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Word for Word: A Memoir
Word for Word: A Memoir
by Lilianna Lungina
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £18.08

4.0 out of 5 stars 'I Think I've Said What I Wanted to Say', 28 Feb. 2015
Lilianna Lungina (1920-1998) was a literary translator who was born and lived most of her life in the Soviet Union, where she translated many authors from their native languages into Russian, including: Astrid Lindgren, Colette, Alexandre Dumas, Henrik Ibsen, Heinrich Boll and Knut Hamsun. In 1997, Lilianna spent a week with film director, Oleg Dorman, who made a film documentary based on her life which, when it was released in 2009, became one of the most popular television programmes in Russia. This book is the transcript of her oral account and Oleg Dorman explains to the reader, in his preface to the book, that he has only added the most minor corrections, which are standard in the publication of any transcript, and added those parts of the story that could not make it into the film; the rest of what we read, is as Lilianna Lungini told it.

Lilianna Lungini was born in 1920 in Smolensk, Russia, to Jewish parents; however, in 1925 her father, who had a degree in engineering and spoke fluent German, was instructed by the Russian authorities to go to Berlin to work. After a time, Lilianna's father decided to return to Russia for a holiday, leaving his wife and daughter in Berlin; after the holiday, his passport was confiscated and he was not allowed to return to Germany. Lilianna's mother, afraid to go back to Russia and angry that her husband had returned against her wishes, decided to divorce him and to make a new life for herself and Lilianna without him. In 1930, after experiencing demonstrations between communists and Hitler supporters on the streets of Berlin, Lilianna's mother realised that she and her daughter were no longer safe in Germany and made the decision to move to Paris. In Paris, Lilianna went to several different schools, but she was a friendly and resilient child, who soon made friends wherever she went; however in 1934, Lillianna's mother decided that she still loved her ex-husband and made plans to return, with her daughter, to Russia.

Lilianna had to start yet another new life, in another new school, but again she made friends and enjoyed life as much as she was able. She recalls her memories of those early days in 'old Moscow' with nostalgia, describing the streets scraped clean of snow, iceskating and skiing in the parks, milkmaids delivering milk with their milk cans strapped on their backs, and cabbies and drayman who still drove sledges and carriages through the streets. However, as Lilianna grew older, she became very aware that life in Moscow was very different to her life in Paris and she soon became witness to the oppression and political upheavals of Stalinist Russia. Her friends' parents were arrested for no just cause, family members were coerced into informing on each other, neighbour denounced neighbour, colleagues spied and informed on one another and many people ended up in the Lubyanka - even Lilianna was taken to the KGB headquarters to report on her friends. In 1947, Lilianna met her future husband, Sima, a young director (and later a famous screenwriter) with whom she had two sons and spent the next forty nine years. During their years together, Lilianna tells of the death of Stalin; the revelations that followed his death; of the so-called 'thaw'; the lightening and then tightening of government oppressions; of the leaders who came after Stalin; of anti-Semitism in its different forms; of the literary circle Lilianna moved amongst and of her interesting and important work as a translator.

This well-produced memoir is full of black and white photographs and is presented in an informal, conversational style, where Lilianna Lungini's words are written just as they were spoken, which makes it feel as if she is speaking directly to the reader. Her narrative sometimes shifts about in time and she often mentions something which, she then she tells us, she will return to later, or she makes a point of stopping her narrative to emphasise the importance of what she is about to reveal, just as someone would when they are involved deeply in a conversation. I should perhaps mention that because this book is a transcript of an oral account, the reader is not provided with the context and background that would be included in a conventional biography, and the narrator understandably only reveals what she wants to, and no more. That said, this memoir is full of interesting characters, many of whom we may not recognize, but also many that we will, such as: Boris Pasternak, Anna Akhmatova, Osip Mandelstam and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Lilianna Lungini's 'Word for Word' is an interesting account of an interesting woman, who admits that: "Intellectual courage is much harder to muster than physical courage" and where at the end of her story she tells us: "That's all, I suppose. I think I've said what I wanted to say."

