Kudzu girl

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I’m a bit of an Ameri-lit junkie, especially of writings set in the Deep South. If it has fireflies, mad as a fish Southern relatives and moccasin snakes, I’ll read it. If it has Spanish Moss, palmetto, piney woods and a drawl as thick as sorghum, I’ll probably read it more than once. I have been known to seek out online recordings of screeching insects (Cicadas no less) to accompany my readings for that authentic touch and my allotment shed even has a porch built onto it. All we need now is humidity levels saturated enough to send a dog mad and a red clay road dried to cracks so deep you could lose your aunt down them and I’ll die happy. I am aware that I am hopelessly outdated and a dinosaur, clinging onto a vision of the south that is trying really hard to disappear in a cloud of dust down an old track; I am also aware that it is not ‘my’ south to make demands upon. I am, at best, a fascinated onlooker.

The New South is a term that asks us to refashion these older constructions and explore the duality of the Old South. As people acknowledge and face the horrors of Jim Crow’s laws of segregation and the slavery and crop sharing that predated it, it is to be hoped that literature will both reflect this and also move forward in a more progressive and inclusive manner.

Fred Hobson in The Southern Writer in the Postmodern World has said that the problem for the new neo-gothic writers of the contemporary South is that southern social reality no longer so dramatically supports a writerly fiction. Read this excerpt from ‘Deep South: memory and observation‘  by Erskine Caldwell and see what I mean about an evocative portrayal of a South that may no longer exist except in our own imaginations:

“Along the trails and footpaths in the ravines, out of sight of paved roads and highways, shacks and cabins tilt and sag and rot on the verge of collapse in the shadow of the green summer thatch of white oaks and black walnuts. The faces of the old people are saying that all is lost and tomorrow will be like yesterday and today- unless it is worse”

The poetry in Caldwells writing is subdued but lucid, it doesn’t get between the reader and the story but instead offers a series of vignettes, scenes, that infuse our minds eye with vivid imagery whether we have been to this place or not- but it does feel ‘old’. It induces within me a nostalgia for the childhood I never had in a place I never grew up in and exists within me as a habit, an evocative Southern tic.

The inimitable Bailey White is author of what is perhaps my most favourite line ever. Her collection of short stories and family vignettes,Mama Makes up her Mind’ – is sublimely hilarious and creepy, saturated with left field weirdness which stays in your head, coming out to torment in the dark of night. Writing about her hardscrabble collection of gothic bizarre family members and the family home, slowly collapsing onto its own foundations, subsiding into a crawlspace literally and metaphorically invokes a terrible fear of creepy crawlies and what she describes as “The high knobbly kneed scrambling gait, a scuttling sound and then the worst thing of all…The watching silence of spiders”

More Carson McCullers than Steel Magnolias, White’s cast of characters inhabit a world of man eating clam shells, bellowing alligators that perform on command, sinkholes that bear resemblance to the Gardens of Eden and an Uncle called Jimbuddy who is slowly and accidentally chopping off bits of his body. The formidable Mama, customer of a North Florida jukejoint so intimidating it frightened Hemingway is the fulcrum of all the zaniness. The tales spill over into volume II ‘Sleeping at the Starlite Motel’ and ‘Nothing With Strings: NPR’s Beloved Holiday Stories‘ whilst her first novel ‘Quite A Year for Plums’ continues in a similar dialectic – about a peanut pathologist called Roger and the various small town women in hot pursuit of him.

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The phrase ‘Woman of Letters’ (whilst originally referring to a more scholarly approach) could be applied to my next love, Julia Reed whose light hearted and throaty accounts of life down South belie her fierce intelligence and journalistic pedigree. Contributing editor at Newsweek, Vogue and The New York Times Magazine among others, Reed has a long and noble history as once political correspondent, flying around the South covering the three times Governor of New Orleans, Edwin Edwards’ final comeback, and managing to make it sound as if she gaily thrived on a diet of Galatoires oysters, chicory coffee and the fumes of chicanery when in fact it was a gruelling tour around the political stumps. Any woman who can survive three weeks with a politician who states “To fall out of favour with the voters of Louisiana, I’d have to be found in bed with a dead girl or a live boy” and not knock his smug block off, deserves the utmost respect.

