Monday, 29 December 2008

50 Books in 2014

I've set myself the challenge of reading 50 books in 2014. I have no idea how many I read in a normal year, or how achievable this number will be for me. Here's my ongoing list:

1. The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing
I know this is regarded as a feminist classic but I found this a real hard slog. If it hadn't been the holiday, I think I would have given up well before the end. There are moments when the novel's fractured structure work together beautiful where I thought aha I get it, but those slipped away quickly. I can imagine the brutal honesty, still refreshingly stark in places, about sex, class and politics struck through to many women who couldn't articulate or perhaps felt alone in what they were thinking in the early sixties. But, thankfully, it's harder to imagine that now. Finished January 2014

2. Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg
I think Sandberg was brave to write this book. She didn't need to, and it's great to see a woman in a position of power being prepared to talk about issues for women. It's a very personal and pragmatic account - the solutions she advocates won't be to everyone's taste, nor do they apply to everyone. But I think it's too harsh to punish her for what this isn't and, if like Sandberg, you are lucky enough to be well-educated, economically well-off, and with a supportive family, there's plenty to inspire action here.
Finished January 2014

3. Clara Bow: Runnin' Wild by David Steen
All I knew Clara from her beautiful photographs and the story surrounding her nickname 'the It Girl', as gleaned from the Lucile and Elinor Glynn biography. But her rags to relative riches story is as heartbreaking as it is astounding, as is how she was treated within Hollywood. It was also fascinating to learn that her successor Louise Brooks was central to getting her contribution to cinema reassessed. (I've put my copy of this book into my Etsy shop: you can buy it here).
Finished January 2014

4. Her Brilliant Career by Rachel Cooke
An alternative take on working women in the fifties as told through the stories of ten "extraordinary" women. You can read my fuller review of this book hereFinished February 2014

5. If You Have To Cry, Go Outside by Kelly Cutrone
From women in the fifties to advice for working women in the noughties. I'd first encountered Cutrone with her straight-talking appearances on ANTM, and found out after about her fashion PR company, and her reputation. Obviously, this is not going to be the finest literature of all the books I read this year (at least I hope not), but it was hugely enjoyable. I'm sure she'd frighten the pants off me in real life (who am I kidding? I know she'd frighten the pants off me in real life) but on paper her advice is hugely enjoyable and - shock - also quite useful. Finished February 2014

6. The Hare With Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal
I went on a Japanese study day recently which included a visit to the V&A. As we looked at the Japanese and Japanese-inspired ceramics in the Ceramics Gallery, and then the netsuke collection in the Japanese gallery, I realised how I should read this book, a family history tied to the history of a vitrine of netsuke. From Japan to Paris to Vienna to Britain and South London, the story of de Waal's predecessors and their possessions reflect some of the most wonderful, but also the most terrifying aspects of the twentieth century. Finished February 2014

7. Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel
This was a re-read. I remembered devouring it in almost one sitting over a Christmas, so I was pleased to revisit it for my book club. I rarely re-read but this reminds me why I should. I was so terrified something horrific was going to happen the first time round, I didn't really enjoy Mantel's terrifically black sense of humour, or her accurate depiction of how depressing life in Britain could be in the late 90s. Makes me almost - but not quite - want to bother with Wolf Hall. Finished March 2014

8. Something Wholesale by Eric Newby
Eric Newby is best known for his travel writing but - after the Second World War - he spent time working in his family's London wholesale firm. It's a wonderful, and very funny, glimpse into that lost world and its characters, from the glamorous in-house model, Lola, to the inscrutable Mr Wilkins and his collection of risque seaside postcards. You can read my full review hereFinished March 2014.

9. The Little Shadows by Marina Endicott
I wanted to read this book after hearing about it on the marvellous Clothes in Books blog. It's a marvellously researched book, set in the lost world of Canadian vaudeville. It's a definite page-turner but I'm not sure how long the story and the characters will stay with me for. The spectacle definitely triumphs in this one - but that's perhaps the point. Finished March 2014.

10. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
Another book that had been recommended so highly but ultimately left me a little disappointed. It's a smart book and I like any book that allows its teenage characters to be smart too. But sometimes the Dawson's Creek style pontificating left me a bit cold. Maybe I'm just too old for it - I'm sure my teen self would have adored and wept over it. Finished March 2014

11. Shopping, Seduction & Mr Selfridge by Lindy Woodhead
I haven't watched any of the TV programme Mr Selfridge but I really want to now. I love the topics Lindy Woodhead picks for her book (War Paint looks at the rivalry between Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubenstein while her forthcoming title is about infamous nightclub owner Kate Merrick). This is the perfect kind of biography - fascinating subject matter, well-researched without hitting the reader over the head with FACTS, zips along at a great pace and leaves you with lots of titbits to take-away. I'm now off to find out more about Gorgeous Gloria, the Selfridges in-house model. Finished March 2014

12. Bronwen Astor: Her Life and Times by Peter Stanford
Bronwen Astor is better known, to me at least, as Bronwen Pugh, the Welsh model who strode the catwalk as Balmain's favourite 'model girl'. Her marriage to Bill Astor threw her straight into the storm surrounding the Profumo scandal, a moment used to mark a shift in British society in the 1960s and a topic still regularly raked through by writers. This book was written with her endorsement and attempts to tell it from her viewpoint, but also places the emphasis on Bronwen's own Christian convictions and how they have shaped her life. This makes some of the material quite dry for readers searching for juicy titbits, but makes it a world away from the usual frothy 'model girl' biographies. Finished April 2013. 

13. High Rising by Angela Thirkell
I've stagnated with my reading recently and this was the perfect tonic. A delicious comedy about a small British village in the 1930s, where the need to marry can reach Austen-esque proportions. Thirkell's light but devastating touch has echoes of Austen too. And it's hard to resist a book where the main character makes her living by writing excellent low brow novels about fashion. Some wish fulfilment maybe? Finished April 2013. 

14. I Feel Bad About My Neck by Nora Ephron
Another book to help you remember the fun of reading, and how a really good writer can make the most mundane of observations entertaining. Tremendous fun. Finished April 2014.

15. In My Fashion by Bettina Ballard
After what seems like years of searching, I finally found an affordable copy of this book - the memoirs of ex-American Vogue fashion editor Bettina Ballard. It's obvious why it's so often cited: it's a real insider's take on the Parisian fashion world both pre and post the Second World War. I'd always thought she'd be fearsome - in fact, she is both charming and relatable, especially in the first years of her arrival of Paris when she describes how the romance of the city helped sustain her through her loneliness. You can read my full review hereFinished April 2014.

16. High Wages by Dorothy Whipple
Another delicious reissue from Persephone Books. This is the story of Jane, a young woman employed in a drapery in an northern British town in the years prior to the First World War. As the introduction by Jane Brocket explains, it expertly shows the vulnerability of these shops girls in this period. It also shows a society in transition: the incoming of ready-to-wear, the impact of the war and increased social mobility, all in a wonderfully readable book that I devoured in a day. Finished April 2014.

17. The Fashion in Shrouds by Margery Allingham
What kind of murder mystery could I enjoy more than a murder mystery set in a fashion house? This 1938 book marries the thirties love of a murder mystery and its obsession with mannequins. The voiceless but beautiful mannequin isn't to be trusted here - but neither are the rest of London's smart society, apparently. Everyone has gorgeous clothes and plenty to hide (fab cover image from here). Finished May 2014.

18. Fabulous Nobodies by Lee Tulloch
This was recommended to me by Sarra Manning, who has obviously worked out what makes me tick in terms of reads: clothes, and more wonderful clothes. And a little more self-awareness than Devil Wears Prada fluff. Really is a door whore in downtown 80s New York. While she is desperately struggling to be a Somebody, she's got the fabulous bit figured out at least. This is hilarious escapism. And apparently it's going to be a film. Interesting... Finished May 2014. 

19. The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
I think I deserve a bonus prize if I get to 50 books, and one of them is The Luminaries. Because, as most reviews of the book seem to note, it's very long. It's also quite hard to keep going with a book you sense is going to get good 600 pages in. But then it does, and it's really, really good. It's playful, and cunning and twists away from you, just as you think you are finally getting it. The wind-down to the end feels especially exuberantly daring - that's, of course, if you believe the last 200 pages of a book are 'the end'. Finished May 2014.

