Posts tagged ‘Autobiography’

May 7, 2018

Rosie – Scenes from a Vanished Life by Rose Tremain

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Penguin, £14.99, out now

This is a brutally honest autobiography covering the childhood of the author of superb Rose Tremain ROSIEfiction including The Gustav Sonanta, Sacred Country and Restoration.  Her account of her 1950s childhood spans an idyllic family farm, a middle class London house, a freezing cold boarding school, and a Swiss finishing school.  It seems clear that her parents and grandparents did not love her very much, if at all.

It is essential reading for any fan of her work, not least as she helpfully indicates where stories from her life have found their way into her fiction. In her novel Trespass, someone’s mother ruins their birthday by getting trapped in a swimsuit and making everyone else feel dreadful.  This is a real event, and the effects have been lifelong, meaning Tremain struggles to celebrate her birthday.  “… In my heart, I’m looking out for darkening skies, for the sound of the sea, for the thing that will sabotage the day – the thing that nobody else has seen”.

One saving grace is her nanny, Nan, who showed her how to love and be loved.  During a revelatory conversation with a colleague she discloses to another person for the first time the loveless nature of much of her upbringing.  The colleague replies: “… listen to me: you were lucky.  You could have been a depressive mess by now, or you could be dead from drugs or drink, but you’re not.  Nan saved you.  She was your angel”.

Her mother is shown as very cold, but Tremain is fair in describing how she too was unloved by her parents, or at least loved less than her brothers.  Her mother was also sent away from home at a very young age, which affected her for the rest of her life.  Tremain’s even handed description of a horrifying event which happens to her mother while Rosie is a teenager feels both fair and sympathetic.  Her father, as in her life, feels essentially absent from this book.  He is a not-very-successful playwright and he seems sometimes to go beyond merely disengaged to being actively hurtful and hostile.

Her determination to write is a joy in the book, as are her discoveries of reading and music.  Her friendships are vital to her and we see the beginnings of lifelong ones here.  She writes of her friends with affection and crispness.  Rosie renames herself Rose as she ends her childhood.  She makes her young adulthood all her own.  What might seem a mean time restriction on an autobiography works very well, and you could not ask for a more candid author.  Recommended.

Review by Bethan

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September 17, 2017

Darling Days by iO Tillett Wright

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Virago, £9.99, out now

Darling DaysA cracker of a memoir this, Darling Days tell the story of author and activist iO Tillett Wright’s distinctly off-the-wall upbringing in the squalor of downtown New York.

With its depiction of an exhilarating if hand-to-mouth existence in the East Village of the 1980s, the punk and new wave subcultures spawned there and the drugs that desolated its communities, Darling Days follows in the footsteps of autobiographies like Patti Smith’s Just Kids or Richard Hell’s I dreamed I was a Very Clean Tramp – both by poets and novelists who share not just glittery New York-based life stories but also a way with strong, beautiful prose. Tough acts to follow, but Tillett Wright more than holds his own on both counts.

He’s certainly had an interesting life straight out of the gate, born to a mother who was equal parts Amazonian warrior and Playboy centrefold, a model, hard drinker, addict and widow (her former husband having been shot by police in dubious circumstances). The pair’s adventures, clashes and anecdotes make for compelling, bewildering and sobering reading; there are several sections in the book, after the young iO has done something like rush to find a cop to protect her mother from an abusive boyfriend, when you find yourself saying, he’s how ­young at this point?

But all these wild experiences can make for sub-par reading at best if the author can’t bring them to life on the page. Thankfully, Tillett Wright’s writing is frankly brilliant; he has a fantastic way with imagery, razor-sharp descriptions of locales and characters bursting fully-formed into your mind’s eye. Angular faces, voluptuous bodies, mean streets and crumbling blocks are drawn in brilliant chiaroscuro style… and, as with Smith and Hell, there is something intangibly New York about it. At times his keen eye for this slum of a city and its crooked inhabitants is almost Dickensian.

The vivacity of Tillett Wright’s storytelling and style really can’t be emphasised enough, and his tale is a captivating one. For a living, breathing slice of a fascinating period of American life, look no further.

Review by Tom

 

 

October 16, 2016

The Return – Fathers, Sons and the Land In Between, by Hisham Matar

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Penguin:Viking, £14.99, out nowhisham-matar-the-return

Hisham Matar’s father Jaballa Matar, an active opponent of Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, was kidnapped in Cairo in 1990 and imprisoned in Tripoli’s notorious Abu Salim jail.  After 1996, there was no word of what happened to him.  This beautifully written memoir concerns not only Matar’s memories of family life before his disappearance, but also the desperation of those left not knowing their loved one’s fate.  Read on Radio 4, the book has received remarkable reviews from (among others) Colm Tóibín and Hilary Mantel.

