we’ve got instead is ‘a year of reading’ – she follows the calendar from January to December, talking about what she’s reading and what she’s thinking about, interspersed with notes on nature and life. The title doesn’t make sense (yes, Jacob’s Room is a novel by Woolf, but where Howards End is on the Landing and, indeed, Virginia Woolf is in the Kitchen can describe the place of books in the house – Jacob’s Room is Full of Books doesn’t mean anything, and will confuse anybody who doesn’t know the Woolf novel) – so, yes, it doesn’t make sense. But I don’t care. I still loved this book and raced through it in a handful of days – even while trying to savour it.

Though the calendar year structures the book, Hill darts all over the place. Sometimes for a moment merely – she throws in the thought ‘does Donald Trump ever read books?’ in a line or two – sometimes at greater length. She talks about the authors she loves, from Dickens to Ford Madox Ford to Ladybird Books. She talks about the literary scene – judging book prizes, getting into hot water in columns. She writes about the writer’s life. She writes quite a lot about things that aren’t connected with books, particularly flora and fauna. It’s wonderfully conversational and far-ranging – not as siloed as Howards End is on the Landing, but equally delightful to dip in and out of. Every page will have something to engage with. I couldn’t help picking it up and indulging when I should have been reading something for book group or the podcast. I loved it.

There are definite flaws. Hill repeats herself – the same points come up almost word-for-word at different times about (say) whether or not you can ‘catch’ a writing style – and there are silly errors (88 Charing Cross Road should have been caught – and somebody at the publishers will feel red-faced about putting an apostrophe in Howard’s [sic!] End is on the Landing on the dustjacket). Some of the paragraphs end in with that sort of trite beat that I find so frustrating in fact or fiction. This kind. To prove an argument. Perhaps.

And, yes, Hill is extremely opinionated – which is anybody’s prerogative, of course, though it is refreshing when she admits that she could be wrong about something. I can be very opinionated about books myself, but the only times it annoyed me a little were when Hill seemed to think her opinions were fact – or when she claimed that ‘nobody’ read such-and-such author. On almost every occasion, I had read that author. And this… well, gosh.

The Olivia Manning trilogies have grown in stature since they were first published – as some books do. They have already stood the test of time and I am sure they will go on doing so, while novels by many of her female contemporaries have all sunk without trace. Ivy Compton-Burnett, anyone? Kay Dick?

What a bizarre thing to say about Ivy Compton-Burnett! Not only is she (to my mind) one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century, she is also in print with NYRB Classics. No mean feat, so many decades after she wrote – and hardly sinking without trace.

But this is, really, one of the things I find so beguiling and enjoyable about Jacob’s Room is Full of Books. Hill may be a little more strident than I can bring myself to be, but it’s still wonderful to hear from somebody who cares so passionately about books, who has read avidly for so long, and (incidentally – but truly incidentally) has met so many of the people she’s talking about. Some people complained that Howards End is on the Landing felt name-droppy. It didn’t to me, and this doesn’t, but perhaps others would find it so? Anyway – Hill and I do not share a taste at all, though there are overlaps. We both love Dickens and Woolf, for example. Our experiences with To The Lighthouse are so similar that I wrote ‘yes! yes! yes!’ in the margin. But there are definite divergences. She writes so enticingly about The Masters by C.P. Snow that I almost wanted to go and hunt it out – despite having read it earlier in the year and finding it one of the most boring, pointless books I’ve read in years. She – as mentioned – does not properly appreciate the genius of Ivy Compton-Burnett.

But disagreement makes bookish discussion all the more engaging. Obviously it’s not a duologue – though I suppose I could reply on Twitter or something – but it feels like a deep, thorough natter about books. I could have done with more about reading, more specifics about books, and perhaps a bit less about birds and whatnot (though plenty will welcome those seasonal variations) – but I loved what I got. Susan Hill has a strong personality, or at least a strong persona, and this book couldn’t be written by anybody else – but I hope she writes at least one more in this series. For now, I’m thrilled to be able to put this one next to Howards End is on the Landing on my books-about-books shelf.

