I give you my daughter’s Easter Card design – such a sweet bunny!
It is always especially pleasurable to meet up with blogging friends old and new. It always amazes me that we all get on as if we’ve known each other for ages, well, we have – online, but physically we don’t meet that often. A quick namecheck to Sakura, Kim, Hayley, Simon S, Simon T, David, Polly @Novel_Insights and finally, it was lovely to meet Rachel aka @flossieteacake.
We were treated to readings from eight authors who have books out now or soon, a heady mixture of seasoned writers to debut novellists. I can honestly say that I would like to read all of the books showcased. We heard from:
Mohsin Hamid – How To Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia A life’s story in the guise of a self-help book. Witty and gritty.
Alicia Foster – Warpaint. Not about make-up! Rather a group of women war artists during WWII. Fits in perfectly with my current reading trend to 1930s/WWII books. Lovely cover to this book too.
Rhidian Brook – The Aftermath – An emotional thriller set in post-war occupied Germany. Apprently Ridley Scott has optioned this book. (published in May).
Catherine O’Flynn – Mr Lynch’s Holiday – To be published this autumn. A drama of father v son in an ex-pat community in Spain. Sounds like another gritty read. Catherine herself was lovely – she volunteers at her local Oxfam shop once a week, and finds her own TBR piles growing since she started working there.
Bernardine Evaristo – Mr Loverman – To be published later this summer. Bernardine read an hilarious passage about two older Caribbean gentlemen bickering – but I suspect there is a much more serious side to this novel about old people in this community.
James Robertson – The Professor of Truth – To be published this autumn. Robertson prefaced his reading saying wryly – “All you need to know is there’s been a plane crash.” We were straight into the aftermath of a plane being bombed over Scotland (Dunblane?), and a professor is searching for his wife and daughter at the hospital. Some years ago I really enjoyed Robertson’s book The Testament of Gideon Mack, so look forward to this one, although it will be hard to read given the subject matter.
Joanna Rossiter – The Sea Change – A debut novel with a dual narrative. A daughter is caught in a tsunami in India in the 1970s, and her mother after WWII who had had to abandon her home in Dorset. Joanna read of the girl’s panic on seeing the tsunami and not knowing where her new husband was. (pub in May).
Jonathan Coe – Expo 58 – An unassuming civil servant is sent to Brussels to the World’s Fair to keep an eye on things. Coe read us an hilarious excerpt involving an exhibit about the history of the toilet. Being a huge fan of his books, I managed to get a fangirl moment, and got him to sign an ARC for me. When I asked if the book was a full-on comedy, he assured me that despite the funny bit he read, it had plenty of melancholy as well. I can’t wait to read this novel, but it won’t be published until autumn. (Sorry about my poor picture.)
It was a lovely evening, with the added bonus of getting a bagful of books to take home (thank you).
Black Roses by Jane Thynne
Remembering Jane Thynne’s columns and reviews in the Daily Telegraph, and having read that she is married to thriller writer Philip Kerr, I had high hopes of her new novel, set in Berlin during the years preceding WWII. I wasn’t disappointed, for Black Roses is a brilliant historical thriller based on real events with two strong female characters at its core.
One is Clara Vine, an aspiring actress of Anglo-German descent. Her father is a right-wing British politician who has no time for his daughter. So Clara leaves London for Berlin, after a chance meeting in which she was assured there’ll be a part for her in a new film called Black Roses being made at the world-famous Ufa studios, where Leni Riefenstahl is queen.
The other woman … is Magda Goebbels, the most infamous woman of the Third Reich, and one of those people who once encountered is never forgotten. Some years ago, I remember watching the film Downfall, a German film that tells the story of Hitler’s last months. It was late at night and I was on my own, totally riveted by the movie, and when it got to the scene where they’re all in the bunker and Magda Goebbels coolly murders all six of her children with cyanide pills, I dissolved into a sobbing heap of tears. Any novel that could bring her to life would be a must-read book for me.
