Wednesday, November 28, 2012

What's on Your Nightstand: November reading

I threw back a few this time including the totally awful sequel to Chocolat, which I was looking forward to so much. Seldom has a sequel been so awful!  I also threw back the error ridden and snarky-toned December 1941 and will most likely throw Dearie about Julia Child on the discard pile as well. The last two were written in a condescending, supposedly, edgy, "hip" style that left me hating them. I don't expect to read a serious biography and find someone labeled a "hardass" among other choice terms. Nor do I expect history to be viewed thru the ill-informed, snarky lense of the oh-so-smart and smart-alecky kid in the back row of 8th grade history class. Dearie had a lot of that too, but mostly  I just found myself suffering from "Julia-fatigue." I read Julie & Julia and My Life in France and that's really enough no matter how much I like her or enjoy her cooking! Finally, I gave up on The House I Loved by Tatiana de Rosnay, author of the fabulous Sarah's Key. This book just plodded along as slow as an ancient cart horse.


I look forward to new Royal books like some folks look forward to the Academy Awards or the Super Bowl. And a Mountbatten book even more than the rest. This family has so many fascinating individuals. Her father, the World War II commander who accepted the last surrender of World War II and then served as last Viceroy of India. Her Uncle George (Marquess of Milford Haven) was a renown collector of erotica and pornography, his wife, Nada, was named in the Gloria Vanderbilt trial, her Grandfather had a love-child with actress Lily Langtry as well as tattoos the youth of today would envy! George's namesake grandson is a self-made multi millionaire from the sale of his energy savings website and her brother-in-law produced both the infamous Royal Family film of the late 60s and Death on the Nile. Quite a family!!!!

So when I heard Pamela Hicks was writing her memoirs I couldn't wait for the American edition and ordered it from the U.K. This was an interesting little book--I especially liked that she did not sugar coat or try to hide the endless infidelities of her mother or the bizarre marriage of "four" that her parents lived in for much of their pre-war lives. She discussed this in terms of her father's lack of jealousy and his courage in staying married and making it work and how that gave Pamela and her older sister, Patricia, a much more stable childhood (albeit still a very unconventional one). One reading it I was struck again how much Edwina Mountbatten (Lady Pamela's mother) reminded me of Diana, Princess of Wales. She was born to immense wealth, lost her mother, went into a tailspin over her stepmother, was shunted around to boarding schools and relatives and married in desperation at a very early age only to seek thrills everywhere but at home. And, like Diana, it was the war--aka A PURPOSE, that brought out the best in her, much as charity work helped Diana to grow up.

Pamela herself had many interesting experiences including being abandoned by her mother (though with a nanny, governess and sister) in a Hungarian resort for many months till her mother finally retraced her steps and found the resort again. And then she re-tells the time in India with her last Viceroy father that she told in much greater detail in her first book India Remembered.

I was very disappointed though that this book stops at her marriage and return home from her honeymoon to find her mother dead at a tragically young age. The bulk of the book is the time in India (understandably since it was the most life-impacting experience of her life) and her trips as Lady-in-Waiting to Queen Elizabeth, her distant cousin and wife of her first cousin Prince Philip. Sadly there are no memories of the Queen as a child, perhaps because her older sister is the closer age-mate and may have done more things with the Queen as a child.

What comes across most clearly is Lady Pamela's humility and decency, the shy child overshadowed by larger-than-life parents and then overshadowed by a larger-than-life husband and youngest child. I sincerely hope she writes one more volumes of memoirs. I also hope her editor corrects a few picky problems: New York's airport was not JFK in the 1940s--he hadn't been heard of yet! And, it's Queen Ena, not Edna, of Spain. There is also a reference to the "late Queen" that should be the "late King," minor details, but worth correcting.

