Morning all! It's time for the February edition of A Blogging Good Read. Joining me this month are Fi from The Adventures of Fi and Gwen from The Foodie Historian. What did we read? Scroll down and find out!
Fi chose Love, Nina: Despatches from Family Lifeby Nina Stibbe:
Nina Stibbe was a nanny in North London in the 80s to Sam and Will, the children of Stephen Frears (director) and Mary-Kay Wilmers (London Review of Books). During her time with the family she wrote numerous letters home to her sister to describe the events of her new life and that’s what this book is, a collection of those letters. The letters are filled with vivid descriptions of her time spent looking after her two charges and interacting with the family’s neighbours and friends, including Claire Tomalin, Michael Frayn and the brilliant Alan Bennett who often popped round for dinner.
Even though I’d never read this book, this was my choice for a Blogging Good Read. Normally I’m not a big non-fiction fan but there was something that drew me to this book as soon as I knew it existed. Perhaps it’s the nosey parker in me that was intrigued by letters between two sisters, or as a Londoner hearing someone else’s thoughts on moving there or it could have been the mention of Alan Bennett who is one of my favourite playwrights. Whatever it was I’m glad it was my choice as I absolutely adored reading Love, Nina. It was fascinating and hilarious in equal measures and I’d recommend it to everyone I know. The letters that Nina wrote include some brilliant and witty observations and she has a real way of describing things that make you feel you’re right there in the room with her. I was worried that the letter format might be odd as you’d only get pockets of the story at a time, but there’s something about her letter writing style that really works – at least for me. Even when she’s jumping from point to point, with no logical reason to follow a new recipe with the recounting of a hilarious conversation I didn’t mind (that may have something to do with the fact that I have a tendency to jump all over the place too…). I also loved the way Nina talked to her sister , with little asides and clarifying pints, that just end up being hilarious, things like this: 'Which reminds me. A nut broke my tooth (a walnut, not a person).' Whilst I’d picked up the book partly due to my interest in Alan Bennett I found it was the other characters in the story that I loved the most, some of the conversations involving Will and Sam were laugh-out-loud funny and you really saw how much Nina loved the boys through the warmth in her words. I honestly could read this book again and again!
Did Gwen enjoy it as much?
Having read some very positive reviews of "Love, Nina", I was looking forward to getting started on it. I'll be honest - biography isn't the genre I'd normally go for, but I was hoping, and perhaps expecting, this to be a variation on the Bridget Jones/Adrian Mole theme. Unfortunately it wasn't. Nina's letters to her sister present a very one sided view of life in the London literati. By about a quarter of the way through the book, it was clear that Nina wasn't the kind of person I would get along with. She seemed almost proud of her inability to cook and clean, and treated her employer a little bit like an aunt (you'd think both would be key skills for a mother's help - Nanny seems to be overemphasising her childcare skills somewhat). The references to people I've heard of were occasionally interesting. Alan Bennett, who is in many ways more of a leading character than the children Nina looks after, is portrayed as a completely different person to his usual media portrayal.
The main reasons that I didn't take to this book, aside from not particularly liking Nina and therefore not being overly bothered about her life, was that it just wasn't funny. I can deal with a book without a discernable plot but there really needs to be something else to keep me engaged. I got the impression that some of the letters had been a little, um, edited, to attempt to make them funnier - but for me that just didn't work either. I suppose if I had been born in the 80s, lived in London, or had children, then I might have enjoyed it a little more. In all honesty though, I ended up being given another book which appealed to me more, and cast "Love, Nina" aside unfinished.
Ah, this is why I like Blogging Good Read so much. I don't think I'd ever have picked this book up, even with all the glowing reviews it received. Despite the fact that they're not for everyone, I almost always enjoy reading books of letters. What I don't have a particularly high tolerance for is reading about precocious children or the minutiae of family life, especially in the 80s. It's too recent to capture my interest on a historic level and often rather dreary. But I read this book and I really enjoyed it.
To me, it shows just how good a book of letters can be. One person's perspective on things has the potential to be frustrating but when the author is someone really funny, it can work brilliantly. Nina is a wonderful correspondent - observant, clever and very witty. Despite my aforementioned frustration with cutesy children, Will and Sam (and the way their conversations were recorded) were hilarious and often had me chuckling away to myself. There's a nice sprinkling of mentions of literary and theatrical personalities too, all neatly described in Nina's engaging style. I'd definitely recommend this one.
My pick was The Rosie Projectby Graeme Simsion:
I first heard about this book in October last year on the Smart Bitches website and had an impatient couple of months until it turned up under the Christmas tree for me. It's obviously drawn a lot of comparisons to The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Timedue to the first person narration by a character with Aspergers but the tone is generally a lot more cheerful and funny than that book. Don Tillman is a genetics professor, high functioning but socially awkward - think Sheldon Cooper rather Christopher from The Curious Incident. Having noted that married men are happier and live longer, he sets out to find a wife, naturally (to him!) by using an incredibly detailed questionnaire to rule out unsuitable applicants for the role.
Rosie, a PHD student, comes to him for help in tracking down her biological father and the wife project ends up taking a backseat to the father/Rosie project. Or does it? I'm sure it'll come as no surprise to you that things develop between Rosie and Don but the way it unfolds is a delight to read about. I don't pretend to know much about Aspergers or genetics but it all rings very true and is subtly woven into the rest of the story so well that you're right there inside Don's brain, trying to puzzle out the world along with him. It's very cleverly written, funny, romantic in its own unusual way and deeply satisfying to read. Go and buy yourself a copy!
Did Fi like it?