Back to Berlin, Clara settles in, but is disappointed to find that there is no sign of that film part for her. She makes friends with a German actress Helga, who takes her to a political soirée and introduces her to the new aides to Doktor Goebbels. Sturmhauptführer Müller is tall, handsome, and instantly taken with Clara, especially once he learns who her father is. However, she can’t keep his attention:
Suddenly Müller rose to his feet. Craning behind her, Clara was aware of a tall woman approaching them, her heels clicking on the black and white marble floor. She wore a Schiaparelli evening gown in ivory, which flattered her creamy skin, and pearls the size of little birds’ eggs hung round her neck. Her platinum hair was waved tightly around her face and a gust of perfume attended her. The flesh of her arms had the dense solidity of a Greek statue, and her eyes had a statue’s veiled, impenetrable stare.
‘Herr Doktor Müller! Just who I wanted to see!’
‘Müller clicked his heels. ‘Frau Doktor Goebbels. How are you?’
She had a deep, fluting voice, a little clipped. ‘Good, thank you, though a little tired with the move.’
‘I heard. Is the new house to you liking?’
She sighed. ‘The apartment was becoming too cramped. I liked it, but Joseph wanted something that fit better with his official duties.’
Müller gestured towards Clara. ‘This is Clara Vine. She’s the daughter of Sir Ronald Vine, the English politican.’
The woman seemed to notice Clara for the first time and looked at her curiously.
Clara is invited to Magda’s cocktail party the following night, and thus begins their curious relationship. Clara finds herself adopted by Magda, and is persuaded to become a model for a pet project of Hitler’s, the Deutsches Modeamt, of which Magda is president. It’s a state fashion bureau to encourage German women to dress like traditional German women in German-manufactured clothes replacing the bourgeois French fashion. All the top Nazi WAGs are involved including Annelies Von Ribbentop and Goering’s girlfriend. Clara is a quietly assertive and discreet girl, and the Nazis all begin to take her into their confidences.
Enter Leo Quinn, a junior diplomat at the British embassy, who works undercover for British intelligence. Meeting Clara at a function, he is keen to recruit her to report back on the Nazi wives … and Müller who is becoming persistent in his attention. Clara agrees to help Leo, and he starts to teach her some spycraft, but they didn’t reckon on falling in love. Clara is torn between love and duty, but bravely carries on. Magda talks candidly:
‘The thing is, my dear, it’s hard to understand, but if we let them, the Jews and the Communists would take everything. It’s their way. Look what the Bolsheviks did to the Russian royal family. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the newspaper picture, when all those children of the royal family were murdered. Murdered in cold blood. All those little faces lined up. What kind of person could do that? Those poor children. Images like that never leave your mind.’
That quote above got me as you can imagine. Magda is obviously very unhappy, hiding it behind an icy exterior that rarely melts. I hate to sound the slightest bit sympathetic towards this modern Medea, but having discovered snippets of her life pre-Goebbels, I am beginning to understand just a little of the pressure that made her that way. I am keen to read more about her, and now have a copy of Anna Klabunde’s biography of her on my shelves, and I have a copy of Meike Ziervogel’s new novelisation of her life on order.
This novel gives a fascinating glimpse into the lives of these women. They were used to being clothes-horses for haute-couture, but were now being urged to be models for the new regime. Magda is totally staunch in her support for Hitler, (who had been the witness at her wedding to Joseph).
Being a fan of spy novels, I enjoyed the espionage aspects of this novel hugely. For a fledgling spy, Clara has to take some big risks and I had my fingers crossed for her. Leo is intriguing. As a spook, he has a major flaw in falling for his agent, although that sort of thing surely did happen. His relationship with his boss and quiet diplomatic presence give a nod to Le Carré’s George Smiley and Control.