20. Romany and Tom by Ben Watt
Romany and Tom are Ben Watt's parents: a jazz musician-turned-decorator and a RADA-trained actress-turned-hack. This book is a beautiful exploration based on a very simple concept: how his parents lived in the later years of their life, and how they got there from their so-called 'golden years'. Its pathos doesn't come from cliche, but it does manage to arouse many familiar feelings, about getting older, about families getting older and about the weight of family expectations and legacies. Finished May 2014. 

21. Anything Goes by Lucy Moore
Finished June 2014. 

22. Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban
Finished June 2014.

23. Mrs Hemingway by Naomi Wood
Finished June 2014.

24. A Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain
Finished June 2014.

25. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos
Finished June 2014.

26. Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham
Finished June 2014. 

27. Flappers by Judith Mackrell
Finished June 2014. 

28. Girl Trouble: Panic and Progress in the History of Young Women by Carol Dyhouse
Finished July 2014. 

29. Dog-Heart by Diana McCaulay
Finished July 2014. 

30. Mistinguett by Mistinguett
Finished July 2014. 

31. Murder Must Advertise by Dorothy L. Sayers
Finished July 2014. 

32. The Many Lives of Miss K. by Jean-Noel Liaut
Toto Koopman was many things: a model, a dazzling force of personality and a spy, who suffered in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany. Her story is incredible. Sadly this book falls slightly flat: I'm not sure if it's something lost in translation (this book was originally written in French) but Ms Toto definitely deserved something with a bit more flair. Finished July 2014. 

33. Seven Sisters Style by Rebecca C. Tuite
Gorgeously illustrated book about how the styles initiated in this elite group of American women's colleges set national, and global styles. A longer review here. Finished July 2014. 

34. Love, Nina by Nina Stibbe
The funniest book I've read all year. From AWOL saws to cooking tips from Alan Bennett, you couldn't make this stuff up - and Stibbe didn't, Love Nina is a collection of letters written aged 20, while working as a nanny to her sister. Through her knack of capturing the minutiae of life, it becomes a great celebration of family - and extended families, and neighbours. Although - if Stibbe's own cooking was as bad as she suggests - a celebration probably lacking good cake. Finished August 2014

35. Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys by Viv Albertine

Thanks to her role within the band The Slits, Viv Albertine was one of the foremost female faces on the punk and post-punk music scene. This, her autobiography, not only gives an insight into what it was like being a woman in a man’s world, but also how frightening the world of the 1970s still were for women generally. Women in the music industry were known as wives and groupies, not rock stars, and bands such as The Slits helped to challenge this view. Through this book, and her music, Viv honestly discusses the experience of another group traditionally ignored by the music industry: older women. And, as Kathleen Hanna is quoted as saying in the book, what could be more punk than that? Finished August 2014

36. Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
Finished August 2014

37. Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Story of Huguette Clark and the Loss of the one of the World's Greatest Fortunes by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jr.
Read my review over at Shiny New Books.
Finished August 2014

38. A Strange Business: Making Art and Money in Nineteenth-Century Britain by James Hamilton
Read my review over at Shiny New Books.
Finished September 2014

39. West with the Night by Beryl Markham
Finished September 2014

40. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
Finished October 2014

41. The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert
Finished November 2014

42. Love Lessons by Joan Wyndham
Wyndham's early 1940s diaries: imagine everything a teenage girl would write about it their diary - to paraphrase Viv Albertine: Clothes, clothes, clothes, food, food, food, boys, boys, boys. Albeit set against the backdrop of the first months of the blitz. Wyndham is a better narrator than most teenage girls, but no less self interested. For more on this book, see hereFinished November 2014

43. Not That Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham
Finished November 2014

44. The Red Leather Diary by Lily Koppel
Finished November 2014

45. Elsa Schiaparelli: A Biography by Meryle Secrest
Finished November 2014

46. Love is Blue by Joan Wyndham
Finished December 2014

47. The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
Finished December 2014

48. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
Finished December 2014

49. A Vision of Loveliness by Louise Levine
Finished December 2014

50. All We Know: Three Lives by Lisa Cohen
Finished December 2014
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