Tag Archives: Unity Mitford

Other People’s Bookshelves #24 – Lyndsy Spence

Hello and welcome to the latest in the series of Other People’s Bookshelves where we get to have a good old nosey through other peoples book collections. Slightly late today due to Christmas shopping – let’s not even talk about it – but I am sure you’ve all been sorting last minute festive preparations. So how better to unwind than by grabbing yourself a cup of tea and settle down, as we are off to the land of Hollywood legends and my favourite Mitford ladies as we join Lyndsy Spence, who has become my new best friend (through her love of Mitfords, which may surpass mine, and Margaret Lockwood who is in my favourite film ever Slipper and the Rose as the truly wicked stepmother as well as being wonderful in The Wicked Lady) who I want to talk all things wondair over cocktails. I will find Lyndsy and make this happen. Anyway, before I get myself arrested for stalking, I will hand over to her to tell us more about herself before we go routing through her shelves…

I run The Mitford Society, an online community dedicated to the Mitford girls. I’m the author of The Mitford Girls’ Guide to Life (published by The History Press). I also have another biography due to come out in 2015. My short film The Flower Girl was shot on location in L.A. and my screenplay on Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier is in development with a production company in London. I love old films and I hope to publish a biography on Margaret Lockwood in time for her 100th birthday in 2016.

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Do you keep all the books you read on your shelves or only your favourites, does a book have to be REALLY good to end up on your shelves or is there a system like one in one out, etc?

I have more books than clothes so space is really becoming an issue. I have a very tall bookshelf which I am always re-arranging to try and fit everything on it! It started off lovely but now it’s all over the place. I try to keep my hardback books together; you know the very tall ones, which are stacked hugger-mugger. Then my paperback ones are together. I used to have a ‘Mitford Shelf’ but sadly it collapsed as my collection grew. I have two shelves above my writing desk dedicated to very pretty books, mostly Mitford, but I have to be careful not to stack anything too heavy on it!

Do you organise your shelves in a certain way? For example do you have them in alphabetical order of author, or colour coded? Do you have different bookshelves for different books (for example, I have all my read books on one shelf, crime on another and my TBR on even more shelves) or systems of separating them/spreading them out? Do you cull your bookshelves ever?

I suppose I was a bit hasty and answered this question above. I like to have everything on hand…organized chaos…and writing biography I find that I rarely read for pleasure, every book is a sort of cross reference. Since I prefer to have everything together I keep my makeup bag amongst the books, and even a few souvenirs from my travels (How Non-U!) one day when I have more space I will have a proper library and a system in place! I make it a point to try and keep the Mitford books together and anything by Virago and Vintage as they’re very pretty and make a lovely decoration when not being read. The bottom shelf is naturally a bit taller, so I store my coffee table books down there. I don’t have many: Andy Warhol, Edie Sedgwick, the usual Hollywood movie books and my latest addition Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait by my friend Kendra Bean.

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What was the first book you ever bought with your own money and does it reside on your shelves now?

I suppose the first books I bought with my own money were second-hand biographies of Vivien Leigh, Elizabeth Taylor and also Gone with the Wind… I actually think I bought them all at once! I try to keep my celeb bios together, only recently I removed the naff 1980s style covers off many of the hardbacks!

Are there any guilty pleasures on your bookshelves you would be embarrassed people might see, or like me do you have a hidden shelf for those somewhere else in the house?

I call them my trashy Hollywood biographies. No, but I recall when I was a teenager someone sent me the vintage parody book Is Sex Necessary and my mother kept glancing at it out of the corner of her eye. I had it on my shelf and wasn’t ashamed of it but I also noticed my grandmother spying it when my room was being decorated and my books were all over the landing. I suppose that would be the only one.

Which book on the shelves is your most prized, mine would be a collection of Conan Doyle stories my Great Uncle Derrick memorised and retold me on long walks and then gave me when I was older? Which books would you try and save if (heaven forbid) there was a fire?

I have some lovely first editions which I’ve found for next to nothing over the years. Only recently I found a first edition of The Green Hat at Castle Ward’s book shop. Inside it has a cut out of Arlen’s death notice and the owner has scribbled all over the inside pages in Arabic. It’s also in great shape. I have a first edition of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Kitty Foyle, The Lady of the Lake, that, too, is scribbled with a schoolgirl’s notes from the 1930s, and a 2nd edition of Anne Frank’s Diary which my neighbour gave me. I don’t think I’d loan them to anyone even though I’ve clearly read them etc (I don’t see the point in not using them!) but I’m very possessive over a book my parents bought me from a market called The Red Flowers which was privately printed by a minister during WW1, inside it is inscribed to his sister with the date, and it was distributed to the children in his parish whose fathers were serving at the Front. I have a few signed books of old films stars like Maureen O’Hara (I met her ages ago), Dinah Shore, Joan Fontaine…to name a few. Often I buy them only to discover the signature. I love finding things like that. My copy of The Water Beetle arrived with somebody’s shopping list inside!

