January 31, 2017

Great Summer Read: The book that had been on my TBR forever

I couldn't help noticing how many people taking part in the Great Summer Read seem to get through their To Be Read lists at such a fast clip compared to me. I'm talking about you, person whose book which had been on her list "forever" was The girl on the train, not even two years old! Why I've had Vanity Fair on my list for 15 years! And wasn't it nice to see that someone logged Vanity Fair for this challenge. I wonder how long their "forever" had been!

How long had my choice, The Grand Babylon Hotel by Arnold Bennett, an English author who celebrates his 150th this year, been on my TBR list? I'm not actually sure, but when I encountered it last year in the basement of the Central City Library, a quaint little volume marked on the inside back cover with a pre-smiley-face-era smiley face (no circle! a nose!) by an early, contented reader whom posterity can only know as "L", I didn't waste the opportunity. Reader, I took it out. And then, as sometimes happens with quaint old books, it was due back, and I still hadn't read it, so I took it out again. And again. And again, until it became the book which had been on my other TBR list forever, the "To Be Returned" one, which meant something had to be done, so thank you Great Summer Read!

A fantasia about the denizens of a luxury London hotel at the turn of the century, involving the kidnapping of a middle-European prince, a murderous maitre, or maybe it was the cook, a beautiful and spirited girl and her American millionaire father, The Great Babylon Hotel is described on its back cover as "the forefather of all the comedy-thrillers which were to bob up successfully throughout the present century", which for us was the last one. It was a bit of a cross between an opéra bouffe and the cartoons the great Peter Arno used to draw for the New Yorker, dated but still genial, but alas! lacking the music of the former, and the wit of the latter.

I found myself wondering how it had come to be on my list. So as librarians do, I went looking for sources. Almost the only Arnold Bennett fandom I could find was from twenty years ago. A piece in the New York Times blog Bookend found much to admire in Bennett, despite an unprepossessing opening which surmised that if you were to ask ten literature lovers (my alternate phrase for "poets over 40 or people who travel with a copy of Trollope") whether they've ever read this one-time giant of English literature, you will invariably find that "no more than one in ten will have read an Arnold Bennett novel".

My result was one out of one: I sounded out my uncle, a prolific and wide-ranging reader, 88 years old, who responded that he had indeed read Arnold Bennett. He did use the verb "sample", though, and added "but I couldn't get into him".

The Bookend writer went on to report on how Virginia Woolf dissed Bennett as an Edwardian (read "out-of-date") whose lack of interest in the interior, as opposed to the exterior, things in life led him to write books which leave you so dissatisfied that upon finishing them "you feel you must join a society, or, more desperately, write a cheque".

Virginia has a mean tongue, but I suspect I might have felt that way if I had finished the book. As it turns out, I didn't. I couldn't. At first my opinion was "A bit of a trifle, and dated, but enjoyable in its own way", but as I read on the enjoyment was more and more in its own way, and less and less in mine, until at page 36 I had to acknowledge (after skipping to the end to make sure there were no unexpected developments) that it was gone for good. I hadn't arrived at the page Nancy Pearl would have wanted me to reach according to her "When can you stop reading a book rule", but I had gotten close enough to fire off a mental salute to Nancy on knowing her stuff!

I do have a romantic thing about old hotels, and maybe it was simply that which suggested this book to me. If you do too, I can recommend Hotel Savoy, a literary classic by the Austrian writer Joseph Roth set in a ramshackle hotel in Poland after the first World War, John Irving's The Hotel New Hampshire, which features two hotels, a summer resort in Maine and a rundown Viennese pensione (if you've only tried one of his recent books, think again, this is one of three very funny, inspired books he wrote in his early period, the other two being The world according to Garp and A prayer for Owen Meany), and of course Eloise, a picture book for all ages narrated by a little girl, a relative of Ramona from the Ramona and Beezus books, who lives at the Plaza in New York.

Plus two magnificent movies: the legendary Grand Hotel from 1932 with its all-star cast led by Greta Garbo and John Barrymore, and Wes Anderson's reverie The Grand Budapest Hotel, not based on The Grand Babylon Hotel, but on Stefan Zweig's The post office girl, also recommended!