Reed has an encyclopedic knowledge of the South and New Orleans in particular- the food, culture, music and politics and having spent many years travelling the world for work, is possessed of anecdotes extraordinary in their breadth and hilarity. This is the woman whose account of Hurricane Katrina and her response to the devastation and political mess was in turn moving, confusingly flippant and self centred. Anna Wintour (her editor at Vogue) even told her to cut some paragraphs out because they made her sound like Marie Antoinette (oh the irony of that). Yet the love she has for New Orleans shines out and she managed to evade the National Guard to re-enter the closed off city after the hurricane to rescue friends pets, empty out their stinking fridges and feed the hungry young men and women sent to enforce curfew and rescue citizens because she couldn’t bear to think of  them subsisting on MRE’s in a city known for its fine food. After peeling enough tomatoes to feed the thousands of  folks evacuated to her parents home in Greenford, Mississippi and transporting pounds of home fried chicken to troops, we see the blitz spirit is not solely the preserve of the British.

Her book ‘The House on First Street’ is an  autobiographical  love letter to a city and then to a house – the Greek revival home she made in the Garden District after decades of unsettled roaming from place to place. Alognside her love of art, architecture and interior design, Reed is healthily obsessed with food, a source of amazement to me considering the fact that she is a long time American Vogue editor- a place not known for eating heartily. Littered with accounts of restaurants and functioning as part travel and gustatory guide, the descriptions of her appetite evolution, times with the famous, the notorious and the notable provide enough anecdotes to keep a chat show host employed for a century. I have read and re-read all of Reed’s books – ‘Queen of The Turtle Derby’, ‘But Mama Always Puts Vodka in the Sangriaand ‘Ham Biscuits, Hostess Gowns & Other Southern Specialities‘ and I couldn’t choose one over the other -you’d best read them all.

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Patrick Dunne, the owner of Lucillus, a culinary antiques shop is a close friend of Reed and in his book ‘The Epicurean Collector’ he distills a soupcon of the sumptuous and epic set like charm of his store into this wonderful and informative coffee table book. Originally a series of articles written for Southern Accents Magazine, he expands upon these combining primary historical sources with personal anecdotes and exquisite photographs to tell the story of the objet d’art he has discovered, sold and owned – salt safes and pigs, cooking irons and a pair of porcelain chocolate pots, the latter inspiring an historical tit bit- Madame De Pompadour employed staff to ‘warm her frigid blood before conjugal visits from Louis XV’. ‘Like all of History’ writes Dunne, ‘the story of how we eat is yet another part of our long tale about being human’

The central power of the biographical form is not set in stone. There is the grand impersonal narrative of history and then there is the life lived and few have lived as fully as fine southern gentleman and food writer James Villas. Born a Tarheel and fiercely proud of it with a mamma who makes the best biscuits and ‘pimmena cheese’ (Pimento Cheese) in the land, Villas has sailed the Queen Mary in the company of Dali, eaten at La Cote D’Or as a young penniless student (without realising where he was), sang with Elaine Strich, tried to keep Tennessee Williams from drinking restaurants dry and was nursed through a bad oyster by MK Fisher. In between all this grandness, detailed in his many books (‘Between Bites’, ‘Villas at Table’, ‘American Tastes‘ and ‘Stalking the Green Fairy’) Villas is also capable of rhapsodising about the treasures to be found in wholesale shopping clubs, Dukes mayonnaise, the low rent food loves of chefs and the best way to make a Brunswick stew. He is, by far, my favourite American food writer.

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“Don’t try to out-Cracker me,” writes novelist and expert in Crackerdom Janice Owens. Those words headline a blog post on her website just below a recipe for Thanksgiving Potato Basil Chicken Soup and refer to her proud cultural identity as Queen of Florida crackerdom whose ancestors have been cooking cornbread in the state since 1767. The Florida Cracker has a complicated etymology with some claiming it as a racially and culturally charged slur (on a par with the British ‘Chav’ and ‘Pikey), however to a Floridian it has been redefined to encompass pride and cultural value. The historian Dana Ste. Claire describes a Cracker as “a self-reliant, independent, and tenacious settler,” often of Celtic stock, who “valued independence and a restraint-free life over material prosperity.” The Florida cracker heritage is valued and increasingly celebrated by writers such as Owens in her cookbook ‘The Cracker Kitchen’ and her novel ‘American Ghosts’. The latter addresses intergenerational Southern allegiances and the regions dark history in this tale of a relationship between local girl Jodie and her Jewish lover and its dangerous reach into the future of the people involved.