I did wonder how the novel was going to finish – whether there would be a tragic end for Clara. I loved the combination of the womens’ story and spying, finding that the jeopardy really added another level of enjoyment. I hesitate to let the cat out of the bag, but Thynne has made no secret that Black Roses is the first of a trilogy featuring Clara Vine. Hurrah! I loved this book and look forward to lots more espionage in The Winter Garden (to be published in 2014). (9/10)
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My copy came from the publisher – thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Black Rosesby Jane Thynne. Simon & Schuster hardback, pub 28 March 2013. 480 pages.
Magda Goebbelsby Anja Klabunde
Magdaby Meike Ziervogel, pub April.
Downfall (2 Disc Edition) [DVD] 
The Confidantby Hélène Grémillon, translated by Alison Anderson
I got a letter one day, a long letter that wasn’t signed. This was quite an event, because I’ve never received much mail in my life. My letter box had never done anything more than inform me that the-sea-was-warm or that the-snow-was-good, so I didn’t open it very often. Once a week, maybe twice in a gloomy week, when I hoped that a letter would change my life completely and utterly, like a telephone call can, or a trip on the métro, or closing my eyes and counting to ten before opening them again.
And then my mother died. And that was plenty, as far as changing my life went: your mother’s death, you can’t get much better than that.
It is Paris, 1975 and Camille is sad; at the loss of her mother, and the fact that the baby growing inside her will not know its grandmother. She is doubly so at the demise of her relationship with Nicholas, who we’ll find out doesn’t want anything to do with the baby.
When this letter arrives in amongst all the condolence cards, she starts reading… It tells how teenager Louis met Annie back in 1933, and fell in love with her from afar. It doesn’t give many clues to who they are and where it happened. Camille is confused – why has this letter been sent to her?
In the following days and weeks, more letters arrive. Camille, who works in publishing, half wonders if it is a bizarre pitch being made to her, but something about the letters makes it seem that they are intended for her, and that the story therein is true.
They tell of how a bourgeois couple Mr & Madame M move into the village, about how Madam M notices Annie’s painting and encourages her, and how Annie later found out about Madame M’s inability to have a baby and offered to be a surrogate for her. War intervenes, and it all gets very complicated. Louis loses touch with Annie for several years, but is able to pick up the story later.
I hadn’t seen her for three years. For three years I’d had no news of her at all. At no time did I suspect she might be living in Paris like me. I looked at her fingernails, her peeling red varnish; in the village she never used to wear any. Seeing her again like this: It seemed too good to be true. Outside it was pitch black. I was suddenly overwhelmed by desire for her. She handed me a steaming hot cup.
‘So do you remember Monsieur and Madame M.?’
How could she ask me such a thing.
The story of Louis, Annie, Mr & Madam M is teased out over the course of the novel. It is complex, full of tragedy in many ways and multi-layered, with little revelations that keep Camille desperate to know what happened and full of questions still, not to mention her feeling an increasing bond of motherhood with Annie.
This novel uses two literary devices to tell its story – when most use just one. The dual narrative combined with the epistolary approach may feel somewhat contrived, but actually serves the story well. We have the same questions that Camille has about Annie’s life, we feel for Camille’s loss and Annie’s situation, and end up caring for both women, whereas often in dual narratives, one will dominate. I will say that I didn’t get much of a feel for 1970s Paris in Camille’s timeline though. However, the clever reveal made this a rewarding read, and I’ve yet to read a novel from Gallic books, who specialise in English translations of the best contemporary French books that I didn’t enjoy. (8/10)
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My copy came via the publisher – thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Confidantby Hélène Grémillon, translated by Alison Anderson, Gallic Books 2012, paperback 267 pages.
The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield
I’m so glad I finally decided to give this book a go, as it has been a real pleasure to dip into over the past couple of weeks. As I already reported here, I was smitten by this book from its opening pages. Having obtained an omnibus edition with all four volumes of ‘diaries’ in, I have plenty more to look forward to. Originally published in 1930, the book also dovetails nicely into my recent reading as a British counterpoint to Mrs Bridge by Evan S Connell – a novel of vignettes in the life of a middle-class 1930s housewife in Kansas, which I read back in January.
