Reviving his thirst for reading…

The Year of Reading Dangerously by Andy Miller

andy-millerWhat do you do when you seriously lose your reading mojo? I tend to retreat into trashy fiction, but I have always managed to recover it after a short hiatus. This wasn’t the case for Andy Miller. He has a great job in publishing, a happy marriage and a young son, but wasn’t getting anything from reading any more.

His solution – to embark upon a grand plan – to read all those books (mostly but not exclusively classics) that he had lied about reading before. He had this epiphany when he picked up Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita – a book he’d never been able to get into before. (It took me three goes, so I know how he felt on that one.)

Miller draws up The List of Betterment, 50 titles from Middlemarch to War and Peace with some surprises in between; the aim is to read them in a single year.

The road to reading betterment is not without its blocks and detours. A couple of books on the list continued to defeat him (e.g. Of Human Bondage), others are a revelation. The chapter wherein he compares Moby Dick and Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code is hysterically funny, and truly insightful (I can say that having read both!):

Moby Dick is a long, gruelling, convoluted graft. And yet,, as soon as I completed it, once I could hold it at arm’s length and admire its intricacy and design, I knew Moby Dick was obviously, uncannily, a masterwork. It wormed into my subconscious; I dreamed about it for nights afterwards.

I can honestly say that I had exactly the same experience with Moby Dick (see here.)

Rather than formally critique these books, for the most part Miller’s book is a memoir of the reading experience – how he related to these books and they to him and his life. If you pick it up expecting a serious look at the canon from someone who knows about these books but had not previously read them, you’ll be disappointed. Instead it’s primarily a story about how to make reading fun, and through it, get more out of life.

I must admit to having bonded a bit with the author (as he portrays himself in this book). The Moby Dick chapter was great, but what sealed it for me was that he grew up in Croydon – my own neck of the woods.

How I loved the municipal libraries of South Croydon. They were not child-friendly places; in fact, they were not friendly at all to anyone… The larger building in the town had its own children’s library, accessible at one end of the hall via an imposing door, but what lay behind that door was not a children’s library as we might understand it today, full of scatter cushions and toys and strategies of appeasement; it revealed simply a smaller, replica wood-panelled room full of books. … The balance of power lay with the books, not the public. This would never be permitted today.

I convinced myself that he was talking about Coulsdon Library there – which is where I went as a kid every Saturday morning in the second half of the 1960s. Then we moved to Purley (closer to central Croydon), and Purley library was where I went every day during the months before finishing university and starting my first job. I also had a Saturday job at Norbury library through the sixth form – so I know Croydon and its libraries rather well.

In a footnote, he also praises the branch of WH Smiths in the Whitgift Centre in Croydon where he would go to spend prized book tokens – his birthday present of choice. (This is one point where I have to disagree – Websters, the indie book shop further up was far better than Smiths – it is now Waterstones!). I don’t mind footnotes at all, and Miller’s ones frequently contain funny asides – if you’re a footnote-o-phobe, you’ll miss some good little bits.

Miller is not afraid to court controversy in this book. This is where I unbonded with him for a bit. In the chapter on Books 41 and 42, he talks about blogging. He tried blogging about his project himself – but failed. He said he wasn’t reading the books for the sake of reading them, he was reading them for the sake of thinking of something to write about them on the blog. Fair enough, but he goes on to say how “The internet is the greatest library in the universe; unfortunately someone has removed all the ‘no talking’ signs.” after having made some very disapproving generic comments about bloggers. Guaranteed to piss people off, that!

The above section aside, I found this book very enjoyable and always entertaining – even the chapter written as a love letter to Michel Houellebecq’s novel Atomised, (a book I have tried, but disliked so much I did not finish it). I counted up how many titles I’d read on The List of Betterment. 18 + The Da Vinci Code – I was impressed with myself – being a scientist, not an English grad. I have added to my own wishlist – notably Bukowski, and I want to re-read Anna Karenina, preferably in Rosamund Bartlett’s new translation for the OUP. I’ve also made mental notes to dispose of my copies of Of Human Bondage and Dice Man – I’ll never read them now.

Fans of books about books of the personal reading journey type, rather than serious lit-crit will find Miller’s memoir great fun; easy reading in good company. (8/10)

For a pair of other contrasting views on this book – see Susan’s review here and Victoria’s one here.

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Year of Reading Dangerously: How Fifty Great Books Saved My Life by Andy Miller. Pub 4th Estate, May 2014. Hardback, 336 pages.

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Hitch’s last essays …

Mortality by Christopher Hitchens

Hitch-MortalityI’m a long-term fan of Vanity Fair magazine for it’s in depth articles, photo portfolios and reportage, (OK, I don’t read the bits about obscure US politicians). One of the highlights most months though was to read the latest essay by British writer Christopher Hitchens.

