Review Catch-up – again! Cocker, Saint, Jamieson & Stibbe

Firstly some Shiny Linkiness…

Good Pop, Bad Pop by Jarvis Cocker

This book of memoir, styled as an inventory of the stuff in Cocker’s loft from his teens and the early Pulp years until he went down to art college in London, is just a delight. Cocker has such a quirky personality, a conforming Yorkshire sense combined with a desire to be different; droll and at times laconic, at other times spikily animated, a bit anti-establishment, a bit young fogey and certainly a scholar of popular media but also a lover of the slightly left field, you just have to love him as he enthuses about his stuff: from chewing gum to carrier bags, his exercise book containing the earliest Pulp manifesto. The book is physically lovely too. Highly recommended indeed.

Read my full Shiny review here

Source: Own copy – hardback 355 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link (free UK P&P)

Elektra by Jennifer Saint

I enjoyed Saint’s debut, Ariadne – a straightforward, feminist retelling of the Greek heroine’s story and her encounters with Theseus and the Minotaur, and then Dionysus exiled on Naxos, so I had high hopes for Elektra, knowing the story of her family and the Trojan War. In fact, Elektra is one of three female narrators who take turns telling the story of the cursed House of Atreus, the others being her mother Clytemnestra, and Cassandra, Priam’s daughter from Troy brought back by Elektra’s father Agamemnon as the spoils of war. For me, Clytemnestra was by far the most important character; Elektra was a whiny teen for a large part, and Cassandra is far too interesting in her own right to be consigned to being the least of the three. This novel lacks the divine intervention that made Ariadne such fun. Still enjoyable though.

Read my full Shiny review here

Source: Review copy – hardback 341 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link (free UK P&P).

Midlife: Humanity’s Secret Weapon by Andrew Jamieson

I must admit I know little about psychotherapy and psychiatry, but you can’t escape its two superstars, Freud and Jung who are very present in this new addition to the Notting Hill Library’s list. (I couldn’t help but think about Frasier and Niles in Frasier, both psychiatrists – one Freudian, one Jungian – and both in midlife!) The midlife crisis was primarily observed by Jung though, who had a massive one of his own, which Jamieson uses to tell us about Jungian theory in this area.

We have a terribly clichéd view of midlife crises: men become ‘born again bikers’ and buy sports cars to try to recapture their youth, and women go under the plastic surgeon’s knife, and spouses are traded in for younger models, causing huge upset in families. Yet, as Jamieson discovers, when he explores beyond Jung’s experience to look at other notable figures who suffered midlife crises, it seems that many people need this additional rite of passage, of individuation, to survive well into post-reproductive life and become ‘wise elders’. From the pivotal moment of the Cuban Missiles Crisis and other midlife crises of presidents and those in power to Marie Curie’s affair with a colleague after the death of her husband Pierre, Jamieson shows how they worked through it, and considers his own situation too.

This volume was a little heavy on the psychiatry for me, it’s a hard subject to get your head around. However, this book is well-written and informative as well as thought-provoking. I’m not sure I’ve quite reached the ‘wise elder’ state yet though!

Source: Review copy – thank you. Notting Hill Editions hardback, 192 pages.

BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link.

One Day I Shall Astonish the World by Nina Stibbe

I’ve been with Nina Stibbe since her first book, Love, Nina, an hilarious memoir of her years nannying in the 1980stold partly in letters home. Next came three volumes of stories about Lizzie Vogel, going from matchmaking child in Man at the Helm, through being a jobbing teen in a care home in Paradise Lodge, to becoming a dental assistant in Reasons To Be Cheerful. Lizzie is an inspired creation, and Stibbe is such a witty writer, capable of making you chuckle all the time as you read.

In her new novel, she’s moved on from the Vogels, but we’re still in Leicestershire, in the Midlands, where Stibbe hails from. We begin with our narrator Susan in the University of Rutland’s Vice Chancellor’s office where she works. Susan is struggling with the termly newsletter, ‘It seems to have been all lowlights this term,’ she reflects gloomily. It’s fair to read from the following pages that Susan and her husband Roy are in that midlife crisis territory described above. But after this prologue, we head off back to 1990 to follow Susan’s life and how she arrives in the VC’s office. It begins…

I met my husband Roy Warren for the first time at the Two Swans café in the town of Brankham, in late June 1990. I’d always thought of it as a place of romantic encounter because of its wall-sized mural featuring a pair of swans, beak to beak, with amorous eyes and whose necks formed a heart. I’d finished my first-year exams and had come home to work for the summer at the haberdashery shops where I’d been a Saturday girl, but arriving at the shop that Monday morning found it locked and a note on the window reading ‘Late opening due to power cut’ and so went across the road to the two Swans to watch from the window for developments and have a cup of tea.