As author of her diaries, the Provincial Lady (PL) is never named, but we soon meet the other members of her household – husband Robert, who is, as often as not, asleep behind his newspaper; son Robin who boards at Prep School, and younger daughter Vicky who has a French Governess known as Mademoiselle; then there is Cook, and another servant.
There is a rich cast of other supporting characters who keep the PL busy, notably: down in Devon, there’s Our Vicar’s Wife who pops in and finds it hard to leave, and local dowager Lady Boxe who swooshes round in her Bentley and finds the PL ‘amusing’; and then there is Rose, the PL’s best friend who lives a luxurious life in London, and who frequently provides an escape from the country for the PL.
It is up to the PL to run the household, and this is her biggest struggle. She wrestles with the accounts – they are always a little overdrawn or behind with the bills, tries to keep Cook happy, and manage a succession of housemaids who never seem to stay long. Cook is always threatening to leave too, which keeps the PL on her toes. Meanwhile, Mademoiselle has bons mots for every occasion – often oblique and virtually incomprehensible in their idiomatic French.
Whereas the PL is effectively held to ransom by her servants, she is, however freely indulgent with her children who are a source of great love and enjoyment to her. She loves nothing more than to play with them, but out in public – feels she has to show a slightly different face:
January 3rd. – Hounds meet in the village. Robert agrees to take Vicky on the pony… Vicky looks nice on pony, and I receive compliments about her, which I accept in an off-hand manner, tinged with incredulity, in order to show that I am a modern mother and should scorn to be foolish about my children.
I love the PL’s turn of phrase, her notes and memos to herself, and her witty observations about her world. Whether it is worrying about the finances, or not having a thing to wear, the book of the month club, or not getting first prize in the writing competitions in the journal she subscribes to, all her concerns are chronicled. Regarding her friends and acquaintances, luckily for us, the PL is happy to write in her diary what she would never say out loud and the results are often hilarious, but feel very real.
This book frequently made me giggle out loud. It is much funnier than the aforementioned Mrs Bridge – the PL doesn’t have enough spare time for MB’s introspection. Of course, being written in first-person diary form, rather than as an observed narrative, the PL’s personality really shines through, and I really liked her. (10/10)
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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield, Virago Modern Classics paperback – currently o/p, but used copies available.
When God Was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman
A proof copy of this book has languished on my shelves since its publication in 2011. I generally prefer not to read books that are getting all the hype during the hype, so, during the final days of my TBR pledge for this year, it was finally time to read it, and I’m pleased to say I enjoyed it a lot.
But, and there is a but … In common with many debut novels, it felt like the author was just overflowing with ideas and had to cram them all into this book so they were used and didn’t disappear into the ether.
When God Was a Rabbit is the story of Elly and cover her entire life so far from 1968 to recent years. Elly narrates her story:
I decided to enter this world just as my mother got off the bus after an unproductive shopping trip to Ilford. She’d gone to chance a pair of trousers and distracted by my shifting position found it impossible to choose between patched denims or velvet flares, and fearful that my place of birth would be a department store, she made a staggered journey back to the safe confines of her postcode where her waters broke just as the heavens opened. And during the seventy yard walk back down to our house, her amniotic fluid mixed with the December rain and spiralled down the gutter until the cycle of life was momentously and, one might say, poetically mingled.
We are introduced to Elly’s family – her mother and father and brother Joe, who was five years older than her and, of course, her pet rabbit whom she called ‘God’. We meet her neighbours including Mr Golan, about whom a rather unwholesome mystery will linger throughout the story. We also meet Jenny Penny, Elly’s best friend, who will come to play a major part in the older Elly’s life after disappearing for the middle of the book.
During this period Elly’s family relocate to Cornwall after a win on the football pools. They open a B&B which becomes home to a collection of oddballs – a loveable old chap, Arthur; his friend Ginger – an ageing chanteuse with a good Shirley Bassey impression; and Alfie – an ex-con who becomes their driver.