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What is the first ‘grown up’, and I don’t mean in a ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ way, that you remember on your parent’s shelves or at the library, you really wanted to read? Did you ever get around to it and are they on your shelves now?

The first grown up book I read was a biography of Judy Garland by her daughter Lorna Luft. I was about 12 or 13 and it was the first biography I’d ever read. Of course, as we know Judy had a very tragic life, so I guess it was ‘grown up’ in the sense that it was dealing with issues that I’d never read about before.

If you love a book but have borrowed the copy do you find you have to then buy the book and have it on your bookshelves or do you just buy every book you want to read?

I don’t really borrow books only because I hardly ever get around to reading them. And I’m banned from my local library, so borrowing was never an option. (I am banned because the librarian accused me of not returning Mein Kampf- which I needed for my history project- and Patricia Neal’s autobiography which I borrowed when I was 14. I left it on the trolley and never checked it back in. She’s never forgiven me!)

What was the last book that you added to your bookshelves?

Curtains by Victor Olliver, it’s a dazzling satire, a total camp classic! I’ve also just discovered the Cazalet Chronicles and I hope someone will buy me them for Christmas! I’m also going to buy the new biography of P.L Travers.

Are there any books that you wish you had on your bookshelves that you don’t currently?

The Cazalet Chronicles!

What do you think someone perusing your shelves would think of your reading taste, or what would you like them to think?

I’m not too self-conscious of my reading preferences but perhaps that said person would think I am person who adores the inter-war era, injected with a bit of tragedy (my old Hollywood bios) topped off with a bit of frivolous glamour. I can also dust off the old academic books when I need to!

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A huge thanks to Lyndsy for taking part in Other People’s Bookshelves, and almost making me sick with jealousy at her Mitford Editions – sigh! Don’t forgot if you would like to participate (and I would love you to – hint, hint, hint) in the Other People’s Book Shelves series then drop me an email to savidgereads@gmail.com with the subject Other People’s Bookshelves, thanks in advance. In the meantime… what do you think of Lyndsy’s responses and/or any of the books and authors that she mentions?

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Life After Life – Kate Atkinson

There are some living authors with which, as a reader, the release of something new of theirs is really one of the highlights of your bookish year. I have had a few of these this year, though the one I have been the most excited about is undoubtedly Kate Atkinson’s ‘Life After Life’. Part of this was just because it was a new Atkinson book full stop, then I was even more intrigued when I discovered this wasn’t a Brodie novel before got far too excited about the murmurs of this being a speculative novel. The book arrived here back in late 2012 and stayed on my shelves, I was just too worried it wouldn’t live up to the hype I had built in my head. Then the praise started to flood in here there and everywhere for it and I had a small sulk that I hadn’t read it sooner, then I started it when Gran was getting very ill (she would have loved this as she was a massive Atkinson fan) and I couldn’t concentrate. The poor book, it couldn’t win, I don’t think it knew if it was coming or going. Finally a few weeks ago I simply sat down with a few hours to spare and started it, within pages I was spell bound.

Doubleday, hardback, 2013, fiction, 480 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

On the 11th of February Ursula Todd either dies or is born, again and again and again to die again and again and again. The concept, and I suppose you could call this a concept novel in some ways, of Kate Atkinson’s ‘Life After Life’ is to look at all the environmental and physical aspects of our lives, as well as the decisions that we make, that can coincidentally or accidentally change the path our lives take which of course eventually leads us to death. Doesn’t sound too cheery that really does it, yet if you excuse the pun it is a book that celebrates life and all that we can become be it through fate or choice.

As Ursula lives these differing versions of her lives we see all the possibilities of who she could be (well most of them as with this premise they could go on indefinitely) or what might befall a woman living from 1910 onwards. In one version she might not make it past a family holiday. In another, which is at the very start of the book so I am not spoiling anything, she could end up being the woman to assassinate Hitler. In another she ends up, via a wrought but beautifully crafted version of events, as a rather unhappy housewife in the suburbs. In others she ends up on either side of the channel after surviving the First World War only to end up in the second which, to me looking back on the book, really evokes the frailty of life in general but particularly during that period of British history.