Her son, Ashley Hicks, has written two books about his father, but I'd love to hear HER side of that story. Ashley's book, David Hicks: Designer is a sort-of memoir and scrapbook and I kick myself for not buying it given the prices used copies now go for. His second book, David Hicks: A Life of Design, I have not been able to see, but focuses more on the development of his career and of David Hicks as a brand name and 60s style icon.  Also, she does not write about the assassination of her beloved father and nephew either. Her nephew, Tim Knatchbull, who survived that bomb, has written an excellent book, From a Clear Blue Sky, which I highly recommend. Daughter of Empire: Life as a Mountbatten by Lady Pamela (Mountbatten) Hicks.

The End of Your Life Book Club is getting all kinds of hype right now. I enjoyed it a lot, but it did tend to highlight the privileges enjoyed by the well-educated and well-off more than the pain of losing a parent. I say that and realize it sounds mean. I really don't mean it to be so. There's just no better way to put it. I also wondered if this woman hadn't had a son in publishing as well as a husband representing powerful artists, and her own excellent connections, if anyone would have cared about this book? If this was some lawyer's wife in Southern Ohio, getting cancer treatment at U.C. and reading books in the mini-van on the way into town, would it be note worthy? I'm a tad jaded, I know. But I'm also sick to death of a publishing industry that thinks life only happens in fashionable Manhattan and that you must have an Ivy League education to be somebody worth noticing. I did think it was very commendable and totally unnecessary (but down right NICE) of his mother to pay the girl's pharmacy bill. But would his mother really have wanted this broadcast?? I doubt it from the sound of her. The book choices were pretty standard uber-educated, wealthy suburban Book Club picks. What then, kept me reading this son's personal pat on the back for his job well done as a son?? I liked the mother. A lot. And, she raised the family of readers I dreamed of raising. I got really tired of the son though. I wanted more of Mom. And, more of the books and less of Will being so smug about Will's care for Mom. Any son should do the same. But most can't quit a lucrative job in publishing to find yourself and find venture capitalists to support the next dream job while also getting Mom treatment at one of the best cancer centers in the world with no thought to cost. My indignation is on behalf of that girl Mom paid the bill for--all those who have to be grateful for substandard cancer treatment and the accompanying mountain of debt that accompanies it. Mrs. Schwalbe not only fought for better healthcare but also had the personal touch to help others thru the ordeal that is cancer treatment in the U.S. I wish though that her son had talked more about his mom's passions and less about his family, as well as more about the books. Judicious editing would have helped this book. My hope is that Will's sister will write about her time working with her Mom in the refugee camp--that would be fascinating. Now, who to play Mom and who to play Will in the inevitable movie? The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe.

Now THIS is memoir! I love to read about real lives and this one had it all. Triumph and tragedy, comedy and drama, you name it. Perhaps because my own extended family includes three girls who suddenly lost their adored Dad, I could relate to this one more. Mexico, Maine, was a paper mill city in it's day. The paper company was everything--just like the GM factory in my hometown. Everyone worked there in same way or other, or was related to someone who did. This family became real to me in all the ways a family should in a memoir. The trash-picking landlords, the friend with the ideal family, the nuns at school--it was all REAL. This one could become a movie, but I hope not. I'm sure it would be ruined on film. When We Were the Kennedys" A Memoir of Mexico, Maine by Monica Wood.

I enjoyed a love-at-first-word "romance" with two new-to-me series: "Miss Read" and the "Irish Country" series by Patrick Taylor. I'm sure serious literary types would pan these, but I'm loving them. "Miss Read" writes of her English Village life starting in the early 1950s--the first installment is the life of the little school. Imagine a school needlework inspector today? I just loved it!  Village School by "Miss Read."

Patrick Taylor has written the the medical doctor counterpart to James Herriott's beloved veterinary tales. Althought set in the early 1960s and not the pre-war years, they convey the warmth and color of the villagers in Ulster--Northern Ireland to most Americans, in a believable and enjoyable wary. I cannot wait for the next audio book in this series to arrive!! An Irish Country Doctor by Patrick Taylor. An Irish Country Village by Patrick Taylor

