Sasha Swire’s diaries, though? Cor! I texted Camilla Long when I was about 15 pages in to this tell-all bitch-a-thon and said “Is it weird how cosy and comforting [the diaries] are?” and Camilla texted back: “Yes, they’re very lifestyle”. Camilla loved this book – she doesn’t like half-measures people who say things like “the WC” or “he passed away” – and the balls-out nature of Mrs Swire is exactly what Camilla is looking for in a memoirist.
Personally, I was fully appalled by the extracts of the diaries I read in the paper, in a pearl-clutching way that I am often capable of. I was outraged by the unsisterliness of the betrayal of Samantha Cameron and Sarah Vine’s confidences. And then doubly furious at my complicity, how gripped I was by it all. Like Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells come to life, I read every. single. word and wouldn’t stop going on about how awful it all was.
So I bought the book – in for a penny, in for a pound – and while it is very lifestyle, (there’s lots of stuff about long walks and curtains and fish pie), the newspaper extracts were very much the best bits.
Swire’s not very good at explaining things, (and why would she be here? She’s talking to herself), and so politicians I’ve never heard of are endlessly making witty quips like, “Of course, he’ll have to bring his horses“, meaning I had to read back two pages to the beginning of some tedious story to work out why this is any sort of solid burn. The ratfuck stuff is boring even when it does make sense.
Another book I read recently was If I Had Your Face by Frances Ha, which is a look at life in South Korea, following the stories of three girls living in the same apartment block in Seoul and a fourth woman, their neighbour. The cultural detail about the obsession in parts of the country with plastic surgery is fascinating but it only really scratches the surface of what you really want to know about daily life.
Say what you like about Crazy Rich Asians, it really opened the door on every aspect of life in a certain social scene, you really understand by the end why Kwan’s characters did what they did, said what they said. He wanted you to understand, see and know everything. If I Had Your Face assumes a bit too much on the part of the reader and the plot isn’t really there. Still, if you like the sound of it, you’ll like it – if you know what I mean.
Help Yourself is a collection of three short stories by Curtis Sittenfeld, which can be read in an afternoon. The first is a now rather standard story about a white woman getting herself into a race-related faux-pas pickle, the second about the making of a documentary and in the third, an academic waits to hear if she has got a much-wanted load of funding.
I would happily have read the first and last stories at length but in a Q&A at the back of the book, Sittenfeld basically says that novels are a pain to write and by the end she is sick of the book, so she prefers writing to a shorter length. I enjoyed all of these stories and was reminded why Sittenfeld is so brilliant yet unpredictable, (god I hated Rodham – and Sisterland), but the fact that there are only three, which you can read so quickly, felt a bit stingy.
How about you? Read any good books lately? Please leave a comment in the handy box below.
I just read searching for Sylvia lee by Jean Kwok. I thought the first 2/3 were epic and then felt a bit let down by the ending but I’d still really recommend it. It’s about a Chinese family who live in New York. They had so little money that they sent their eldest daughter to live with family in Holland for nine years. The book is sort of about the consequences of that decision.
Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams – so bloody funny; Just Ignore Him, Alan Davies – heart wrenchingly difficult to read in parts, but I really appreciated his writing style (didn’t expect to); The Making of Poetry, Adam Nicolson – utterly dreamy writing, thoroughly absorbing, comforting, wonderful. Thank you for the book suggestions – I absolutely LOVE your reading recommendations posts 💕
The Making of Poetry sounds great, I hadn’t heard of it, will track it down, thank you.
It’s such a fantastic book – hope you enjoy it x
Just discovered Lucia Berlin , ‘ A Manual for Cleaning Women’ which blew me away. Really enjoyed ‘The Weekend’ by Charlotte Wood too. Currently on ‘Shuggie Bain’ which is bleak as fuck but great. Got a book called ‘Breasts and Eggs’ by Mieko Kawakami on order too … worth a peep. I hated the first half of ‘Rodham’ too but then it kind of grew on me (or the version of alt Hilary did_. certainly enjoyed thinking about what Sittenfeld was trying to get at in bothering with it in the first place. Led me to watch the Hilary doc (sky arts/docs I think) which I quite enjoyed as a companion piece.