We don’t tend to think of the Jewish experience when we imagine life in the South and that is why I love Roy Hoffman’s ‘Chicken Dreaming Corn’. The title is derived from a term used by the authors Romanian Jewish grandmother to refer to the yearnings of ordinary folks for something special or extraordinary  and the book recounts the American dream of its protagonist Morris Kleinman as he runs his clothing shop in the southern port city of Mobile, Alabama. Praised by Harper Lee for its “lean and clean prose”, Hoffman was inspired by works like ‘Ragtime’ to blend both real and fictional names whilst retaining a storytelling ethos- 50% imagination and a blend of research and family stories.

It took a Hawaiian-Japanese friend to introduce me to the joys of Michael Lee West. Her early book ‘Consuming Passions’ was at there at the start of my love for southern writing when it arrived one day on my doormat via the USAF at Lakenheath. Anyone with a mamma whose leaving home gift to her daughter is a jar of Vaseline to rub on the fire escape to foil burglars (especially when her first home did not have a fire escape) and an Uncle called Bun who went to Brazil and married a South American nymphomaniac is destined to be a writer. It would be a crime against the literature loving masses to NOT commit these vignettes to paper. Each chapter is rounded off with an authentic family essay, predominately food driven (How to season a cast iron pan, ‘How to make perfect iced tea) although you do not have to be food obsessed to find them absolutely charming and riven with fun. Lee West has written quite a few fiction novels to but it is this food memoir that I love the most.

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Now I know that West Virginia is not the ‘Deep South’- I was traumatised enough when I discovered that Walton’s Mountain in ‘Virginia’ was, in fact, part of the back lot of Warner Bros in Southern California so I am not going to tolerate any more southern geographical tall tales. Falling below the Mason Dixon Line is a southern qualifier and although he lives and teaches just outside of Chicago these days, Glenn Taylor is a West Virginia storyteller at heart. The author of the 2008 NBCC Award Finalist novel The Ballad of Trenchmouth Taggart and the recently published The Marrowbone Marble Company is one of the finest storytellers I am reading today in the true tradition of the term. Taylor clearly follows in the footsteps of his father who, dedicated to the preservation of the heritage and stories of the West Virginia hills, has spent years taping the oral histories of the older members of the community. In a Guardian feature, Taylor has this to say about the way Southern literature is categorised, after a conversation he had with a store manager at a recent signing:

“When I finished signing the stack of books, the store manager took them off to be shelved. I browsed. She called to me from two aisles over: ‘Do you want to be shelved in fiction or Southern fiction?’ I laughed. I thought of all the things I always think of when folks wonder about southern West Virginia’s regional designation. The civil war. Lincoln’s presidential decree. The creation of my home state in the year 1864. Violence. Blood. Cuisine, culture, storytelling. A slow ease to things. I answered her: ‘I’ll let you decide. I’m just happy to be here. West Virginia is not the South. Yet, as soon as I write that, I have to question what South we’re speaking of. Are we talking about maps or music? Are we talking about parts of speech, burial custom, family gatherings, cornbread, religion? Coal or cotton? Hill or field? In the end, I get tired of thinking about it. I get tired of labels on literature, of categorising fiction by region or race, of trying to figure what Southern voices New York likes and doesn’t like. Yet, at times, I freely embrace such cataloguing.”

The story of the south, its food and heritage cannot be told without acknowledging that it is also the story of the people forcibly immigrated there to work as slaves and their story needs to be told via their own mouths, not refocused through the lens of white writers although they, of course, also have their own experiences to tell. The south is not just the land of Mayberry despite my own cliched fantasies and I am aware that in part, some of my literary loves pander to the literature of bigotry by memorializing an old south which has little fond memories for a lot of those forced to live and raise their families there. There has been controversy surrounding the publication of books like ‘The Help’ which went on to become filmic best sellers and their representation of southern black vernacular. As columnist Clarence Page who is African American, said

“There is an old saying, ‘You can joke about your own crowd, but not about someone else’s. Whether you are writing for yourself or a poetic work of fiction, you take a risk; like if I tried to write a book with a Yiddish dialect.”

The books author Kathryn Stockett has gone on record as saying that ‘The Help’ addressed, in part, the lack of the female perspective in southern Civil Rights literature but in fact the book still fails to address the paucity of first person oral testimony from black women, whether fictionalized or not. We have the voice of Abileen, a black maid, heard through the narrative lens of the white author but what we also have is the noble white protagonist, there to navigate us through the troubled waters of the Civil Rights Movement. For me, that is the biggest flaw because it infantilises African Americans and re appropriates their Civil Rights struggle as one led by white people, or at the very least, guided and legitimised by them. When we have post war southern writers addressing the troubled relationship between whites and blacks and also drawing attention to the dehumanizing effects of the Jim Crow laws, is it (an albeit well meaning) extension of that dehumanisation to speak in dialect as a black character, apparently drawn from a real living person when you are a white writer?