4 Stars.


The Girl from the Fiction Department: A Portrait of Sonia Orwell
The Girl from the Fiction Department: A Portrait of Sonia Orwell
by Hilary Spurling
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.70

4.0 out of 5 stars The Girl from the Fiction Department, 25 Feb. 2015
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In her preface of 'The Girl from the Fiction Department: A Portrait of Sonia Orwell' Hilary Spurling tells us that Sonia, the widow of George Orwell, was depicted as "heartless, greedy and manipulative" in Michael Shelden's 'Orwell. The Authorised Biography' - a portrayal which Ms Spurling felt was based on ignorance, misconception and distortion. In this brief, but interesting biography of Sonia, Hilary Spurling has set out with the intention to dispel the myth of the cold and grasping widow Orwell, and also to explain why some people may have found Sonia a difficult and rather daunting character.

Sonia Brownell was born in India in 1918, but was only four months old, and her sister, Bay, only four years old, when their father died from unstated causes (probably a 'hushed up' suicide). Both sisters were marked for ever by this early calamity and Sonia sadly never really bonded with her mother, who remarried one year after her first husband's death. By the time Sonia was eight, her stepfather had become an alcoholic and was forced to resign from his job. The family came to England, but by 1930, Sonia's mother had had enough and she walked out on her husband and filed for divorce. Sonia was sent to the Convent of the Sacred Heart (the boarding school that Antonia Frost attended and barely disguised in her novel 'Frost in May') which, we learn, was "a battlefield for Sonia and she emerged from it with a raging scorn." Sonia left the school in 1935 and went off eagerly to Switzerland for a year to improve her French; however her year abroad was ruined when a boat she was sailing in with three other teenagers, capsized and she was the only survivor. Feeling guilty for not being able to save her companions (one of whom she had to struggle to free herself from his clutches otherwise she too would have drowned) Sonia returned home, where she recovered physically - but emotionally, we are told, nothing was ever the same again.

After taking a secretarial course, Sonia found a room near the Euston Road and became friendly with Dylan Thomas's girlfriend, Caitlin Macnamara, and Augustus John's daughter, Vivien; she also got to know the artists from the Euston Road Art School: Lawrence Gowing, Graham Bell, Victor Pasmore and also William Coldstream, with whom she had an affair. Through her friendship with the Euston Road artists, Sonia came into the orbit of Stephen Spender and Cyril Connolly, and when they started a new literary magazine called 'Horizon' in 1940, Sonia helped out by typing and running errands and, later, writing reviews - she did leave to do war work, but returned to the magazine in 1945 as editorial secretary, and she soon made her mark. Intelligent, beautiful and very good at her job, Sonia was soon mingling with well-known writers and artists such as: Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon, Marguerite Duras (who became her friend for life) George Orwell and Ivy Compton-Burnett, to name just a few. George Orwell was so taken with her that he proposed to her and after Sonia turned him down, he used her as the model for the character Julia in his novel: Nineteen Eighty-Four. After a failed love affair with married Frenchman Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Orwell becoming hospitalised with worsening tuberculosis, Sonia agreed to marry the now fatally ill Orwell when he proposed again, believing she could save him. As we know, she could not, and Orwell died shortly after the wedding, entrusting Sonia with the responsibility of his literary estate and the direct responsibility for enforcing his instructions that there should be no biography of him - a situation which caused her huge difficulties and an immense amount of stress for the rest of her life. There is, of course, more to Sonia Orwell's rather turbulent life than I have revealed here, but I shall leave the remainder for prospective readers to discover for themselves.

Although this biography is a brief one, it is a very readable and interesting one and Hilary Spurling does much to rescue Sonia Orwell from the accusations that have been made against her. Ms Spurling, who became friendly with Sonia Orwell in 1970 (when Spurling was writing her biography of Ivy Compton-Burnett) admits that Sonia was "driven by demons she could not fully control" and that her insecurity and over-use of alcohol released an aggression that made her many enemies; however, Hilary Spurling also tells us of Sonia's charm, of her generosity, and of her kindness to those in need, especially with regard to the elderly writer Jean Rhys who, almost forgotten after the success of her early novels, had been living in poverty and isolation before the publication of Wide Sargasso Sea, and to whom Sonia was particularly kind and helpful. And what is especially interesting about this biography, is not just the life of Sonia Orwell, but the lives of the people who surrounded her and reading this book has made me keen to read (and reread) the biographies of some of the people mentioned, for example: Ivy: The Life of Ivy Compton Burnett; Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma; Cyril Connolly: A Life; Marguerite Duras: A Life and Jean Rhys - all of which I have on my shelves and look forward to reading and reviewing soon.