In walks Roy, and they get chatting and Susan is surprised to find she has butterflies in her stomach. When she sees the shop opening up, they part, knowing they’ll meet again. Susan crosses over to meet another new person in the shop… it’s Norma-Jean Pavlou, daughter of the Pin Cushion’s owner – the star academic, hitherto ‘protected from the drudgery of shop work on account of being a scholar’. From this point onwards, Norma will feature strongly in Susan’s life – at first, it’s because they have to work together but a genuine friendship does develop. However, maintaining that relationship is not easy. There will be times when Susan and Norma will be enemies when Norma uses Susan to further her own glittering career and relationships. There will be other times where Norma will surprise Susan with moments of true empathy (or is it?).

Susan’s academic hopes will be dashed by an unplanned pregnancy, and she marries Roy and drops out of her English Lit course at university and goes full-time at the haberdashers until their daughter Honey is born. Things begin to get a bit complicated for all: the shop is sold, Roy gets a shock from old girlfriend Josie, Norma marries a bounder who drops dead, leaving her a rich widow and we begin to realise that it’s a small world in Brankham, situated right next door to the university, where Susan gets a job in the Estates department, when Norma gets involved again – and those midlife crises begin to loom.

Covering over thirty years of ‘friendship’ right up to the opening weeks of the pandemic, Stibbe packs an awful lot into this novel. The comedy is edgier, reflecting the age of the narrator, Susan, than the light-hearted youthful antics of Lizzie Vogel. Susan is clever, but a practical sort, who will make the best of everything. Norma reminded me of Mitford’s ‘Bolter’, flitting in and out, going from affair to affair, marriage to marriage, knowing that Susan will be there for her. I love campus novels, and the fictional University of Rutland is surely inspired by David Lodge’s own Midlands uni, Rummidge, a hotbed of academic mediocrity and sparring dons which needs to level up. Professor Willoughby, the VC, however comes across as a good man, a trier, if out of his depth – he needs a good PA to do the job with him.

This novel had some super funny moments, but also plenty of bittersweetness. As I mentioned above, there is a sharpness to the text that comes from Susan’s thwarted ambition and unequal relationship with her erstwhile best friend. It was great to see Honey come into her own as she grows up, and she helps to provide the tragicomic climax and explain the novel’s title. This novel is yet another development in Stibbe’s writing career, and I will certainly carry on reading her.

Source: Review copy – thank you. Penguin Viking hardback, 369 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link.

11 thoughts on “Review Catch-up – again! Cocker, Saint, Jamieson & Stibbe

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I agree. It’s a discipline I can’t really get my head around I think. Whereas the neurology in the previous NHE book I read was more approachable than Jungian psychiatry.

  1. Calmgrove says:

    I suppose Midlife would interest me most (my brain tells me I’ve not yet hit that period, my body tells me I’m on the other side!) even though some aspects of Jung, and particular Freud, strike me as hard to follow and even harder to credit. Still, I’ve not taken to fast cars or a young mistress so who knows where I fit!

  2. Laura says:

    I’ve been skipping all the Greek retellings recently, but enjoyed your review. Why does Cassandra always get shortchanged??

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      Thank you. I can only think of the novel Marion Zimmer Bradley wrote about Cassandra way back when – Night’s Daughter.

  3. Liz Dexter says:

    I’m not sure I could deal with Midlife as I’m still seething at my best friend’s husband who did the standard boring male thing and ran off to Australia with a younger model. Hmph. I’m looking forward to getting hold of and reading Jarvis, though!

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I think you’d enjoy her Simon. I actually think the first Lizzie Vogel book was the funniest, but if you don’t like young narrators, maybe not for you. However, Love Nina is wonderful (especially for the way Alan Bennett keeps popping in for tea). This one has some more knowing comedy in it – still brilliantly enjoyable.

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