Seeing double with Flavia Leng’s ‘A Daughter’s Memoir’

After lining up my library pickings, I went and left them all downstairs the other night and found myself tucked up in bed without a library book in reach, and too lazy to go downstairs. So, instead, I rifled through the TBR pile of charity shop findings by my bed, which I’ll show you sometime. Now that it’s as tall as my bedside table, it’s in danger of becoming a reserve bedside table.

A while ago I was thrilled to stumble on a copy of Flavia Leng’s memoir of her childhood, growing up Daphne Du Maurier’s middle daughter in the eponymous Menabilly. So thrilled in fact, I forgot all about the last time I was thrilled to find a copy of Flavia Leng’s memoir of her childhood, and so on. So I have two, both with distinctive red spines, side by side in the leaning tower of TBR.

I figured it was high time to read one of them.

Daphne DM is one of my reading obsessions. Like the Mitford sisters, the Brontes and a few others, I will happily squirrel away any and every book I come across that even mentions them in passing. I have Forster’s chunky and well-researched DM biography and somewhere, as yet unearthed in the book boxes that remain sealed while house renovations happen, is a copy of Letters from Menabilly, a glorious collection of correspondence between Daphne DM and her friend, the writer Oriel Malet. Growing Pains, Daphne’s own notes on her life, features in my new header image. I found that in Hay-on-Wye and a patient bookseller had to climb into the window display to retrieve it for me.

I’ve tried before to explain to people the attraction of reading about the same thing over and over again. I suppose it’s a little like visiting a much loved garden. If you go in the spring, it’ll look quite different to how it does in the blaze of autumn. Picnicking by the flowerbeds and listening to the thrum of the bees will be quite a different experience to hiking up to a high vantage point and looking out over the whole.

I suppose it’s all a matter of perspective. And I’m really drawn to the idea that, whether you’re talking about a person, an event or a whole historical period, there are really just multiple truths. Reading around the topic will allow you to see a bigger picture or colour it in a little more vividly, but it can (and should) never be definitive.

Forster obviously says a lot more than Leng in her book. If you want an analysis of Du Maurier’s works in relation to her life, then it is to Forster you should turn (although with a weather eye always to the influence of how interpretation is a mirror that reflects both author and subject). Leng, understandably, really only mentions the books in the sense of their having been written at particular times and omits much of the exploration of DM’s more private motivations. Leng’s book is ultimately about how Daphne DM’s life pertains to Flavia Leng herself, which is exactly as it should be. But it’s no less valuable an insight for that. It’s often what each writer chooses to emphasise or leave out entirely in their respective books that speaks about both them and Daphne Du Maurier herself. I love the whole process of reading in this way; it’s almost like trying to do a jigsaw puzzle only to find that pieces from two different pictures have been mixed up in one box. But it’s not at all frustrating; more fascinating. Each book adds a little more detail but the final image is mine to determine. I kind of want to go for the full immersion now, re-read Forster and Letters, then read Growing Pains for the first time.

In fact, hang the potential library fines. I might do just that.

2016 – Looking back at books

Looking back:

A lot happened in 2016 that wasn’t about books so I’m particularly proud to have managed to read a fair amount – and a lot of it great. I’ve just been having a browse through my list of books read this year and these are the standouts (in the order in which they were read):

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  • Chris Hadfield’s An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth – a witty, gentle read by a man whose achievements should put him at real risk of hubris and yet who displays anything but as he explains how he did what he did, with some excellent ‘zero gravity’ stories along the way. Read my review here.
  • Michel Faber’s The Courage Consort – an exquisitely crafted novella about musicians on the brink of crisis. Dark, funny and with a warmth at its heart that I’m amazed Faber managed to create in so short a read. Read my review here.
  • Margaret Forster’s My Life in Houses – a poignant, wise read about how bricks and mortar become the bones of a life. It also came along at just the right time for me.
  • Curtis Sittenfeld’s American Wife – this was a reread for me and is supposedly a fictionalised look at the experiences of former First Lady Barbara Bush. I’m always drawn to the personal stories behind the political or the historical; the perspective that helps you remember that everyone is also a person, no matter how much the media may obscure that. A gripping and insightful read.
  • Sylvain Tesson’s Consolations of the Forest – the book I feel most guilty for not having written up and perhaps the one I’m most likely to reread soon. Tesson spent six months living alone in a remote cabin in Siberia, fortified by vodka, cigars and tabasco. This book came out of the diaries he kept and is both beautiful, thought-provoking and inspiring.
  • TaraShea Nesbit’s The Wives of Los Alamos – an unusual book about a deeply unusual experience; in this case, that of the women who accompanied the men who built the atomic bomb in the New Mexico desert. Read my review here.

