Tag Archives: memoir

A Life of My Own by Claire Tomalin

In  A Life of My Own (Penguin, 2017), biographer Claire Tomalin turns the focus onto her own life. Originally a journalist by trade, Tomalin also focuses on her family life and marriage to Nick Tomalin, a fellow journalist.

I will be brutally honest here: I read this book by mistake. For some reason, I always, always mix up Claire Tomalin and Claire Harman. I mean, they’re both British biographers of literary people, so maybe it’s a bit understandable. But anyway, I saw this on the shelf at my local library branch and was like, “OOOH, I loved that Charlotte Bronte book!” And the idea of a biographer then writing about their own life was interesting to me.

So, yeah. I was a good chunk of the way through the book when I realized my mistake. I could have set it down there, but I was interested enough and it was a fast enough read to keep going.

Having actually not read any of Claire Tomalin’s biographies, I can’t really compare A LIfe of My Own. I was on occasion frustrated because the moments that could actually have used some closer examination tended to be breezed by instead. Her first husband’s infidelities and abuse, the trauma of some of her childbirth experiences, her relationship with her sister, the harassment she received as a female journalist–all these were brought up, but also summed up quickly and without really looking at them.

And yet, I don’t know how much to blame her for this. After all, it is harder to turn the lens of detachment on your own life and lay out the minute details of your own trauma, especially when (as I suspect) you have spent a long time refusing to acknowledge that it was really that bad. And in Tomalin’s case, people affected by these events are still alive.

On the other hand, that might be an understandable human reaction, but is it then worth a book deal from a major publisher and international publication of what is almost a family memoir? I don’t know. I really don’t. Maybe it’s helpful to remember that Tomalin’s father also wrote a memoir and published it, revealing details that were deeply hurtful to Tomalin herself. I can understand her wishing to avoid doing the same to her own children and grandchildren.

I will say that there’s a deeply upsetting chapter about the suicide of one of Tomalin’s daughters that I found pretty wrong-headed in its approach to discussing the subject. I am not an expert! But if you read this book and know that’s a tough subject for you, I suggest  just skipping it altogether.

I don’t want to make it sound as if this is a bad book. Tomalin’s experiences as a journalist and editor who was also trying to negotiate family life are interesting in their own right. But even there, a description of sexual comments in her direction is almost always followed by “But Biffy and Squinty* didn’t really mean anything by it!” I’m sure in many ways it is a generational gap, a reflection of a shift in overall attitudes and language. And yet! This is still a book published in 2017–granted, just before the force of the latest anti-harrassment movement began–and it grated on me. Gesturing toward a feminist reclaiming of your own life and story and then not actually completing the gesture is almost worse than not making it at all. 

So all in all, a somewhat mixed reaction to this one, and a reinforced feeling that I almost always prefer to read biographies over memoirs. As a side note, I noticed that the US cover is a stack of books, while the UK cover is a photograph of Tomalin herself. Very different marketing, which I assume is driven by name recognition vs a general interest in literary biographies.

* These are not real names; they are Wodehousian inventions of my own

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Previously, on By Singing Light:
Exit, Pursued by A Bear by E.K. Johnston (2016)
“Maurice Sendak’s Little Bear” and the disappearance of Else Holmelund Minarik (2014)
Two Biographies: Vera Atkins and Georgette Heyer (2013)
Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers (2012)

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September 2018 reading

The Likeness Tana French 9.30
The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss 9.29
A Festival of Ghosts by William Alexander 9.28
Point of Dreams Melissa Scott & Lisa Barnett 9.27
Sadie Courtney Summers 9.24
Winter Tide Ruthanna Emrys 9.23
Blood Oath Amanda McCrina 9.22
Bannerless Carrie Vaughn 9.15
Sick Porochista Kakhpour 9.13
Zahrah the Windseeker Nnedi Okorafor 9.8
Confessions of the Fox Jordy Rosenberg 9.6
The Summer of Jordi Perez Amy Spalding 9.4
Dear Mrs Bird AJ Pearce 9.1

Total books read: 13

Total rereads: 0

Favorites:

  • The Summer of Jordi Perez
  • Blood Oath
  • Bannerless
  • The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter
  • Confessions of the Fox

Weekly reading roundups:

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March 2018 reading

 