A sublime essayist and journalist, a forthright and vocal atheist always happy to debate on difficult subjects – his pieces were always worth reading, whether you agreed with him or not.  I say were – because he died in 2011 from oesophageal cancer, more than likely brought on by his heavy drinking and smoking.  He collapsed in 2010 on the book tour to publicise his memoir Hitch 22, and was found to have cancer which had metastised, spread and thus was terminal. As he said: ‘…the thing about Stage Four is that there is no such thing as Stage Five.’

His last book, published posthumously, Mortality, is a collection of the essays he wrote during that last year for Vanity Fair around the subject of his cancer and dying. It is prefaced by his friend and editor of VF Graydon Carter with an afterword by his widow Carol Blue. I remember devouring them each month, and it is entirely fitting that they be collected into this short book.

Of course, memoirs about dying and cancer have been done before. Notably, I still can’t forget John Diamond’s page-long columns in the back of the Saturday Times magazine in which he wrote of his life once diagnosed with throat cancer. These columns became the basis of his memoir C: Because cowards get cancer too. He died in 2001: Diamond’s wife was Nigella Lawson, and I really felt for her, having already lost her mother and one sister to cancer. In fact, in Hitch’s unfinished notes in the final chapter he mentions Diamond:

Like many other readers, I used to quietly urge him on from week to week. But after a year and more … well, a certain narrative expectation inevitably built up. Hey, miracle cure!  Hey I was just having you on! No, neither of those could work as endings. Diamond had to die; and he duly, correctly (in narrative terms) did. Though – how can I put this? A stern literary critic might complain that his story lacked compactness toward the end…

But back to Hitch himself. Having the benefit of being able to write full essays for VF, he is able to expound at length, essentially taking a different related topic each time as well as updating us on the progress of his illness and treatment.

Perhaps the most fascinating essay is the second in which he deals with religion, and how he had both people praying for him and condemning him to hell!  For an atheist polemicist, he has many friends among the world’s many religions, and is more likeable than Dawkins for it. However, some would still hope to persuade him to have a deathbed conversion …

I sympathize afresh with the mighty Voltaire, who, when badgered on his deathbed and urged to renounce the devil, murmured that this was no time to be making enemies.

A different secular problem also occurs to me: What if I pulled through and the pious faction contentedly claimed that their prayers had been answered? That would somehow be irritating.

In another chapter, he writes about his voice – his vocal cords going decidedly croaky – and as a man who earns his living by voice as well as pen, he hated the idea of having to communicate by writing, even if his writing is his voice on paper.  He thanks (also now the late) Simon Hoggart who …

…about thirty-five years ago informed me that an article of mine was well argued but dull, and advised me briskly to write ‘more like the way you talk.’ At the time, I was near speechless at the charge of being boring and never thanked him properly, but in time I appreciated that my fear of self-indulgence and the personal pronoun was its own form of indulgence.

Another interesting essay is based upon Nietzsche’s pronouncement: Was mich nicht umbringt macht mich starker – Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger. Hitchens discusses why it doesn’t really work, although you may think it does until you get terminal and he illustrates the essay with quotations from Kingsley Amis, Betjeman and Bob Dylan.

These essays and additional material were a joy to revisit. Well-argued, supported by apposite quotes, each encapsulates its subject brilliantly. His interest in  the human condition too shines through the writing – it always has done. You could argue that this is not his best work, but perhaps it is is his most meaningful. Hitchens for all his bravado comes across as so full of life, even as the end approached and he shows great courage. His voice – spoken and on the page is a great loss, but luckily, he wrote lots of books, including his memoir Hitch 22, his anti-theist treatise God is not great: how religion poisons everything, and a great collection of other essays from 2011, Arguably. Now I don’t have him to read in VF any more, I shall start on these. (9/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
Mortality by Christopher Hitchens. Atlantic, 2012 paperback 128 pages.
Hitch 22: A Memoir by Christopher Hitchens. Atlantic, 2010 paperback 448 pages.

 

Anderson & Zweig; Thorn and Morrissey

I know – it’s too long since you had a proper book post – they will come soon, promise. Life is so busy at the moment, and for the next couple of weeks it’ll be the same – as I have the Abingdon Science Festival to go to/help at, several trips to the Oxford Literary Festival planned (Natalie Haynes, Celia Rees and friends talking about women in history in YA novels, and Ian McEwan. I plan to write about them all in due course. Plus there is that big project I mentioned before that I can’t tell you about quite yet (what a tease!)

All of these are taking up too much of my time, (but in a good way!).

The-Grand-Budapest-Hotel-PosterMeanwhile, I’ve given myself the night off from reading and am going to see The Grand Budapest Hotel at the movies this evening.

There is a bookish link, as director Wes Anderson has based the film on stories by Stefan Zweig, and Pushkin Press has brought out a book of selected writings, introduced by Anderson … The Society of the Crossed Keys (affiliate link) to link with the film.

I’ve never read Zweig, but have ordered the book above so I can get started after seeing the film tonight, and I may well put down my thoughts about the film tomorrow.

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bedsit disco queenI’ve read a lot of good books lately, but the one I’ve been enjoying the most over the past couple of weeks is Tracey Thorn’s volume of memoir Bedsit Disco Queen. Forget the purple prose and bitter rants of Morrissey, reviewed here, Tracey’s book is just brilliant all the way through.

She tells her story from her punky schooldays, through forming The Marine Girls, then English at Hull university and meeting Ben Watt, through all the ups and downs of Everything But the Girl, eventual big stardom thanks to that remix of Missing into semi-retirement and motherhood.

That she’s managed it all and stayed totally sane, never becoming a diva – remaining the extrovert introvert she is – and obviously a nice person, made this the best memoir about pop music that I’ve ever read.  One bit that really tickled me though was in a chapter called ‘The Boy with the Thorn in his Side‘ where she talks about Morrissey and the Smiths – here’s a taster …

I loved Morrissey with a devotion which outweighed anything I’d felt for a rock singer before, and which I now blush to recall. It wasn’t that I wanted to sleep with him (well, no, I did actually, but that seemed unlikely to happen, what with one thing and another). It was more that I wanted to BE him. I know I wasn’t alone in feeling this, though I suspect most of the others who felt this way were probably boys. For an androgynous girl like me, Morrissey was an intoxicating new kind of role model – camp in many ways, but also surprisingly butch. He reminded me more of a male version of the female singers I liked – Patti Smith or Siouxsie  – than any previous male rock star. His onstage performance style inspired mine for a good couple of years – a Melody Maker review from 1985 reads: ‘Tonight Tracey might have played it like the girl with Morrissey at her side’, while this one is from Sounds: ‘Thorn continues to stifle her desire to impersonate Morrissey, arms threatening to lose control of themselves.’

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Harry choosing

 

And finally, the winner of the Giveaway of a copy of Mark Miodownik’s new book (reviewed here, as picked by Harry is …

K E V I N

I’ll be emailing you for your address very soon.  Well done, and thanks to all who entered.

Nannying in the 1980s

Love, Nina: Despatches from Family Life by Nina Stibbe

love nina nina stibbeThis volume of memoirs in the form of letters was the perfect reading for me in the past couple of weeks, when life has been so hectic. I’ve just finished a couple of weeks of full-time cover teaching, and then with all the usual Christmas events from bazaars to carol services to help at, editing the school magazine etc. etc. etc. I’ve fallen asleep within minutes of going to bed – waking in the early hours with the light on – still sitting propped up with my thumb jammed in the book! Not a good posture for dozing, but now term has ended and I can relax. This book of short sections was just the thing to ensure I managed to get some reading done. Let me tell you about it…

In the early 1980s, aged twenty, Nina Stibbe left Leicestershire for London to become a nanny. It still being the days when not everyone had a phone, she wrote home regularly to her sister Victoria telling her all about her successes and non-successes at nannying and the amazing family she worked for. Luckily for us, Vic kept the letters.

Nina worked for Mary-Kay Wilmers, who was then deputy editor of the London Review of Books, and she looked after her two sons, Will and Sam (whose father is Stephen Frears). They lived in North London near Regents Park Zoo; Alan Bennett (AB) was a neighbour – always popping in for tea, and Jonathan Miller lived up the road.

When he (AB) comes over for supper he does this tiny short doorbell ring, hardly a ring at all, he just touches the bell and it makes just the beginning of a ring. That’s him. Minimum fuss.

It seems to have been a very haphazard, but lovely household. Neither MK nor Nina really cooked much but everyone seems to have thrived. MK seems to have been quite liberal, and her sons (aged 9 and 10 at the start) are able to get away with quite adult language and they’re all naturally witty in a dead-pan way.  They are all completely loveable, with Sam and Will forming a comedy double act with their amazing conversations.

S & W had a row yesterday afternoon. To annoy Will, Sam said he might switch to Manchester United. Will called Sam something mysterious in German, which he claimed to be extremely offensive, but turned out to be mother-in-law (according to AB).