Finally, I thoroughly enjoyed the lasted in the 44 Scotland Street Series by Alexander McCall Smith. I LOVE this series! Light reading, to be sure, but still enjoyable. Poor Bertie still stuck at age 6 with his overbearing mother, weak father, bossy Olive, his saxophone and Italian lessons and his unnecessary psychotherapy! You have to root for Bertie! He deserves girl-free Cub Scouts and all the Kipling he can listen to. This is one of the best installments in this series. Angus and Cyril join Dominica for a holiday that results in happy news. Bruce messes up again! Matthew and Elspeth face the coming of triplets and a nightmare of a gallery assistant and Big Lou keeps serving coffee and shortbread. Just what I like in an audio book for my commute--no killing, no graphic sex, no awful language. Just a pleasant story to make the traffic more bearable. The Importance of Being Seven by Alexander McCall Smith.

I seem to have left Chocolat out of last month's posting. If you enjoy Sarah Addison Allen's novels with their whimsical touch of almost-magic, then you will definitely enjoy Chocolat by Joanne Harris.

Need ideas on what to read next? See all the November Nightstand posts at 5 Minutes for Books.


Susan said...

Oh my, where to begin as usual with your amazingly thorough book reviews? :) I don't know much about the Mountbattens, but I think I'd enjoy this. Is it Patricia who's often shown in documentaries of the Queen, talking about her? Was she the one in the Queen's wedding (or maybe it was the coronation)? This sounds interesting, and you make a fascinating correlation between Pamela and Diana. I hope she'll write volume 2, as well. You really should email her/her editor/whoever about those errors -- they really should be corrected and I think she'd want to. The Kennedys book sounds interesting to me as well. I think I've read about it somewhere???

Carrie said...

"as slow as an ancient cart horse." HAHAHAHA!!!!

So, I'm guessing you DID like Sarah's Key - which I keep meaning to pick up because it seems like everyone who read that one liked it.

Loved the Miss Read series when I discovered them quite by accident! VERY relaxing and cozy. Fun stuff.

Hopewell said...

Susan--both Pamela and Patricia have been in documentaries. Pamela usually is interviewed about being with her when the King died. Her daughter, India, was Charles/Di's bridesmaid. Patricia, thru a special bill in Parliament, is her father's successor as [Earl] Countess Mountbatten of Burma, a title which out does her married title of [now Dowager] Baroness Brabourne.

Carrie--Sarah's Key was an amazing novel.

dstb said...

Too bad you had so many duds this month.

The Kennedy's book looks interesting and I have added it to my TBR pile. I probably would have disregarded it because, opposite of you, I really don't like reading about famous families (sorry) and I thought this was going to be about the Kennedy's!

The Patrick Taylor books have also been added to my TBR. Thank you for suggesting them.

I haven't read any McCall Smith since No. 1 Lady's Detective series, so maybe I will have to try 44 Scotland St.

I always like to leave you with some suggestions, but I am not sure about the ones I read this month. I slogged my way through Wolf Hall. The topic was interesting, but I had a really hard time following who was speaking. Took forever to read.

I also read Light Between Oceans which was a quick read, touching, tragic, but ultimately unsatisfying.

Finally, I read And Only to Deceive which was a light, fun mystery about a Victorian woman named Lady Emily. I am not sure, but if you are really knowledgeable about that time period there may be flaws. For me, it was just a nice light read.

Thanks for the ideas!

Hopewell said...


Good description of "Light Between the Oceans"....

I only like to LISTEN to McCall Smith--I never read them in print!

Thanks for the tip on Wolf Hall--I may skip it.

Jeanne said...

I am sorry Dearie didn't live up to expectations. I've purchased it for my Christmas read this year. :(

I loved Chocolat, but didn't get excited by the sequel either. It was stolen before I finished it. Maybe lucky?

Should I read the book club book or not? Your review doesn't make that decision straightforward...

dstb said...


I am wondering if Wolf Hall would work better on audio. Perhaps the narrator's inflection and voice changes would make it easier to understand.


Hopewell said...

Sarah--good thought.

Jeanne--I didn't NOT enjoy it, I was just stating the problems. He writes well--it is not a chore to read. Up to you on whether it's worth it or not. It's one of the big books of the year. "Dearie"---My Life in France was way better.