 

By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham

By NightfallI read The Hours back in about 2003 and completely loved it – and loved it again when I re-read it maybe ten years later. I’ve read a couple of other Cunningham books (one fiction, one non-fiction) since then, but there are a few others waiting on my shelves, and I’m still trying to build up what I think of him as an author. Was The Hours an amazing aberration, or do I love him? To be honest, By Nightfall (2010) hasn’t completely cleared up that question.

The novel is from the perspective of an art dealer, Peter Harris. It’s not in the first person, but it is thoughts and personality which infuse the narrative – occasionally (as we’ll see) making it unclear whether the opinions are the character’s or the narrator’s. Peter’s career is going well, though he is constantly trying to square commercialism with his own appreciation for art. Is it acceptable to take on artists he doesn’t like, in order to make more money? He’s saddened by the way his daughter is distancing herself from him, having dropped out of college at least temporarily. And he’s feeling a bit static in his marriage to Rebecca, an editor.

It is a character study. And it is one which takes place surrounded by privilege. Peter is well-off, lives on the ‘right’ side of town, and is the sort of person who refers to his furniture by the name of the designer. This privilege is perhaps most pointed when he has to meet with somebody marginally less well off (asterisks my own):

Bette is already seated when he arrives. Peter follows the hostess through the dark red faux Victoriana of JoJo. When Bette sees Peter she offers a nod and an ironic smile (Bette, a serious person, would wave only if she were drowning). The smile is ironic, Peter suspects, because, well, here they are, at her behest, and sure, the food is good but then there’s the fringe and the little bandy-legged tables. It’s a stage set, it’s whimsical, for G*d’s sake; but Bette and her husband, Jack, have had their inherited six-room prewar on York and Eighty-fifth forever, he makes a professor’s salary and she makes mid-range art-dealer money and f*ck anybody who sneers at her for failing to live in downtown in a loft on Mercer Street in a neighborhood where the restaurants are cooler.

We are put into the mindset of somebody who thinks that fringe on tables is a major issue; we must look through the lens of somebody who probably doesn’t have anything from Ikea in his house. Perhaps that’s you too, and this wouldn’t be an obstacle to overcome, but I had to jump from my world of Argos flat-pack into this moneyed existence of self-indulgence. A jump that I can do with ease when it’s also back in time, but which somehow took some effort when it was only across an ocean.

I suppose the bigger obstacle, perhaps, is the name dropping. Peter is an art dealer, so of course we move into a world of artists – and I was constantly confronted by my own ignorance. This is my problem, not Cunningham’s, of course – though it didn’t necessarily help the world building when I didn’t know if the artists were real or fictional, or missed references to their styles which were important to describing a scene. Is it pretentious of Cunningham, or simply the accurate depiction of a type of man? Hard to say.

This aside, it is a beautifully and thoughtfully written novel. I’m not married and I don’t have children – I have no idea about Cunningham’s status on either – but I was firmly convinced by his portrayal of the anxieties of both. There is strain and misunderstanding and moments of connective joy – it feels like a poetic and true depiction. And an already complex scenario is rendered more complex by the arrival of Ethan, Rebecca’s younger brother, known as ‘Mizzy’ – short for Mistake – because he was born so many years after his three older sisters.

From the moment Ethan appears, he is intensely sexualised – even fetishised. Seeing half through Peter’s eyes and half through the objective narrator’s, it still isn’t much of a surprise when Peter starts to feel attracted to Ethan – even with Ethan’s fairly nuanced character, he has clearly been brought to the page to be an object of attraction.

What follows isn’t anything as simple as a love triangle, but it has the complexity and style that I’ve come to expect of Cunningham. The writing is the right side of poetic – so that it feels thoughtful and moving without being showy or obtrusive. Somewhat surprisingly, it is the structure that lets down By Nightfall a bit – I say surprisingly, because structure is what Cunningham used so brilliantly in The Hours. It feels too heavily weighted towards the end, where characters develop rapidly – and then, a little hurriedly, the novel comes to a close. It’s not often that I think a novel should be longer than it is, but I think By Nightfall could have benefited from another 50 pages or so.