4 Stars.


Van Gogh
Van Gogh
by Steven Naifeh
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £23.86

4.0 out of 5 stars A Tortuous Life, 23 Feb. 2015
This review is from: Van Gogh (Hardcover)
Following their Pulitzer prize-winning life of Jackson Pollock, authors Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith have aimed to produce the definitive account of the troubled, yet brilliant artist Vincent van Gogh, with this meticulously researched and very detailed 900 page biography. Born the son of a pastor in 1853, in Zundert, Holland, Vincent van Gogh was a difficult, unruly and socially inept child, who grew into an even more difficult and troubled young man and one who became a huge problem for his family, particularly his father and his long-suffering brother, Theo, who supported him financially and emotionally to the detriment of his own life. Even as a young man, employed as an assistant in his uncle's art dealing business, Vincent was already afflicted with bouts of depression that undermined him and would later totally debilitate him. After failing in the art dealing business and alienating not only his uncle, but others around him, Vincent tried teaching, preaching and then, fired by religious mania, living the life of a social outcast, before focusing his attentions on becoming an artist.

Unfortunately, Vincent's unkempt, gaunt appearance, his staring eyes and his prickly, confrontational behaviour, caused others to avoid him and, unable to cope with his tutors' criticisms of his endeavours at art school, and ridiculed by some of the students - who found his frenzied method of working both alien and risible - Vincent set himself up in his own studio and, supported by his brother's earnings, became a virtually self-taught artist, painting pictures that no one seemed to appreciate. Eventually after many false starts, followed by a move to the Yellow House in Arles, a tempestuous relationship with fellow artist, Paul Gauguin, a slashed ear and incarceration in a mental asylum, Vincent began to produce the vibrant, powerful paintings for which he is now well-known and which would earn him the acclaim he yearned for, but tragically did not live to see.

As commented in my opening paragraph this is a meticulously researched and hugely detailed biography, but it's also one with a pacy narrative that enables the reader to become very easily caught up in the life story of this haunted, difficult and self-destructive genius. Mr Naifeh and Mr Smith do not hold back in their descriptions of their subject's confrontational, manipulative behaviour, his over-reliance on alcohol, his use of prostitutes and the effects on his body of the syphilis he contracted as a result; the authors also do not delve too deeply into the medical reasons (a form of epilepsy) behind Vincent's behaviour, but focus on the depressions and the breakdowns he suffered as a result - some of which make for almost painful reading. In contrast, what is enjoyable to read about and also a particularly good aspect of this biography, is how the authors carefully examine and describe the progress of Vincent's artistic development and his commitment towards his art. Mr Naifeh and Mr Smith also interestingly put forward the theory (which has been disputed by experts from the Van Gogh Museum) that Vincent did not commit suicide, but was shot by a teenager who was part of a gang of schoolboys who enjoyed tormenting the artist.

Drawing heavily on Van Gogh family letters, which reveal Vincent's insecurities, his fears, his dreams and his inner thoughts and imaginings, Mr Naifeh and Mr Smith have produced a vivid, poignant and very readable portrait of Vincent van Gogh. In addition the authors have used the letters to show Vincent's admiration for the work of other artists and that, despite his many failures, Van Gogh was determined to learn from others and to progress and develop artistically; mostly, however, these letters reveal Vincent's deep and conflicting feelings for his family and his intense and complex relationship with his much-loved brother, Theo, in whose arms he died and whose last words to him were: "I want to die like this." After Vincent's death, Theo wrote to his mother saying: "He has found the death he was longing for. Life was such a burden for him."