The book is particularly moving on the effect of the disappearance on everyday life.  Matar’s mother continued videoing football matches for her missing husband for years after he disappeared.  In their exile, Matar and his family do everything they can think of to find out what has happened to Jaballa.  At the same time, Matar develops as a novelist, publishing among other things the well-reviewed Anatomy of a Disappearance.   After Tony Blair’s rapprochement with Qaddafi in 2004, Matar, who was living in London, notes: “none of us felt safe.  Officials from the Libyan embassy attended the first reading I gave from my first novel.  A report was sent to Tripoli and I became a watched man.  It was deemed no longer safe for me to visit my family in Egypt, which caused a second exile” (p. 174).  While the book concerns Matar’s relationship with his father, his mother also stands out as a remarkable woman in her own right.

I learnt a lot about Libya’s history from this remarkable book, and its impacts on those who live through it.  While The Return gives some truly horrendous accounts of human rights violations, it is also a book about deep resilience and love.

Review by Bethan

July 11, 2016

Skyfaring – A Journey with a Pilot, by Mark Vanhoenacker

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Vintage, £8.99, out nowMark Vanhoenacker SKYFARING

The cover of this book makes me want to jump on a plane and fly off somewhere.  As someone who likes flying, despite serious concerns about climate change, I thought I might like this book.  I was wrong.  I love it.

If I’m looking for escape in a book, I’m most likely to find it in one concerning a subject completely new to me which is explained with style and generosity.  Skyfaring meets these criteria effortlessly.  Vanhoenacker is a deeply enthusiastic, knowledgeable and thoughtful guide to the several worlds of aviation.  The book is stuffed with excellent facts and anecdotes (I was delighted to learn that when friends or relatives of airplane crew are passengers on a flight with them, they are often fondly referred to as ‘Klingons’).  For a taster of his prose and some lovely pictures, see http://www.vox.com/2016/5/2/11520288/pilot-airplane-photos and http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/25-incredible-views-from-plane-passengers-windows-collected-by-an-airline-pilot.

Sometimes the book feels very personal, as when the author talks about why he became a pilot, or when he provides a personal gloss on a feature of flight that might seem at first sight mundane or technical.  He is not afraid of bringing art, philosophy or emotion into a scientific subject, or of relating all of these to real life: “Georgia O’Keeffe was afraid of flying but obsessed with the clouds she saw from aeroplanes, which she painted with an all but religious devotion…  I try to remember, when I haven’t flown for some time, and the handles of the bags of food shopping which I’m carrying though a cold and rainy November dusk are about to break, that such a lake of light may be over the clouds that rest above the street”.

For me he has brought a sense of wonder back to commercial flight, something that can seem tedious and constrained.  I feel transported, refreshed, and ready to pay attention.  A lovely book.

Review by Bethan

November 18, 2015

A Notable Woman: The Romantic Journals of Jean Lucey Pratt, edited by Simon Garfield

by Team Riverside

Hardback £20, Canongate, out now

“There is so much in this world to make me happy. Small things such as cats, a good meal, one’s garden, trees in spring and autumn, clouds, colours, fabrics, clothes, companionship, books and music and films, a driSimon Garfield A NOTABLE WOMANnk in the friendly atmosphere of an English pub, a ride in a bus, a letter from a friend, staying in bed when one is tired, firelight, starlight, waves breaking against rocks, evening sunlight on a flight of bombers”.

Jean Lucey Pratt writes this in 1944, aged 34, a woman living alone and working in Slough as the bombs fall around her. She takes much joy in life, as this extract shows, and is not afraid of giving her own views on the remarkable times she’s living through. In these edited journals, started when she was 16 and continuing into old age, she is painfully honest about her romantic life (I was absolutely willing her to find someone half decent to get off with). Like all the best published diaries, we feel that we are getting a view into someone’s secret inner life, but she also illuminates the uncertainties of living through a time of great international and domestic turbulance.

Jean is anything but fluffy, despite the excellent cats that march through these pages. Her diary is a real page turner, and well edited by Simon Garfield (who has previously published some of her contributions to the Mass Observation study). I enjoyed spending time with her enormously, and only wish she could have seen this delicious volume published during her lifetime.

Review by Bethan

July 4, 2015

The Last Act of Love – Cathy Rentzenbrink

by Team Riverside

Growing up in Yorkshire, brother and sister Matty and Cathy are ordinary teenagers living in a pub with their parents. Their family is close, loving, and funny. Everything changes when Matty is knocked down in a hit and run, and suffers devastating brain injuries. Matty’s life is saved, but he enters what turns out to be a Persistent Vegitative State (PVS).

In Cathy Rentzenbrink’s courageous and illuminating memoir, she charts what happens to Matty but also to herself and her parents as they deal with the consequences of one life changing moment. A very readable narrative, it Cathy Rentzenbrink THE LAST ACT OF LOVE is also a personal and thoughtful account of a complex and difficult situation. She shows that what may be right is not always evident and may change over time, and details the pervasive effects of grief, guilt and trauma. Using press cuttings and legal reports as well as family memories, we get a useful and unflinching analysis of the very human difficulties that can arise in cases of PVS. While the subject is bleak, the strength, love and commitment that sustain the family run throughout. Highly recommended.

Review by Bethan