At supper:
Will: (to Sam) By the way, it was ‘swiegermutter’.
Sam: What was?
Will: What I called you – it’s German for ‘motherfucker’.
AB: ‘Swiegermutter’? Actually, I think that’s German for ‘mother-in-law’.
Will: Oh. What’s the German for ‘motherfucker’, then?
MK: Probably ‘motherfucker’.
AB: (pondering) It might be ‘mutterficken’? Or perhaps ‘arschficken’, ‘arshlock’? But please can’t we discuss nicer things?

Eventually Nina, egged on by boyfriend Nunney, who is a helper at the Tomalins – another literary family nearby, decides to apply to do an English degree, having enjoyed doing A-level English. She is offered a place at Thames Poly, and at first moves out so a new nanny can move in. However, it’s not long before they have a jiggle round and she moves back in with her adopted family.

It’s really nice to hear about Nina’s discoveries of the literary canon as she progresses in her degree, but her college friends are less interesting than the Wilmers. Given that Nina is a mature student, they seem immature in comparison to her. I was longing for more Sam and Will, and AB during these sections. Bennett constantly surprised me actually – this passage when their washing machine malfunctioned really tickled me…

Once neither of us nudged it and it went for hours and everything came out all matted. AB suggested it was something to do with the water not heating up to the target temperature and therefore not moving n to the next part of the cycle. It’s amazing how much AB knows about appliances (when you consider he’s a writer and pretty much just writes all day.)

Me: You’re good with appliances.
AB: (proud) Well, I don’t know about that.
Me: You sorted out the car, the fridge, the phone, bike tyres and now the washing machine.
AB: I don’t think I’m particularly good.
MK: But it’s nice to know you’ve got something to fall back on.

Anyway, it’s fixed now, a bloke came round and it was what AB said (temperature thing).

Although this book is completely one-sided – Nina seems not to have kept Vic’s replies, she does acknowledge her sister’s life events in her letters. Vic is always sending her recipes to try and cuttings so we get a slight sense of her sister. Nina, like her charges is witty; she’s also opinionated, but self-deprecating too. We’re about the same age, and I can tell you the early 1980s was a great time to be in your twenties in London. The book comes to an end after six years of letters when Nina graduates. The Wilmers were definitely brave to let Nina publish her diaries – but they needn’t have worried, for they are lovely, and so is Nina. (9/10)

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Source: Publisher – thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Love, Nina: Despatches from Family Life by Nina Stibbe, pub Viking, Nov 2013, Hardback 336 pages.

‘November spawned a monster’?

Autobiography by Morrissey

autobiographymorrissey_lrgSorry – couldn’t resist the title of this post.  I wrote about my initial reaction to the opening pages of Moz’s memoir here.  There, I questioned whether I could stand to read a whole 457 pages of his purple prose.

Well, reader – I finished it. Contrary to my expectations, I enjoyed a good amount of it too, but, if ever there was a book to which the term ‘curate’s egg’ could apply – this is it! Famously unedited, it is at least one hundred pages too long.  This is primarily because, (as I at once surmised), he uses double the amount of words that he needs to.

I suspect that, as his sense of humour is entirely on a different plane to that of the general public,  he didn’t set out to make anyone laugh – but laugh I did in quite a few places. Let me share some of those with you before getting serious:

Naturally my birth almost kills my mother, for my head is too big, …  (p5)

England calls with an offer of a role on Eastenders, as the son (so far unmentioned) of the character Dot Cotton. I would arrive unexpectedly in Albert Square and cause births, deaths and factory fires every time I opened my mouth – numb to shame throughout. (p353)

The cast (of Friends) is friendly, and I am immediately taken aside by the scriptwriters and asked if I’d jump in on a newly jumbled plot-line where I appear with the character Phoebe in the Central Perk diner, where I am requested to sing in ‘a really depressing voice.’ Within seconds of the proposal, I wind down the fire-escape like a serpent, and it’s goodbye to Hollywood yet again. (p368)

A Manc-accented Nick Cotton in Eastenders – I don’t think so.  At least he has the sense to recognise that he probably can’t act, but it would have been wonderful to see him send himself up in Friends, but ever Narcissus, he can’t.

Morrissey is famous for being vegetarian; later walking out of many restaurant meetings when someone at his table orders meat.  This was even so in his childhood, and his description of school dinners could turn you off most food for life.

Putrid smells reduce me to a pitiful pile, and none are more vomitarian than school dinners. All foods of miasmic fragrance disturb me, and the mere hint of garlic induces the shakes, as fish cooked or uncooked causes gut-wrenching panic. This boy of 1971 has an abnormally limited palate – a working-class host of relentless toast, and the inability to expand beyond the spartan.

What was nice was that although he hated school, outside, he developed a love for poetry, starting off with the wit of Hillaire Belloc, and Wilde, then Dorothy Parker before moving on to Stevie Smith, WH Auden, Herrick and Housman.