4 Stars.


The Camomile Lawn
The Camomile Lawn
Price: £3.99

4.0 out of 5 stars An Engaging and Entertaining Read, 19 Feb. 2015
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This review is from: The Camomile Lawn (Kindle Edition)
Mary Wesley's entertaining novel begins in Cornwall in the summer of 1939 where, in a large old house with a camomile lawn set above the sea, Helena Cuthbertson and her second husband, Richard, a WWI veteran complete with wooden leg, live with Richard's orphaned niece, ten-year-old Sophy. All three are awaiting the arrival of Richard's other nieces and nephews: Oliver, Calypso, Polly and Walter. Recently back from the Spanish Civil War, Oliver, a good-looking and passionate young man, is in love with his cousin, the beautiful, pleasure-seeking Calypso, but Calypso wants to find a rich husband and is not going to waste herself on the hot-headed Oliver; Polly, an attractive, amiable young woman, sister of the gentle, good-natured Walter, is looking forward to spending time with the local rector's twin sons, but can't decide which twin she cares for most; and Sophy is just waiting to see if she is now considered old enough to join the yearly 'Terror Run' - a timed moonlit run made along the narrow cliff path by the cousins and the twins. Fortunately for Sophy, she is allowed to join in this year, which is just as well, because for the cliff runners this is the last carefree summer before war breaks out. During this time we also meet Max and Monika Erstweiler, Austrian Jews who are staying at the vicarage, and whose son, Pauli, is incarcerated in a concentration camp.

A couple of months after the summertime 'Terror Run', we find the cousins back in London - Oliver, Walter and the twins enlist; Polly does war work and finds sexual satisfaction in a rather surprising way; the breathtakingly beautiful Calypso finds herself a rich, older husband, Hector, to whom, she tells everyone, including Hector, she only became married because he is rich; she also professes to not knowing what love is - but she is later forced to reconsider. Then Aunt Helena surprisingly embarks on a love affair, and the stolid Uncle Richard, even more surprisingly follows suit; Sophy, having been sent to boarding school, is missing her cousins, her home and the camomile lawn, and feeling dreadfully unhappy at school and worrying about Oliver, with whom she has fallen in love, she decides to run away; Max, a talented violinist and ardent admirer of the female sex, becomes more well-known, and even more free with his sexual favours as the war progresses; and the anguished but resourceful Monika, worrying dreadfully about the fate of her son, tries bravely to make the best of what life has to offer her.

'The Camomile Lawn' is Mary Wesley's second major novel, but there is no trace of the difficult second book syndrome with this entertaining story - maybe this is, in no small part, due to the fact that although this book is the second in a sequence of novels which were published when the author was in her seventies, Mary Wesley had actually been writing for decades. As in her other novels, this is a beautifully written story suffused with dark humour and where underneath the surface lies a whole tangle of emotions. It is true, that with the number of protagonists in the story, we cannot become as acquainted with each character as I would have liked and, like Kate Hopkins writing here, I would have appreciated knowing more about the war from Monika's perspective and would also liked to have learnt more about Polly's war work. In consequence, although I very much enjoyed and admired this novel, I didn't become quite as caught up in it as I did with the author's first novel:Jumping The Queue, where the story is tighter and more focused on its main character. That said, I found 'The Camomile Lawn', parts of which are drawn from the author's own life, a very entertaining, witty and, at times, a rather poignant read - and, as a portrayal of wartime London and of how people react when thrown into the intensity of war, it's also a particularly good one. Recommended.

4 Stars.

P.S. I originally owned the hardback edition of this book and have since mislaid it during a house move, so this time around I decided to opt for the Kindle Whispersync version - this meant that I could download both the Kindle version and the audio download version The Camomile Lawn - which is particularly well-narrated by Carole Boyd - for the price of a new paperback. It also meant that I could switch between reading on my Kindle and listening on my iPhone or iPad without ever losing my place - great for when you have to put the printed version down to get on with some work but can carry on listening to the story.


The Orchard on Fire
The Orchard on Fire
by Shena Mackay
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

4.0 out of 5 stars The Orchard on Fire, 16 Feb. 2015
This review is from: The Orchard on Fire (Paperback)
Craving anonymity, divorcee April Harlency, a teacher in the middle years of her life, lives alone in a garden flat in London with her two much-loved cats, Tibby and Tabby, whose fur is "graduated like the coloured sands of Alum Bay." Deciding one warm summer's evening to take a physical and emotional journey back to the setting of her childhood years, April leaves her cats in the care of a neighbour and boards a train for Stonebridge, a village in Kent. Once April arrives in Stonebridge, where she lived during the 1950s with her parents, she takes us on a trip down memory lane and, in this way, the reader learns of how the Harlency family leave London and arrive in Kent to take over a rundown teashop called the Copper Kettle. Whilst April's parents occupy themselves with decorating the teashop and the adjoining living quarters, eight-year-old April makes friends with fiery-tempered, red-haired Ruby Richards, whose parents run the Rising Sun public house. As we read of April's schooldays and of her deepening friendship with the lively Ruby, who is mistreated by her uncaring parents, we also meet some of the other inhabitants of the village including: April's teacher, the crotchety Miss Fay, with her hair "coiled in a dried fig at the nape of her neck"; headmaster Major Morton, with a steel plate in his head and his terrible rages which shake the whole school; Miss Rix and Miss Codrington, bohemian artists who live in Beulah House and run arts and crafts classes; the Silver family, headed by the kindly and generous Joe Silver, who is viewed with suspicion by some of the villagers because of his socialist politics; and Mr Greenidge, a seemingly affable elderly gentleman who takes a liking to young April, but whom, we soon discover, is actually a sinister and perverted old man.

