Book Review: Funny Girl

Funny Girl, by Nick Hornby, is a gentle and percipient story about a team who create a 1960s situation comedy drama for prime time television. The protagonist is a young woman from Lancashire, Barbara Parker, who wishes to emulate her hero, Lucille Ball, and become a comic actress. To achieve her dream she travels to London where, through a series of lucky events, she meets a pair of radio writers and a producer who have been commissioned by the BBC to create a half hour show for a TV series, Comedy Playhouse. The team, including the already cast leading man, at first reject Barbara as she does not fit the look they desired for the female role. However, when they allow her a read through of the script it becomes clear there is a spark they could work with. Their decision to give Barbara the part changes all of their lives.

Barbara adopts a stage name, Sophie Straw, and adores the work she is given by her new colleagues. Their conceits, wit and education draw her into a world where she is eager to belong. They in turn value her talent, and two of the men are drawn to her looks and figure. Where most actresses are tall, straight and skinny, Sophie is buxom and curvy. With her northern accent – almost unheard of within the corridors of the BBC – and ability to cut through the affectations of certain highbrow media people, she is the root around which the sit-com grows.

Light entertainment is looked down upon by the serious critics. Amidst the many social changes of the 1960s was a wider hunger amongst the growing number of television viewers for shared enjoyment. The insufferably serious minded frown vociferously on the choices made by the millions who avidly watch popular TV shows. They believe such programming should be ‘relegated’ to the commercial channel and the BBC remain above populism.

“What a terrible thing an education was, he thought, if it produced the kind of mind that despised entertainment and the people who valued it.”

Barbara, now Sophie, remains ambitious but finds that success does not bring her the satisfaction expected.

“She began to fear that she would always be greedy, all the time. Nothing ever seemed to fill her up. Nothing ever seemed to touch the sides.”

Her co-star also develops a type of melancholy when he realises that fame in a sit-com will not propel him into the lauded parts in film and theatre that he expected and craves. Meanwhile, one of the writers is working on a novel and wishes to be taken seriously by the literati. What had initially felt like a lucky break loses its charm and momentum.

The tale takes the reader through the changes in the team as four series of their show are made. It then moves forward in time to what comes next.

The team members’ personalities lead to differing outcomes in their personal lives. These are portrayed with a light touch but offer insights that provide the depth in an otherwise benign if engaging read.

The final section depicts the characters in their old age. Even Sophie has become a product of the media: surrounded by people who want fame via the entertainment industry, removed from those with other ambitions and therefore assuming they don’t exist.

“Sometimes it seemed as though all anyone wanted to do was write television programmes, or sing, or appear in movies. Nobody wanted to make a paintbrush, or design engines, or even find a cure for cancer.”

She retains her occasionally astute observations, especially around how the aged are treated and how they regard themselves.

“people of their age wanted to think about the future, like everybody else, but what they most wanted was to live in the present, rather than the past”

The writing is easy on the reader but there are plenty of nuggets to chew over, especially on individual ambition in the arts and hierarchical conceits. Although providing a somewhat nostalgic look at what some regard as a golden era of light entertainment, there is much that is relevant in today’s climate of artistic judgement of quality and popularity. The various discontents are well rendered.

A strong addition to the author’s oeuvre, this is an enjoyable, undemanding yet satisfying tale.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Penguin.

Book Review: Anything is Possible

Anything is Possible, by Elizabeth Strout, is marketed as a novel but reads as a series of interconnected short stories. Each of the nine chapters introduces the reader to a new protagonist with links to a small town in Illinois, USA. Many of the characters are related and briefly referred to in each other’s stories. Also mentioned with a regularity that irked is Lucy Barton, a successful novelist who grew up in the town and got away.

The author received much critical acclaim for her novel My Name is Lucy Barton which I have not read. By referring to this character so frequently it sometimes felt promotional. Lucy does make an appearance in one of the chapters but in that story is no more important than anyone else. The townsfolk would likely be interested in the minor celebrity of their former resident but the number of references made gave her an importance that felt overplayed.

Each of the nine stories explores the private lives and intimate thoughts of a middle aged or elderly resident over a few days in their lives. The writing style brought to mind that of Kent Haruf although is rougher around the edges. It tries to be gently perceptive yet portrays mainly the unpleasant aspects of character. In particular, the grown up children appear selfish and needy, blaming their parents for not being willing to put up with unhappiness in order to perpetuate the myth of family desired.

Progressing through each chapter the reader is shown how characters are viewed through other’s eyes. The starving children who hunt for discarded food are reviled for not showing sufficient shame at their predicament. When they raise their standard of living later in life there is little admiration, rather an expectation is voiced that they should remember their roots and not look to be accepted as equals by those who always enjoyed plenty.

Obesity is regarded as a self inflicted failure. A husband’s affair is more shocking for the size of his mistress compared to his wife than for the infidelity. The depictions of married life are, in places, deeply disturbing. Even when abuse is recognised the reaction of neighbours is to look away.

While appreciating the unpleasant truth of the views portrayed the lack of balance detracted from my enjoyment. Kindnesses were shown in places but always, it seemed, with a degree of resentment. Perhaps I am naive in believing that people are not as self-obsessed as portrayed here. The writing may be piercing, the style fluid, but I did not derive pleasure from reading.

 

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Viking.

 

Anything is Possible has been shortlisted for the Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize 2017. It is the final book on this shortlist to be reviewed and the only one to have been selected by a panel of judges rather than by public vote. 