It’s an idyllic place to come of age, but everyone grows up and goes out into the world. First Joe, whose heart is broken by his first love Charlie, and then Elly, who finds it hard to settle at anything; life for Elly is full of ups and downs.
I enjoyed Winman’s writing which, section by section, matches Elly’s moods, going from the childlike questioning and naturally funny to practical, restless, melancholy, fretful and just now and then joyful or triumphant. I particularly enjoyed all the characters of her family friends and her big brother – theirs is such a strong bond.
Winman has managed to fill Elly’s first decades with so much life and love in all its forms, one wonders what this girl did next. Elly’s story has the feel of book that wants to be a family saga, but falls a little short of being the kind of epic that it would like to be. However, I do hope that Winman didn’t exhaust all her ideas in this debut novel, as I’m looking forward to more – this was an easy and enjoyable read.
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My review copy came via Amazon Vine. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
When God Was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman. Headline review paperback, 352 pages.
No doubt you can point me to countless book covers that use the same photographs – there are several that use a Victorian gent by some railings that I’ve seen commented upon, but yesterday I spotted a pair for myself…
The first is Black Roses by Jane Thynne, which is set in 1930s Berlin. A young Anglo-German woman has been promised a role in a film to be made at the famous Ufa Studios where Leni Reifenstahl is queen. I’ve read this book now and enjoyed it very much, but as it isn’t published until the end of the month you will have to wait until then for my review.
Then, in my favourite bookshop the other day, I was instantly drawn to the cover on the right. Petite Mort is the debut novel of Beatrice Hitchman. It is set during the world of silent movies in Paris of 1917. I’m very much looking forward to reading this book, (once my TBR only pledge is over at the end of the month of course).
I didn’t realise they shared the same image (a stock photo from Corbis) until I plopped one book on top of the other, and had to take a second look. It’s what’s between the covers that really counts though.
This also got me thinking about trends in publishing – Have you noticed how, just as in fashion, certain themes and decades in fiction tend to be à la mode?
The past couple of years have seen a plethora of heavyweight novels set during WWII – HHhH by Laurent Binet, The Street Sweeper by Elliot Perlman, and new translations of the work of Hans Fallada including Alone in Berlin spring to mind, (links to my reviews).
However, in 2013, WWII books are less prominent and the publishers have moved back a few years to the mid-1930s and books set during the rise of the Nazis are coming to the fore: the aforementioned Black Roses; Rachel Johnson’s latest Winter Games, Hélène Grémillon’s The Confidant, Alan Furst’s Spies of Warsaw – there are more but I can’t think of them at the moment.
I’ve also noticed more new novels set during the 1950s and 1960s – (or with covers with glorious photos from the period); possibly spurred on by the TV successes of Mad Men, and Call the Midwife? The misinterpretation of Tara Jupp by Eva Rice is one I really enjoyed. The cover of Beth Gutcheon’s new novel Gossip just called out to me too, and it now resides in my TBR stack for April onwards.
In contrast to these books set in particular time periods, there are also novels set in the early decades of the movies – from Petite Mort above, to Emma Straub’s Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures. In times of recession, there’s nothing like a bit of Hollywood or movie-star glamour to perk you up.
Of course, now I’m wondering whether these are real trends or am I just imagining them linked to my particular reading tastes!
Have you noticed any common themes in recent publishing?
It’s so nice to go to the pictures to see a thoroughly satisfying contemporary British thriller – they’re few and far between these days, mind you they were never a common thing (IMHO!) – The Long Good Friday and Layer Cake come to mind.
Welcome to the Punch is directed by Evan Creevy who cut his teeth on Layer Cake, and is Exec Produced by Ridley Scott. It’s a relatively simple tale of police corruption, gangsters, and a maverick detective out for revenge. Not always an easy view, (one older couple walked out when I saw it), it’s full of ultraviolence, alternating with long moments of deep stares and reflective hard breathing from its leads.