The Cruel Prince Holly Black 3.11

Pashmina by Nidhi Chanani 3.19

American Panda Gloria Chao 3.3

Emergence CJ Cherryh 3.10

The Belles Dhonielle Clayton 3.13

The Disorderly Knights Dorothy Dunnett 3.12

As the Crow Flies Melanie Gillman 3.26

Leia, Princess of Alderaan Claudia Grey 3.1

Garvey’s Choice Nikki Grimes 3.24

The Wedding Date Jasmine Guillory 3.1

All’s Faire in Middle School Victoria Jamieson 3.14

A Wrinkle in Time Madeleine L’Engle 3.8

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald 3.19

Wonder Woman: The True Amazon Jill Thompson 3. 23

Spinning Tillie Walden 3.12

 

Total books read: 15

Total rereads: 1 (A Wrinkle in Time)

Favorites:

  • Spinning
  • Leia, Princess of Alderaan
  • A Wrinkle in Time
  • The Wedding Date
  • The Belles
  • As the Crow Flies

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H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

H is for Hawk is part memoir, part how to guide, part biography. It weaves together Helen Macdonald’s experiences training a goshawk after her father’s death, her observations about her grief and journey through it, and T.H. White’s experiences training his own goshawk almost a century earlier. It’s a very compelling and also very peculiar book. 

While I was in the middle of reading it, an internet friend of mine summed up her own experience of it as “brilliant but uneasy” and I keep thinking that this is the perfect way to encapsulate the tensions that pervade the book. Macdonald’s narrative voice carries the reader through the sometimes jagged connections between the threads. She has keen insights into grief, herself, the birds, the landscape she encounters while training Mabel–and a lovely turn of phrase. 

At the same time, I keep circling back to the sections about T.H. White. Macdonald includes his story because it fascinated her as a child, because it operates as a warning of how not to train your hawk, because White himself fascinates her and she often defines herself in opposition to him. But it’s an uneasy fascination; as far as I know, and based on the self-portrait in the book, Macdonald is straight, so is it fair for her to take on the subject of White’s tortuous feelings about his own sexuality? I don’t know. She is certainly sympathetic, but sympathy is not everything, and I still just don’t know how to take the comparisons she seems to draw between her grief and White’s self-loathing. There’s perhaps a failure to consider the external cultural forces that are present in White’s case which are not present in her own. Or am I simply oversimplifying what is meant to be a more complex relationship? I do know that I remain uneasy about this aspect of the book.

On the positive side, Macdonald has a great ability to show why she loves hawking while also interrogating its questionable history and less beautiful moments. She’s writing from a position of some privilege and that sometimes shows in ways I suspect she’s not entirely aware of. At the same time, she is willing to engage with the complexities around her, including one of the best passages on the problems with nostalgia for landscapes that I think I’ve ever read.

Despite my overall occasional ambivalence, I would say this one is worth reading for the beauty of the language, that voice which starts in the first sentence and pulled me right in. H is for Hawk is not always an easy book, not always one I agreed with, but I’m also glad that I read it.

Other reviews:

Kathryn Schulz (New Yorker)

Vicki Constantine Croke (NYT)

Katy Waldman (The Slate)

Previously:

The City in the Lake by Rachel Neumeier (2011)

How I Became a Ghost by Tim Tingle (2014)

Bone Gap by Laura Ruby (2015)

Ursula Le Guin Reading Notes: The Tombs of Atuan (2016)

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Three recently read graphic novels

I’ve been dipping back into the world of graphic novels! Here are quick reactions for a few of the ones I’ve read in March.

All’s Faire in Middle School by Victoria Jamieson

I loved Jamieson’s Roller Girl, which felt like a perfect middle grade graphic novel–and a great readalike for the insatiable Telgemeier readers. Like Roller GirlAll’s Faire features a tween girl with a specific interest (in this case, a Ren Faire) and some complicated friendships. It’s hard to read in some places because middle school feelings are A LOT. I appreciated that Imogen is a character who doesn’t intend to be unkind but is anyway, and then has to deal with the fallout from that. It’s at times a messy story, but it should be. Middle school is a messy time. If I have a complaint, it’s that things get tidied up a little bit too much at the end considering the rest of the story. However, I think this book hits its target audience really well.

Pashmina by Nidhi Chanani

A fantasy graphic novel about Priyanka, a young Indian-American girl, who struggles to connect with her single mother. Meanwhile, she becomes increasingly fascinated with India and wanting to experience life there. This only increases when she discovers a mysterious pashmina that seems to transport her there. I’m not quite sure what age to recommend this one to, but it’s a strong story and I like some of the art choices. It’s also pretty explicitly feminist, which is neat! While I’m not familiar with the particular struggles of women in India, Chanani’s inclusion of different kinds of relationships between women and a complicated family and social background gave the story a lot of depth.