There is a heritage of hatred and prejudice and fear but also one filled with enormous richness and beauty to draw from- southerners have been placed, as Camus said, “Halfway between the sun and misery’. Writers and commentators walk different pathways with respect to this- they can cope with dehumanization by straddling the two conflicting worlds with their ugly message of ‘separate but equal’ or they can instead, rehumanize their experiences by creating dazzling works of literature that focus solely upon their own lives, framed solely by it and independent of much of that from which they are excluded.  Zora Neale Hurston in ‘Dust Tracks’ chose not to focus solely on the inheritance of oppression (although it cannot be totally ignored) but instead draws upon a rich and complete black folk culture as the story of her move from the rural poverty of her youth to the intellectual jazz crowd of the Harlem Renaissance unfolds.

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This in itself caused some disquiet and criticism because how can any child grow up alongside Jim Crowe and appear so beautifically unaware of it, especially when many other writers were using the zoom lens on racial oppression? Young Zora contends that she did not realise she was black until she was nine years old and having experienced the death of her mother, was sent to Jacksonville to live. Life away from the prism of her previously familiar surroundings precipitates a more outward looking existence. Hurston’s use of traditional black legend and black vernacular in the speech of her characters is uncompromising- ‘This is THE world because it is MY world’ and, in a reverse of the usual power structures, we, as readers, have to adapt. You didn’t know that death is referred to as the”Square-toed one that comes from the West?” Well, work it out by getting to know the folks that people the book.

The story of people is also the story of the land and its food and is there a place generating more orgiastic hyperbole when it comes to this? It is indisputable though, that the culinary history of the south is as richly nuanced and disputed as a bowl of gumbo and in the introduction to her book ‘The Welcome Table: African American Heritage Cooking’ Jessica Harris cites the ancestry of this as a perfect example of the southern culinary diaspora. Despite the exhaustive nature of Harris’s research, Sara Roahen is inspired to explore both it and the broader topic of the New Orleans culinary legacy taking us on a romp through the definitive NoLa cocktail- the Sazerac through Sno-Cones to Turducken, a roasted bird within a bird within a bird. Her book ‘Gumbo Tales: Finding my place at the New Orleans Table’ is a great read and introduction to this subject and a city that is one of the most mesmerising places on earth.

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The story of the south is one of environmental damage and deprivation and after Hurricane Katrina laid bare the peril to South Louisiana in particular, author Ian McNulty embarked upon a series of trips to discover more about the regions diverse landscapes and culture in ‘Louisiana Rambles’. There is Zydeco and crawfish, Boudin eating and dark smokehouses, riverine pub crawls, Angola prison rodeos and the Turnoi, a local marriage between medieval jousting, jockeying and horsemanship. There is also the story of the disappearing Cajun way of life with its fishermen and furriers and trappers, all of them inextricably linked to the welfare of the watery bayou and the Delta which are, in turn being gobbled up by the Gulf of Mexico. Did you know that the southern end of Louisiana is being converted to open water at a rate estimated to be equal to one American football field every thirty eight minutes? No landmass is vanishing faster. The fragile brackish and fresh water habitats of Louisiana- home to the seafood and fish that form the majority of domestic seafood consumption are dying because the sediment carried along by the Mississippi, usually deposited along the land abutting its course is, instead, being carried far out into the Gulf and deposited there. Louisiana and the Delta are paying the price for Mississippi flood control further up its course. Only when that early bird special of all you can eat at the Red Lobster for $10 is under threat will the rest of America wake up to the environmental catastrophe unfolding ‘down below’. McNulty’s book is structured around chapters, each telling the story of a person, place of event in Louisiana. The advantages of this is that you can put the book down without losing the ‘story’ and take deep breaths to overcome the anger and frustration that will be engendered by descriptions of wanton destruction and lack of care over a place that is diverse and beautiful yet functional- a powerhouse of industry and work and activity.

You might prefer this format in fiction too which is where my next choice, ‘New Stories from the South’ comes in. Edited by Shannon Ravenel it was compiled in part in response to the ‘why is Southern literature populated with crazy old coots?’ argument yet, as the editor explains in the preface, ends up addressing ‘the temperature under the skins and inside the hearts of their characters’ for they relate universal motivations and emotions. Sixteen short stories encompassing traditional tales and more up to date stories from established writers like Lee Smith and newer voices deal with drug dealing (‘Black Cat Bone’) a politicians funeral (‘Cousin Aubrey’) and emigration from Vietnam (‘Relic’) offering a great dip in and dip out volume.