Beautifully written and rich in detail, this novel, which was shortlisted for the 1996 Booker Prize, makes for an evocative and entertaining read and, apart from the horribly creepy Mr Greenidge, I very much enjoyed sharing in the scenes from April's childhood. I have to say that I was not alive at the time this book was set, but Shena Mackay's wonderful descriptions - where we read of pixie hoods, hand-knitted cardigans and pleated skirts, of windows covered with frost on the inside of the panes, of the village school with its glowing coke stove, of the Co-op window decorated for Christmas with boxes of Turkish Delight, dried figs, glistening dates and French Fern soap - almost made me feel as if I had grown up during the 1950s. Although this novel does touch on some serious issues (at times I found myself holding my breath in anticipation when April was alone with Mr Greenidge) and has its unsettling and poignant moments, it was also a compassionate, funny and very readable book which I read in practically one sitting and have put back on one of my bookcases to revisit at some time. I can also recommend: Heligoland; Music Upstairs and The Artist's Widow all by Shena Mackay and all of which I have enjoyed.

4 Stars.


Leaving Before the Rains Come
Leaving Before the Rains Come
Price: £6.99

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars You Have to Leave Before the Rains Come, or it's Too Late, 14 Feb. 2015
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Alexandra Fuller's acclaimed debut memoir:'Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight' told the story of her wonderfully shambolic childhood and of the years she spent growing up in Rhodesia in the 1970s; her follow-up memoir:'Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness' continued in a similar vein, but focused mostly on the life of her rather eccentric mother, Nicola. In this third instalment 'Leaving Before the Rains Come' which follows on from where 'Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight' left off, we learn a little more about the author's parents and their rackety, disordered life, but this memoir focuses mostly on the breakdown of Alexandra's marriage to husband Charlie Ross, with whom she has three children. The author was 22 and living with her family in Zambia when she met and fell almost immediately in love with Charlie, an American who ran canoeing and white-water rafting operations on the Zambezi River. Six months later they were engaged, and six months after that, they were married on the Fuller family farm.

Married life began in a rented house on the outskirts of Lusaka - with room for four ponies, a vegetable garden and a gardener, who spent more time tending his personal marijuana crop than Alexandra's vegetable patch - but it soon became apparent that neither Alexandra nor Charlie were quite what they each expected the other person to be. Charlie, the author tells us, viewed her as: " a wild version of himself, a Westerner in the raw. But now that he had married me, and I was out of my natural habitat, my plumage was less shiny, my skills less useful, my constant noise less charming." For her part, Alexandra admits that although she wanted a ticket out of the disorder of her parents' rackety existence and felt she would be safe "docked to the steady command centre that was Charlie" found herself feeling imprisoned and suffocated. After the birth of their first child and Alexandra's subsequent almost fatal dose of malaria, the Rosses left Africa for America - although the author tells us that the whole truth of them leaving Zambia was not only because she had almost died, but because the reality of the country had not matched Charlie's vision of how it should have been. Almost twenty years later, after two more children and the floundering of Charlie's real estate business, Alexandra's and Charlie's shaky marriage finally entered its death throes - but then something happened which forced both of them decide what they really wanted from life.

