June Books

Jul. 1st, 2013 11:34 am
slemslempike: (books: slemslempike)
[personal profile] slemslempike
Paying Guest in Siberia - Maria Hadow
The Guttenberg Bible - Steve Guttenberg
Bossypants - Tina Fey
Toujours Cricklewood? - Alan Coren
The Rehearsal - Eleanor Catton
Bad Girls Don't Die - Katie Alender
Waiting for the Party - Ann Thwaite
The Sara Summer - Mary Downing Hahn
Woman Alive! - Nelle McFather
Seducers in Ecuador and The Heir - Vita Sackville-West
Fearless Fourteen - Janet Evanovich
Les Girls - Constance Tomkinson
Heartburn - Nora Ephron

Paying Guest in Siberia is the memoir of a Polish woman whose mother was exiled to Siberia at the start of the second world war, and who insisted that she be exiled too because she worried that her mother would die without her. It is quite slight, never really going very deep or threading any themes through the book. While it was undoubtedly a hard life, it also suffers from being nothing like as dreadful or circumscribed a life as people sent to camps, or indeed as hard as life might have been if she had stayed in Poland.

[livejournal.com profile] slightlyfoxed kindly bought me The Guttenberg Bible as a birthday present. After brunch a group of us went to Oxfam Books. I spied this book on the shelf and adored the title. It is a look at Steve Guttenberg's career from moving to LA as a 17 year old neophyte keen to break into acting, through the successes of Cocoon, Police Academy (and sequels) and Three Men and a Baby. It stops shortly after that in about 1989, which is a little frustrating, but also probably a good thing, as it might have made me sad if he were upset that he was in not quite as high demand as before. (But there are rumours of a) Guttenberg directing a new Police Academy film, and b) Guttenberg, Danson and Selleck ALL coming back together for Three Men and a Bride. It's not *quite* the same as people wanting him for their projects, but still!) Basically he seems like a really nice guy, half humble, and half absolutely believing that the projects he was in were all great. It's quite short on exciting Hollywood anecdotes, but does have several funny and touching bits about his parents. I would totally read a sequel.

I quite enjoy Tina Fey, but always find myself nodding quite enthusiastically at articles pointing out that 30 Rock is quite shitty at women, and that Fey's brand of feminism does an awful lot of criticising other women for not being like she wants them to be. (In particular, strippers and sex workers.) So I didn't rush out to buy Bossypants when it came out, but assumed that I would eventually read it and would probably enjoy most of it while finding it annoying in some places. And that is pretty much what happened. I particularly liked her description of her time working behind the scenes, but it's very neo-liberal feminist in its assertion that of course there's no innate sexism in the set-up of writing rooms, and you just have to be up to taking it on the chin. There's a story early on in the book in which she writes about having learned that gay people are people in their own right, not just accessories to amuse her. Later in the book she tells a story in which she refers to "the short gay" several times. It is clearly meant to be ironic. It does not work.

Toujours Cricklewood? is a collection of a year's worth of Coren's columns from wherever he wrote them first - deceptively bucolic and parochial, and interesting now for snippets of Victoria Coren being a snippish teenager. I've read The Essential Alan Coren and a few of his other books, but I recognised only a few pieces in this.

After reading The Rehearsal I came across a note on my phone of a list of books I'd like to read, of which The Rehearsal was one. Despite that, I had no recollection of ever hearing about it before. it's an odd book, two main strands that weave into one another, and sometimes written like the description of a play and sometimes more standard prose. One part is a flute teacher and her pupils - she is harsh, not caring when one student dies because she wasn't very interesting, and jealous and overly invested in the lives of her preferred pupils. One of these preferred pupils' sister has just been found to have had an under-age sexual relationship with her music teacher, which fascinates the flute teacher. The other strand is a boy going to drama college. The students are all rather horrendous, and very into themselves and their dramatic arts. They have to give a first year production, and in order to make it real and immediate, they use a story they have heard from their town, the story of a teenage girl having an affair with her music teacher. The boy in drama college starts dating the affair-having-girl's sister (or does he? the affair-having-girl's sister also appears to be having a relationship with another girl - or is that just made up by the flute teacher?), and it all doesn't come to a head confusingly through bits which might be part of the play or might not. Unsettling and rather good.

Bad Girls Don't Die was also from the Oxfam bookshop. It was shelved in YA dark romance, which I don't normally go for, but when I flicked through there was a mention of cheerleaders so I bought it. I really enjoyed it - it actually wasn't vampires, or romance, in fact, but a story of a girl trying to battle her younger sister who's turned evil, and finding out that it's a possession and trying to solve it with the help of someone whom it turns out is the daughter of someone who was murdered by the same demon/spirit thing. It was genuinely very creepy throughout, and also well-written. I'll get the sequels if I find them, especially since the next one is called From Bad to Cursed, which amuses me.

Waiting for the Party is a biography of Frances Hodgson Burnett, originally written in the 1960s. It is a little dry, but still interesting enough to keep reading into lukewarm bathwater a few times. It's really good on looking at Burnett's writing as a job, the pressures she felt to make money as well as actually wanting to write. I hadn't realised she'd had such two unhappy marriages and one son die. As I also know her primarily as a children's author, it was really good to learn more about her adult titles in addition to the Persephone re-issues I've read.

I read The Sara Summer as a ten or eleven year old, I think, and somehow bits of it stuck with me for ages, though not the title. I worked that out a few years ago (when your main concrete recollection is "she was called Sara", a book called "The Sara Summer" is a fairly easy connection to make), and eventually got around to buying it this year, though I can't now remember what prompted me to make the plunge. Anyway, elements of what I remember are there, particularly the horrible bullying of Sara's younger sister, whom she calls Hairball, and the disapproval of the main character's mother. I had, though, remembered Sara's mother slapping her across the face, and this being deeply shocking, but it turns out that the narrator and Sara have a fight involving slapping after Hairball nearly gets killed. So either I misremembered, or there is another book with a significant mother-daughter faceslap. Anyway, I was glad to reread it, and I hope that I noticed the bullying was as horrible as it is when I first read it.

It's a slight book, just one summer in the life of a 12 year old. Emily, the narrator, is 5 foot 8 at 12 years old, and her "friends" at school are using this as a difference to tease her about because they don't really understand her difference in terms of not wanting to be breathy and giggly and into boys. Sara moves into the house across the road from Emily, and is 1 inch taller. Emily's kind of mesmerised by how messy Sara's house is, how she gets away with being so mean to her sister, and how little her mother intervenes. They become friends kind of by default, and Emily goes along with Sara's bullying of Hairball, and benefits from Sara's fuck-you attitude towards the giggly breathy girls. It comes to a head when Sara tries to force Hairball into a smelly, dark bunker, Hairball nearly gets hit by a train, and Sara and Emily fight. Then school is about to start, and they drift back into friendship.

I found Woman Alive! on the bookshelves in the bar at a work thing, looked at it because of the title and took it home because of the amazing 80s cover:


The incredibly glittery top! The weird leaf hair ornament! THE CIGARETTE IN A PLASTIC HOLDER! The blurb makes it sound much more exciting than it is. It is not, you may be surprised to learn, a good book. It almost achieves excellence through dreadfulness in a few places, but never quite makes it. Jessica's husband dies, and she discovers all was not as it seems! But actually this is forgotten about quite quickly and it's mostly about her and her group of 40ish friends refinding themselves, which they mostly do in order to decide that now they've done that they can go back to men and marriage, including in one case the exact same man. There is also a call girl who started having sex at a young, young age but none of those men are to blame because all the seduction was on her side, and all she really wants is love. There is a black woman (singular, of course), who is, surprise surprise, an uneducated maid who really likes Jessica and noses around the other apartments. There is also a burglar who is a big deal at the beginning of the book, and then never mentioned until the end when it gets solved. There's a lot of sex, of which none is as sexy as it thinks.

Seducers in Ecuador and The Heir is two novellas, but they're more like long short stories. I don't know what the definition of a novella is. I should look it up, but I'm not going to. It's nice to keep some ignorance in your life, keeps things interesting. Anyway, I enjoyed both of these. In Seducers a man starts wearing sunglasses and is so taken by his new-found distance from the world he starts doing the absurd. First he marries a woman he met in Cairo (and they never mention it to one another after the ceremony) because her seducer has gone to Ecuador and her brother might get a bit cross with her for getting pregnant. Then he agrees to euthanise someone he also met in Cairo, which goes a bit wrong when he is found guilty of murder. In the courtroom he has to remove his sunglasses, and finds everything sadly mundane and unstoppable. He is sad to find out that the woman he married wasn't lying about the seducer in Ecuador. He is hanged. In The Heir a man, Chase, inherits a large house and its grounds and contents from a great aunt - they were not close, and he is mostly a bit bemused and thinks he will be glad to get back to his life in Wolverhampton. The lawyer is pleased that it has finally happened as he is counting on the sale to bring in a lot of business. After a few visits, however, Chase gets oddly attached, feels some connection to the tenants, and eventually turns up at the house sale, much to the lawyer's distaste, buys his own house and cancels the sale. The servants are quietly pleased.

Fearless Fourteen was on the swap shelf at the hotel I stayed at in Amsterdam, and as I was in the mood for mildly entertaining froth I picked it up, and it frothed and mildly entertained as needed. I don't know if the series has got less good, or if I've just got fonder memories of the earlier ones than they deserve, but it seemed to be somewhat lacking.

Also in Amsterdam, I found Les Girls on a Dutch bookstall at a market near a canal. It's a rather lovely book about a woman n the 1930s who isn't a very good actress, dancer, or singer, but managed to get into a dance troupe that was going on a Scandinavian tour. The troupe is pretty bad, and the company folds, so she and a few women she has befriended go to Paris where she joins the follies, and then she goes round Europe always waiting to get found out, but never quite getting there. It's rather a lovely book to read, with the information about how some girls get protectors, and then move in other girls with them to protect their virtue, how none of them can manage money, so they sleep late to avoid having to have breakfast, and the lack of glamour behind the scenes.

I read Heartburn because Hadley Freeman recommended it. It is funny, and the somewhat idiotic narrator manages not to become too grating when she is making one poor decision after another.


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