Gig Review: Kit de Waal in Bath

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Since reading Kit de Waal’s captivating debut, My Name Is Leon (which I review here), I have been looking forward to meeting the author and hearing her talk about how she came to write such an authentic, perceptive book. Thanks to Toppings, one of Bath’s beautiful independent bookshops, I had this opportunity last night.

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Toppings had a wonderful window display for the book and event. Apologies that my camera struggled to capture it in all its glory due to the reflected sunshine.

Having spent the afternoon exploring the city and enjoying the warm weather I was relieved to enter this sanctuary and rest my weary legs whilst imbibing my glass of complimentary wine. As I watched the place fill up I was able to listen to readers discussing the book and how it had touched them.

Kit started her talk with a little personal background. Like the eponymous protagonist of her novel she is mixed race, although she gave no indication if this caused her any difficulties growing up. She did say that her home was always filled with children, cared for by her mother at a time when child minding was not so tightly regulated. Parents could fail to collect their children for days at a time and her mother would cope.

Kit’s career spanned periods working in law courts and at social services before her own adopted children needed her to stay at home to provide care. Driven to distraction by being in her house all day after many years spent in demanding jobs she decided to try her hand at writing a book. She wrote an astounding thriller that, for some reason, nobody wished to publish. An MA course in creative writing offered some explanation as to why, and it was around this time that Leon came to life.

Kit now sits on an adoption advisory panel so has first hand experience of the difficult decisions that must sometimes be made by adults regarding vulnerable children’s welfare. All of this background and experience has been channelled into her candid, poignant tale of a young boy who is separated from everything he loves and cares for through no fault of his own.

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Kit gave two readings from her book. These brought to life the challenges the characters faced, especially Leon’s mother, Carol, who it would be rather too easy to condemn for the way she neglected to provide adequate care for her young boys. Kit pointed out that many of the parents she deals with through social services have had difficult childhoods of their own. Carol was a teenager when she gave birth to Leon and suffered from depression and reliance on drugs. Most parents love their children even if they cannot provide for their needs without support, perhaps through lack of knowledge, ability or circumstance. Like Leon, however badly they are treated, children most often continue to love their parents.

Questions were invited from the audience. These were mainly about Kit’s writing and her own experince of dealing with young people put in care. She pointed out that, whilst early intervention may enable more families to stay together, this is expensive. In the current climate, funding is made available for crisis management but less so for long term support. More adopters are needed, but relatively few are willing to take on large family groups of children, meaning that decisions to split up beloved siblings must be made.

Kit told us that some of the characters in her book will be revisited in a collection of short stories that she is currently working on. I am always on the look out for well written, innovative short story collections so am excited to hear that one is being prepared by such a talented writer.

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As we queued to have copies of our books signed I discovered that a twitter friend was also in the audience. It was lovely to meet fellow book lover and blogger Claire Thinking (pictured above with Kit). You should all go and follow her on twitter now: Claire Thinking.

Thank you to Kit and Toppings for an interesting and enjoyable evening. It was lovely to listen to an author who seemed so at home with her audience. You should also of course, read her book.

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‘My Name Is Leon’ is published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House, and is available to buy now.

 

 

Book Review: My Name Is Leon

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My Name Is Leon, by Kit de Waal, is a poignant, honest, deeply moving tale of a child in care told from his point of view. Leon is a mixed race nine year old who enjoys playing with his action men, watching ‘The Dukes of Hazard’ and riding his bike. He lives with his mum, Carol, but is often left with their neighbour, Tina. Carol is twenty-five years old and suffers from depression.

The book opens with the birth of Leon’s little brother, Jake, who is blonde haired, blue eyed and pale skinned like their mum. Leon adores his little brother but sometimes gets angry when Carol expects him to care for the baby while she goes out or takes to her bed. Things come to a head when Jake is four months old and Tina reports their situation to social services. Leon and Jake are put in emergency foster care with an older lady, Maureen, who been fostering kids for years.

At Maureen’s Leon and Jake are kept clean and clothed, fed well and given toys. Leon wants to return to his beloved mum, or have her come live here, but she has disappeared. A decision is made to put Jake up for adoption. A white baby is desirable; an older, coloured boy is not.

Maureen is doing her best to support Leon but then she too becomes ill and he is sent to live with her sister, Sylvie. Everything Leon loves is being taken from him and he is angry. The adults put on their pretend faces and talk down to him but he is adept at eavesdropping and overhears snippets of what he believes to be the truth. He determines to take matters into his own hands.

The story is set in early 1980s England with its backdrop of racism, riots and a royal wedding. Each of the characters have their flaws and prejudices, but also compassion. They are presented rounded and real.

My heart hurt for Leon, for the changes forced on him through no fault of his own. Those charged with his care were doing their best but, seen through his eyes, this could never make things right. They had taken him from his mum and then given away his little brother. He felt alone and abandoned, unable to articulate the betrayal felt at the decisions being made.

Although dealing with difficult issues this is not a bleak book. Leon’s days are made better by chocolate biscuits, curly wurlies, by playing imaginative games and learning to grow vegetables at a local allotment. Here he meets Tufty, a coloured man who writes radical poetry and listens to reggae. He also meets Mr Devlin who isn’t what he seems.

The writing is succinct and candid, captivating and moving; in places it had me in tears. I loved this book and especially Leon. He is a fine boy in a flawed world, grieving and angry but coping as best he can. Ultimately that is all any of us can do.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Viking.