Despite all this, it’s a very good novel – if it were the first I’d read by Cunningham, I think I’d be keen to explore more by him; as it’s the third novel I’ve read by him, I can’t help thinking that the other two were a bit better. But I’ll keep exploring the options on my shelves, and build up my understanding of who he is as a writer.

Contested Will by James Shapiro

Contested WillIf I had to pick my favourite book title, there is a strong chance that it might be Contested Will (2010). I’m a sucker for a clever play on words, and Shakespeare helpfully lends his first name to plenty of them – though they were puns that he made himself in the Sonnets, so we can hardly assume he’d be hurt. James Shapiro’s book doesn’t end its cleverness there, though – Contested Will has the subtitle ‘who wrote Shakespeare?’, but it’s really a study of how different theories came about, and the evidence acquired for them.

I read a little around the ‘authorship question’ when I was researching to write the notes accompanying a DVD of Shakespeare’s plays. That was a funny little job that I got to do while working in the Bodleian Rare Books department, and I never saw the end result (or even know if it came to fruition), but I do know that my first draft of Shakespeare’s biography was rejected as “having too many facts”. Anyway, I dipped one toe into the waters, and even put forward Jane Austen as a candidate, sort of. Last time I approached the ‘who wrote Shakespeare’ question, I got quite a lot of lengthy, impassioned comments – so I look forward to doing the same this time!

Contested Will looks at three candidates for the authorship – one of them being Shakespeare himself (I’m not going to bow to the style of some who write ‘Shakspere’ or ‘the Stratford man’; the former misses the point about not having standardised spelling at the time and the latter is too cumbersome). The other two are Francis Bacon and Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford – though, as Shapiro acknowledges, there are almost as many candidates as there are people arguing about it. These three are the mainstays – or at least held sway for the largest number of people.

The keynote of Shapiro’s book is calm thoroughness. He says early on that he is persuaded that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare (and – nailing my colours to the mast – so am I), but he is not bombastic or insulting. Nor, to be honest, is he the ‘devastatingly funny’ that John Carey’s puff on the back cover promised me, though he is occasionally enjoyably wry. No, he is professional and engaging – as interested in the psychology of those who passionately argued the case of Bacon, Oxford, or others as he is in the question itself.

The first section looks at the history of hunting out Shakespeare’s papers, and the near-desperation that people had over several centuries to find out more about his life. Not until some years after he died, sadly, and nobody troubled to interview his surviving relatives – so the papers were all. Along with the discoveries you may have heard about (paperwork about poaching and a loan), Shapiro details forgeries that fooled some across the years – and, alongside, rebuffs some of the “gosh, it can’t be him” claims. Worried that a rural lad could know Latin? The education at Warwickshire grammar schools was about equal to a contemporary Classics degree. Concerned that no books are mentioned in Shakespeare’s will? It was very common for wills to be accompanied by inventories that detailed things like books, and Shakespeare’s has been lost. Anxious that his family kept grain? So did everybody else with any money in the area.

From here, we move onto Bacon, and the earliest stirrings that something was amiss – though Shapiro also reveals that some of these early murmurings were, in fact, latterday forgeries. Much of the ethos of Bacon’s authorship seems to have been involved with strange code-hunting practices, believing (like so many conspiracy theories) that those who are desperate to hide the truth will also, for no clear reason, leave clues to the truth. Baconians dominated the early 20th century, when less was known about the way plays were produced in Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre, or how the First Folio was printed, and much of this code-breaking was based on misunderstandings. And yet luminaries were involved in these theories – Mark Twain devoted the last years of his career to the authorship debate, and Freud was also preoccupied with it – ditto Henry James, Helen Keller, and right up to Mark Rylance (albeit these people don’t all favour Bacon).