January 19, 2017

Great Summer Read: Watch a movie or TV show based on a book

What's everyone watching for this challenge? From the reports, lots of different movies and three TV shows.

For the TV shows, I suspect the only suspense may be the ranking. And the order is:

1. The super popular and super costume drama Poldark, based on Winston Graham's historical novels set in 18th century Cornwall, which I have yet to see but intend to!

2. War and Peace, which I'm assuming is last year's magnificent BBC mini-series starring Paul Dano as Pierre and -- just one tiny fault -- someone as Natasha who tries a bit too hard, but it could be the 1972 BBC mini-series with a young Anthony Hopkins as Pierre, or the 2007 Russo-European mini-series with Malcolm McDowell, not as Pierre, a role it would be hard to imagine him in even when he was in the right age group, but as the cruel and controlling -- or to put the role firmly in Mcdowellian territory, let's say monstrous -- Prince Bolkonsky. 

3. Last year's hit series The Night Manager, starring Tom Hiddleston and Hugh Laurie, which I have just been notified is waiting for me at my library, based on the book by John le Carré.

And for those who have already seen all of the above, or who are simply looking for something new, may I suggest the Inspector Montalbano TV series based on the crime novels by Andrea Camilleri. The 91 year old Sicilian writer is a literary treasure in Italy, perhaps the only literary treasure after the recent loss of Umberto Eco, whose medieval mystery The Name of the Rose sparked a hit film adaptation starring Sean Connery which you could also watch for this challenge!

Inspector Montalbano lives in corrupt modern Italy, where he is a thorn in the side of both his superiors and the shady types he pursues, an idiosyncratic loose cannon whose greatest satisfaction, besides getting his man, is enjoying a good meal. 

The movies

Movies people have been watching for this challenge include (besides various Harry Potters and Narnias) RoomThe lady in the vanThe MartianGone girlThe book thiefMr PipMe before you, and Love, Rosie, all from books of the same name. Also Carol, from Patricia Highsmith's 1952 novel The price of salt, pretty much unknown until the movie came along, as she had published it under a pseudonym, presumably for being a story of two women in love in the conformist fifties -- although Highsmith aficionados have postulated that it could also have been because someone who was on her way to becoming famous as a writer of crime novels did not want her name associated with a romantic novel, period. And how about this one -- Home, from The true meaning of Smekday, a book described as being for children, catlovers, and anticipators of alien invasions, so presumably that holds true for the movie as well. For the movie you could add in Rihanna and Jennifer Lopez fans, since they are its stars.

Three older movies which I was happy to see named, as they belong to that category of book-movie duo where both are truly great in their own right, were Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory with Gene Wilder, from the books by Roald Dahl, Steven Spielberg's Empire of the Sun from  J.G. Ballard's novel inspired by his experiences of growing up in Shanghai during World War II, and Milos Forman's masterpiece One flew over the cuckoo's nest, from the book by Ken Kesey.

Here are a few more (not in order) recommendations for movie/book combos which I put in that same double-win category:

1 and 2. The big sleep, based on the book by Raymond Chandler, and  The Maltese falcon based on the book by Dashiell Hammett, two masterpieces of film noir starring the best trenchcoat wearer ever, Humphrey Bogart. You can get them both at one fell swoop with Humphrey Bogart: the essential collection

3. Or even better, get Murder Mysteries from the Greatest Classic Films collection and you'll get them both PLUS the original and unsurpassed The postman always rings twice, with Lana Turner and John Garfield, also in the noir pantheon.
4. The Shawshank redemption based on the novella "Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption" (originally titled "Hope Springs Eternal") in the collection Different seasons by Stephen King. Simply, on my honour roll of perfect films. And it has a happy, if bittersweet, ending!

5. A Clockwork Orange, directed by Stanley Kubrick and based on the book by Anthony Burgess. Revolutionary when it came out and nothing that came later has dulled its edge.

6. The 1962 Lolita, the definitive one, Stanley Kubrick again, from the novel by Vladimir Nabokov, which some people have chosen for their banned book challenge.

7. I should have just made a Stanley Kubrick section! The terrifying The shining, from the book by Stephen King. "Wendy, I'm home!"