If you are looking for some true southern gothic, then Rick Bass’s short story ‘The History of Rodney‘ in the 1995 collection called ‘In the Loyal Mountains’ has a Mississippi ghost town, a young couple and a newly purchased house, romantic imagery, symbolism and beautiful prose. Or try Tim Gatreaux’s ‘Waiting for the Evening News’, an exploration of the strains of modern life through a farmer raising a baby grandchild, a man in love with his own radio voice and a train driver coping after causing a disaster, among many other voices. Set in his beloved Louisiana, they will not disappoint. Finally, Elizabeth Spencer’s ‘Starting Over’ appears to take its cue from the book’s many characters trying to find new homes or recuperate from the vicissitudes of life and reboot. Spencer is one of America’s best short story writers- her writing skewers the social niceties that underpinned racism and segregation, fed ‘The Old South’ and allowed for the maintenance of a politesse that belied the ugly, impolite truth.

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Summer Reads 2014 – we review

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Summer’s here and it’s time for some much needed escapism so we’ve compiled a diverse mix of fantastic reads to keep you busy through the summertide.

Immerse yourself in a psychological thriller, retrace memories from past worlds, be romanced by our literary classics or gasp at surprising plot twists.

Share your thoughts on these reads on the discussion boards or reviews and if you think we’ve missed a must-read off the list do let us know on this thread.

 

the_luminariesThe Luminaries – Eleanor Catton

Winner of the 2013 Booker Prize, Catton’s 800 page masterpiece is definitely one for (hopefully) uninterrupted immersion.

Set in the wild coast of New Zealand, during the 19th century goldrush, it is a medley of mystery, thriller, historical epic and pure inventiveness. The twelve characters move in and out of each other’s stories, and also tie up with the intricate zodiac structure that oversees the entire novel. It is about greed, money, temptation, fate and human nature.

Give it a shot, while you have the time.

 

 

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The One Plus One – Jojo Moyes 

Jojo Moyes’ Me Before You was a phenomena with over 3 million copies sold worldwide. (Remember the summer of 2012 when every beach across Europe was awash with people reading this or 50 Shades?) Jojo fans are in for a treat this summer with her latest novel The One Plus One out in paperback just in time for the hols.

 Jojo will be joining us for a webchat at the end of September.

The Night Guest – Fiona McFarlene 

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You wouldn’t think this was a debut novel, it is so accomplished and confident.

Ruth is an elderly lady living alone in a remote part of New South Wales. When a governement-funded carer, Frida, comes to look after her and slowly begins to infiltrate her life, a suspense story begins where what is real and what is imagined becomes blurred and unreliable.

A witty, menacing psychological thriller that is also a brilliant evocation of old age, forgetfulness and regret.

The Telling Room: Passion, Revenge and Life in a Spanish Village – Michael Paterniti

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During a visit to the picturesque Spanish village of Guzman, Michael Paterniti heard an odd and compelling tale about a cheese made from an ancient family recipe that was reputed to be among the finest in the world. Hooked on the story, he relocated his family to the tiny hilltop village to find out more. Before long the village began to spill its long-held secrets and Paterniti was sucked into the heart of an unfolding mystery.

The Telling Room is as surprising, evocative and wildly entertaining as the world it portrays.

The Signature of All Things – Elizabeth Gilbert

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Elizabeth Gilbert’s latest novel will come as a surprise to those who have defined her by the blockbuster Eat Pray Love.

Set in the 1800s, The Signature of All Things weaves an epic story of adventure, love and botany. The incredible authenticity of detail and Gilbert’s master story-telling make the journey across the continents, through the centuries, and throughout the 500-odd pages, joyful and swift – making this a perfect summer read and our bookclub choice for September.

The Lemon Grove – Helen Walsh

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An electrifying and titillating read where we find seduction, desire and troubled passion in the heat of the sultry summer sun.

Each summer Jenn and her husband return religiously to Mallorca’s West Coast but this year the arrival of Jenn’s stepdaughter and her boyfriend Nathan brings with it a series of unexpected events. Nathan’s beauty and youth cannot escape Jenn who finds herself recklessly gambling away stability to feed this new sprung obsession.

