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Today I wanted to write about my favourite autobiographies. These five books are all written by women who are novelists or academics, and I think if they have something else in common, it’s in the authors’ stories of how they came to recognise and develop their own creativity, whether it was in academic research and criticism or in writing fiction.

My descriptions probably make them sound like they are all about very difficult experiences but I don’t think they are depressing – I am definitely not a fan of typical ‘misery memoirs’ and usually avoid them at all costs. These are all very well-written and imaginative books that have so much interest in them apart from the difficulties the authors experience. I’d recommend them if you are interested in the importance of reading and writing in someone’s life, and in how a person can discover their creative side and become a writer.

An Angel At My Table by Janet Frame
Janet Frame was an acclaimed writer from New Zealand, who wrote novels, short stories and poetry. An Angel At My Table is the second volume of her autobiography and is about her hospitalisation for mental illness, as well as about the beginnings of her literary career. It is an interesting story, because although she was diagnosed with schizophrenia, it later became clear that this was a mistake and that she was really suffering from depression caused by unhappiness in her childhood. When she left home to train as a teacher, her shyness and loneliness caused her to have a breakdown and, through her efforts to attract attention, to be diagnosed with an illness she didn’t really have.

What saved her from spending the rest of her life in psychiatric hospitals was her talent and the recognition given her by publication and by the prizes her work received. Part of the book describes the support given her by a fellow writer, Frank Sargeson, with whom she lived after she left hospital. He gave her a place to work and helped her recover from the stress she had been under. I’d recommend this book to anyone who wants to read about a fascinating and unusual life.

Once in a House on Fire by Andrea Ashworth
Once in a House on Fire is a memoir about a young girl’s difficult childhood among domestic violence. Her intelligence and love of books eventually led to her leaving her hometown of Manchester, going to Oxford University and then becoming an academic. This is a very intense book and, although it tells a story that is at times sad, it’s interesting and absorbing. I haven’t read it since I was eighteen and was about to leave for university myself, but I remember it made an impact on me then because of the author’s love of reading and the way she had achieved so much despite her background.

Giving Up The Ghost by Hilary Mantel
A memoir by the author of Beyond Black and Wolf Hall, this is one of Hilary Mantel’s less famous books but I would highly recommend it. Giving Up The Ghost is the story of Mantel’s early life and in particular her struggles with an illness (endometriosis) that was undiagnosed for many years. It describes the problems caused by doctors who do not listen to the voice of a young woman, resulting in permanent damage to her health. It is not a very happy book for the most part, but I would recommend it to people who have chronic health problems or who have ever felt dismissed by doctors or those in authority. I also think this would be a great book for anyone thinking of going into the medical profession, as it emphasises the importance of listening and creates sympathy for someone suffering from an unidentifiable illness, with symptoms that don’t seem to fit a particular diagnosis. This is something I feel strongly about and I don’t think it can receive enough attention. This memoir is also hopeful, however, because it goes on to explain how Mantel began to write her novels and did not allow her spirit to be crushed by those who undermined her, and it is therefore quite inspirational in spite of the frustrations she describes.

Bad Blood by Lorna Sage
I really liked this memoir of the literary critic Lorna Sage’s unconventional childhood in Wales with her parents and grandparents because it is written with such passion and humour. The story tells how, through her academic ambitions and determination, Sage manages to transcend the ‘bad blood’ that has cursed the family, although her escape from her miserable circumstances seems at one point to be threatened, when she becomes pregnant at 15.  She analyses her dysfunctional family perfectly, and the characters, especially her grandfather, are very gothic and fascinating. You can read the first chapter here.

Instead of a Letter by Diana Athill
Among many other things, Instead of a Letter vividly describes the end of a relationship and the sense of loss that can drain away all pleasure from life for a long time afterwards. Diana Athill was editor to many famous writers, including one of my favourites, Jean Rhys, and is also the author of several other memoirs (I also like Stet, her memoir about her publishing career, particularly the section describing how she worked with Jean Rhys and helped her to finish and publish Wide Sargasso Sea). Instead of a Letter, though, is about her happy childhood and the sad ending of her engagement, and how she eventually found meaning in her life.