As in her previous two memoirs, Alexandra Fuller writes with honesty, insight and an 'unfiltered outspokenness' which draws her readers right into her life story and makes this memoir an absorbing if, at times, a rather sad read. Although this account of a disintegrating marriage is not one that I enjoyed quite as much as the author's two previous memoirs, it was an involving read, it certainly had its amusing and lighter moments and the sections of the book which focused on Alexandra's parents' relatives were both interesting and entertaining, especially the story of Alexandra's maternal grandmother who emptied her chamber pot over her husband when he became too amorous: "You need to empty it over their heads only once" she told Alexandra."They won't pester you without your permission after that." When Alexandra's father learnt that after years of heavy drinking and smoking he might have ten years longer to live than he expected, he delightedly told her: "Well then, I should start misspending my youth. Hooray!" And when asked by his bank manager what contingencies he had made for his old age, Alexandra's father replied: " A bloody good, permanently fatal dose of malaria." So although this memoir's intended focus may be the story of a failed marriage, Alexandra's wonderfully eccentric family still take centre stage - and thank heavens for that.


Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness (Unabridged)
Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness (Unabridged)
Offered by Audible Ltd

4.0 out of 5 stars An Evocative Memoir, 11 Feb. 2015
Alexandra Fuller's acclaimed debut memoir: 'Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight' told the story of her childhood and adolescent years growing up in Rhodesia during the difficult years of the 1970s and 1980s - a book which was referred to by her mother (a rather eccentric and larger-than-life character who played a huge part in the memoir) as that 'awful book'. Fuller's next two books moved away from the domestic arena, but she returned to writing about her family with this enticingly entitled second memoir: 'Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness'. In this book, Alexandra's mother, Nicola (or Nicola Fuller of Central Africa as she likes to refer to herself), takes centre stage, with this being very much her story, and although this memoir may not live up to Nicola Fuller's hopes of being another 'West with the Night' or 'The Flame Trees of Thika', it is a vibrant account which Alexandra Fuller has written with honesty, love and more than a small amount of admiration.

Nicola Fuller, despite having lived predominantly in Africa, has never let her family, or anyone else, forget that she is a pure Scot and a member of the MacDonald clan - her father was English but, we are told, Scottish blood cancels out English blood, and anyway, her heart is Scottish. Alexandra tells of her mother's upbringing in Kenya: of tea parties with the neighbours where, as a small child, Nicola's best friend was a pet chimpanzee named Stephen Foster; we read of Nicola's schooldays and of her love of horses and of how she viewed her world "from between the ears of a horse". Alexandra also tells us of Nicola's mother, who made her own (rather lethal) wine which, when given to guests, often meant them leaving in such an alcoholic stupor that they ended up wandering across the border into another country on their way home; we learn of Nicola's meeting with Tim Fuller and of their marriage; of the children they had and the children they lost; of the farms they lived in and of the farm taken from them; we are told about wartime Rhodesia and of land mines, raids, killings and kidnappings. We also read of Nicola's despair over the heart-breaking loss of her children, her escape into an alcoholic haze and of her eventual nervous breakdown - but ultimately we learn of how, despite their personal tragedies, Nicola and Tim found the strength and tenacity to survive.

As in her debut memoir, Alexandra Fuller writes with honesty, with perception and without sentimentality, skilfully weaving the story of her mother's remembered past into the story of the Fuller family. Also, as in the first memoir, the author does not try to explain or apologise for her parents' political or colonial views, seeing them as a product of their times and feels that they have paid dearly for their hopes and beliefs. In this second memoir, in addition to writing about her family and providing readers with a vivid portrait of her mother, Alexandra Fuller also provides brief details about Africa's more distant past and of the difficult relationship between the British and the descendants of the Dutch settlers, the Boers - which I found very interesting and would have liked to have read more. All in all, I very much enjoyed 'Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness' finding it an evocative, poignant and entertaining read - in fact I didn't read this, I listened to it as a download from Audible, which was very ably read (and sung!) by South African actress Bianca Amato.


Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood
Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood
by Alexandra Fuller
Edition: Paperback

5.0 out of 5 stars An Intense and Vibrant Memoir, 10 Feb. 2015
Alexandra Fuller's debut memoir 'Don't Let's Go the the Dogs Tonight' is an absorbing account of her childhood and tells of her early life as the daughter of Tim and Nicola Fuller, white settlers in Africa, who farmed tobacco on a series of struggling farms. Alexandra was born in England in 1969, but in 1972 her parents returned to Rhodesia - where they had been living previously with their daughter, Vanessa, and where they tragically lost their son, Adrian, who died from meningitis. Taking Alexandra and Vanessa with them, the Fullers arrived in Rhodesia, which in the 1970s, in the years after Ian Smith had declared independence from the United Kingdom and the bush war had broken out, was a dangerous place to be - Alexandra begins her story with the memory of her mother telling her not to come creeping into her room at night:

"Don't startle us when we're sleeping" she is told.