It is page 141 before he meets Johnny Marr, shortly after discovering he has “a chest voice of light baritone,” and an initial flirtation with performing in public as The Nosebleeds (not a band name of his choosing).  He and Marr hit it off, and the rest, as they say is history.

The years with The Smiths, before it all fell to pieces are fascinating. Like all tyro bands faced with their first record contract, they gaily sign.  They have hit records but never reach the number one spot, something that really irks Morrissey. All the way through his memoir, whether with The Smiths or solo, he is obsessed with chart positions, seeing the inability to get a single to the top spot as a failure of the record company.  It is hard to see how a song called ‘Shoplifters of the world unite‘ could have got the airplay he thinks it deserves.  The albums chart higher though, and live audiences bear out their popularity, but you sense he is really aggrieved at never having had a No 1 single.

On p175, he talks about why he calls himself Morrissey…

My own name has now become synonymous with the word ‘miserable’ in the press, so Johhny putters with ‘misery’ and playfully arrives at misery mozzery, which truncates to Moz, and I am classified ever after. I had originally decided to use only my surname because I couldn’t think of anyone else in the music that had done so – although, or course, many had been known by just one name, but it hadn’t been their surname.  Only classical composers were known by just their surnames, and that suited my mudlark temperament quite nicely.

Comparing himself to a classical composer – he’s having a laugh, isn’t he?

Where I got bogged down with this memoir was the section post-Smiths when Morrissey was sued by the Smiths’ bassist and drummer, whom Morrissey insists had been signed on for 10% (himself and Marr as the songwriters getting 40% each), asking for their full 25% – years after the event. Morrissey is full of vitriol at them, and as it goes on and on for about fifty pages, I got more and more bored.

Things get a little more interesting again when Morrissey moves to LA, meets various celebs and has strange conversations. He also has relationships which are still kept very private. They get boring again when he goes on tour – and we get night after night of a new city and audience sizes.

So – a mixed bag of too much information, too little information. Occasions of too much purple prose – “even though his expressionist jargon often swamped logic in far too much existentialism” – I can’t even begin to assimilate that phrase. I have no idea of the veracity of his writing – Stuart Maconie and Julie Burchill give different accounts of meetings for instance, but it is his own (narcissistic) account. Morrissey shouldn’t have been allowed to become the first living author to be published in Penguin Classics – but it was a great marketing coup.

To sum it up, when talking about family, friends, poetry, The Smiths’ creative peak, Morrissey was happy – and I was happy reading about it too; when whining about record companies, court cases, the NME, never getting to no 1, endless gigs, being a Misery Moz – I thought ‘Heaven knows I’m miserable now’. (7/10)

So I shall leave you with a promo video for Girlfriend in a Coma, and links to Morrissey’s appearance on Desert Island Discs which was fascinating plus a couple of press reviews of his book – one funny, one more balanced: Craig Brown in the Daily Mail; and Stuart Maconie in the Guardian.

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Autobiography by Morrissey, Penguin Classics, October 2013, 457 pages

Nice little surprises

It’s lovely when you get a nice little surprise (or ‘pleasing’ as Lynne at DGR would call them). I’ve had a couple of good bookish ones this morning.

berkoffFirstly, I unpacked my acquisitions from the charity shop yesterday. I know I don’t need books, but my daughter was having her hair cut, and what was I to do? It was too distracting to sit and read in the hairdressers, so I went shopping.

Among the books I bought was this hardback: Steven Berkoff’s autobiography Free Association.

He is one of those fascinating actors equally at home on stage or screens big and small, and he’s one of the very best actors at playing baddies there is.  Although an East-end lad, he comes from Romanian stock, which explains a lot.

CCF01082013_00000 (2) (668x800)

He has been in Bond films, and a Matt Smith episode of Dr Who, but apart from his baddie role, I always primarily associate him with Kafka.  He adapted three of his novels for the stage, and I can vividly remember the 1987 TV film of Metamorphosis which had a young Tim Roth scuttling around the stage.

I will look forward to reading this book, and it was a lovely surprise when I opened the cover this morning to find that my £2.50 had got me a signed copy. OK, so my name’s not John, but Berkoff has touched this particular book, and I like that a lot.

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billy and meMy second nice surprise was that my daughter and I were discussing a book that my niece had recommended on our visit to Croydon earlier this week. Billy and Me is a chicklit romance by debut author Giovanna Fletcher. I said we’d look it up and get a copy if Juliet wanted it. Juliet squinted at the bookcase in front of her and said, ‘You’ve already got a copy!’. ‘Gosh,’ I replied when I realised that I’d received a copy from the publisher (thank you), so my daughter has added it to her pile as it is not really a book for me.

