December 21, 2012 § Leave a comment
If there’s one thing you walk away with after reading Antonia Fraser’s memoir Must You Go, My Life with Harold Pinter, it’s that she and her second husband Harold Pinter were deeply in love. Reading a memoir that doesn’t focus exclusively on tribulations its author has overcome is refreshing. Remarkable, even. Fraser has chosen to share what appears to be the happiest period of her life. And in the process proves Tolstoy wrong.
At a party in 1975 Antonia Fraser was involved in a conversation that included the playwright Harold Pinter. She was taking her leave when Pinter turned to her and asked “Must you go?”. And there it began. Both parties were married – Antonia with six children. The affair continued until 1977, when she divorced her first husband in the amicable manner that seemed to be the defining characteristic of their marriage. Pinter’s separation from his wife, the actress Vivien Merchant, was less amicable. The British tabloids had a field day and Merchant refused to sign the divorce papers until 1980. Fraser and Pinter married that same year and lived happily together until his death of cancer in 2008.
This 35 year period is told to us through excerpts of Fraser’s journals with some narrative explanation. She appears to be a rabid diarist – never missing a day. Which is funny when you consider that she’s a biographer by profession, accustomed to perusing her subjects’ diaries, letters and papers in the course of her research. The entries that make up the book are not so much stream-of-conscious ramblings or emotional outpourings as they are concise cataloging of the day’s most interesting events. Fortunately Pinter and Fraser lived interesting lives and knew interesting people – so most of their days together are worth re-visiting. The name dropping that takes place on these pages is almost shameful! Jackie-O, Salman Rushdie, Samuel Beckett, Philip Roth… the list of literati seems never-ending. But her commentary is never salacious. These were the circles the couple traveled in, and as you read you get the sense that Dame Fraser would never commit the impolitesse of gossiping about friends.
I really enjoyed Must You Go, as I have every book I’ve ever read by Antonia Fraser. It may not be for everyone, though. One Goodreads reviewer negatively compared Must You Go to “reading a daytimer”, and to be fair the description isn’t far off. It is this gift of brevity – Antonia Fraser’s ability to capture a moment in a deftly executed prose sketch – that makes her memoir so charming. Little jokes, witty descriptions, notes left on the pages by Pinter (which she welcomed) – it is the description of a full life encapsulated in a few lines a day. Fraser had the sense not to overwork the prose, or expand too much on the things her audience already knew. At times her admiration of Pinter seems almost worshipful, but the book was published 2 years after his death. Her loss is fresh. She obviously misses him. Equally obvious is her happiness in remembering.
Is it a complete picture? Probably not. But Must You Go is a glimpse into their private world. Fraser has every right to choose what she shares.
The audio version, which is what I listened to, is narrated by the incomparable Sandra Duncan. Her inflections are flawless. The 11 hours and 14 minutes moved by quickly, the only off note being the choice made to have the poetry by Harold Pinter which is referenced throughout voiced by a man. Whether it would have flowed so well or been so entertaining to read in book form, I’m not sure. I tend to think it would be. Yet there was something delightfully intimate about hearing it read (it’s written in the first person) as if Fraser was relating the stories over tea. In fact, I intend to avoid interviews given by the real Antonia Fraser. If her true voice differs too much from Duncan’s I’ll be devastated.
AudioBook Publisher: Whole Story AudioBooks, Leicestershire (2010)
ISBN: 978 1 409 11523 6 or through Audibles.com
Print Book Publisher: Nan A. Talese, New York (2010)
ISBN: 978 0 385 53250 1
July 27, 2011 § 9 Comments
The series 100 Pages was started to highlight those books I’ve put aside after 100 pages – not due to any fault of the author or the quality of the writing, but because ultimately they were not to my taste. 100 Pages is a way to recommend deserving books that I know BookSexy Review readers will be interested in, even when I am not.
One Day I Will Write About This Place is a memoir by author Binyavanga Wainaina. Writing in the first person present tense, Wainaina takes the reader through his Kenyan childhood in the 80’s, college in South Africa in the 90’s, and his eventual immigration to the United States in the first decade of the 21st Century. More than the typical coming of age story – the book reminded me of Eudora Welty’s autobiography One Writer’s Beginnings. Binyavanga Wainaina is telling a very specific story which focuses on his development as a writer. He tells it in full-throttle, turn-the-spigot-on-and-let-it-rip stream of consciousness style.