I’m racing through, because there is so much richness in Shapiro’s book and this review is getting too long, and we move on to the man of the moment (for now, at least): the Earl of Oxford. Yes, he died before many of Shakespeare’s masterpieces were written, but that’s one of the things carefully tidied away by Oxfordians. He remains very much a popular choice for Shakespeare’s writings, but he did almost die out as a candidate – through lack of interest, rather than anything else. Shapiro writes very interestingly about his unexpected survival, and how it came about.

Oxford’s claims mostly come from the idea that the plays and poetry must be autobiographical – a theory I find as frustrating as Shapiro clearly does, though he manages to write about it with the same calm he demonstrates throughout. It intensely annoys me that anybody would think a genius would have to reflect his contemporary thoughts and feelings into his work rather than, y’know, being creative and making things up. And the idea that anybody might discover anything through research is anathema to some people of this school. You can’t possibly write about Italy unless you’ve been to Italy; you can’t write about being an earl unless you’re an earl. I suppose they haven’t spotted the irony of writing about Jacobean playwrights when you aren’t a Jacobean playwright.

Shapiro is more polite than I am, and doesn’t let himself get carried away – instead, he steadily tells us about Oxford’s time in the sun (including a court case in the Supreme Court about the authorship, no less; Shakespeare won) and points out times where the anti-Stratfordian arguments are based on unintentional or intentional errors, or explain away anything contrary to their views. Here, Shapiro refers to a story written by James Lardner in the New Yorker, which in turn quotes Professor James Boyle:

“The Oxfordians have constructed an interpretive framework that has an infinite capacity to explain away information”/: “all the evidence that fits the theory is accepted, and the rest rejected”. When Boyle added that it was impossible “to imagine a piece of evidence that could disprove the theory to its adherents”, Lardner asked, “What about a letter in Oxford’s hand… congratulating William Shakespeare of Stratford on his achievements as a playwright?” Boyle didn’t skip a beat, mimicking an Oxfordian response: “What an unlikely communication between an earl and a common player!… Obviously, something designed to carry on the conspiracy of concealment. The very fact that he wrote such a letter presents the strongest proof we could possibly have!”

But the essential chapter is the last, where we are back to Shakespeare. In it, Shapiro (again, very calmly) outlines all the reasons that he has been convinced that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare – based on everything from contemporary printing practices to the diaries of fellow playwrights, and countless other points that he expertly explains. Long story short, being an expert in the period and in theatre history, Shapiro is able to help a 21st-century reader understand the reasons behind things that look like anomalies today, or show how many of the anti-Stratfordian arguments have been based on misunderstandings. The chapter should be handed to anybody interested in the authorship question, and no advocate of any other author should be able to continue without coming up with good replies to all the points made (as Shapiro has, in turn, come up with good replies to the Bacon and Oxford arguments).

I loved reading Bill Bryson’s Shakespeare, where he has a lot of fun in depicting the inconsistencies of anti-Strafordians; Shapiro is less amusing but better mannered (though even he can’t resist enjoying the psychics who relayed information from Shakespeare and Oxford). Much of what he writes is documenting what happened, and how theories came to popularity – it is still a page-turner, and fascinating, but less of an all-out entertainment. And it really is fascinating – and given me a taste to read more and more about this area. And I’m also excited to see which new candidate might take centre stage in the ‘who wrote Shakespeare’ debate – indeed, perhaps it will be Jane Austen after all?

Tolstoy and the Purple Chair by Nina Sankovitch

Tolstoy and the Purple ChairFor my holiday, I treated myself to one of the unread books from my shelf of books about reading. I’m rationing these because they seem all too finite, and I can’t get enough of them. Tolstoy and the Purple Chair (2011) turned out to be quite different from most of them, but a very good read.

Nina Sankovitch decided to read a book every day for a year. Each day = one book. And one book review. It sounds like an impossible task, but it’s what she needed to do to help recover from grief at losing her sister to cancer – which happened three years before her year of reading took place, but it took that long to realise that other coping mechanisms simply weren’t working.