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  • Christine Montross’ Falling Into The Fire – a moving and unexpectedly poetic example of how to write about mental illness without dehumanising the individuals involved. Read my review here (which also features Sheri Fink’s Five Days at Memorial, a book that should probably also be on this list).
  • Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings – an expansive book that follows the lives of six teenagers from their first meeting at a summer camp for those interested in the arts. Once immersed, I found this a believable and absorbing exploration of how envy, loyalty, money and passion can affect the relationships between people.
  • Jess Kidd’s Himself – probably my book of the year and a review will follow in the next couple of days. It’s been written for a while but I gifted (foisted) this particular book on a close friend who also occasionally reads the blog and didn’t want to inadvertently reveal the book before she’d received it!

 

 

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Looking ahead:

I tend to love the idea of shaping my reading more than the reality so I’ve been cautious when thinking about reading resolutions for 2017.  Setting reading aside for a moment, I’d like to write more here in the new year. That means featuring more of the books that I enjoy and trying to create more of a dialogue about them. I also have some ideas for how I’d like to develop the blog and some personal goals for my writing in a wider sense that – apologies – I will keep close to my chest for now.

When it comes to reading, like much of the book blogging community at the beginning of 2016, I am now feeling committed to ‘read my own damn books’, whether that be on my shelves or in the ether of my TBR list. Moving house this year brought it back to me anew just how many books I own and the proportion that remain unread. Coupled with a TBR list that seems permanently stuck at around 500 titles, I feel like I could benefit from just hunkering down and reading a few of the books I’m already excited about rather than constantly being diverted by the new and shiny.

I’m also feeling newly passionate about streamlining my book collection. In the past, I’ve always been the type to keep everything, like a rather large and unwieldy ‘diary’ of book exploits past. Now I feel as if I want the books I keep to be those that bring me real pleasure.

So 2017 will be a year of shortening lists and letting go. I’d like to start 2018 feeling a little less overwhelmed by all the books I always intended to read.

Other than that, I shall selfishly continue to read what I want in a gloriously scattergun way!

Happy new year everyone. Wishing you all a lot of love, happiness and books in the year ahead.

A little light reading – short reviews of recent reads (part 2)

As promised, books 6-10 of my recent reads – an eclectic little group all read in early October.

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  1. Sally Beauman – The Visitors: It’s 1922 and 11-year-old Lucy is  in Egypt recovering from the typhoid that killed her mother. When she meets Frances Winlock, daughter of the respected American archaeologist, she finds herself caught up in Howard Carter’s epic decade-long search for Tutankhamun in the Valley of Kings. Watching Carter’s struggle and the political machinations surrounding the dig through the eyes of a child put an interesting slant on a fascinating historical period and the parts of the book set in the present day, as Lucy looks back over a life more than a little affected by the events of that Egyptian trip, are genuinely moving. A well-paced, page-turner of a book.
  2. Natasha Solomons – The Song Collector: I didn’t know anything about this book when I picked it up in the library but I really loved it. If you’re a regular reader, you may have picked up on my love for books about music and musical folk (do pick up Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music or Michel Faber’s The Courage Consort if you haven’t already). Harry Fox-Talbot is the musician at the centre of the story; composer, owner of dilapidated country estate Hartgrove Hall and collector of folk & traditional songs. He’s also a man who has recently lost his wife – celebrated singer, Edie Rose – and discovered that his grandson is a piano prodigy. Music is most definitely at the heart of this book but it’s also a really wonderful exploration of love, loss and life.
  3. TaraShea Nesbit – The Wives of Los Alamos: Focusing on the lives of the women who relocated to New Mexico alongside their husbands when they were called to work in the secret nuclear laboratory that gave birth to the atomic bomb, this is an unusual read, not least because of Nesbit’s (controversial – if you pay attention to Goodreads reviews) decision to use the first person plural throughout. But I have to say, I loved it. Yes it takes a little adjustment and it is odd not to have one or two characters to anchor yourself to as you read but I can’t think of a better way of exploring such a collective experience. Some events are so life-altering and unique that they connect people, often in spite of their differences. Plus the narrative perspective adds interesting layers, such as helping to shed light on the way the women were perceived by the military running the base. Although not a conventional, plot-driven ‘story’, I think Nesbit did a wonderful job of opening the door to an experience that very few could possibly imagine.
  4. Susan Hill – Dolly: A Ghost Story: Hill is the consummate master of the literary goosebump and this novella is no exception. Dolls are scary. Dolls that are the focus of supernatural visitations are even more so. Add in the Cambridgeshire fens (home of many a protagonist gone mad), Hill’s nuanced style with an eye for detail that’s almost filmic and you have a genuine spinetingler. I know my limits. I read this during the day and then watched ‘Hey Duggee’ with my daughter to clear out the creeps.
  5. Margaret Forster – How to Measure a Cow: A fun game to play with this particular book is guessing why and how it got its rather unusual title. You won’t guess it before you get there but then you get that ‘ah-HA!’ moment like when you hear the title of a song buried in the lyrics. That aside, this is an unsettling tale focusing on Tara Fraser who is building a new life in Cumbria to escape an event in her past. Tara is a knotty, complex, untrustworthy and often unlikable character, which always makes for an interesting read.