This is one of those books that’s been on my shelf for ages and ages - since it came out last year actually as I got a copy whilst I still worked at Penguin but I put off reading it as I’d heard such good things and I didn’t want to be disappointed. I needn’t have worried as it was tremendously funny (the speed dating bit) and such a heart-warming story (cocktail lessons, dancing, and of course Don’s relationship with his older neighbour). Plus the characters were just brilliant! I LOVED Don Tillman, who is such a wonderfully written character - within just a couple of pages I was rooting for him to end up happy and I loved that Rosie wasn’t trying to change Don and wasn’t afraid to say what she thought – no matter the situation. This isn’t always true of the female protagonists in books. To sum up my thoughts on this book – it’s a real page turner. In fact I got so engrossed in this book that I read it in two days, sneaking in extra pages on my way to work or in the queue at Starbucks and there’s also the possibility that I missed my tube stop once (or twice).
How about Gwen?
I liked this book. The more I think about it, the more I like it. I’m not a massive romance novel fan – I wouldn’t pick up a Marian Keyes for example, but The Rosie Project was different, and I think that’s why I enjoyed it so much. Having what is ostensibly a love story told through the eyes of a man is certainly unusual and I really enjoyed that side of it. For once, it wasn’t a love story about a woman mooning after a vastly inappropriate man – it was a little more ‘real’ and based on friendship and shared interests (namely the quest to discover the identity of Rosie’s father).
Initially I was sceptical about how a book about a man with (undiagnosed) autism or Asperger’s would manage to be funny without laughing at him. The initial scene where Don presents on the genetics of autism is a little contrived, but sets the tone of the book very well. Don realises that he is ‘different’ but doesn’t see it as a hindrance, and I think every reader will find parallels with some aspects of his personality which they recognise in themselves. To me, the highlight of Simsion’s writing is his way of slowly unravelling Don’s background, and how cruelly people have treated him, without Don pitying himself. It made his character development very moving, and really encouraged the reader to empathise and root for him, despite his obvious personality flaws.
The afterword in the novel says that it was initially written quickly, as a screenplay, and there are a couple of points in the plot where that is very clear - the New York section, for example, and a dance scene which would work wonderfully on film, but doesn’t quite reach its full effect in print. I suspect the film will be out soon, with Jennifer Lawrence playing Rosie. The quick writing does mean that in terms of the book being well written, it’s not quite up there with Jane Austen, but I do think that it keeps the pace going, and I quite enjoyed it largely being narrative and conversation rather than large descriptions.
Endearing, charming and more than your average romantic novel.
Gwen selected My Dear, I Wanted to Tell Youby Louisa Young:
I picked this book after a recommendation from a colleague who knows my love of history, aside from the cover notes, I knew nothing about it. It took me a while to get ‘into’ the story – the first few chapters detailing a poor boy befriending a rich family didn’t do much for me, but once the introductions had finished and the plot moved to the war I was gripped. Roughly speaking, the novel follows the tale of two families. Riley, the working class lad, and his officer, who both follow very different paths as the war goes on. As a format, I found it a little contrived – there are the usual interweaving stories behind the scenes, but it served a purpose in showing the different elements of war. The descriptions of the war, both at home and on the front in the trenches, drew me in completely.
The title refers to the first line of a standardised letter which troops were issued with. If injured – or worse – they would fill in the blanks so that the letter would inform their families. From the title alone, it was inevitable that something massive would happen to one of the characters, but I didn’t quite expect what did happen. I don’t want to give it away - the "twist" had me genuinely gasping out loud (I swore at one point), and if I’m honest, it was the second half which really drew me in. There were several points at which I found myself in tears (the descriptions of the damage to soldiers bodies was harrowing to say the least), and it is this which has stayed with me, as I’ve never read such brutally honest and matter of fact medical descriptions in a novel before.
It’s not the best written story, but I easily forgave the eye-rolling at small plot irritations. There have been a couple of times over the last couple of weeks where I’ve found myself marvelling at the medical elements in it – and telling others how much I learned – so for that reason, I loved it.
What were Fi's thoughts?
I read this book a while back and while I liked it, I didn’t love it. And I don’t know why. I certainly found it interesting, the historian in me loves books set during wartime as it's a fascinating subject and I enjoyed the information about the facial injuries and reconstruction process. My main issue with the book, the one that stopped me loving it, is that the characters weren't as developed as I'd wanted. There was loads of potential with this story and cast of characters and yet it felt as though the story ended to soon and was rushed. Perhaps that's because she was planning a sequel, which is out this year I believe, but whatever the reason this book didn't quite work for me. It was enjoyable just not brilliant.
I think I'd agree with Fi's final summary, although for slightly different reasons. I really did like this book but I read Toby's Roomby Pat Barker not so long ago and it featured a very similar plot strand and even some of the same real life characters. Although I didn't like that book so much due to other issues, I think it had a much more visceral way of describing the impact of war on the wounded soldiers and so My Dear, I Wanted to Tell You suffered a little by comparison. That's not to say it's not a good book though. I rattled through it really quickly and there's a lot to like - the love story is really engaging and the twists and turns it takes are realistic and thoughtful. The settings are all really vivid, especially the battle sections, and I really liked the range of characters and how they were shown breaking out of their pre-war limitations. There's just something a tiny bit unsatisfying about this book overall. I wanted it to be that tiny bit longer, that tiny bit more well rounded and, well, just a little bit better. It was good but it had the potential to be great.
Huge thanks to Fi and Gwen for joining in and picking such fab books!
I'll be back next month with two different bloggers and we'll be reading The Sleeperby Emily Barr, The Secret Keeperby Kate Morton and A Monster Callsby Patrick Ness. I'm looking forward to it already!