Spinning by Tillie Walden

A graphic novel memoir of ice skating, falling in love, and being queer in Texas. I was attracted to this one by the cover–one of the stronger graphic novel covers I can remember, actually! I absolutely loved the style of the artwork and the way each section began with a description of a figure skating move. Each one had a kind of poetic significance with the chapter that came after it; the relationship between the two was not always obvious but was very real. The ending felt frustratingly sad, but also true. And I think the frustration was meant to be there, that Walden was very consciously leaning into the way life doesn’t hand always hand us a satisfying ending. While this deals with some heavy subjects, I also found that it contains moments of warmth and even joy. I’d especially recommend this one for fans of This One Summer.

Other reviews:

Marjorie Ingall on All’s Faire (NYT)

Ibi Zoboi on Pashmina (NYT)

Rachel Cooke on Spinning (The Guardian)

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Previously:

Chime by Franny Billingsley (2011)

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor (2014)

Three of a Kind: Young women coming into power (2015)

Ursula Le Guin Reading Notes: A Wizard of Earthsea (2016)

In the Great Green Room: The Bold and Brilliantl Life of Margaret Wise Brown by Amy Gary (2017)

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Recent Reading: Maguire and Marks

egg & spoonEgg & Spoon by Gregory Maguire: Karyn Silverman kept mentioning Egg & Spoon as one where she thought the historical Russian angle was well done. Having finally read it, I agree! I liked especially the way the characters interacted with with faith–the way they prayed and interceded with saints read as exactly right to me. (Something I wouldn’t necessarily expect from a non-Orthodox author!) And I also liked how Maguire wove in Russian fairytales, both in obvious and not-quite-so-obvious ways. I’d be curious to know how someone who didn’t grow up with the originals or (in my own case) Bilibin’s retellings reacts to that part of the story but it worked really well for me.

My enjoyment of the book wavered a bit based on how I was feeling about the narrator; intrusive narrators are not really my thing. On the other hand, I was engaged enough to not completely mind it, which I suppose is a good sign.I did like the relationship between the two girls quite a bit, the way Cat and Elena both have a lot of growing up to do, even if at first glance it seems like Elena is the wise and mature one. I thought Maguire also did a good job of showing the inequalities of Russian society at the time without condemning the ordinary people involved, and without a ton of overexplaining.

And Baba Yaga grated on me a bit at first, but eventually I settled down, mostly because her place as a figure not bound by time became more apparent. All in all, I liked and appreciated this one a lot. I would recommend it for historical–not so much accuracy as feeling. At the same time, if you’re not a fan of intrusive narrators, or breaking the fourth wall, this one may not be for you.

Book source: public library
Book information: 2014, Candlewick Press; upper mg/YA

between sikBetween Silk and Cyanide by Leo Marks: Between Silk and Cyanide was mentioned by a reader on my post about Noor Inayat Khan, since Marks worked with her and talks about her in his book. It’s a memoir of his time as a cryptographer and code-breaker for the SOE during World War II. Marks is an engaging writer, who I suspect could talk great piffle–his style actually reminded me a bit of Beverly Nichols. At the same time, he’s quite acutely aware of the realities of the struggle he’s engaged in. There were times I laughed, but other times that were completely heartbreaking (perhaps partly because I already knew a bit about some of the SOE agents and their fates–he talks quite a bit about both Noor and Violette Szabo who clearly both made strong impressions).

So this was an informative and interesting book, although I continue to not understand anything about codes. At the same time, I found myself wishing that I were reading it with a history of the SOE at hand, because it’s so much Marks’s story, filtered through his point of view. It’s a delightful, compelling point of view, certainly, and I found myself thinking about the apparent similarities between the creative writing process and the cryptographic one. And it’s not that I doubted Marks’s achievements, but rather that his experience is a bit, as he confesses a few times, insular. It’s not even a flaw as such, because it does exactly what it sets out to do: Leo Marks gives his experience in the SOE. All the same, I would like to balance it with an overview of the same time and situation.

As a side note, Marks was the son of one of the founders of Marks & Co., better known perhaps as 84 Charing Cross Road, and in fact centers a lot of his experience with and love for codes on the bookstore. It’s a source of income, of status (because so many of his superiors with whom he did battle were also customers), and inspiration.

Book source: public library
Book information: 1998, Free Press; adult non-fiction

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