I really loved Elena Gorokhova’s memoir Russian Tattoo, about her new life in America, having grown up in Soviet Russia. I reviewed her first book, A Mountain of Crumbs, in 2010 and the only complaint I had was that it stopped so abruptly: it had vivid descriptions about her childhood but then she seemed to give up as soon as she got to the US. Obviously that was because it could make a whole other book. And now it has. Both highly recommended.
Also reviewed recently: Elizabeth Day’s Paradise City in which four story lines collide in contemporary London. And Judy Blume’s extraordinary novel In the Unlikely Event, about three plane crashes that happened within the space of three months in Elizabeth, New Jersey (new Newark airport), in the 1950s, based on Blume’s own experiences.
Vesna Goldsworthy’s Gorsky, reviewed in The Spectator:
“It’s surprising there haven’t been more novels drawing on London’s fascination with Russian oligarchs. But how to write about them without it all seeming a bit Jackie Collins? Vesna Goldsworthy has hit on the perfect solution with her witty novel Gorsky. If you’re going to write about being nouveau riche, why not model your book on the classiest thing ever written on the subject, The Great Gatsby?
Gorsky doesn’t advertise on the cover that this is a thinly veiled rewriting but it’s obvious from the first page (and explained at length in the acknowledgments). F. Scott Fitzgerald’s writer/narrator Nick Carraway becomes Nikola Kimovic, who grew up in poverty in Serbia and has ended up in London running an antiquarian bookshop. His Kensington neighbour? Roman Borisovich Gorsky — ‘The Great Gorsky’ — who just happens to be building a palatial residence next door to Nikola’s humble cottage.
The object of both their interest? The seemingly unattainable Natalia Summerscale, a beautiful, married Russian woman: ‘She made Grace Kelly look like a market trader.’”
Speaking at this week’s Bath Literature Festival, David Nicholls gave an interesting response to a cheeky question about chick lit, commercial vs literary writing and whether some women novelists miss out on critical acclaim. Here’s the transcript of that part of the conversation:
Me: I want to ask you a slightly mean question. It’s a question about your work which really has nothing to do with you. But I’m very interested to know your views on it. And it’s this: There are a lot of women novelists who feel very overlooked and would love to have your success and who think that if you were “Davina Nicholls” you would not have had the success that you’ve had.
So I’m not sure how you’re supposed to answer that. But I wonder… Seeing that Us was Booker-longlisted and I was very sorry that it didn’t make the Booker shortlist and I felt strongly that it should have done… There are a lot of women writers who would say that there is no way that if a love story like that had been written by a woman that it would be on the Booker longlist. And it would be called chick lit.
DAVID NICHOLLS: I’m torn. The first thing to say is to say that Karen Joy Fowler was shortlisted for the Booker and that is a family drama. But at the same time I don’t want to disagree that there’s a kind of snobbery about books that are about love and relationships and family. I mean, I think that is absolutely the case. I think there are exceptions like Anne Tyler who writes about family relationships and is absolutely critically acclaimed. And AM Homes or Lorrie Moore. They are all writing books that are about relationships and family…
Me: They are all American…
DN: Yes, that’s true. I suppose the distinction is between literary and popular and where you fall on that scale. I suppose the reason… I mean, I haven’t dodged this issue… But I’m perhaps not the best person to answer this because I’m not the best judge of where I fall on that scale. And I think it’s very unhealthy for writers to try and place themselves on that scale.
I certainly think there are a lot of great authors. I mean, the writing of Marian Keyes… If you read the books — which I have — they’re absolutely tough. About mental illness and depression and drug abuse. Or someone like Jojo Moyes — a brilliant writer and books that are discreetly but absolutely political. So I would be inclined to agree [that women are overlooked].
But for me this gets difficult. Because I have read articles that seem to say that I am fantastically over-rated. [Extensive audience laughter]. Which might be true. But it’s not necessarily something that I want to be told. [More laughter.]
I just want to say that, yes, they have a point [that women can be overlooked].
Me: I think that’s a very sensible answer.
DN: I don’t think I have answered it. But I wanted to try and answer it because I think there’s a lot to be said. But it involves classifying and rating myself in a way that would be ridiculous.
Me: It’s not your fight.
DN: No. But a lot of the writers we’re talking about are friends of mine so I’m trying to be bold.
More on this exchange here.
I reviewed two fantastically readable new biographies about Alexander McQueen and John Galliano for the Telegraph. One, Alexander McQueen: Blood Beneath the Skin by Andrew Wilson, looks at the truth behind all the myth-making around McQueen. And the other, Gods and Kings by Dana Thomas, contrasts their two lives — and credits them both with establishing (and then killing off) an influential era for fashion. Two great reads — equal to something I reviewed a few months ago on McQueen, Marc Jacobs and Kate Moss: Champagne Supernovas. Also worth a look.
I am not the best person to answer the question. Because I have not read War and Peace. (YES. I KNOW. THE SHAME.*) But I’m a good person to put the question because I’m a fluent Russian speaker, I have lived in Russia and known many Russians. And I have not read War and Peace. And I have not suffered as a result.
Or so it seemed to me until this year. Here’s the trouble: this is the year of War and Peace. It’s the 145th anniversary of the novel’s publication in 1869. There’s a BBC Radio 4 jamboree celebrating the 1,400-page saga currently on air. And this autumn there’s a huge BBC 1 adaptation, produced by Harvey Weinstein and starring Adrian Edmondson, Greta Scacchi, Downton Abbey’s Lily James, screenplay by (of course) Andrew “Pride and Prejudice” Davies. So if there was ever a time to read War and Peace, this is it.
