Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Two book recommendations

I'm just back from teaching in Oxford. The students there are so great and I always really enjoy my time there. Recently I have read two really good memoirs. One is called 'When A Crocodile Eats The Sun' by Peter Godwin. I met Peter when we were both speaking at the Words by the Water Festival in Keswick three or four years ago but it's only now that I've got around to reading his book. I thoroughly recommend it - it is beautifully written and totally absorbing. The portrait it paints of his parents is deeply moving - two extra-ordinarily brave, resilient and good humoured people. It really made me think that the generation who are now passing away were simply very much better people than we are now. I didn't want the book to end. It also told me so much about Zimbabwe which I could never have got from newspaper reports. Do read it. The other book I would recommend is 'Deny The Stars' by Jocelyn Hurdnall. It's a very different kind of book but again totally absorbing. The story it tells is shocking and moving and Jocelyn Hurdnall's writing is honest and direct. The book is a fitting tribute to her extra-ordinary son and also reveals the very real horror of what is happening in Palestine.

Monday, 7 March 2011

Caitlin Thomas

I am currently reading Double Drink Story which is Caitlin Thomas' book about her time with Dylan Thomas. I started reading the book with a certain trepidation because although I love and admire Dylan Thomas, I never think that I would like to have met him. In fact, I'm always annoyed by accounts of his and Caitlin's mad drunkenness. And I'm suspicious of writers who try to glamorise their so-called 'Bohemian lives.' I thought that this book might also be written in that vein. But it isn't at all. Not at all. On the contrary, Caitlin Thomas is devastatingly honest and emphasises again and again that her and Dylan's lives were horribly sad and fatally blighted by alcohol. I think I've seldom read such an honest book. Also this is a very well written book. Caitlin may not have had much experience as a writer but she had plenty of raw talent. Sentence after sentence sings. If only she had written more. But how could she with Dylan as a husband? Finally this is a very sad book because it is about wasted talent. But it is also sad because Caitlin never seems to forgive herself, and she should do, because she shines out of this book as an amazing woman - full of honesty, love and joie de vivre.

Monday, 14 February 2011

Memoirs again

I'm still reading memoirs. My current recommendation is Eating Pomegranates by Sarah Gabriel. It is a memoir of a woman who has a genetic issue which means that she was always very likely to get breast cancer - and she does get it and survives, but only just. She writes her story so well and with such honesty. I could really understand this book and I think it could be helpful for anyone who is struggling with serious issues of life and death. I just started reading Gypsy Boy by Mikey Walsh. His writing is also wonderfully direct and unsentimental. But the book is a very hard read just because what happened to him is so appalling. I want to continue with the book because, after all, this is his life and he's been brave enough to write about it and so I should be brave enough to bear witness. But just for the moment I find the story too upsetting. I hope I'll get back to it soon.

Monday, 10 May 2010

More memoirs

I just read A Grief Observed by C S Lewis. It is a famous book, of course, but I didn't get much out of it. Now I'm reading The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls. I'm enjoying it so much. It's a memoir of an American childhood and it is really a very interesting book. What makes it so fascinating is that the reader doesn't know how to judge, or where to place their sympathies. In essence, Jeannette Walls parents (particularly her mother) were people of very high principles who had many inspiring ideas about how life should be lived. And yet because they carried those principles to extremes they were the world's most terrible parents. A great read. I thoroughly recommend it.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010


I'm still reading memoirs. I would thoroughly recommend 'Antigona and Me' by Kate Clanchy. (I actually teach with her but have never met her). I suppose that I really liked the book because Kate Clanchy is dealing with many issues I've dealt with myself so it felt like reading about a friend. But also the book is lively, touching and thoughtful. I also read a very good book called 'Relative Strangers' by Mary Loudon which is about a woman who has a schizophrenic sister. The writing is clear and intelligent and the book really bought home to me what a nightmare schizophrenia is. Am currently reading 'When Did You Last See Your Father?' by Blake Morrison which deserves all the praise heaped upon it. What is extra-ordinary about the book is that Blake Morrison's father is a really tricky and annoying character and yet the book is so full of love. Also it's a book which makes a very small story into an epic. Wonderful.

Friday, 19 March 2010


I am reading memoirs at the moment. I bought five of them - The Mistresss' Daughter by A.M. Homes, Somewhere Near The End by Diana Athill, The Diving Bell And The Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby, Antigona and Me by Kate Clanchy and A Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion. I haven't read Joan Didion's book yet but I've read the other four. I think the one that I've enjoyed most is Kate Clanchy's book, closely followed by A.M.Homes. I was very disappointed by Diana Athill. The book is really very slight and doesn't have much depth to it. There are some interesting thoughts in it but altogether I find it strange that it should have won a major award. The Diving Bell is perhaps the most tragic of the books and there is some wonderful writing in it. And yet some how I didn't feel that I had come away understanding what that experience is really like - perhaps he couldn't find words to describe such hell and perhaps I should be grateful that he didn't try.

Sunday, 31 January 2010

A book to read

Quick book recommendation here. You must read 'Out Stealing Horses' by Per Petterson. It is about an elderly man living in a remote part of Norway who remembers events which happened in the same area after the second World War. It is wonderfully quiet and spare and thoughtful. The sort of book which it is hard to find at the moment. The sort of book which reminds you why reading and writing are important. After I read it I immediately went out and bought copies for a couple of friends.