What I find interesting about this book is that Athill very honestly and self-critically looks at herself, concluding ‘I have not been beautiful, or intelligent, or good, or brave, or energetic, and for many years I was not happy’. When she asks herself what the meaning of her life is, her attention is captured by a quotation from John Ruskin, ‘The greatest thing a human soul does in this world is to see’. Athill has a gift for observation and she says that ‘seeing things remained, through the dreariest stretches of my life, a reason for living’. I think this is a lovely thought, whether related to creating any form of art or to life in general.

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Well, I’ve finally finished Book 2 of 1Q84 and I have mixed feelings; I am still a very big fan of Haruki Murakami’s other works, but I just don’t think this is my favourite of his novels. The second book continues the connected stories of Aomame and Tengo, which gradually begin to interweave more and more. It turns out that they already know one another from childhood, and because of a moment when Aomame held Tengo’s hand in their classroom at the age of ten, they have a bond that has lasted for twenty years. In Book 2, Tengo joins Aomame in the parallel world of 1Q84, and it is revealed that Aomame’s difficult decision (whether to rid the world of a dangerous cult leader through murder) will affect Tengo’s fate as well as her own.

It is difficult to classify this novel, as it combines elements of magical realism, science fiction and crime thriller. The surreal details and settings were what I liked the most about this book. For example, when Aomame and Tengo suddenly see two moons in the sky (a sign that they are now in 1Q84), the strangeness of this experience is very well described. I liked the way Aomame could just climb down a rickety step-ladder next to a motorway and find herself in a parallel universe. There is a very otherworldly atmosphere at times, such as in the luxurious hotel where Aomame goes to complete her murder assignation, where ‘the men and women crossing and recrossing the lobby looked like ghosts tied in place by some ancient curse’. I also enjoyed the story Tengo reads while on a train journey, ‘Town of Cats’, about a young man who becomes stranded in a town inhabited only by cats. This story-within-a-story was one of the most memorable parts of the book for me, and it reflects a theme in Murakami’s books which I always find interesting, the sensation of being trapped somewhere and unable to return to one’s previous life.

One problem I found with the novel was that the characters didn’t completely engage me. When Fuka-Eri and then Tengo’s girlfriend both mysteriously disappear, Tengo feels sad in a wistful, nostalgic kind of way, but he barely seems worried and he certainly doesn’t do anything to try to find out what’s happened to them. He has the same apathetic attitude to his father, who’s ill and living in a sanatorium. I felt quite sorry for the father, which I don’t think was the intended reaction. Aomame’s self-sacrifice and deep love for Tengo therefore seem misplaced!

I also didn’t like the way child abuse was described in the book since it was almost presented as acceptable in the unreal science-fiction world of 1Q84. I felt that subjects such as incest were described in a voyeuristic way, and the relationship between Fuka-Eri and Tengo was slightly paedophilic, especially the sex scene. And the worst of it all was that these actions were justified within the world of the book because of the totally far-fetched science-fiction storylines, in which certain characters don’t exist as people but only as ‘concepts’. The plot became slightly implausible and the strange conditions of life within the cult and the parallel world of 1Q84 had to be explained through long conversations between characters. I personally sometimes found it difficult to believe.

One thing I noticed about the writing style is that characters are often likened to objects, for example a large man might be described as like a building or a silent, secretive person as ‘like a rock on the far side of the moon’ (I like this image). This happens often enough that I feel it must be deliberate and mean something. Women, even very minor characters like a nurse in the hospital or a secretary at Tengo’s work, are always described in terms of how attractive they are to men (literally, how big their breasts are or how ‘symmetrical’ their features or what designer clothes they are wearing), while we are repeatedly told how hideous the most obviously evil male character is. Yes, I do sometimes want to know what characters look like but this way of doing it didn’t appeal to me much. I can understand that things like this probably don’t bother some people, as it may seem a minor aspect of an otherwise interesting book, but I just feel that for me it makes those characters into caricatures.

I am still going to read Book 3 when I get hold of it, because I’ve come so far and I can’t give up now! If I’ve read over half of a book, I always feel compelled to finish it – and I must admit, I am curious. 1Q84 is very easy to read (I love Jay Rubin’s translations) and it is interesting, maybe just not the type of book I personally enjoy. I still like Murakami a lot and hope to read more of his books in future.