Sankovitch wrote about her experience at her Read All Day blog, which I assume was later picked up by a publisher, and the first question has to be: how does she fit it in? Well, she wasn’t in paid work at the time: she’d left her job as a lawyer to raise four children, while her husband did paid work. By the time her ‘year of magical reading’ (overt nod to Joan Didion) began, all four were school age – so she prioritised reading during the day, as setting her on the path of recovery from grief.

The venture is bold and rather beautiful – but how to turn it into a book? We wouldn’t want to read 365 short book reviews in a row – or, at least, it wouldn’t be a continuous narrative. I was super impressed by how Sankovitch managed to make it work – because she manages to turn the experience into a novel. It is about memories of her sister, it is about the quick downhill spiral of the cancer, it is about everyday moments for a mother – and all the while, it is also about the books.

All the great books I was reading were about the complexity and entirety of the human experience. About the things we wish to forget and those we want more and more of. About how we react and how we wish we could react. Books are experience, the words of authors proving the solace of love, the fulfilment of family, the torment of war, and the wisdom of memory. Joy and tears, pleasure and pain: everything came to me while I read in my purple chair. I had never sat so still, and yet experienced so much.

There are plenty of books from her reading year which don’t get a mention in Tolstoy and the Purple Chair – except, thankfully, in the complete list at the end. (I’ve read only 22 of the 365, and haven’t heard of most of them – I think quite a lot of contemporary American lit appears, though Sankovitch’s reading tastes are catholic and admirable, and she writes very well about how books have affected her, as well as their literary qualities. And the Provincial Lady features!) But she does weave certain of them through chapters – either grouping, such as several that consider death, or sex, or war, or drawing out moments of beauty and realisation from her reading.

Somehow it all works beautifully together. I don’t think I’d ask for either less or more detail from her reading reflections, and presumably can dig out fuller details on her blog. But she has worked a miracle in making a story about grief and a story about reading 365 books come together into a captivating, moving memoir.

My only real criticism of the book (incidentally, I have a beautiful American paperback edition) is the title. She reads in a purple chair; one of the first books she reads is a Tolstoy novel. The book is emphatically not about Tolstoy, which is surely what anybody would think seeing this title? It’s certainly what I thought – and there are any number of titles that would have crystallised the book far better.

But hopefully you can see past the title, and add this to your own books-about-reading shelf. It deserves a place there.

Insomniac City by Bill Hayes

Insomniac CityProject 24 is going so well, guys. Not just that I am (cough, very broadly speaking, cough) on track – 15 books so far – but that I’m reading most of the books I’m buying. That’s pretty good going, since there are still a fair few that I haven’t read from Project 24 in 2010.

I already have a fair few Oliver Sacks books unread on my shelves, but I couldn’t resist going out and buying Insomniac City (2017) by Bill Hayes – mentioned in a recent Weekend Miscellany here, and which Jenny informed me existed. I even paid full price for a new hardback for myself, which basically never happens cos they cost dollar-dollar. But think of the money I’ve been saving through Project 24! Think of it and, if you see them, mention it to my bank manager.

Bill Hayes was Sacks’ partner in the last years of Sacks’ life, and has written books on various topics including blood, insomnia, and Gray’s Anatomy. So it seems like Sacks and Hayes shared an interest in quirky books about medicine… they also shared a love of New York, though Hayes’ was quite different from Sacks’. While Sacks lived in a curious parallel timezone – never using computers or technology – Hayes embraced the noisy, hectic modern world in all its forms. Even when they had been a couple for many years, they maintained separate lives to an extent – separate apartments, separate forms of engagement with the modern world. But there was nobody closer to give a detailed account of this period of Sacks’ life – as ‘O’ – and it is beautifully poignant, mixing humour and memory (including many of Hayes’ diary entries from the time).

Undated Note – June 2011

The difference between us in two words:

“Me, too,” I say.

“I, too,” O corrects.

Hayes takes us through their meeting, their relationship, and Sacks’ cancer. It is an extraordinary depiction of moments scattered through their experiences together, forming a whole from the glimpses.