8. Trainspotting, mentioned above, directed by Danny Boyle, based on the book by Irvine Welsh. "Choose life!". This is the book/movie where one of the characters illustrates his creed on aging by arguing that Sean Connery's star turn in The name of the rose, mentioned above, was "merely a blip on an otherwise uninterrupted downward trajectory".

9. Blade Runner, directed by Ridley Scott from the book Do androids dream of electric sheep? by Philip K Dick. I confess that in this case I haven't actually read the book, but I'm putting it in anyway because sci-fi cognoscenti all say it's a great read. For sci-fi lovers. Whereas the film is for everyone.

10. To Kill a Mockingbird, from the book by Harper Lee, starring Gregory Peck from my hometown, Gregory Peck who can never not be Atticus Finch for you once you've seen this movie, no matter how many times he buzzes around Rome with Audrey Hepburn on his vespa.

11. Fight club from the book by Chuck Palahniuk. I'm thinking this could be the one time where the movie might actually be better than the book, but don't jump on me if you don't agree, I'm not sure-sure!

12. All Quiet on the Western Front - an oldie, way back from 1930, from the novel by Erich Maria Remarque published the year before, another banned book for your Challenge 13. Yes, it was not allowed to be published in Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, for its pacifism, or as some might say, its realism.

13. No country for old men, by Joel and Ethan Coen, from the book by Cormac McCarthy. For me this was one of those movies that was not at all what you had pictured, but then it becomes your vision too. I simply hadn't been able to imagine the levels that 'menace' could ascend to.

14. My Father's Glory and its sequel My Mother's Castle, directed by Yves Robert, from the autobiographical novels set in the south of France by Marcel Pagnol. These should be better known! I laughed and I cried. 

15. The remains of the day, directed by James Ivory, from the book by Kazuo Ishiguro. As always with Ivory, every detail is in tone. But I include it above all for Anthony Hopkins's performance. Which reminds me, I should put The silence of the lambs here too, from the book by Thomas Harris. 

16. Change of mood to silly, heartwarming, magical Babe, from the book by Dick King-Smith called The sheep-pig, reprinted after the movie under as Babe: the gallant pig.

17. Brokeback Mountain, directed by Ang Lee, based on a short story by Annie Proulx, a format which I suspect was responsible for her being able to say “I may be the first writer in America to have a piece of writing make its way to the screen whole and entire.”

18. The man who laughs, from the book by Victor Hugo. If you enjoy an occasional high tragic drama, this is for you. A young man who was disfigured as a child by a band of misfits who gave him what I discovered is called a "Glasgow smile", and the beautiful blind girl who thinks, from touching his face, that he is always happy.

19. LA Confidential, based on the novel that won James Ellroy his place among the gods of noir. Some changes to the plot in the movie don't change that.

20. What did I choose for this challenge?  I watched The lady in the van, which I thought was superbly done.  It turned out to be one of those movie versions where the characters as brought to life are very different from how you had imagined them, but nonetheless completely compelling. I had pictured Miss Shepherd as more petulant and more faded than the dogmatic and disdainful Miss Shepherd which Maggie Smith gave us, but I liked the greater toughness and thus more startling vulnerability.

But I also decided to re-watch the most terrifying movie I have ever seen, the one I can't believe my parents took their kids to see, even if it was showing at their favourite little art house theatre which usually showed Ingmar Bergman-type movies which might have gone over our heads but certainly not traumatised us. It's the 1946 black and white version of Great Expectations, directed by David Lean.

Two things happened. One was that watching it now as an adult, having seen hundreds of films, I found myself constantly thinking how it was one of the most perfect movies ever made. And two, the scene when the huge, scary, escaped convict Magwitch jumps out from behind the tombstone in the cemetery thick with mist almost stopped my heart, again. On the other hand, it was interesting to see that while for all these years I have remembered seeing Miss Havisham burn up, down to her terrified eyes, it turns out that actually we are only shown the log rolling out of the fire and starting the hem of her cobwebby old wedding dress blazing. It's her horrible screams that let us imagine what later I was sure I had seen.

Ah, movies.