"Why?" asked six-year-old Alexandra.

"We might shoot you - by mistake" her mother replied.

With the situation in Rhodesia causing Alexandra to believe that there was "a good enough chance of getting shot on purpose", she wisely decided that if she woke at night, she would call her sister Vanessa - because she wasn't armed.

As we read on, we learn of the family's move from Karoi, where they first lived, to another dilapidated farm in the Burma Valley, situated on the eastern border with Mozambique, where guerrilla raids were being carried out on white farms, and where the two girls learned how to strip, reassemble and to shoot a gun. We read of Alexandra's schooldays, where she attended a Class A school, whilst black Africans were educated in Class C schools; we read of the loss of the family's Burma Valley farm; the heart-breaking loss of two further children, of Alexandra's mother's despair, her over-dependence on alcohol and her eventual nervous breakdown; we also learn of the family's move to another struggling farm in Milawi under the oppressive regime of Dr. Banda; and of yet a further move to a farm in Zambia - but above all, Alexandra Fuller writes with a deep and abiding love for Africa. When she returns to Africa after being away to attend university, she writes: "The more I am away from the farm in Mkushi, the more I long for it ...when I step off the plane in Lusaka and that sweet, raw-onion, wood-smoke, acrid smell of Africa rushes into my face, I want to weep for joy."

This is an intense, honest and vibrant memoir, written without sentimentality and one that is saturated with the heady scents and sights experienced by the author during her childhood and adolescent years. Alexandra Fuller writes unapologetically and non-judgementally of her parents' politics and does not try to explain their views on white rule - she just tells her readers how it was; she is also aware that in order to live in a land that they love deeply, her parents have suffered both materially and emotionally, not least from the tragic loss of three of their children. The author has followed up this memoir with:Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness focusing on the life of her mother, Nicola, which I have just downloaded from Audible and which I am looking forward to listening to and reviewing very soon.

4.5 Stars.


Don Giovanna
Don Giovanna
by Amanda Prantera
Edition: Hardcover

3.0 out of 5 stars Don Giovanna, 6 Feb. 2015
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This review is from: Don Giovanna (Hardcover)
Amanda Prantera's unusual novel 'Don Giovanna' is set in Umbria and tells the story of a group of English, American and Italian residents who take part in a local amateur production of Mozart's 'Don Giovanni'. Englishman (Lord) Henry Thirsk, a middle-aged author with writer's block, is funding the enterprise as well as directing, casting and being responsible for translating parts of the opera; his beautiful and younger Italian wife, Gaia (whom Henry is beginning to take for granted) is playing the part of the wronged-wife Elvira; and Joanna, an English artist, married to faithless Italian husband, Orso Volpi, has been persuaded to paint the scenery. Henry originally wanted Joanna to play Elvira, but realising that her position as the wife of a philandering husband in real-life would make playing the wronged wife in the opera rather uncomfortable for her, Henry decides that it would be better if Joanna concentrated on providing the backdrops and props, even though he is worried about her artistic vision. Joanna, unaware of Henry's misgivings, is full of ideas for the opera, but she soon finds herself wondering about Henry's motives - and when Orso embarks on yet another affair and Joanna decides she has had enough, she and Henry find themselves becoming closer to each other than either of them would have expected. Meanwhile, Joanna's housekeeper, Amabile, whose son has been tragically killed, and who is looking after his two boys, becomes distraught when the boys' absent mother is arrested for possession of drugs. Trying to cope with the loss of her son, and terribly worried about her daughter-in-law's predicament, Amabile turns to Joanna for help. However, although Joanna offers her sympathy, it is not Joanna who comes to Amabile's rescue - but who does? And what do they really want?

An attractively presented and well-written novel, where some of the characters' lives loosely imitate the art they are performing, this makes for an interesting and unusual read, but not one that involved me as much as I would have liked. The chapters, which have headings such as: 'Serenade to a Mobile Phone', 'Duet with an Answerphone' and Intermezzo on a Scrap of Paper' are presented in the form of telephone conversations, letters, emails, recordings and recitations, in which the characters reveal their thoughts through a series of interior and exterior monologues. Although this aspect of the novel could be considered rather clever, I felt some of the monologues were a little rambling, and apart from Joanna's housekeeper, Amabile, and her sorry predicament, I found that I could not really connect with the characters or their situations as much as I would have liked. That said, I'm glad I read this novel and I do appreciate that Amanda Prantera is an imaginative and original writer, whose versatility prevents her being placed or pigeon-holed in a particular genre. I also enjoyed the author's latest novel: Mohawk's Brood and although I most probably would not revisit 'Don Giovanna', I would certainly consider reading more from this interesting author.

