And breathe! Half term has arrived for me, and I can relax after the busiest first half of term I can ever remember at school. I’ve had a new boss to get to know for the Health & Safety part of my job; new H&S computer systems to learn and then update everything in; a fuller-than-before-Covid programme of trips (I do all the admin and first H&S review); and last but not least the stress each Monday that we might get the call from the ISI (Independent Schools Inspectorate) and having to be on full readiness to respond.
My half term plans? Well, my Covid booster is booked, along with two London Theatre trips (Doctor with Juliet Stevenson and Good with David Tennant) which I’ll report on in due course. But mainly I plan to catch up with my review pile, those to be read and those to be reviewed and enjoy late mornings reading in bed with my furry, purry hot water bottles.
Enough about me. Let’s move on to a bit of a review catch-up…
Tell Me About It by Sacha Naspini
Translated from the Italian by Clarissa Botsford
I reviewed this in full for Shiny a couple of weeks ago (click here).
This novella was a delightful yet dramatic read. I need to spread the word about it further, especially as I’m a huge fan of Europa Editions.
A lonely widow takes her favourite hen into the house as company, but when the hen is put into a catatonic state by watching the washing machine, Nives rings up the vet late at night. Loriano is the same age as Nives, and it turns out they have history, and the late night phonecall becomes a long discussion of regrets, putting the world to rights, and reclaiming her place for Nives, a trial and drama for Loriano. Secrets and lies all come out in a perfectly pitched dialogue, capturing the characters of these two ageing and world-weary adults who are taken back to their youth before they took their lives for granted.
Ultimately, this novella has a good heart, the ending is completely right and satisfying, but it also has that bite, which was unexpected at the start. I was entranced, nay, hypnotised by Nives putting the world to rights, finally claiming her place in that male-dominated society. A single-sitting read that I can wholly recommend.
BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link (free UK P&P)
It’s very rare that I give up on books, but I had two DNFs over the past couple of months.
The first was Nightcrawling by Leila Mottley. I’d bought this as it was longlisted for the Booker, but I just didn’t gel with the characters or the vernacular language and abandoned it after 29 pages. However, Rebecca really liked it.
The second was Clear LIght of Day by Anita Desai. This was our book group read for September, picked from the Big Jubilee Read decade 1972-81. I was just bored by this story of a privileged Indian family after about 50 pages.
Re-Reading The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Our Book Group’s next choice from the Big Jubilee Read decade 1982-91 was more successful for me. I first read it shortly after the first paperback was published in the mid 1980s, and I’d long planned to re-read it, having invested in the Folio Society’s edition, with evocative illustrations by the Balbusso twins.
I enjoyed the re-read a lot. I’d forgotten so much. (I’ve deliberately not watched the TV series, I might now.) Although Atwood says she didn’t include anything that hadn’t already happened, it’s still happening – the overturn of Roe v Wade and Tr*mp are just the tip of the iceberg. Funnily enough, our books group didn’t really have a lot to add, so while everyone thought it was a good read, we were all stunned into silence thinking about it.
I found myself musing about the cod-Latin phrase ‘nolites te bastardes carborundum‘, which Offred found written in the wardrobe. It’s a phrase meant to mean ‘don’t let the bastards grind you down’, and is often also misquoted as ‘nil illegitimi carborundum‘ (sic) or other variations thereof. It is actually an impossible phrase in Latin!
A Pocketful of Happiness by Richard E Grant
When Richard E Grant’s partner of nearly forty years, the renowned dialect coach Joan Washington was dying, she challenged her husband and daughter to find a ‘pocketful of happiness in every day’. She died four days later, and ever since they have tried to live by her wishes.
Grant, as you may know is a committed diarist. He’s kept diaries since he was ten, starting after waking up in the car to find his mother committing adultery with his father’s best friend! He’s previously published two selections of his film diaries in With Nails, and The Wah-Wah Diaries, which were both brilliant, candid and funny. But would this selection dating from December 2020 until Joan’s death be too maudlin?
Despite his anguish as Joan gets more and more ill and he becomes her full time carer, between the pair of them, they are able to still see the good things and the funny things. Joan is a straight-talking Aberdonian, who calls Grant ‘Swaz’ or ‘Swaziboy’ relating back to their first meetings in 1982 when newly arrived from Africa in England, he sought voice lessons from her – and they fell in love.
After the prologue in which Grant recounts the love he and his daughter received from around the world after he announced Joan’s death on Twitter, he takes us straight to 1982 and the story of their meeting. After that, the contemporary diary entries have sections interspersed from the past telling the story of Joan and Richard; falling in love, the death of their first premature daughter, the birth of Olivia, known as Oilly (after Olive Oyl), acting success for Richard, being in demand as a voice coach for Joan.
There is a kind of running gag going through this book, which is his obsession with Barbra Streisand, who he worships from afar. While in Hollywood he lurks outside her gates; he commissions a sculpture of her profile for his garden – then, eventually, thanks to Melissa McCarthy, with whom he acted in Can You Ever Forgive Me? in 2018 (picking up Oscar and Bafta nominations for best supporting actor and actually winning tons of other awards for his role), he finally got to meet her and his life is just made up. Joan ribs him constantly about this.
On the page, Grant is that rarity, to read his writing is to be in the room with him, what you see on the page is him (as far as we can be publicly aware – he never appears to be wearing any kind of mask so to speak). He’s nothing but truthful and candid and he has a unique style of wit, he is also full of emotion and insecurities, but never self-pity. Two photo sections are included, one family, one work (including Barbra!) and the book concludes with some testimonies from their friends and colleagues about the tour de force that was Joan.
Grant’s optimistic outlook, resilience and undoubtedly strong relationships with his late wife, his daughter and closest friends, made this such an enjoyable, yet emotional book to read. I laughed and cried, and resolved to dig out my old DVD of Withnail & I to rewatch and find Can You Ever Forgive Me? to stream. If you like Grant on the screen in any form, you’ll surely enjoy him on the page too.
Source: Own copy. Gallery Books hardback, 324 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link (free UK P&P).