January 12, 2017

Great Summer Read: Read a memoir or biography. Part II: Biographies

Who said her motto was "Well, you can't expect to be liked in my business, but with any luck you can avoid going to jail"?

A biographer.

A nine-time biographer (including of Frank Lloyd Wright and Salvador Dali) who wrote a memoir called Shoot the widow, where she also avows that the purpose of biography is "not just to record, but to reveal".  Oh and did I mention anagrams in the last post? The biographer is named Meryle Secrest.

I haven't read the book, though I might yet, but I did read a review of it by the American critic and essayist Louis Menand in The New Yorker, where he goes on to take an amusing look at various aspects of the biographer's creed, such as their assumption that the real truth about a person will always involve the thing least known about them, and their belief that if they can just get their hands on the letters, all will be explained.

But why, Menand asks? "Why should we especially credit a remark made in a diary or a personal letter? People lie in letters all the time, and they use diaries to moan and vent... They are sites for gossip, flattery, and self-deception." I can quote it because I actually ripped his article out and saved it, I liked it so much. (It was a withdrawn New Yorker.)

In answer to the question, why do people like biographies so much, Menand says Secrest was to the point: people like gossip. And, he adds, they enjoy judging other people's lives. "It's not one of the species' more attractive addictions, and, on the whole, it's probably better to indulge it on the life of a person you have never met".

So let's indulge! I'm not going to recommend any particular biographies, because it comes down to whom you want to know more about, and you will know that better than I do. But I did want to remind everyone that you can see all the new biographies as they arrive by checking our new titles list every month. Just this month there are 215 new biographies at the library, ranging from Celeste, the story of most celebrated courtesan in Belle Epoque Paris, to Emma Goldman: revolution as a way of life by the astute but never arch Vivian Gornick, who presented her own memoir The odd woman and the city at the latest Auckland Writers Festival.

For my Great Summer Read, I'm reading the new biography of Joan Didion, The last love song, by Tracy Daugherty, and I'm almost up to her childhood. Yes, because I firmly believe with big thick biographies like this one, the reader has the right to attack it any way they please. So for instance with Nicholas Shakespeare's big thick Bruce Chatwin biography, which was 600 pages, I just kept it by my bedside for a couple of months (or more) and would simply open it at random and read far enough to get through the episode, and then stop. Another day, another random dip. It absolutely fit that mercurial character and his nomadic lifestyle.

With Joan, I've started at the end of the book, at the furthermost point from whatever we have in common -- namely, the present time, in which she is the literary doyenne of New York (which is to say of America). Also, I was eager to fill in the gaps in her magnetic but noticeably ungrounded (though not false), recent memoir Blue Nights. Then I moved to the middle of the book, her time as movie industry royalty, this only almost totally out of my range of experience, given that I had a boyfriend from Brentwood, the Los Angeles enclave where Didion lived for many of those years, and own a memory of a breakfast with him at a deli where her DNA was certainly floating around. And now I'm closing in on the opening chapters, to finish on the things which bring me closest to Joan: California girlhood, pioneer ancestors, close acquaintance with rattlesnakes, Highway 99, a fascination with the All-American canal.

How is the book? It's very very good, very very interesting, and very very well-written. But as far as revealing goes, I will say this. Asked by the man behind the "Live from the NYPL" author events to give him a seven word biography for his intro, Joan Didion responded with "Seven words do not yet define me".

Neither does this book of 728 pages! Luckily!

Great Summer Read: Read a memoir or a biography. Part I: Memoirs

From Daniel Nester's Shader: 99 notes on car washes, making out in church, grief, and other unlearnable subjects:

     May 2010. My mother handed me a manila folder with a sticky note that said 'For Danny,' written in her immaculate cursive.
     "Maybe these will help with, you know, your memoir." She pronounced "memoir" like "mem-wah," in exaggerated French, accompanied by a hand motion and a cigarette waved in the air.

Mrs. Nester, and everyone else out there, I totally get how talking about a memoir could sound affected, and how the annoyance would be quadrupled by a son correcting your New Jersey pronunciation, as Daniel Nester confesses he had been enough of a jerk to do.