James McAvoy is the maverick detective, Max Lewinsky, out to get Jacob Sternwood, (Mark Strong) who shot him in the knee while escaping from an audacious heist in the City of London. A few years on, Sternwood has returned to the UK, as his son has been shot in a deal-gone-wrong of his own. Naturally, this gives Max the ideal opportunity to finally get his man. What he doesn’t reckon on is that Sternwood’s son was part of a larger conspiracy that involved many bent coppers, and that he will be at great personal risk …
Almost the entire film takes part at night; the city’s buildings all lit up look magnificent, contrasting with the seedy dives and night watchmen’s offices. Into this comes Sternwood after his son, and Lewinsky hot on his tail and this film belongs to its two charismatic leads.
Mark Strong is such a great baddie, tall and swarthily handsome, with a firm bestubbled chin and shaven head – but it’s his eyes that grab you, capable of a dark direct stare that holds you in its gaze. In contrast, James McAvoy as Max is twitchy, emotional and always on the edge, only held back initially by his colleague Sarah (Andrea Risborough). Strong and McAvoy are ably supported by Peter Mullan as Sternwood’s UK fixer, and David Morrissey as Max’s boss.
I really enjoyed this intelligent British thriller with its wonderful British cast. Its ultraviolence may owe a lot to Tarantino, but it was all the more thoughtful bits in between that made it different.
In UK cinemas now, cert 15.
A Man in the Zoo & Lady into Fox by David Garnett
Until I encountered the blogosphere, I had only ever encountered David Garnett (1892-1981) as the author of a novel that Andrew Lloyd-Webber based his musical Aspects of Love on. Garnett was part of the Bloomsbury Group. He was lover of Duncan Grant, and his second wife was Angelica Bell.
His place in the literary pantheon was assured when his 1922 novella Lady Into Fox was a success; it was followed in 1924 by A Man in the Zoo. These two novellas have, in recent years, been frequently paired, both being about ‘animals’. Interestingly, Garnett’s Wikipedia biography says: “As a child, he had a cloak made of rabbit skin and thus received the nickname “Bunny”, by which he was known to friends and intimates all his life.” so maybe it’s not so surprising that amongst his first works were these novellas which are all about ‘animals’.
Both novellas do ‘exactly what they say on the tin’. A Man in the Zoo, features a man who becomes an exhibit in the zoo, and in Lady into Fox, a lady turns into a fox. However, they couldn’t be more different in their approaches to animals…
A Man in the Zoo is the story of John Cromartie and Josephine Lackett, and as it opens, they are visiting London Zoo in Regents Park; John is trying to persuade his posh girlfriend to marry him, but it turns into an argument:
‘No! You silly savage!’ said Josephine. ‘No, you wild beast. Can’t you understand that one doesn’t treat people like that? It is simply wasting my breath to talk. I’ve explained a hundred times I am not going to make father miserable. I am not going to be cut off without a shilling and become dependent on you when you haven’t enough money to live on yourself, to satisfy your vanity. My vanity, do you think having your in love with me pleases my vanity? I might as well have a baboon or a bear. You are Tarzan of the Apes; you ought to be shut up in the Zoo. The collection here is incomplete without you. You are a survival – atavism at its worst. Don’t ask me why I fell in love with you – I did, but I cannot marry Tarzan of the Apes, I’m not romantic enough. I see, too, that you do believe what you have been saying. You do think mankind is your enemy. I can assure you that if mankind thinks of you, it thinks you are the missing link. You ought to be shut up and exhibited here in the Zoo – I’ve told you once and now I tell you again – with the gorilla on one side and the chimpanzee on the other. Science would gain a lot.’ (page 7)
So John, maybe to spite Josephine’s rejection, does exactly what she suggests. The zoo jumps at the chance to exhibit a human alongside the other great apes, and ere long, John, installed in his cage becomes the new star attraction.
He uses his time to read and meditate on his new situation, finding himself quite at home and able to ignore the gawpers outside. The only thing that scares him is that Josephine might come to view him; likewise, she is scared of what she might find too. I can’t say more for there are many developments in this tale before it reaches a definitive ending.
In Lady into Fox, Richard and Sylvia Tebrick, a few months married are out walking in the countryside when they hear the hunt. Sylvia is scared, and cries out. A moment later:
Where his wife had been the moment before was a small fox, of a very bright red. It looked at him very beseechingly, advanced towards him a pace or two, and he saw at once that his wife was looking at him from the animal’s eyes. (page 4).
Richard saves Sylvia from the hounds and takes her home where he dismisses the servants, shoots his dogs, and they continue to live a semblance of normal life, she dressed in a little jacket. However, as the weeks go on, she starts to lose what keeps her human, and begins to become more feral, leaving Richard in anguish. As to what happens, again, I can’t say more.
The two stories may have opposite approaches towards animals, but they share a lot about what it is to be human rather than an animal. In one a human sees what is like to be treated as an animal, in the other a human actually becomes an animal and we’re shown that anthropomorphism is merely fantasy. Both require a leap in the imagination for the story to deliver, and both have difficult characters – the initially ghastly Josephine, and Richard in the other who can’t believe what is happening. I preferred A Man in the Zoo which is lighter than the other, but they were a fascinating counterpoint to each other. I’ll happily read more Garnett. I nearly forgot to mention the charming woodcuts that populate this edition. They’re by RA Garnett – a relative?
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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
A Man in the Zoo & Lady into Fox by David Garnett, Vintage paperback, 137 pages.
Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life by Steve Martin
In the 1970s, Steve Martin was one of the US’s top comedians, playing sell-out tours to huge audiences, and regularly appearing on Saturday Night Live and the Johnny Carson Show. After eighteen years, worn out by it, and noticing the first empty seats in an audiences appearing again, he turned his back on stand-up.
He went on, of course, to have a great career as an actor, script-writer (although he had always written material for himself and others), and latterly as novelist. Having read and enjoyed his 2010 novel An object of Beauty, (reviewed here, I was really looking forward to reading this memoir of his stand-up years, (and its my first non-fiction read of the year!)
Martin makes it clear from the start that to become a good comedian takes time, hard work, and dedication to one’s art…
I did stand-up comedy for eighteen years. Ten of those years were spent learning, four years were spent refining, and four were spend in wild success. My most persistent memory of stand-up is of my mouth being the present and my mind being in the future: the mouth speaking the line, the body delivering the gesture, while the mind looks back, observing, analyzing, judging, worrying, and then deciding when and what to say next. Enjoyment while performing was rare – enjoyment would have been an indulgent loss of focus that comedy cannot afford. After the shows, however, I experienced long hours of elation or misery depending on how the show went, because doing comedy alone onstage is the ego’s last stand.
Born in Waco, Texas, it was when the Martin family relocated to LA, that young Steve realised he wanted to become and entertainer, and as a young teenager, he caught the bug by selling guidebooks, and then demonstrating magic tricks in one of the shops at Disneyland. He had entertainment jobs all the way through college where he studied philosophy and ethics, before turning to drama, and eventually giving up classes.
We’re more used to seeing him in either preppy garb or later his trademark white suit, but for a while in the late 60s, he grew his hair (right). He appears not to have liked this look, (I rather do in comparison!).
In the early 1970s, he was still working hard at developing his stand-up…
The consistent work enhanced my act. I learned a lesson: It was easy to be great. Every entertainer has a night when everything is clicking. These nights are accidental and statistical: Like lucky cards in poker, you can count on them occurring over time. What was hard was to be good, consistently good, night after night, no matter what the abominable circumstances.
He tells us how his act became more physical, more nuanced and more precise, and always touched by the surreal, and at last success did come.
Martin’s account of his stand-up career was fascinating, being effectively a master-class in developing a comedy act. This is a totally serious memoir, not having been written for laughs at all, although naturally any life has its funny moments. Martin’s passion for self-improvement shines through and he’s a great writer too – I hope he writes some more memoirs of his film years some time. (9.5/10)
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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life by Steve Martin. Pocket Books paperback, 208 pages.