If Insomniac City is a love letter to Sacks, and it unquestionably is in many ways, it is also a love letter to New York. That’s the sort of phrase that would normally put me right off a book, but here it works. Perhaps because it is not the sort of love letter that deals in overblown similes and references that exclude the non-traveller; Hayes gives us a collage of photos, diary entries, and reflections about his experiences of the city.

The other day, I was on a local 6 going uptown and seated next to a young woman with a baby in a stroller. At each stop, a man (always a man) would enter the car and end up standing right above us. I had my iPod on and was just watching. Inevitably, each man would make goofy faces and smile at the baby, and the baby would smile and make faces back. At each stop, the standing man would be replaced by a new one, straight out of central casting. First, an older Latin guy. Then he gets off and a young black man appears. Then a white man in a suit. Then a construction worker with a hard hat. Tough guys. New York guys. All devoted to one important task: making a baby smile.

In fact, a collage is a useful way to think about this book. It is a patchwork of thoughts and observations that hold together unexpectedly, even while we are aware of all the bustling life that Hayes doesn’t document. I would rush towards anything connected with Sacks, and this is a wonderful addition to my Sacks shelf – not at all the sort of book he would have written, nor the way he would have written it, but a beautiful complement to the writer and the human that ‘O’ was.

Resurrection Year by Sheridan Voysey

Resurrection YearI should start with the disclaimer that I know Sheridan Voysey a little. He goes to my church, but it’s quite a big church and I think our conversation probably has never gone further than me offering him a choice of tea or coffee. But he does sometimes speak from the front, and I once heard him speak about much of what happens in Resurrection Year (2013) and it was very moving. Soon after, I bought the book… and, eventually, I read it.

The book (a memoir of sorts) starts on Christmas Eve, 2010, in Sydney. This is from the opening pages:

“Let’s just get some takeaway,” Merryn says.

It’s dark but the rain has eased as we walk back to the car, with our packet of mince pies and some bread rolls for tomorrow’s drive. We get in, shut the doors, and Merryn bursts into tears.

“I feel so depressed,” she whimpers.

A Chinese restaurant is open. The motel has a vacant room. We dump our bags on the floor and the food on the table. Merryn collapses on the bed and my heart breaks into a thousand pieces.

I pull out my journal and write:

God, this is cruel – leaving us in the wilderness. We’ve walked round in circles for years – tired, thirsty, and confused. One minute we’ve glimpsed the Promised Land, and the next minute you’ve barred us from entering.

This section is really opening at the midpoint of the story, and it quickly goes back to 2000 to fill in the gaps. Over those ten years, Sheridan and his wife Merryn had been trying to have a child – naturally, through IVF, through adoption. After ten years, they have realised that the final door is closed, and that it almost certainly isn’t going to happen.

The first half of this excellent book takes us through those painful years – painful for the waiting and the hoping as much as the disappointment. We more or less know the outcome from the outset, but it is still a heartbreaking journey to witness, and to share. And Voysey writes it approachably, like a friend filling in a friend on the disappointments he and his wife have weathered, so it does feel like we share it.

Alongside this, of course, is the rest of life: Sheridan’s career as a radio host goes from strength to strength, while Merryn’s career is not going in the direction she wants. What she does want is the chance to work abroad, in an area of science that I couldn’t begin to understand. Their plan is to go to Switzerland – I was a step ahead, as I knew perfectly well that they ended up moving to the UK. Indeed, to Oxford. Indeed, my church – which has a little cameo. And that is exactly what they do.

The second half of the memoir looks at their ‘resurrection year’ – the healing and restoration that God could provide in this move across the world. Certainly it came with its own struggles: while Merryn thrived in her new role, Sheridan had to leave a job he loved, and found it hard to pick up his career in England. And the grief at not having a child couldn’t just go away – Voysey writes about how it affected so many parts of life, from planning for the future to being introduced to a pregnant neighbour.