3 Stars = Good in Parts.


Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure
Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure
by Artemis Cooper
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.26

4.0 out of 5 stars A Life of Adventure, 3 Feb. 2015
Patrick Leigh Fermor, or Paddy, as he was widely known, has been well-served in this interesting and engaging account of his long and full life by Artemis Cooper. Born in 1915 into a middle-class, somewhat dysfunctional family (his ill-matched parents lived apart for most of their marriage and later divorced), Leigh Fermor's education was disrupted by him being asked to leave more than one school, and the success he later made of his life was achieved by self-education, self-promotion, an intense interest in history, architecture and literature, a particularly good memory and an abundance of energy and charm. After leaving school without the necessary qualifications for university, and then falling into the company of a group of hedonistic acquaintances who frequented the Gargoyle Club, Leigh Fermor decided his life lacked direction, and at the age of eighteen, he made a decision which changed his life. Leaving England shortly before Christmas 1933, Leigh Fermor boarded a ferry for Holland, with just a rucksack, a few books and some letters of introduction, with the intention 'to walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople' on his allowance of one pound a week. And this, he accomplished, although he didn't spend his nights 'sleeping in barns and hayricks, eating bread and cheese and living like a wandering scholar' as might be expected, because his very useful letters of introduction (coupled with his natural ebullience and his genuine interest in the people he met) opened a whole new world for him, and on his travels through Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria, Leigh Fermor was entertained as a welcome guest in a series of very comfortable country homes.

Whilst staying at the British Embassy in Athens in 1936, Leigh Fermor met the beautiful Princess Balasha, who belonged to one of the great dynasties of eastern Europe, and with whom he fell in love and went to stay at her family home in Romania. Although Leigh Fermor returned to England with Balasha in 1937, they were soon off to Greece and by 1938 were back in Romania. When the Second World War broke out, Leigh Fermor made his way back to England hoping to enlist in the Irish Guards, but with his knowledge of foreign languages, was taken into the Intelligence Corps instead and was later inducted into the SOE, where he was sent into occupied Crete and where he worked with the Cretan resistance in the legendary capture of a German general. Towards the end of the war, Leigh Fermor met his future wife Joan, an interesting woman and a stabilising influence, who coped ably with his ebullience, his bouts of depression, his absences and his sexual infidelities. After the war, amongst other pursuits and enterprises, Leigh Fermor began writing books about his travels, most notably:A Time of Gifts: On Foot to Constantinople - From the Hook of Holland to the Middle Danube and Between the Woods and the Water written in his unique lyrical prose style, which won him many fans.

This is a very good biography, and although Artemis Cooper's affection for her subject (whom she has known since her childhood) is apparent, this is no hagiography and the author is fair in her handling of her material. She tells the reader about the 'inaccuracies' in some of Leigh Fermor's stories and how some events were embellished or enhanced by him in order to add to the story's allure; she also tells us that although Leigh Fermor was comfortable with both princes and peasants and was liked and admired by many including:Diana Cooper, Ann Fleming, Deborah Devonshire and Lawrence Durrell, he was not an entirely admirable person and not everyone was bowled over by him, finding his ebullience and over-confidence rather overwhelming; in fact Somerset Maugham, offended by Leigh Fermor's insensitive remarks about stammering, referred to him as: 'that middle-class gigolo for upper-class women'. In addition, when one learns of how Leigh Fermor smoked between eighty and a hundred cigarettes a day for decades and drank heavily - his hangover cure was a pint of beer with a double measure of spirits poured into it - one marvels at how he managed to reach the grand old age of ninety-six. In summary, although I would have liked Artemis Cooper to have perhaps delved a little deeper into the person beneath the affable exterior, I found this biography a candid, entertaining and very readable account of a man who lived with an intensity and great appreciation for life, and with a deep fascination for those he met during that extraordinary life - which may well have been the recipe for his longevity.

4 Stars.


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