“Stream” may even be too tame a word. Wainaina has unleashed a river of memories, impressions and emotions. The disorganization of his thought process – which he wrestles and maneuvers into the context of his life and the semblance of a plot – feels unusually authentic. His words and ideas are not being arranged with an eye for poetry or artful composition. The writing between these covers reads like raw, unedited data. And I mean that in the best possible sense. There’s a cognizance here that I feel is missing from many memoirs.
And Binyavanga Wainaina stays true to his GRANTA article. The Kenyans he describes do not live in grass huts. They are, in fact, Kenyans in the sense that a New Yorker is from New York. There is a multi-cultural aspect to his childhood. As he says in the article, “Africa is big: fifty-four countries, 900 million people…” and you feel that when reading One Day I Will Write About This Place. His mother was born in Uganda and owns a beauty salon. She “speaks Kinyarwanda (Bufumbria), Luganda, English, and Kiswalhili.” His father is Kenyan, a Gikuyu and is the Managing Director of the Pyrethrum Board of Kenya. He too speaks multiple languages – Gikuyu, Kiswahili and English. They are committed to seeing their country prosper. Young Binyavanga is aware of the politics happening around him, but larger events take place on the periphery of his child’s world.
The most scenic description I came across in the 109 pages I’d read was of a corrugated roofed village that young Wainaina visits with his father to find a mechanical part. It is located in the poorest section of the city, not the section where his family lives. Wainaina is careful to differentiate.
…It is lunchtime, and women are gathered around huge pots cut out of old oil drums; beans and maize are boiling, men queuing for a two-shilling lunch. Screaming, shouting, ladles clashing hard on enamel plates. Now it is the smell of boiling suds of beans.
The grass has been beaten down to nothing by feet over many years in this large patch of ground of banging. Somewhere, not far from here, an open-air church service is taking place: loudspeakers and shouts and screams.
You would not believe that not five hundred meters from here are roads and shops, and skyscrapers and cool restaurants that are playing the music of noiseless elevators, and serving the food of quiet electric mixers and plastic fridge containers. Burgers and coke. Pizza.
My problem finishing One Day I Will Write About This Place have more to do with my personal likes and dislikes than a weakness in the author’s story. First person present is my least favorite narrative tense. The author is not just asking me to immerse myself in his book, but to accept that I am present as the events occur. It’s always felt gimmicky and I’ve difficulty moving past it. Also, I generally don’t like memoirs.
But I can recognize when a book is well written and important. Binyavanga Wainaina has given the reader something that he recognizes as all too rare: an honest representation of modern Africa. A place much more familiar (and less romantic) than that we in the West imagine it to be.
Publisher: Graywolf Press, Minneapolis (2011)
ISBN: 978 1 55597 591 3
March 2, 2011 § 3 Comments
It seems the North American teenager is a truly resilient creature. Even when taken out of their natural environment and dropped into an exotic locale they maintain their normal behavior patterns – angry moping. The quick summary of Deb Olin Unferth’s Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War goes like this – Girl meets Boy. Girl falls for Boy. Girl and Boy go looking for a Revolution. Girl and Boy hang out, bored.
Or, as Unferth much more eloquently puts it…
My boyfriend and I went to join the revolution.
We couldn’t find the first revolution.
The second revolution hired us on and then let us go.
We went to the other revolutions in the area – there were several – but every one we came to let us hang around for a few weeks and then made us leave.
We ran out of money and at last we came home.
I was eighteen. That’s the whole story.
Lucky for us, it’s not. Much more than another coming of age story, Revolution is a Dummy’s Guide to Central American politics in the 80’s. The world is upside down, and while Unferth travels to El Salvador with the best intentions of helping out the revolution (o.k., not exactly), in truth she’s really nothing more than a tourist. One among many. People come from all over the world to support revolutions (who knew?). It’s common enough that the Nicaraguan locals had a name for them. Internationalistas: Westerners who come and go in waves, following revolutions like the Grateful Dead, with no real personal stake in their outcomes. Around them uprisings become inappropriately festive.
A group of jugglers had come from Canada. They’d gone to the northern mountains of Nicaragua, to the war zone. “We walk from town to town,” one told me, “juggling.”
Imagine. We were walking across their war, juggling. We were bringing guitars, plays adapted from Gogol, elephants wearing tasseled hats. I saw it myself and even then I found it a bit odd. The Nicaraguans wanted land, literacy, a decent doctor. We wanted a nice sing-a-long and a ballet. We weren’t a revolution. We were an armed circus.
Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love & Went to Join the War is told with a large font in a slim book. The chapters are anecdotal, clustered around a common theme and organized in loose chronological order. You are reading a series of impressions written down years after the actual events took place. Unferth readily admits that her memory for details is shaky and her insights recent. She second guesses herself frequently. But while dates and times may be estimates, there is no arguing with the raw emotional honesty or the self-deprecating humor. No one could be harder on Unferth then she is on herself, though I couldn’t help but feel that some things were being deliberately glossed over – particularly her history with her family.
This isn’t a comfortable book. But being a teenager isn’t comfortable. Frequently I found myself squirming self-consciously for a clueless girl I completely identified with. I think most readers will. All of us have been young, delusional and in love at one time or another… usually with a much less interesting story when it’s all over.
Publisher: Henry Holt and Company, New York (2010)
ISBN: 978 0 8050 9323 0
February 4, 2011 § 1 Comment
I’m embarrassed to say that I picked up my copy of Elisabeth Tova Bailey’s memoir at last years Book Expo, and waited until now to read it. It seems to have become something of a sleeper hit. First, I heard Michael Kindness review it on the podcast Books On the Nightstand. Then there was a write-up in the NYRB. And then I saw it featured at the local Barnes & Noble. Memoirs are not my usual choice in reading material. But this isn’t the typical memoir. What is unusual about The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating is Bailey’s decision to turn the focus away from herself and the illness that kept her bedridden. Instead she focuses on the moment-to-moment existence of a small, wild snail brought to her in a pot of violets by a friend.
The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating is how I imagine the journals of a 19th century amateur Naturalist would read. Bailey has no scientific training, at least none she thinks worth mentioning. She first takes note of her snail when she finds small, square holes in the corner of a letter on her bedside table. Realizing that the snail has been eating the paper at night she experiments with feeding it flower petals. Through trial and error Bailey learns how to care for her new companion. The snail moves from a flower pot to a full terrarium, graduates from being fed decayed petals to Portobello mushroom slices – and Bailey’s observations begin in earnest (the serious research would begin years later). Eating habits, slime, reproduction, predators – there is much more to a snail’s life than you have ever cared to imagine. Even snail sex is unexpectedly intriguing.
During the summer months, if conditions become too dry, windy, or hot, or if food supplies are limited, a snail will go into a kind of dormancy called estivation. It climbs up a plant, tree, or wall to be away from the earth’s heat and beyond reach of predators or floodwaters. Finding a safe place, it attaches itself firmly with mucus, usually with the shell opening facing upward, which may alert it to weather changes. Then it seals up its entrance with a temporary door made of mucus. This storm door, called an epiphragm, protects it from shifts in temperature and humidity. A snail may estivate for weeks or months, or even several years.
… Their [an epiphragm’s] design is specific to a snail’s species and to its local climate conditions. They may be thin and simple or thick and elaborate. Strategically located breathing holes may be incorporated, or they may be permeable to air. There is quite n art to the construction of these little doors, and justly so. Despite their temporary nature, a good door in severe weather makes the difference between life and death for a snail. An epiphragm is also personal, and its statement is definitive: the snail is home but is not accepting visitors.
Elisabeth Tova Bailey’s book is distinguished by a complete absence of background noise. Her prose is built on silence. She transports the reader into her recovery room, – where there is no television, computer or cellphone. Visitors feel like an intrusion on our solitude, interrupting the rhythm of our day-to-day routine. I felt somewhat resentful towards anything that took my attention away from what was happening inside the terrarium.
Completely engrossing, and often soothing, The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating is a monument to restraint. Equally intriguing as what Bailey tells us is what she chooses not to. Her illness is left unidentified until the epilogue, when it could easily have carried the narrative. It is the reason she was bedridden, unable to tolerate bright lights or loud noises, or to sit up for even short periods of time. But that was not the story she decided to tell. Instead she focused on another life which she came to see as a kindred spirit. The result is beautiful and evocative, the rare book written with scientific precision and a touch of poetry.
Where’er he dwells, he dwells alone,
Except himself he chattels none,
Well satisfied to be his own
– William Cowper, from “The Snail”, 1731
(Wonderful quotes like this one are used as chapter headings throughout the book).
Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, New York (2010)
ISBN: 978 1 56512 606 0
January 30, 2011 § 2 Comments
The book trailer REVOLUTION continues!
I’m still trying to get into this book trailer thing. On the whole – not going so well. But this landed in my Gmail the other day and I found myself intrigued…
The book is Revolution: The Year I Fell In Love & Went To Join the War by Deb Olin Unferth. It’s not every day a girl finds God, a husband and her inner Sandinista. Probably for the best. And yet, it could make for good reading.
What do you think? Is your interest piqued?