Resurrection Year is not a theology book, but it is centred around God and soaked in the experience of living with Jesus. I don’t know what somebody without faith would make of it, to be honest, though I’d be intrigued to hear. Voysey never questions his faith (I think there comes a point in a Christian’s life, certainly in mine, where they have seen and heard too much to doubt God’s existence) but he and his wife do question Him about why this is happening – and ask themselves if they have made the right choices, and so on. And He answers questions and prayers in unexpected ways during this ‘Resurrection Year’. But above all this is really just a beautifully honest book about a couple’s experience, told in simple, poignant, disarmingly and almost ruthlessly honest prose.

I read the whole thing in a day or so, and I’m keen to read more by Voysey – and it also makes me wonder what other good faith-based memoirs are out there. Suggestions, please!

Threads: the Delicate Life of John Craske by Julia Blackburn

ThreadsI don’t remember putting Threads (2015) on a wishlist, but I think I must have done – otherwise the choice my friend Barbara made in buying it and sending it to me was more serendipitous than I can expect. I imagine I put it there while reading Claire Harman’s biography of Sylvia Townsend Warner – but I had the happy experience, with my terrible memory, of forgetting anything about the connection at all until Warner’s name cropped up near the beginning of this book.

In brief, Craske was a fisherman who had a serious breakdown that left him unable to continue that profession – and he turned, instead, to painting and (later) embroidery. He was discovered by Sylvia Townsend Warner and her partner Valentine Ackland, and briefly became something of a cause celebre in a select circle – though has since been rather neglected; the museums that hold his work are often ignorant or ashamed of the fact.

Blackburn’s book – beautifully produced by Jonathan Cape, with a lovely solidity and brilliantly chosen cover and illustrations – isn’t really a biography. It’s more an account of tracing his life story, which emerges in bits and pieces as the book continues – and of Blackburn’s life as it continues alongside.

I feel like I don’t know much more about Craske than I did when I read the blurb on the inside jacket. He proves quite an elusive figure – beyond the bare framework that Blackburn details of his ancestry, his occupation, and his war. Perhaps he let his work do the talking – and there is plenty of that in this book; we see his depictions of the sea and ships which he painted on any surface that was available, from trays to biscuit tins. Eventually there is the extraordinary, large embroidery of the D-Day landings – a tiny part of which is shown on the cover. Usually the art conceit of using ‘detail’ to mean anything that isn’t the whole image really annoys me – but in this case it is only a detail. Craske’s work, whether in paint or embroidery, is a striking mix of naivety and knowledge. As a fisherman, he knows precisely how the sea behaves; as an artist, he is teaching himself and has a unique perspective.

Craske

Two people truly emerge from this book. One is Laura Craske – John Craske’s wife, who valiantly and quietly cared for him through mental illnesses that she did not understand (and his brothers – defeating any sort of stereotype of unsophisticated rural fishermen – were equally sensitive to Craske’s ailments and requirements). She was also determined for his work to have exposure, when offered, though also rather alarmed at the money that Warner and Ackland offered her for the work. By incremental millimetres, we learn about Laura’s character and resilience, and I certainly warmed to her.

But far and away the most dominant character in this book is Julia Blackburn herself. Her style of writing is so unusual, as is her approach. I had to check to see if she’d written any books before – she has, quite a few – because this feels so like somebody writing for the first time, and striking it lucky. Like Craske’s work, and (who knows) maybe influenced by his work, Blackburn’s prose is almost primitive. Here, for instance, she is doing some research into the family:

Philip came back with the photograph album and there was Grandfather the good doctor, tall and pale-eyed with a big blond moustache and a look of benevolent abstraction on his face. And here was Granny Cats his wife, also abstracted, but less benevolently so, or was that my imagination? And here was their infant son who appeared so thin and wan and that you would never expect him to survive into adulthood, but he got through and became a solicitor and married and had a son called Philip so that was good.