One thing you should know about Giovanna Fletcher though, which I didn’t realise until I read the blurb of this book, is apart from having been in TOWIE, she is married to Tom from McFly – and she is the girl to whom he sang his wedding speech in one of Youtube’s most watched clips. I was sceptical, but had watched it some weeks ago when I saw it mentioned in a magazine and I was nearly in tears by the end. It was so lovely (and of course Harry Judd is in it too) – so I shall encourage you to have an indulgent break to watch it for yourselves…

Have you had any nice little bookish surprises lately? Do share…

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To explore these books further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Free Association: Autobiography by Steven Berkoff, 1997, Faber paperback
Billy and Me by Giovanna Fletcher, Penguin paperback.

The Women of Madison Avenue

Mad Women by Jane Maas

Mad Men still ranks amongst my favourite TV programmes ever. I love everything about it – the clothes, the campaigns, the decor, the lifestyle, the cast, (especially John Slattery as Roger Sterling).

But how true is the series?

I’ve already read one book by a guy who was there – Jerry Della Femina’s memoir (reviewed here), gave one man’s eye view – but his isn’t the only perspective available to help answer that question…

Mad-Women-cover-final

Jane Maas was there and saw it all. She was one of the pioneer ‘Mad Women’ of Madison Avenue. She started as a copywriter in 1964 at Ogilvy and Mather after several years working in TV production on Name That Tune, rising through the ranks to be a creative director and president of another New York agency along the way.

In compiling her memoir, she has spoken to many of her colleagues to build up her picture of working for and with the real Mad Men, giving a fascinating portrait of the advertising industry of the 1960s and beyond, and especially what it was like for women, although she didn’t have to start off as a secretary like Mad Men‘s Peggy Olson.

Jane Maas in her official first day photo at Wells Rich Greene, 1976

Jane Maas in her official first day photo at Wells Rich Greene, 1976

A petite redhead, Jane was married to architect Michael Maas in the late fifties, had kids and lived in central New York rather than towns outside like many of her colleagues.

She was also one of the first working Moms – ranking her ‘job first, husband second, and children third’ realising that her job and husband might go away, but that ‘the children would hang in’.  Jane was very lucky to have the services of her Mon-Fri live-in help Mabel though, but always felt guilty about not giving her children enough attention.

In chapter two, Jane gets straight to the subject of sex – apparently there was a lot of it about, although O&M was one of the more discrete agencies.  At other agencies, including Young and Rubicam, (the model for Mad Men), it was seemingly everywhere between employees outside the office…

The term ‘sexual harassment’ hadn’t been invented yet, or certainly wasn’t in our vocabularies. Most women then working in advertising were either secretaries or copywriters,  and 99 percent of us had male bosses.  The boss was in control of your salary, your raise, your career advancement … your life.  If he wanted to go to bed with you, you had to ask yourself what mattered more: your self-respect or your career.
A number of people confided recently that women were sometimes the ones doing the seducing. The best way to get promoted from secretary to copywriter was for your boss to make it happen. And the fastest way to make that happen was to make it with your boss.

Mad Men's Peggy OlsenUltimately what I am most fascinated by in Mad Men and books like this are the advertising campaigns themselves. For me, many of the best scenes are the ones where the creative folk are at work, and pitching to clients.

Maas tells us about the good and the bad campaigns, and the good and bad clients.  She tells howit was common for rooms full of men to discuss the ins and outs of feminine hygiene products without asking their women staff of their opinions, except as an afterthought.  She recounts how it was usual for women copywriters to be put on accounts for household products, the men kept all the cars, booze, fags, etc for themselves.

i-love-new-yorkMaas was one of the few that did break through the glass ceiling though.  She was not only one of the first women to wear trousers to work, she went on to be the director of the ad campaign that put New York back on the tourist map, I ♥ New York with its iconic logo designed by Milton Glazer in 1977.

She is also quite clear where she thinks Mad Men (and she is a fan) gets it slightly wrong.  In the hippest times of the 1960s, the agencies were colourful places – not the beige, class and chrome we see on TV.  Most of all though, she stresses that they worked hard, they played hard, and most important of all, they had terrific fun doing this job that they loved so much – Don Draper and his colleagues don’t have enough of the latter.

This book was less rambling and much more entertaining than Della Femina’s, and confirmed most of what I’d always suspected happened in a woman’s lot in those glory days on Madison Avenue.  I’ve always been fascinated by the world of advertising, it’s long been one of my fantasy jobs from way before Mad Men, so I liked it a lot.  If you love the series, you’ll probably enjoy this book too. (7.5/10)

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
Mad Women Bantam paperback, 218 pages.
From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor: Front-line Dispatches from the Advertising War by Jerry Della Femina
Mad Men – Complete Season 1 [DVD]

A body’s life, a life’s memories

Winter Journal by Paul Auster

I’ve been an Auster-fan ever since I first read The New York Trilogy in the late 1980s, which I re-read and reviewed here a couple of years ago. Between writing his novels, Auster also writes essays and volumes of memoir.

Winter Journal is a memoir largely told through the things that have happened to his body.  In his early sixties, Auster has become preoccupied with the first signs of old age – something his 74 year old actor friend Jean-Louis Trintignant put into perspective for him when Auster was 57…

“Paul, there’s just one thing I want to to tell you.  At fifty-seven, I felt old. Now, at seventy-four, I feel much younger than I did then.” You have no idea what he is trying to tell you, but you sense it is important to him, that he is attempting to share something of vital importance with you, and for that reason you do not ask him to explain what he means. For close to seven years now, you have continued to ponder his words, and although you still don’t know quite what to make of them, there have been glimmers, tiny moments when you feel you have almost penetrated the truth of what he was saying to you. Perhaps it is something as simple as this: that a man fears death more at fifty-seven than he does at seventy-four.

Auster starts by tellling his story through the things that have happened to his  body, an inventory of its scars – the one on his cheek which he got aged three and a half caused by having such fun sliding along a shiny floor that he never saw a protruding nail in a table leg; numerous other sporting ones – but only one broken bone.

He tells us everything, not sparing the details however painful –  the panic attacks that started after his mother’s death in 2002, and the car crash later that year that could have killed him, his wife and his family – he hasn’t driven since.

The other parallel track running through this memoir is a catalogue of all the homes in which Auster has lived his life, twenty-one of them, and thinking about the memories they invoke, about his parents, his friends, his girlfriends, his first wife, his second (author Siri Hustvedt), his children, but most of all his mother, whom he obviously adored, and simultaneously wished he’d known better.

The book is written in the second person – addressing himself; it gives a real sense of intimacy to his story. We frequently pop backwards in time as he remembers new things, but the general impetus is forward towards Auster as he is now at sixty-four looking forwards to the rest of his life.

Auster is an unconventional, analytical and eloquent writer, and this unconventional memoir was a delight to read, he can look with humour at himself as well as being serious.  He is one of those writers whom I always enjoy whether in novels or other forms, regardless of the critic’s views, but I have to say this memoir was one of the very best I’ve read. (9.5/10)

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I was sent a US copy of this book by its publisher Henry Holt & Co. Thank you.
To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:

Winter Journal Pub 6 Sept by Faber, Hardback 240 pages.
The New York Trilogy: “City of Glass”, “Ghosts” and “Locked Room” by Paul Auster

Scenes from a humorist’s life …

Our book group is having a short story July, concentrating on two authors renowned for their wit: Saki and Thurber.  I’m working my way through Saki, so I’ll deal with him in another post; here I’ll talk about my first experience of reading James Thurber.

My Life and Hard Timesby James Thurber

James Thurber (1894-1961), was one of America’s foremost cartoonists and humorists, most of his work being published for the New Yorker, and then collected into books.

My Life and Hard Times, which was published in 1933, is the closest thing to a memoir that he wrote.  A short selection of autobiographical stories from his youth, about growing up in the Thurber household in Columbus, Ohio, together with his unique cartoons.  In my edition, the eighty-odd pages of memoir, is sandwiched by an introduction, which puts the book into context, a Preface by Thurber himself, and at the end, Notes by Thurber, an Afterword praising the book’s brevity and jewel-like quality, and finally a brief biography of the man.

I enjoyed Thurber’s preface very much, in which he muses self-deprecatingly about reaching the age of forty and the nature of his type of writing …

I have known writers reaching this dangerous and tricky age to phone their homes from their offices, or their offices from their homes, ask for themselves in a low tone, and then, having fortunately discovered that they were “out,” to collapse in hard-breathing relief. This is particularly true of writers of light pieces running from a thousand to tow thousand words.

The notion that such persons are gay of heart and carefree is curiously untrue. They lead, as a matter of fact, an existence of jumpiness and apprehension. They sit on the edge of the chair of Literature. In the house of Life they have the feeling that they have never taken off their overcoats. Afraid of losing themselves in the larger flight of the two-volume novel, or even the one-volume novel, they stick to short accounts of their misadventures because they never get so deep into them but that they feel they can get out. This type of writing is not a joyous form of self-expression but the manifestation of a twitchiness at once cosmic and mundane. Authors of such pieces have, nobody knows why, a genius for getting into minor difficulties: they walk into the wrong apartments, they drink furniture polish for stomach bitters, they drive their cars into the prize tulip beds of haughty neighbours, they playfully slap gangsters, mistaking them for old school friends. To call such persons “humorists,” a loose-fitting and ugly word, is to miss the nature of their dilemma and the dilemma of their nature. The little wheels of their invention are set in motion by the damp hand of melancholy.