Walsh’s novel is undoubtedly this summer’s steamy read; suspense-filled and just dripping with passion

A Year of Reading Dangerously – Andy Miller

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‘I loved the writing and the characterisation, oh, and the plot – yeah, all really pithy. Really great’: sound familiar? How many books have you claimed to have read but never actually finished, or even started? Miller decides to rectify his twenty odd years of lies and to silence his nagging guilt to become the literate man he’s always claimed himself to be.

This book is Andy’s inspirational and very funny account of his expedition through literature: ‘classic, cult and everything in-between.’

Arctic Summer – Damon Galgut 

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A fictionalised and fascinating account of E M Forster’s life around the time he was working on A Passage to India.

Using extensive research, Galgut has brought in the characters around Forster (a mad maharajah, the spoilt Bloomsbury set, an adored Egyptian lover) and created a moving novel that explores the interior life of a complex, conflicted yet brilliant man.

E M Forster – A Room with a View

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Love! Truth! Beauty! A chance encounter, an impulsive kiss and Lucy Honeychurch’s world is forever changed. Torn between settling for a life of acceptable convention or the calling of her true love, Lucy epitomizes the struggle for individuality.

Definitely EM Forster’s most romantic novel, with the easy flowing passion of the Italian culture set against the constrictions and repressed sexuality of English Edwardian society.

A classic ideally suited to summer, sunshine and freedom.

Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys – Viv Albertine 

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“Anyone who writes an autobiography is either a twat or broke. I’m a bit of both” so begins Viv Albertine’s remarkably candid memoir.

In it she tells the story of what it was like to be a girl at the height of punk and of what happened post-punk, taking in a career in film, IVF, illness, divorce – and making music again, twenty-five years later.

From music and fashion to family and feminism, this is a truly remarkable memoir and the story of a life lived unscripted, told from the heart.

The Valley of Amazement – Amy Tan

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Amy Tan has been writing high quality blockbusters for decades, ever since The Joy Luck Club became a huge besteller in 1989. Her latest is an intelligent saga about coutesans in China at the turn of the 20th century.

Violet, half American and half Chinese daughter of the owner of the courtsean house, is forced into this world, where (amongst the betrayal and sadness) she also discovers female friendship, loyalty and love.

A classic Tan page-turner for those who loved Memoirs of a Geisha.

Her – Harriet Lane

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Perfectly reviewed onsite by EduardoBarcelona: “If you enjoyed Alys, Always I can heartily recommend HER.

“Written by an early Mumsnetter, this is the kind of book that you HAVE to read in a day. It speaks to all of us who have ever wrangled children – in fact I was late to work after spending an hour in the bath trying to get to the end. (Bad hair day ensued).

“I did chuckle afterwards that you can imagine the whole book as a long AIBU, from two people’s viewpoints… just BRILLIANT.”

Red Love: The Story of an East German Family – Maxim Leo

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Maxim Leo was born into an East Berlin family whose story, like the GDR’s past, is one of hopes, lies, cruelties and betrayals – but also love.

Compassionate and unflinchingly honest, Red Love is a moving, absorbing and smart memoir of life in a country that no longer exists.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves 

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Our July Book of the Month is, as Alice Sebold brilliantly called it, ‘a dark cautionary tale hanging out, incognito-style, in what at first seems a traditional family narrative’.

Narrated by the jaunty, sharp and very amusing Rosemary, the novel centres around the disappearance of Rosemary’s siblings, and the impact on her and her scientist parents. It looks like a straightforwardly comic novel but underneath lies an enormous moral dilemma. Fowler sets radical experimentation against personal experience, science against compassion.

Winner of the Pen/Faulkner Award 2014, this book manages to be unusual and funny and sad and disturbing all at once.

All the Birds, Singing – Evie Wyld 

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Like The Night Guest, this critically acclaimed novel centres on a woman living in a remote area, threatened by fears that are perhaps real or imagined.

Jake is a woman with a secret, having moved from Australia to a tiny island off the British coast. Her past and present dovetail in a beautifully crafted suspense story that is unsettling and mesmerising.

Often compared to early Ian McEwan and Iain Banks, Wyld is an absolutely exquisite writer and a highly talented young voice.

The Vogue Factor – Kirstie Clements

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In May 2012 Kirstie Clements was unceremoniously sacked after thirteen years in the editor’s chair at Vogue Australia. Here she tells the eye-opening story of life in fashion’s fast lane.