I’ve just finished the first book of Murakami’s latest novel, 1Q84. The whole work is a massive tome, nearly 1000 pages altogether, so I thought I’d write down my impressions of each of the three books separately. These thoughts are therefore just half-formed and I hope I’ll be able to express them better when I’ve finished the whole novel.

The book is set in 1984, as the title suggests, and there are many connections with George Orwell’s novel, although I’m not sure yet where these are leading. The story takes place in the recognisable world of Murakami’s novels, with its own peculiar atmosphere, in which surreal events disturb the otherwise quiet and ordered life of the central male character. In this case, the narrator is Tengo, an aspiring novelist and maths teacher, who is persuaded by his editor Komatsu to join him in a literary scheme based on an unusual story written by an unknown seventeen-year-old girl.

The novel is also about a parallel world entered by the main female character, Aomame, whose story is told in every second chapter, alternating with Tengo’s story throughout the first book. ‘1Q84’, as Aomame calls it, is virtually identical to our reality. At first Aomame doesn’t realise anything has changed, but she gradually notices small, unsettling differences.

At the moment, I’m enjoying Tengo’s story the most, as the characters seem more real to me. I like Tengo (he’s a quiet observer suddenly finding himself involved in literary fraud) and Fuka-Eri, the seventeen-year-old girl, is also interesting – I like the abrupt and direct way she speaks. I also enjoy the discussion in this section of writing and re-writing, showing how a literary work can be a collaboration. However, in Aomame’s story, the characters seem as if they’re from an American film. They are all tough and don’t show much emotion and they speak in wise-cracks. The criminal world to which she belongs seems to me straight out of fiction or cinema (although I don’t often read crime novels). Aomame’s section of the novel sometimes seems like a collection of images and archetypes. I do like the parallel-world aspect of her story though, as the ways in which 1Q84 differs from 1984 are imaginative and intriguing and I’ll be interested to learn more about them.

Much of the plot of 1Q84 revolves around religious cults – fundamentalism and radicalism, and the secrecy and corruption surrounding them – and I find these sections the most compelling. The ways people become involved in cults and the experience of being indoctrinated are very interesting to me, and I hope the next part of the novel will look deeper into this topic (until now, we’ve mostly heard about the cult from the outside).

A final point I’ve noticed about this novel (and I feel a bit weird saying this, wondering if I’m overreacting) is that it’s very much written from a typically male point of view and I don’t think it’s the most feminist book ever. Normally I enjoy reading books with a variety of styles and outlooks, that include both masculine and feminine ways of looking at the world, but there’s something about the tone of this one that just doesn’t engage me. I’ll have to see at the end of the book if this was a major issue or just a small aspect of the book that didn’t really bother me.

Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter is the first volume of Simone de Beauvoir’s autobiography, and covers her life from early childhood until her days as a student at the Sorbonne. De Beauvoir is considered one of the leading existentialist thinkers, and wrote several novels (none of which I have read yet…) as well as her feminist work, The Second Sex. I wanted to read this book because I’m interested in existentialism, enjoy autobiographies and was quite intrigued by de Beauvoir herself. Although I’ve read a couple of existentialist novels (The Stranger by Albert Camus and Nausea by Jean Paul Sartre, if you’re interested!), I was quite curious to read about the movement from a woman’s perspective. De Beauvoir’s memoir completely lived up to my expectations – she is an unusual and fascinating character, and it helped that the book also contained a few ingredients I usually like reading about (Paris, the 1920s and 30s, university life).

One aspect of the story she tells is her rebellion against her family in her late teens. She was born into a middle-class family; her mother was a strict Catholic, while her father, to whom Simone was devoted, was a conservative lawyer, a sceptic and an impressive amateur actor. Her parents’ two contradictory influences seem to have created a kind of internal conversation that repeated itself during her life: ‘My father’s individualism and pagan ethical standards were in complete contrast to the rigidly moral conventionalism of my mother’s teaching. This imbalance, which made my life a kind of endless disputation, is the main reason why I became an intellectual’. Simone was herself very pious as a child and thought of becoming a nun but later completely lost her faith. I think you can see the same intensity and tendency towards extremism (in a positive sense) in her earnest attempts to find ‘the Truth’ as a philosophy student.