But memoir is actually a good English word. Only its origin is French: mémoire, a memorandum, a note, just like in Daniel Nester's book title. And this is why it's different from autobiography, from the Greek for recounting your life. A memorandum records something not just for the record, but for future use. In the case of a good memoir, I see the future uses as things like making sense of something, or dealing with it, and especially, finding the story.

One of the best memoirs of recent times (in my opinion), Carrie Brownstein's Hunger makes me a modern girl: a memoir, opens like this:

"I've always felt unclaimed. This is a story of the ways I created a territory, something more than just an archipelago of identities, something that could steady me, somewhere that I belonged."

And here she is on her and her band's contribution to rock'n'roll (I can't help but notice that the adjectives apply to her book as well): "Sometimes the works were smart or pithy, profound, poetic, and often they were really messy. But they formed a boundary and a foundation for a lot of the girls who had been undone by invisibility, including myself."

Rock'n'roll is of course a classic genre in the body of memoir literature, along with misery (Angela's ashes being the mother of all misery memoirs and also an undeniably good read, unlike many of the children it spawned), celebrity, addiction, canine, mean-mothereccentric-mother, bad dad, outlaw, redemption, sexuality, mental illness, and apparently one called Shtick-lit, from the Yiddish-derived term for a gimmick, which is when someone goes off and does something for a year just to be able to write about it. Fake, however, is not a memoir genre.

I've been exploring a contemporary genre which as far as I'm aware has not yet been given a name, but I'd suggest  "Funny books about horrible things", from Jenny Lawson's Furiously happy: a funny book about horrible things. One could argue this book belongs in the mental illness memoir genre, but I think it needs a different category, to respect the author's creed that you should be defined not by your life's "imperfect moments", but by your reaction to them. I enjoyed it, though it was a bit exhausting.

Jeanne Darst's very funny Fiction ruined my family was instead an energising read which I'd also place in this genre, where I expected Jennifer Weiner's Hungry heart would also go, though after reading it (most of it), I'm not sure. I hadn't read her novels and picked it for its title and because she'd had a feud with Jonathan Franzen. I wanted someone excavating the humour in horrible experiences, but her style is more about playing it for laughs from the start. My intuition is that with personal memoirs you should look for an author you're compatible with and not at what everybody's reading -- pretty basic for anyone who's been in a relationship!

Read by the author 

Did you know you can get an eAudiobook of Furiously happy read by Jenny Lawson herself? Here are some other popular eAudiobook memoirs read by their authors:

The lady in the van by Alan Bennett  (you can also see the movie version for Challenge 8!)
Between the world and me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Fear of fifty: a midlife memoir by Erica Jong
Unsinkable: a memoir by Debbie Reynolds
Moab is my washpot by Stephen Fry
Instant Mom by Nia Vardalos (of 'My Big Fat Greek Wedding' fame)
An improvised life by Alan Arkin
Where am I now? True stories of girlhood and accidental fame by Mara Wilson (star of the movie version of  Roald Dahl's Matilda)

and many more which you can find on the 'Read by the author' list curated by our Collections team on the Overdrive home page in our Digital Library.

If you like perusing recommendations, here are some of my favourite memoir genres and writers:

Obsession (possibly my favourite memoir genre)

My Judy Garland Life (2008) by Susie Boyt. "Speaks to anyone who has ever nursed an obsession" says the cover blurb. Non-obsessives will find it over the top. I loved it.

What to look for in winter: a memoir of blindness (2010) by Candia McWilliam. If you haven't ever suffered from self-doubt, we probably couldn't be friends. Candia McWilliam's self-doubt was crippling, or more correctly, blinding.

Double down: reflections on gambling and loss (1999) by Frederick and Steven Barthelme. The addictive land of possibility. "We would have been willing to win, but we were content to lose."

Nothing to be frightened of  by Julian Barnes (2008). A portrait of a family and a philosophical, intellectually curious, and often funny exploration of our obsession with death.


Just Kids by Patti Smith (2009). Patti and Robert, on their way to becoming legendary. The book is already legendary itself, and rightly so.

Slow days, fast company: the world, the flesh, and L.A. (2016) by Eve Babitz. A look back at the 60s-70s L.A. scene by one of its protagonists.