From the glamour of photo shoots in exotic locations, fashion shows and of course outrageous fashion, to the ugly side: the infighting, back-stabbing, desperation of models to stay thin. All this sprinkled with an array of glitzy slebs make this a fascinating summer read.

Mom and Me and Mom – Maya Angelou

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Having died in May this year, Maya Angelou has left behind an inspirational legacy of strength and perseverance which speaks out to many of us. We’ve selected Mom & Me & Mom as it unearths a deeper layer of Angelou’s compelling life story, revealing a more intimate and heartfelt insight into her relationship with mother Vivian Baxter Johnson.

The novel reveals why Maya was raised by her paternal grandmother and discloses the emotional turmoil Maya suffered as she began to perceive of her mother as a presence of absence.

Touchingly emotional, this story considers the bond between mother and daughter as it is at once torn apart and then reconciled

The Shadow of the Crescent Moon – Fatima Bhutto

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Bhutto’s debut novel centres on a single day in the life of a single family living in the tribal areas of Pakistan close to the Afghan border.

A fascinating insight into both real lives and the true politics of the region, the three brothers represent different attitudes: ambition, caution, idealism.

Bhutto is a beautifully economical writer, with no waffle, and she has managed to open up the debate about this troubled area without giving any moral judgement.

A thought-provoking piece of fiction from this highly-regarded writer.

What A Carve Up! – Jonathan Coe 

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We decided to include a trip back to the 80s in our summer round-up, after enjoying reading this recent thread.

What A Carve Up was unflinchingly the book of the decade and cited by many Mumsnetters as their favourite book of all time. Coe’s classic captures the political movements of Britain in the 1980s with true humour and reflects on the blurred boundaries between greed and madness through the microscope of Thatcher’s Britain.

What he illuminates is both hilariously acute and touchingly thought-provoking, or as one Mumsnetter says, ‘Ridiculous, but an absolute hoot!’

 

A Sense of Direction: Pilgrimage for the Restless and the Hopeful – Gideon Lewis-Kraus

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Frustrated with life in Berlin, author Gideon Lewis-Kraus undertakes three separate ancient pilgrimages. He recounts his travels over hundreds of miles: the thousand-year old Camino de Santiago in Spain with a friend, a solo circuit of eighty-eight Buddhist temples on the Japanese island of Shikoku, and finally, with his father and brother, a migration to the tomb of a famous Hassidic mystic in the Ukraine.

Both succinctly funny and movingly honest, Lewis-Kraus examines with piercing insight our search for purpose in life, and how we travel between past and present in search of hope for our future.

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey

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We recently interviewed Norwich resident and author Emma Healey here and were blown away by the insight this young woman has into the myriad of ways by which Dementia affects not only the person, but family, friends and the society around them. Crossing genres from family drama to crime, the story unfolds via what is forgotten, half forgotten and that which can never be forgotten- the long ago disappearance of Maud’s sister and the apparent disappearance of her close friend Elizabeth.

Unruly Places: lost spaces, secret cities and other inscrutable geographies by Alistair Bonnett.

 Explore the world’s secret and underground cities, diamond mines and erotic landscapes in this delightfully outlandish travelogue. You’ll never look at a map — or your own backyard — the same way again.

Bad Feminist by Roxanne Gay

Everybody is talking about her in the UK but we have been in one the secret for quite some time now! One of the more practical and most accessible new culture critics plants her flag in topics ranging from trigger warnings to Orange Is the New Black in this timely collection of essays.  This is the text for those who constructed their feminism from the pages of teen chick lit such as Sweet Valley High and whose young daughters are currently doing feminist battle in the age of the Hunger Games. Roxane Gay is who Caitlin Moran would like to be and never will.

Check out Roxane Gay’s new suspense novel ‘ An Untamed State’ too. Described by Tayari Jones as “magical and suspenseful”, this is a harrowing novel about the connections between sexual violence and political rage, narrated in a voice at once traumatized and eerily controlled. Roxane Gay is an astute observer of Haitian society and a deeply sympathetic, unflinching chronicler of the compromises people make in order to survive under the most extreme conditions.

Summer Reads – Our recommendations

Our holidays are in sight and with a deliberately enforced policy of no WiFi, we will make the time to read. Pure bliss. Here’s some books we’ve enjoyed in the past and a few that we’ll be taking with us. There’s something for most of you here and we’ll be adding to it as time (and reading) moves on.

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Mudbound by Hillary Jordan

A wonderful and heartbreaking novel set in post-World War I rural Mississippi. It deals with issues of racial tension, love and betrayal .  Having been unable to put it down the first time I read it, I simply re-read it once again.