While reading this book, I was struck by how restricted the life of young girls was during the early twentieth century. Although Simone was encouraged by her parents in all her intellectual pursuits, her social life and that of her friends was limited. For example, when she was a student, she had to lie to her mother in order to spend an evening at the ballet with a friend. Until Simone was 19, her mother even opened and read her two daughters’ post before giving it to them. I don’t think this was unusual for the time, as the lives of Simone’s friends, like Zaza (her best friend, who plays a large role in this book), seem to have been just the same. The expectation that they’d behave in the narrow way acceptable to bourgeois society and then make a respectable marriage seems to have been very oppressive. I think it’s difficult enough nowadays (when there’s more freedom for women) to disregard certain social expectations, but this environment makes de Beauvoir’s decisions to break away from these conventions and incur her parents’ disapproval even more courageous.

However, in her later student days, she experienced (through her own determined efforts) a greater degree of freedom. This life seems to have been much more fulfilling: going to the theatre, cinema and jazz bars, expanding her horizons through studying, and making friends with a whole crowd of intellectual men and women. I was quite envious of the way de Beauvoir and her friends were able to discuss their opinions and their feelings in such an articulate manner, writing long, passionate letters and constantly challenging one another’s ideas about life. Although she loved the city nightlife, she seems to have had an ambivalent attitude towards ‘debauchery’, sometimes dismissive of friends whom she saw as merely drunken aesthetes and nihilists (typical insults in 1920s Paris). She herself was a very serious person, which leads me on to another thing I enjoyed about this book: the fact that it takes seriously a young woman’s feelings, opinions and interest in philosophy, in pursuing the truth about life. Although de Beauvoir often takes a slightly ironic tone (which I also liked) when describing her younger self, I appreciated the fact that she wasn’t too critical of her. It’s a book that seems to illustrate the belief that an individual’s inner life and subjective experiences are meaningful and worthy of analysis.

I would recommend this book to readers who enjoy explorations of a person’s emotional and intellectual life, and in-depth descriptions of their relationships with other people. I do like all of the above, but there were a few moments when the book’s events progressed slightly too slowly for me, or I found it somewhat repetitive (for example, in the neverending ups-and-downs of some of de Beauvoir’s relationships). It doesn’t have a fast-moving plot, that’s for sure. However, I’d then move on to a more interesting episode and would become absorbed again, so this is only a minor criticism. Overall I really liked this memoir of a personality and era I am drawn to, and am hoping to read the other volumes of de Beauvoir’s memoirs, The Prime of Life, Force of Circumstance and All Said and Done.

Something I think I particularly like about Simone de Beauvoir is that she sees philosophy as being vitally important and not merely abstract theories unrelated to people’s lives; as a student, she did not wish for the conventional academic and ultra-cerebral life, which she saw as dry and dull. I liked the way she expressed this: ‘In my view, it was not enough just to think or just to live; I gave my complete allegiance only to those who “thought their lives out”.’

I’m unemployed at the moment, although luckily I have a temporary job starting in December, and so I’m trying to do as many interesting things as I can with all this free time I have, while spending virtually no money – quite difficult! Singing is one of my main interests and it’s especially nice at the moment for me to get out of my flat and be part of a choir, so that I don’t turn into a complete hermit. I’m a member of a choir that sings evensong regularly and I take part in other events and concerts as often as I can.

Yesterday I went to a one-off event in a church near where I live, where we spent the afternoon rehearsing Faure’s Requiem and then performed it during the church service. This was the first time I’d been to one of these ‘just turn up and sing’ events but I liked the whole idea and hope to go to a few more in future. Faure’s Requiem is so beautiful. I’d never sung it before and didn’t know it very well, apart from Pie Jesu. Here is the gorgeous In Paradisum. I also had an interesting conversation with the lady next to me about how she studied in Cambridge during the Second World War, before women were allowed to be official members of the university and when she was one of only 500 female students at the whole institution. I’m sure it must have been fascinating to be one of the first female students and I would love to know more about their experiences.

The next singing event I have in my diary to look forward to is a workshop all about singing sixteenth-century Spanish choral music. That really is my idea of a fun Saturday! And I can’t wait for the season of carol singing and Christmas concerts to begin.

Have you been to any interesting musical events or concerts recently?