Sadness and grief

Dog Years (2007) by the American poet Mark Doty was recommended to me as one of the saddest books ever written. (If you wonder why that would be a recommendation, just skip this!). In a time of despair and depression, his long-term partner dying of AIDS, Doty's dogs convey something essential. "It isn't that one wants to live for the sake of a dog, exactly, but that dogs show you why you might want to."

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion (2012). An idiosyncratic book about grief after sudden loss, from an author at the top of her game.

Nox (2010) by Anne Carson. I found this attempt (half book, half artwork) by a poet to come to terms with the loss of her brother, taking as her departure point an elegy by Catullus, incredibly affecting. 


In the darkroom by Susan Faludi (2016). Faludi describes her book as a pursuit of her father, a man who exited her life as a tyrant and bully, and who gets in touch almost 30 years later to announce that he has undergone sex-reassignment surgery. No happy endings, but some precious understandings.

The Bill from my Father (2006) Art critic Bernard Cooper's father once sent him an itemised bill for his upbringing. One of the best books I read last year. Is articulate an anagram of art critic? Not quite but it should be. Needs an anagram for witty, too, though!

The Duke of Deception by Geoffrey Woolf (1979). You may be, or then again you might not be, surprised at how many deceptive dad memoirs there are; for me, this one, from way back in 1979, is unsurpassed.

Boyhood, girlhood, families:

Toast: the story of a boy's hunger by Nigel Slater (2003). I have long championed a ban on the phrase 'achingly beautiful' - whew, this book isn't achingly beautiful, but it is beautiful in its description of an achingly hungry, above all for love, boy.

Skating to Antartica by Jenny Diski (2005)- Another deceptive dad, here matched with an eccentric mother, but it's not really "Families". Probably more "Unclassifiable". I plucked it off a travel books display at the Leys Institute Library, didn't find a travel book, but did find a great memoir writer. Practically everything Jenny Diski wrote was a memoir, up to and including the book she wrote while dying of cancer - In gratitude (2016).

Fun home: a family tragicomic (2006) by Alison Bechdel. Fun home is a memoir in comic format, and that's about as far as the comic in 'tragicomic' goes. Growing up in a funeral home can be funny, a closeted father moves us into irony, and with suicide, we're at tragic. I note that on our catalogue record the publisher is down as calling the ending 'redemptive'. My word of choice would have been 'unforgettable'.

Fun home is actually only one of a large number of memoirs in comic format.  Here are a few more I recommend:

Graphic memoirs

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
Stitches: a memoir by David Small
Epileptic by David B.
Tomboy by Liz Prince


Straight life by Art Pepper (1979, updated 1994).  Living the jazz life, with boundless talent, beauty and self-destructiveness.

Poison heart: surviving the Ramones by Dee Dee Ramone (2009) A music journalist I know recommended this one!

And closer to home -- and new: 

Goneville by Nick Bollinger (2016). "Goneville is at once a coming-of-age memoir and an intimate look at the evolving music scene in 1970s New Zealand. It show how this music intersected - sometimes violently - with the prevailing culture, in which real men played rugby, not rock. Nick Bollinger draws on his own experiences and also seeks out key figures and unsung heroes to reflect on the hard, often thankless and occasionally joyous life of the career musician"-- Cover blurb


Grayson Perry: portrait of the artist as a young girl as "caught by" Wendy Jones (2006). Self-deprecating, irreverent and insightful thoughts about growing up by the rebellious artist and transvestite. I'm waiting for my copy of his new book, The descent of man, "exploring everything from sex, seriousness and intimidation to clothing, childhood and power."

Strangeland (2005) by Tracey Emin. Only for people who find a sentence like this appealing: "Here I am, a fucked, crazy, anorexic-alcoholic-childless, beautiful woman. I never dreamt it would be like this.'

My avant-garde education (2015) by Bernard Cooper. The same entertaining Bernard Cooper cited above, this time looking back at his salad days in the pop art and then conceptual art years.

Memoirs have never been as popular as now, in our age of Reality Hunger, and all these are just to make you aware of the range. I'm sure you will find a good one which suits your taste, your mood, your time.

Happy reading!

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