Browse Category by Memoirs
Book Reviews, Memoirs, Reviewing

Chernobyl Strawberries by Vesna Goldsworthy

 

Vesna Goldsworthy

 Chernobyl Strawberries by Vesna Goldsworthy reviewed for the Bookbag.

“A book about a woman from a war-shredded country, who discovers she has breast cancer… Not a bundle of laughs, one would assume. One would be wrong. Chernobyl Strawberries is, amongst other things, very funny.

Goldsworthy decided to write this memoir after her cancer diagnosis, as a record for her son. She plays on the contradictions of her life to great effect. A bourgeois from a socialist country, she doesn’t have any misery stories about Tito’s dictatorship. Indeed, she concentrates on the ridicule moments of a government in decline. The reader also witnesses the high level of education offered by the communist country. State subsidies helped poetry magazines and festivals to survive. One of the nicest things about being a poet in socialist Yugoslavia was the idea that poetry mattered, Goldsworthy observes. She was invited to read her poems in front of an audience of thirty thousand people at a commemoration for Tito, an event discreetly supervised by the police. As a student, she was also a presenter on a radio station funded by the government. These skills prove useful when she moves to London and works for the BBC.

Her early life in Belgrade is presented to us non-chronologically so that the reader constantly dips in and out of it. We get to know the young Vesna well. A confident young woman, she seems to have been successful in every ambition, while intelligent and good-looking young men courted her. The one who she finally settled on was English, and Goldsworthy moved to London.

We see her settling into her new country and the funniest moments of the book are when she contrasts her English life with the very different customs of her native country.

As a woman caught in history, Goldsworthy appears remarkably adaptable. Rather than try and influence events or engage politically, she adapts and survives with ease. She comments on the chameleon-like quality of her youth and concludes that, at forty-one, I discovered that I was no longer able to change colour at all. I stretched my white body on my big green leaf, a bald, wounded caterpillar. I was free. This journey is intelligently written. The beauty of Belgrade provides a melancholic undertone and we can only mourn, with the writer, the lost world which she conjures up.”

Book Reviews, Memoirs, Reviewing

How To Be A Heroine by Samantha Ellis

How to be a Heroine

 How to be a Heroine : Or, what I’ve learned from reading too much by Samantha Ellis reviewed for the Bookbag.

 

How to be a Heroine is a pleasant and addictive read. Playwright Samantha Ellis looks back at her childhood as a voracious reader and remembers the characters that influenced her. These are as diverse as Sylvia Plath, Little Women and Scheherazade.

Each chapter is titled after a heroine (Anne of Green Gables, the Dolls from the Valley), in which Ellis focuses on that particular heroine and lets her thoughts seemingly drift to other characters. Some of the heroines who inspired her are young women who write, like Anne of Green Gables or Jo March. Often their writing career ends abruptly and Ellis looks for the reasons behind this. For instance, LM Montgomery, who wrote the Anne of Green Gables books, had a disappointing marriage with a man who resented her success and Ellis wonders whether this could be the reason why Anne stopped writing after getting married. This habit of standing up for her heroines, defending them against unfair treatment from their creators, makes Ellis a formidable and endearing narrator. It also shows us how characters in literature escape the confines of their books and belong to the readers rather than to their creators.

Ellis, with the experience of adulthood, revisits earlier allegiances and sometimes changes her mind about them. For instance, she had always admired Cathy in Wuthering Heights but after re-reading the book, decides she is snobbish and too dramatic. Is Jane Eyre, with her calm intelligence, a better role model?

Ellis’s style is clear and frequently amusing. At one point, she wonders what Lizzie Bennett from Pride and Prejudice would have made of the Twilight series. She also looks at her heroines in the setting of their times; while Lizzie in Pride and Prejudice navigates the rules of Regency society, the women in Shakespeare refuse to play the game and instead break the rules.

Ellis allows her life to shine through until she becomes as familiar as one of the heroines. It is an interesting life; the daughter of Iraqi Jewish immigrants, she is expected to marry a man from the small pool of Iraqi Jews, a fate she rebels against. She becomes a playwright after going to Cambridge and trying out different career paths that distract her from her vocation.

These glimpses into the author’s life are fascinating. In the chapter about the women in The Valley of the Dolls, she describes her time working as an editor for a vanity press, proof-reading novels from deluded writers in which the characters change sex midway through. The description of the office and of her colleagues is precise and vivid and the publishing house comes to life in a few lines. The young Ellis’s fears are also relatable to: if these bad writers are convinced they are good, how can she be sure that she herself can write? Luckily, she has now more than answered that question.”

 

 

 

Book Reviews, Fiction Reviews, Memoirs, Reviewing

Wasafiri – Writing the Balkans

 

 

WasafiriThe latest issue of Wasafiri is out and it’s all about the Balkans…It’s full of interesting fiction, interviews and articles, and includes my review of Tadeusz Różewicz’s Mother Departs and Adnan Mahmutović’s short story collection, How to Fare Well and Stay Fair.

 

Adnan’s Mahmutović’s How to Fare Well and Stay Fair and Tadeusz Różewicz’s Mother Departs are books by two Eastern European writers at opposite ends of their careers.

Mahmutović is a young writer, born in 1974, who moved to Sweden in 1993 as a refugee from the Bosnian war. His short story collection is predominantly concerned with home, or rather the homelessness of refugees and their unsettled identity. This concept permeates the collection yet is treated with level-headed subtlety. Mahmutović excels at getting his ideas across by involving the reader in the daily lives of his characters.

The title story gives us a darkly ironic overview of the experiences of a refugee. Set like a ‘how to’ guide, it takes us through the lives of people who fled Bosnia. It covers everything from the horrible to the routine. (…)