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The Almond Picker By Simonetta Agnello Hornby

This novel is set in Sicily in 1963 and the author successfully evokes the mood of a small Sicilian town in the throes of a family crisis. It traces the history of one of the town’s most prominent families – unveiling all of their secrets and mysteries. The author is brilliant at describing all of the nuances of life in this town. You feel the heat, smell the air, crave the gossip and feel transported to Sicily. If you’ve been there you will appreciate the authenticity of the description, and if you haven’t you will want to go.

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The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

 The best journeys can be those you didn’t know you needed to take and this is one of those rare children’s novels that both delights the adult reader and returns them to a child’s perspective. Beloved since I first encountered it via my American primary school mistress aged eight, it wasn’t as popular in Britain as it was/is in the USA. Thankfully this parlous state of literary affairs has now been rectified and it has become much loved over here too.

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Ruby by Cynthia Bond

This is not just the tale of a young woman clawing her way to survival in a world that seems hellbent on destroying her. It is also a story evolved from the author’s personal history.  When she was a girl, Bond heard the stories of how her aunt, a young black woman, was believed to have been murdered by Ku Klux Klansmen in the 1930s for her relationship with a white man. The crime went unpunished. And Bond herself was the victim of sexual abuse as a child. Hence, Ruby is born of the pain of women as unwilling and unwitting victims. Scenes of raw violence and pain are mitigated by the sheer beauty of the prose, but not an easy read all the same.

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Pilgrimage to Dollywood by Helen Morales

How could we NOT want to take this as part balm and consolation for our lack of tickets to see Dolly do Glasto this summer of ’14.  Asides her colossally successful musical career, Dolly is also the only female star to have her own themed amusement park: Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. Every year thousands of fans flock to Dollywood to celebrate the icon, and Helen Morales is one of those fans.

In Pilgrimage to Dollywood, Morales sets out to discover Parton’s Tennessee. Her travels begin at the top celebrity pilgrimage site of Elvis Presley’s Graceland and finally to Pigeon Forge, home of the “Dolly Homecoming Parade”. Morales’s adventure allows her to compare the imaginary Tennessee of Parton’s lyrics with the real Tennessee where the singer grew up, looking at essential connections between country music, the land, and a way of life. It’s also a personal pilgrimage for Morales. Accompanied by her partner, Tony, and their nine-year-old daughter, Athena (who respectively prefer Mozart and Miley Cyrus), Morales, a recent transplant from England, seeks to understand America and American values through the celebrity sites and attractions of Tennessee. This celebration of Dolly and Americana is for anyone with an old country soul who relies on music to help understand the world, and it is guaranteed to make a Dolly Parton fan of anyone who has not yet fallen for her music or charisma.

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My Ideal Bookshelf by Jane Mount and Thessaly La Force

A good book for the bookshelf voyeurist whose first action upon going to a persons house is to nose through their book collection.. Find out what cool people like Patti Smith, Roseanne Cash, Alice Waters and Judd Apatow stock on their shelves, through interviews and Jane Mount’s book spine paintings.

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The book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez

“We’re the unknown Americans,” says a character in Cristina Henríquez’s second novel, “the ones no one even wants to know, because they’ve been told they’re supposed to be scared of us and because maybe if they did take the time to get to know us, they might realize that we’re not that bad, maybe even that we’re a lot like them.”

That declaration bluntly explains the theme of “The Book of Unknown Americans,” as does the novel’s choral structure — made up of first-person reminiscences from an array of characters from Latin American countries including Mexico, Panama, Guatemala, Paraguay, Nicaragua and Venezuela, all of whom talk to us directly about their reasons for coming to the United States.

Central to the book is the account of the lives of its two central characters: a beautiful Mexican teenager named Maribel Rivera and her admiring friend and neighbor, Mayor Toro. Maribel has learning difficulties as a result of an accident, the details of which slowly become apparent in much the same way as one learns about the back stories of new friends.

Homesickness, dislocution and displacement; a yearning to belong and a yearning to preserve that which makes them different characterises the immigrant experience, something that is enhanced by the stories being set in Delaware- a state that is not the first to come to mind when one thinks of a destination. Very clever. Reading this book on holiday at my brothers home in Germany, listening to his own account of his loneliness and linguistic alienation, watching how he is now assimilated to the point of forgetting some of his native English enhanced the reading, ramming home the brutal reality of being a stranger in a land that represents so much to them prior to their arrival whilst appearing confusingly familiar too.