I had a thought while reading Rodham – hang on, if this is a fictional book about an alternative life for Hilary Clinton why not make her re-train as a yogi or go and live in Japan or be a stripper in Finland? I mean I was only being silly with myself but once I’d had the thought the book was kind of over for me
Ha – yes I hear that
But the paragraph about men having great chats with you and then dating vacuous idiots was BANG ON
I’ve had a little bit of a reading slump lately, but I did read The Wonder Spot by Melissa Bank, it’s not recent so maybe everyone has already read it. It’s kind of a coming-of-age, but follows the narrator well into adulthood, giving snapshots of different stages of life; school, work, her friendships and relationships. It wasn’t page-turning as such, and didn’t really go anywhere in particular, but it contained some of the funniest observational writing I’ve read in a long time so I didn’t mind. The other thing I’ve managed to read is quite short, Zadie Smith’s Intimations, a selection of mini essays written during lockdown. They are personal rather than grand statements, but they do touch on the bigger picture. I liked them and found them quite consoling to read. I’ve been quite slowly reading Square Haunting which is about women writers in London between the wars, including H.D, Virginia Woolf, Dorothy L Sayers. It is a close perspective on the cultural history of an area of London, and how these writers carved out space to live and work as artists within the constraints of the time. Today I started Essex Girls by Sarah Perry, a short treatise on the stereotype and beyond, as I have some skin in the game there. I really liked Negative Capability which you recommended here and I’ve got All Adults Here but not got round to it yet. I won’t be touching the Swire, the headlines were enough for me, and I’m picky about memoirs. Sittenfeld – I saw the stories but did feel a bit shortchanged and also still smarting from some of those scenes she wrote in Rodham which I allowed into my head in good faith so think I’ll pass. The slim volume is becoming a thing recently.
deb Khan says
Small Pleasures, Claire Chamberlain is terrific. A perfect novel for many reasons
Love you’re recommendations Esther – couldn’t face Rodham ( why? WHY?), Gutted as American Wife was terrific.
Small pleasures is perfection, a beautiful book which left me achingly sad about the … ending. The Mercies by Kiran milwood hargrave was very good, I do like a novel that weaves historical fact with fictional characters and enjoyed the setting in bleak remote Norway in the 1617s, dealing with survival, patriarchy and witch finding.
deb Khan says
It really is perfection and I thought about that ending for days… and that bloody mother. wowser. Mortified I wrote You’re…
Reading Quite and it’s quite brilliant. Claudia Winkleman is just such a natural writer – she makes everything she does look easy. This will be the book of Christmas – females will love it and males will be given it as a blueprint. Enjoy!
Lesley Somerville says
I’ve just read English Pastoral by everyone’s favourite shepherd-on-the-internet, James Rebanks. It may sound a bit niche but honestly it will/should change the way you buy and eat food. It’s also beautifully written in a mixture of elegy and memoir, a love letter to the countryside of Cumbria, family, sheep and Nature. I savoured every word.
This isn’t a very recent book, but I’ve just read ‘A God in Ruins’ by Kate Atkinson, and loved it, and once again came away convinced that she’s one of the best writers of the 20th century. Her writing is so experimental and complex, but done so skilfully that the books almost masquerade as some kind of literary comfort food. I’m going to go back and reread ‘Life After Life’, and all the others, including the detective books. She’s not unknown, obviously, but I think her actual literary genius is completely underrated and relatively ignored.
It’s a phenomenal book. I gobbled it up one long weekend alone – no kids!- in London, and was in a daze at how magnificent it was. I finished it feeling very… unworthy, so spent an afternoon at the Imperial War Museum and then up to the RAF memorial in Green Park, to pay respects (a bit mad I know, but it felt right). She has a great interview on the Desert Island Discs podcast too. I have quite the girlie crush on her in fact, she can do no wrong in my eyes. (Except for Transcription which i didn’t love. (Sorry Kate…))
Juliana Z says
I absolutely despise the term “he passed away”. People are actually using this in Ireland now…..a country where we made the wake a cultural phenomenon and paid women to keen the dead. This is a horrible effect of globalisation.
Anyway, may I recommend reading really old old books during this pandemic lockdown thingy which seems to go on and on. I’ve just read some of Eric Newby’s travel books from mid twentieth century. They’re cheerful and resilient and genuinely mood enhancing.
Worse again is ‘passed’…