You might be wondering if this means there are endless versions of Ursula wandering around, or if indeed the book gets a bit complex or ultimately becomes rather repetitive. Interestingly as I read on I didn’t think to question the premise of the book, I simply got lost in it. Yet Atkinson does some very clever things to make this more than just a tale of a girl born again and again with no knowledge of it. Ursula herself has lots of severe cases of déjà vu, something we have all experienced at some point, where she feels she has been there before or will finish of someone else’s sentences. This sees varying versions of her going into therapy as her mother (who we will come to later) starts to worry that her daughter is not right – especially when Ursula occasionally gets the inexplicable feeling she needs to change a course of events to rather comical effects.

“And sometimes, too, she knew what someone was about to say before they said it or what mundane incident was about to occur – if a dish was about to be dropped or an apple thrown through a glasshouse, as if things had happened many times before. Words and phrases echoed themselves, strangers seemed like old acquaintances.
‘Everyone feels peculiar from time to time,’ Sylvie said. ‘Remember, dear – sunny thoughts.’
Bridget lent a more willing ear, declaring that Ursula ‘had the second sight’. There were doorways between this world and the next, she said, but only certain people could pass through them. Ursula didn’t think that she wanted to be one of those people.”

In terms of the question of repetition, I never got bored with the book or thought ‘oh here we go again’, not once. If anything I would try and work out which way her life would lead us next. Invariably I got this completely wrong as Atkinson doesn’t always make a life relived have a different outcome even if some things have changed along the way, after all fate can be sealed. Sometimes (rather worryingly) I was also wondering with slight glee how on earth Atkinson was going to kill Ursula off next. Which nicely leads me to mention how the trademark dark humour I love in Atkinson’s writing can lighten the story when needed, drive home something sad with its sense of irony and creates some utterly brilliant characters like Ursula’s mother, who I adored and is probably the most complex character in the book. I would love a novella of Sylvia’s life should Kate Atkinson ever feel the need, she had cynicism, hidden depths and a really darkly naughty side which I loved.

“Sylvie and Mrs Glover were preparing a little tea-party, ‘a surprise’. Sylvie liked all her children, Maurice not so much perhaps, but she doted entirely on Teddy.”

This does lead me to a couple of niggles with the book, firstly Ursula herself. To me she always seemed rather at a distance from me, a bit of an enigma, and someone that even though I spent pages and pages with her as she grew older I didn’t feel I got to know her any better. On occasion I found myself less moved by her deaths and more moved by some of those around her. Secondary characters like her mother, her aunt or siblings seemed to have much more depth, though interestingly in each version of events none of their personalities changed.

Another small niggle was that on the cover of ‘Life After Life’ perspective readers are asked “What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right?” Well despite the book never being confusing (you thought I had forgotten to address this didn’t you) which could so easily have happened I was left a little confused by the ending of the book. It doesn’t spoil the book to say that after some serious thought about it I am left with a sense that there is no ‘right way to live your life’ and no neatly tied off endings and that the book leaves that question in the air rather than answering it. I think though that might be the point, as you can see I am still a little unsure and pondering it. Mind you I felt the same way about ‘Human Croquet’ with its magical and ambiguous ending for a while after reading it before I thought, as I am already beginning to think, ‘no, Atkinson is a genius’.

Those are two very small issues though and ones that are easily glossed over by the fact that Atkinson is a master of prose in my eyes. I love the way she gives the readers discreet asides and occasional knowing winks. I love her sense of humour, especially when it is at its most wicked and occasionally inappropriate. I think the way her characters come to life is marvellous and the atmosphere in the book, particularly during the strands during World War II and during the London Blitz (though I didn’t think the Hitler parts of the book were needed, even if I loved the brief mention of Unity Mitford) along with the tale of her possible marriage were outstandingly written. There is also the element of family saga, the history of Britain from 1910 onwards and also how the lives of women have changed – all interesting themes which Atkinson deals with throughout.

‘Life After Life’ is not a perfect book, yet the more books I read the less I believe there is such a thing, yet it is a bloody good one. In fact, because he didn’t think I would, I would go as far as to repeat what I said to Gav Reads after I had finished it… ‘It’s a really f**king good book’, strong language but sometimes it is needed to drive a point home. I will be recommending ‘Life After Life’ to pretty much everyone as I think it shows the workings and joys of one of our greatest living authors.

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Filed under Books of 2013, Doubleday Publishers, Kate Atkinson, Review