An emotional move (and Margaret Forster’s ‘My Life in Houses’)

Sometimes books come into your life at just the right time. I’d had Margaret Forster’s sort of biography My Life in Houses on my ‘to read’ list for some time but had largely forgotten about it. Then I spotted it in the library a few short weeks ago. As the sad news of her death had broken only a little while before, I felt it was a very appropriate time to read some more of Forster’s measured, insightful prose and the topic couldn’t have been more fitting given events in my own life.

We’re moving you see, from the lush rolling hills of the Chilterns up to Worcestershire. As the crow flies (or the M40 corridor stretches, which is so much more prosaic), it’s only about 1 1/2 hours from here to there but the psychological and emotional leap that it represents is making into a very. big. thing. indeed.

Where we live now we have made friends and connections that run pretty deep. It’s hard to have a baby somewhere and not encounter comrades in arms who move swiftly from acquaintances to lifelines. We’ve reached that lovely stage where a jaunt into town is always rewarded by a familiar face and the occasional chat, which is a complete joy to someone who works from home.

Our little house, perched on the edge of the Chilterns AONB, walkable to the stately Thames, adjacent to a thriving market town and at the crossover point of not one but THREE national walking trails has been a very happy location for us indeed. I’m a lifelong member of the ‘location, location, location’ club and would happily sacrifice square footage for something inspiring and green outside my front door any day. My little home has been my idyll and my sanctuary and I’m so sad to be leaving it.

But sometimes there must be different priorities.

Our little girl, for one, who really needs her own bedroom. Our families, who we would like to be closer to and to see more of. Our work/life balance, which was being unduly affected by my husband’s job regularly taking him here and there across the country or keeping him tied to a screen late into the evening. So we made some big decisions. And sometime in the next few months, at the whim of solicitors, estate agents and the ominous “chain”, we will exchange here for there and start a new phase of life. It might look very different from this one but I’m hopeful it will have all the right things at it’s heart.

Forster’s words made a difference to me at a time when I was having quite an emotional wobble. I was getting a little caught up in what I was leaving behind and feeling overwhelmed by the strangeness of the soon-to-be new house – with its undiscovered quirks and unfamiliar sounds – and the idea that it just wasn’t home. But when you look at the place of a house in the context of a lifetime, it gives you quite an interesting perspective.

Here’s Forster writing about the same house, at a distance of 50 years:

“…did we really want this house? Does it speak to us, we asked each other mockingly. No. The answer was a resounding No. On the contrary, it yelled at us to run a mile. Its voice, if it had had one, couldn’t compete with that of Heath Villas … The agreement was signed on 18th February 1963. It felt terrifying. We picked up the keys and went into the house, our house. It still smelled bad, it was still unwelcoming, sulking, not at all pleased to see us. We wandered about all the rooms making lists of what needed to be done. There was no feeling of elation whatsoever.”

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“Yet somehow the house itself, its very fabric, is of importance. An intimate knowledge of its layout, of how all the rooms are arranged and used, stimulates a weird pleasure. I know this house. It has been changed by us not only in the real, practical sense of altering its appearance and internal geography, but by our living within it. Instinct guides me everywhere … I share Leonard Woolf’s conviction that … a house lived in for a long time by the same people reflects something of them and gives them something back.”

Forster’s book encouraged me to remember that our new house is, for the moment, just that. It’s a house. When trawling through Zoopla and attending viewings, a house is all we could hope to find. Only by living in it – as we have lived here – by imprinting ourselves on the rooms, by discovering the creaks and the quirks, putting them right or learning to live with them, experiencing happiness, sadness and all the emotions in between, can we hope to turn it into a home.

So I’m adjusting my expectations for our new house, while looking forward to the life we will live in order to transform it.

And I’d thoroughly recommend Forster’s book for anyone who is interested in the process by which bricks and mortar become the beating hearts of the complex lives that we live.