That made me chuckle.  So, on to the stories themselves of which there are just nine. Each has an evocative title, the three stand-out ones being: The Night the Bed Fell, The Day the Dam Broke, and The Night the Ghost Got In.

Most of the stories share an escalating sense of farce, which reels in more and more characters before reaching a critical mass, exploding, and then everyone wonders what had actually happened.

In The Night the Bed Fell, the Thurbers have visitors staying, including Aunt Melissa who was paranoid about burglars, and each night kept a pile of shoes outside her bedroom to throw at them (left).  Odd noises lead to waking up and silly things happening – if I told you more, you wouldn’t need to read the story.

The Day the Dam Broke is like a game of Chinese whispers where a message gets passed on wrongly.  The Night the Ghost Got In is, in a way, and even sillier version of the first involving things that go bump in the night.

Some readers think these comic vignettes are the funniest things ever. I’m afraid I remain to be convinced. I found the tales just mildly amusing, although I loved his preface. The stories, although full of slapstick, are gentle; I’m certainly used to more robust humour.

Then the cartoons. There are very few smiling faces, nearly every person is in profile, and many look very cross indeed. The captions are very matter of fact. However, if you google ‘Thurber cartoons’, there are loads of funny taglines to other drawings, you can buy greetings cards with them on.

I’d like to reserve judgement until I’ve read more Thurber – some of his columns and stories from the New Yorker perhaps, and definitely The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, (which I’d always mistakenly attributed to Mark Twain, but that’s probably Danny Kaye’s fault!).  It’ll be interesting to see what the rest of our book group think.

Have you read Thurber?
What do you think of his cartoon style?
What other humorist’s writing would you recommend?

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
My Life and Hard Timesby James Thurber

Definitely not a misery memoir…

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson

In anyone else’s hands, this would be a misery memoir, however, in Jeanette Winterson’s, the memoir become more of a search for happiness.

Pursuing happiness, and I did, and I still do, is not at all the same as being happy – which I think is fleeting, dependent on curcumstances, and a bit bovine.
If the sun is shining, stand in it – yes, yes, yes. Happy times are great, but happy times pass – they have to – because time passes.
The pursuit of happiness is more elusive; it is life-long, and it is not goal-centred.
What you are pursuing is meaning – a meaningful life…
… The pursuit isn’t all or nothing – it’s all AND nothing. Like all Quest Stories.

It covers two periods in her life. Her childhood up until finishing university, and then jumping twenty-five years to a time when a long-term relationship broke up and she started to search for her birth-mother.

Those who’ve read Winterson’s debut novel, Oranges are not the Only Fruit, or seen her TV adaptation of it, will recognise much autobiographical detail that went into the novel. Here though, she is trying to understand the odd couple that adopted her as a baby – the mother that married down, and shows she is better than others by having a display cabinet of Royal Albert china; and the working class  father who survived the first push of the D-Day landings with just his bayonet.

But it is Mrs Winterson that looms the largest over Jeanette’s life. The woman that gave her the title for this book – a parting question, said as Jeanette walked out aged sixteen after having been caught being too close to another girl. Mrs Winterson was complex. “She was an intelligent woman, and somewhere in the middle of the insane theology and the brutal politics, the flamboyant depression and the refusal of books, of knowledge, of life, she had watched the atomic bomb go off and realised that the true nature of the world is energy and not mass.”

Jeanette was so determined, and thanks to a friend or two, a helpful teacher and a librarian, not only survived college and arrived at Oxford, where her passion for literature was nurtured.  Here I felt a bond with her – I was at university too in 1979 when I was first able to vote, and similarly voted for a woman rather than her policies!

The latter few chapters in which she describes her breakdown after the end of her relationship with Deborah Warner make for tough reading, and then when she comes through that slough of despond in her happiness meter, she takes on the legal system that depersonalises everything and put her on the emotional roller-coaster again to search out her birth-mother.

This book was candid, funny and emotional; full of philosophical insight and interesting short digressions into the history of Manchester and its satellites, and all about literary passions of course.  Winterson has had a lot to be miserable about, but, being a scrapper, she has nearly always been able to turn it around to get something positive out of it – but always, always, she is looking for love and belonging.  (9/10)

For another view, read John Self’s review here.

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I was given my copy for Christmas. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, pub 2011 by Jonathan Cape, 240pp.  Vintage Paperback now out.
Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit
Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit [DVD]