Tuesday, January 10, 2017

january 2017 books…

Long Live Great Bardfield: Autobiography  (Tirzah Garwood): Towards the end of last year, thanks to my good friend David, I read an excellent memoir of the artist Eric Ravilious - who married fellow artist Tirzah Garwood in 1930. Thanks to Moira, I became aware that TG had written an autobiography and, being rather fascinated by British art of the 1920s and 30s, added the book to my Christmas wish-list. Well, I’m VERY glad that I did! Eric Ravilious died early in 1942 (lost at sea in the war) and, somewhat strangely perhaps(?), TG began writing her autobiography (largely for her grandchildren, it seems) in March 1942, when she was in hospital recovering from a mastectomy operation for primary cancer (she completed the first draft in May that year and finalised most of the manuscript by February 1943). She died in 1951. The book was first published in 2012 (and by Persephone Books in 2016) – having been edited (and added to on the basis of TG’s own notes) by her daughter Anne Ullmann. It’s a long (some 500 pages) but brilliantly-written book which also contains copies of beautiful engravings, drawings, paintings and photographs. As well as being a record of the life of a woman who was at the centre of an important group of artists, it also provides a fascinating social history of the time. Tirzah was brought up “in comfort”, whereas Eric’s background was essentially working class (the Garwoods apparently felt socially embarrassed at Tirzah’s choice and Eric’s parents were equally perplexed!). TG is a natural, gifted writer with a hugely engaging and amusing ability to describe people and situations with an honest and endearing frankness. Apart perhaps for a section in the middle of the book which seemed to read a bit like an episode from The Archers (not that I listen to such radio programmes these days!) about who fancied who and what steps they took to try to ensure an appropriate conclusion, I found the book completely captivating. This might be the very first book I’ve read in 2017, but I suspect it might be one of the very best I read in the entire year.
If I Could Tell You Just One Thing (ed. Richard Reed): Amongst other things, Richard Reed is the co-founder of ‘Innocent’ (the smoothie people) and this book was compiled through his “encounters with remarkable people”. The list of people is impressive and, as you might imagine, their ‘most valuable advice’ is frequently profound and thought-provoking (eg. Bill Clinton, Shami Chakrabarti, Harry Belafonte, Judi Dench, Sandy Toksvig, Richard Curtis, Nicola Sturgeon etc)… but there were also some that just irritated me! Here’s just one example: “Don’t take holidays… Give yourself a maximum of a day or day and a half a year. And use that to read books on your industry. The rest of the time you should just work” (Indra Nooyi, Global CEO of PepsiCo). But on the positive side, I particularly liked the two examples provided by Margaret Busby (writer, broadcaster, literary critic and ‘rule-breaking publisher’): “It’s amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who takes the credit” (via Harry Truman); and that her approach to life is ultimately best captured by a Greek proverb she read: “A society grows great when old men plant trees under which they know they will never sit”. I know it’s one of those books that I’ll just pick it up and browse on a regular basis.
Pour Me (AA Gill): This is Gill’s autobiography, published in 2015. He died from lung cancer in December 2016, aged 62. He was a journalist, TV+restaurant critic and a travel/features-writer. I read his book “AA Gill is Away” in 2011. Somewhat ridiculously, this was the first time I’d come across him and, from my blog post of the time, I commented: “His writing was a revelation for me. He has a brilliant writing style – punchy, humorous and intelligent (and, on occasions, somewhat maddening!)”. I very much regret not having read more of Gill’s stuff… and will endeavour to make amends over the coming years. His autobiography is a poignant, funny, dark, honest and, at times, quite moving book… telling of his struggles with dyslexia, alcoholism (he gave up drinking at 30) and drugs, but also evocatively about his family (especially his father and his brother), parenting, his days as an art student at the Slade… and passionately about journalism and food (amongst other things). It’s a very special, rather brilliant, book.
The Cornish Coast Murder (John Bude): One of those “Golden Age of Crime Novels” (published in 1935). As you might imagine – after having just consumed two brilliant autobiographies - this book provided some straightforward, non-challenging(?), New Year, comfort fiction. Very readable and enjoyable… although, like an awful lot of these mystery novels, you spend all your time trying to solve the crime through the given clues – only to find that this was an impossible task… because the final piece of the jigsaw is only revealed in the final chapter!
A Country Of Refuge (ed. Lucy Popescu): I really think you need to read this book. It will make you angry. It will also make you feel sad. It’s a book about the strength of the human spirit. It’s a powerful collection of memoir, essays, short fiction and poetry that explores what it really means to be a refugee. It will challenge the way we, especially in the UK, think about and act towards the dispossessed and those forced to seek a safe place to call home. It’s a brilliant, measured, indictment against the much of the media’s (and in turn the public’s) frequent descriptions of refugees as “a moral, cultural, biological and spiritual threat” (as one of the book’s contributors, AL Kennedy, expresses it)…”As David Cameron put it, ‘a swarm of people’. When people are in a swarm, they aren’t people. They are both an alien species and a danger”. Jon Snow has described it thus: “At last, here is a rich and times beautiful insight into the painful individuality of the refugee and the life lost in the face of a collective struggle for freedom and future”. A poignant reminder of the humanity of each and every individual forced to flee their own country.

No comments: