Category > Autobiography

My Salinger Year

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My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff, book reviewIn 1996, Joanna Rakoff took a job at a prestigious New York City literary agency, lying about her ability to type on an electric typewriter. She found herself on a steep learning curve, needing to master the typewriter, an audio transcription machine, a new vocabulary and a set of unbreakable rules relating to a writer called Jerry. Her scary boss instructs her never to give people Jerry’s contact details, and to try and end phone conversations as quickly as possible. Only after the conversation does she notice the office shelves full of J D Salinger books and realise who “Jerry” is.

This is not really another book about Salinger – while the famously reclusive writer becomes an important figure in her life, Joanna doesn’t even expect to meet him or speak to him, and she has never read his books.


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Broken Glass, Broken Lives: A Jewish Girls’ Survival Story in Berlin

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Broken Glass, Broken Lives: A Jewish Girls’ Survival Story in Berlin, 1933 - 1945  Rita KluhnBroken Glass Broken Lives is Rita Kuhn’s first hand account of growing up in Berlin in the 1930s and 40s during Hitler’s Nazi regime. Rita is Jewish, brought up as a practicing Jew, going to a Jewish school, wearing her yellow star along with all the others marked out for attention by the regime. The difference was that in the eyes of that same regime, Rita was somehow not quite Jewish enough.

In Rita’s case, her mother was a Jewish convert who gave up the religion she’d been born with in order to marry Rita’s father. As such, Rita’s mother was exempt from much of the abuse that was perpetrated on ‘born and bred’ Jews and Rita and her brother were classified as a Geltungsjuedin – or ‘Jews by law’.


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A Blaze of Autumn Sunshine

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A Blaze of Autumn Sunshine,  Tony Benn, book reviewWhen the opportunity arose to get a pre-publication copy of Tony Benn’s final diaries, A Blaze of Autumn Sunshine my hand shot up quicker than my brain could actually process what I’d just done. I’ve long been an admirer of this controversial political giant, egged on no doubt by my grandfather who considered him some kind of living god, but was I really in the market for a politician’s diary? What if it turned out to be drier than dust and deadly dull? Didn’t I already have Alan Clarke’s diaries on my shelf, still unopened many years after his death? How on earth would I find something to write about in a review if all he did was bang on about politics? Silly me. Tony Benn couldn’t be boring if he tried to and his latest book – likely to be his last set of diaries – is witty, entertaining and always deeply human.


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An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth

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An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, Christopher Hadfield, book reviewThis is a self-help book with a difference, and it takes you some time before you discover that this is where the book is headed, apart from targeting the moon. In the beginning you float weightlessly through space with one of the world’s top astronauts, a Canadian who at the age of 9 looked up at the stars and decided that he wanted to be lost amongst them. Especially since that was when Neil Armstrong first set foot on the moon ‘It was no longer a distant, unknowable orb but a place where people walked, talked, worked and even slept.’

He began flying with his father but the stars seemed a long way away. From the army to flying jet planes, he took his life a step at a time and included a happy marriage.


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Ammonites and Leaping Fish

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Ammonites and Leaping Fish, Penelope Lively, book review“This is not quite a memoir. Rather it is the view from old age.”

Ammonites and Leaping Fish is Penelope Lively’s third autobiographical work (the others are Oleander Jacaranda and A House Unlocked). Rather than a chronological account of her life, this volume contains 5 pieces of prose, mixing current reflections and anecdotes with past recollections.

Old Age

At what age are you old? This is a witty piece on our shifting definitions of old age and what it means – apparently most people think youth ends at 41 and old age starts at 59, but those over 80 suggest 52 and 68 respectively. She speculates on the political and economic implications of the growing number of people over 80.