The good news? Andrew Marr loves it so much he has read it 15 times. And Anna Karenina is a lifelong favourite novel and truly not a difficult read. So how different can War and Peace be? Right? Right. The bad news? It’s 1,400 pages. And has some bad Amazon reviews (see below for an extract from the worst-reviewed Amazon classics): “Highly disappointed and utterly disgusted.”
Verdict: it must be read and this is achievable by autumn. Also recommended: Tolstoy’s “secrets to a happy life” and this very funny exploration of who has and hasn’t read War and Peace by Tanya Gold from 2005.
* I feel no shame. Read what you want not what you feel you should.
Pic: Audrey Hepburn and Mel Ferrer in the 1955 film of War and Peace.
Writing in today’s Guardian on habit, resolutions and Gretchen Rubin’s fantastic new book Better Than Before (published in the UK in March). It’s about the psychology of habit and is an addictive and pleasing read (even for someone who is in the habit of reading a lot of such books about, er, changing habits). Rubin argues that resolutions are all very well, but establishing them is virtually impossible unless you have thought through your own attitudes towards habit and how you approach things. I strongly recommend it if you are looking to make some permanent changes in your life. (Warning: it is not a quick fix.) Her website is a fantastic resource: www.gretchenrubin.com. (So much so that it appears to have crashed on New Year’s Day — that’s a pretty good recommendation of how seriously people take her life advice.)
What I didn’t have room to talk about in the Guardian piece is her assessment of the four personality types: Upholder (someone who enforces rules very easily, never breaks resolutions, enjoys regulation), Questioner (can keep rules and resolutions but only if there is sound logic behind them), Obliger (good at keeping resolutions made to others — ie. “I will be there at 7pm” — but cannot keep a promise to the self — ie. “I will go running at 7pm”), Rebel (contrary, does the opposite of what they’re told, hates rules, celebrates freedom). By working out which type you most resemble, you stand a better chance of finding ways to make changes stick.
Unfortunately, the one I “get” the most is Rebel. (Yes, I know. I am wild and crazy.) I don’t like being told what to do and I am only good at following rules and goals if I have set them myself. Having read the book, it’s the category Rubin finds the most difficult to advise because if you are a Rebel you will only do the opposite of what she advises anyway. I just need to get a message from her telling me to eat loads of doughnuts. I eagerly await this message.
My other hat tip for life changing advice in 2015 is to subscribe to Seth Godin’s blog or check out his new book, Your Turn. Sometimes infuriating, sometimes inspiring, always original. Happy New Year!
Here’s my list of the top 10 books of 2014 from the Observer. I plump for The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton as the Read of the Year, a wonderful debut novel. As suggested, I’m not saying that The Miniaturist is perfect. It has been a controversial book in some ways, which is what worries me slightly about debut novels becoming massive: they get over-hyped and over-scrutinised and then when people eventually get round to reading it, they’re disappointed because it’s not the greatest thing they ever read in the history of the world ever ever. (Which it can’t be because it’s a debut.) It’s a tricky situation because in order to get anyone interested in debut novels at all, publishers really do have to pull out all the stops and they did on this book. Still, it is the book of the year for its immense success – and it’s an enjoyable read. Indeed.
Cover pic: Greta Garbo as Anna Karenina
A rare outing in the FT. On Russia’s literary status and whether the glory days of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky are ever coming back again.
‘In rankings of the world’s literary greats, Russia tends to figure more prominently than any other country. Anna Karenina, War and Peace, the stories of Anton Chekhov and Lolita (written in English and self-translated into Russian) are unfailingly on such lists, alongside Shakespeare, Proust, F Scott Fitzgerald, Mark Twain, Flaubert and George Eliot. And that’s without even mentioning Gogol, Pushkin, Turgenev, Pasternak and, of course, Dostoevsky, the writer who did down-to-earth plain-speaking just as beautifully as Tolstoy did lofty spirituality. From Notes from the Underground: “I say let the world go to hell but I should always have my tea.”’
Congratulations to Donna Tartt for her Pulitzer Prize! Here’s my original review of the book from Red. I really love it — but of course it can’t be as perfect as The Secret History, which is why, I think, there has been some carping about it. Plus, a lot of people didn’t like The Little Friend and can’t quite get over that. I really liked that too. But this is the problem when you write a really outstanding book. Even if you write several genius books afterwards, people are going to get grumpy. It would be a shame if people kept away from The Goldfinch — it’s completely addictive. (And, as I suggest in this review, a must-read if you hold a torch for Siri Hustvedt’s What I Loved.)
I enjoyed reading J. Randy Taraborrelli’s new biography of the Hiltons for the Sunday Telegraph. I had no idea that the founding father of the dynasty — Paris’s great-grandfather Conrad — had such a fantastic back story. He started with nothing, encouraging his parents to open up their ramshackle family home in New Mexico as a down-at-heel B&B when he was just sixteen. Like so many entrepreneurs, he had a series of jaw-dropping ups and downs (and several near-bankrupcy moments during the Great Depression) before “Hilton hotels” became something special. Of course, Paris is the icing on the cake. And she really does do everything with Peter Pan (her chihuahua). Unless that’s just for the cameras. Which I suspect it is. She’s all about “the brand”…