So many of her accounts seem to be about artwork she forgot to see or questions she forgot to ask. The raw threads of her biographical technique are exposed here, like looking at the back of a piece of embroidery. Many of the people who might have known the family are now very old – and she comments on the erratic interviews she manages to get. And the tangents! A thought leads to a thought. There is a chapter on a man she knew who had a parrot, which has nothing to do with Craske; there is a chapter that is a story a man called Keith sent her; there is a surprising chapter on Einstein’s visit locally (and accounts of the firm rebuttals made to her by Einstein experts that he couldn’t possibly have been seen riding a bike at that point, as he had yet to learn). There are sections of Sylvia Townsend Warner and Valentine Ackland, which I, of course, loved. There are very moving chapters on Blackburn’s husband and his illness.

It is all a very unusual combination, and would put Hermione Lee into hysterics – but it works, and completely beguiles. Blackburn does nothing linearly. The quest for Craske is the book, and he is not the subject – instead he, and his art, are (yes) the golden threads shimmering through the centre of this strange and wonderful work.

The Runaway by Claire Wong

The RunawayI don’t think I’ve yet got around to mentioning the second book I bought for Project 24 (still only bought 2 books! I’m 2 in hand!) – it’s The Runaway by Claire Wong, which I bought because Claire is a friend of mine from church. I think she’s the first friend I’ve had whose had a novel published – as opposed to friends I’ve made after reading their novels – and it’s super exciting. And, thankfully, it’s also really good!

It does feel weird writing a review of a book by a friend, but I’ll try to pretend I don’t know Claire while I write this… I’m even going to follow my usual reviewing style of using the author’s surname when referring to them. And that will feel so odd. Sorry, Claire – you’re Wong from now on!

The runaway of The Runaway is 17-year-old Rhiannon, who leaves her aunt (and guardian) Diana after the last in a long line of fights. She doesn’t go terribly far – into the thick Dyrys Wood, next to the small Welsh village she grew up in – but it is enough to make her unfindable by the search parties that come looking. She finds a shelter, learns some rudimentary skills, and manages to set up her own solitary life there. Solitary except for a rather fantastic hawk, called Lleu, that is.

It tries to move again, and achieves only a pathetic little shuffle. If its wing is broken, it won’t be able to hunt. It will probably starve. Hawks take care of their young, but that’s as far as the altruism goes.

“No one’s coming to help you,” I say, and the words come out sounding sadder and more sympathetic than I had expected. I find that I don’t like looking at it, so I decide to go and search for those tin cans by the path instead.

Meanwhile, back in the village there are appeals to find her – but life also goes on. The friendships and tensions of village life continue – there is a host of recognisable and well-realised characters, from pent-up Callum to shy Nia to Tom, trying to balance being everybody’s friend while also being the local policeman. My favourite – surely everyone’s favourite? – is Maebh, a sort of surrogate grandmother to the whole village, who retains all the stories that have happened there. She is something of an oracle, and weaves memory and fiction in the tales she tells – using the storytelling form as a way of reminding the village of its past, and trying to set the right path for its future.

I love novels which incorporate storytelling (Angela Young’s Speaking of Love is another great example), and Wong handles it deftly; the atmosphere of fairy tale and parable seeps throughout the whole novel, while also remaining (paradoxically) firmly on solid ground. As with fairy tale, it matters less why Rhiannon has run away, and more about what happens next. And part of what happens next is the arrival of Adam and Grace – whose father was from the village – looking to better understand their past. Needless to say, it ties pertinently in with the current situation.

One of the reasons I really liked The Runaway is because of what it says about small communities. Too often these are treated as places to escape – claustrophobic, nosey, and repressive to creativity. It’s ironic that a novel where somebody literally escapes this community doesn’t suggestion that small-town life is an evil. Nor is it a rose-tinted view either. Instead, Wong shows us that this sort of village can be supportive even while it is constraining – both a blessing and a curse. More to the point, it feels like a real place – with real limitations and real advantages. (Wong also manages to write a 17 year old who isn’t maddeningly annoying and isn’t unrealistically good – very impressive!)

This is a really enjoyable, thoughtful, and touching novel that also has spark and humour – it feels like a modern fairy tale in the best possible way.