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Running in the Family

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Running in the Family, Michael Ondaatje, book reviewMichael Ondaatje, author of “The English Patient,” was born in Sri Lanka (then known as Ceylon). In 1954, at the age of 11, he left for England and in 1962 he moved to Canada. Only as an adult did Ondaatje go back to visit the island of his birth, which he called the “pendant off the ear of India.” While there, he investigated his family history through the places and people still there. This is his account of these visits.

Sounds boring, doesn’t it?

But that couldn’t be farther from the truth.

In fact, if the stories that Michael Ondaatje tells in Running in the Family weren’t true, this would have been an amazingly beautiful book of fiction.


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This Boy

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This Boy, Alan Johnson, book reviewIn 1957, the then Prime Minister Harold Macmillan told a meeting of fellow Conservatives that most of the country had ‘never had it so good’. Alan Johnson’s moving autobiography This Boy describes life for a family that did not share in Britain’s widespread prosperity.

The conditions in which the one time Labour Home Secretary grew up would have shocked many people even at the time: no electricity, damp rooms, a cooker on the landing, for a long time no living room, and emptying buckets of urine in the morning because it had been too cold to go outside to the toilet during the night. This is no tale of Victorian poverty and squalor – this is 1960s west London, the London of the notorious unscrupulous landlord Peter Rachman, of race riots and where violence was commonplace.


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The Elimination

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The Elimination by Rithy Panh, book reviewWhen my copy of The Elimination by Rithy Panh came through the letter box I took it out of its wrapper and thought “Oh boy, what have I done?”

The subtitle will maybe give you an idea why a sense of trepidation came over me. The Elimination – A Survivor of the Khmer Rouge Confronts his Past and the Commandant of the Killing Fields.

I was pretty scared of what I might find. Even though I’d asked for this book, even though I’d told myself that I should be thoroughly ashamed to know almost nothing about something that took place during my own lifetime, I was still struck by a fear of what I might find inside the covers.


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Bedsit Disco Queen

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Bedsit Disco Queen: How I Grew Up and Tried to be a Pop Star , Tracey Thorn, book reviewTracey Thorn’s Bedsit Disco Queen (Subtitled: How I Grew up and Tried to be a Pop Star) is as much an analysis of the fickle and ever changing face of pop music from the 1970s onwards, as it is the author’s own honest, and often moving account, of her life first as a founding member of a vaguely successful but hugely influential all girl indie band, and then, with her partner Ben Watt, one half of the band Everything But the Girl.

Although the pair had met some months before on the London music scene – both by this time were already enjoying minor success and critical acclaim – the couple got together musically and romantically in their first year at Hull University where, completely coincidentally, both were reading English literature.


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Moranthology

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Moranthology by Caitlin Moran, book review“When I became a journalist at the age of fifteen, it was a matter of simple expediency. Having been home-educated for the previous five years, I had no academic qualifications whatsoever. As a resident of a council estate in Wolverhampton, this seemed to leave me with a grand total of three future employment options: 1) prostitution; 2) working on the checkout at Gateway supermarket, or 3) becoming a writer… So, writing it was.”

In 2011’s bestselling How To Be A Woman, Caitlin Moran discussed, well, all things female. It had a big impression on me; a year and a half on from reading it, I am no longer concerned that owning only one dress (the one I got married in, never to be worn again), one pair of heels (which I can’t really walk in), never being bothered with make-up (so many things I’d rather do with my time and money) and not wanting babies (ditto) makes me a rubbish woman.


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Wild: A Journey from Lost to Found

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Wild: A Journey from Lost to Found, Cheryl Strayed, book reviewWild is Cheryl Strayed’s account of her journey along the Pacific Crest Trail, 1100 miles from California, through Oregon and into Washington State. Following the death of her mother, her family grew apart and her marriage broke up. She was in a pretty bad place, directionless and dabbling in drugs, and one day came across a guide book for the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). With nothing to lose, she set off with the worlds heaviest rucksack and no experience of long-distance hiking.

There are two stories told in Wild, the physical and the emotional.


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Opening Innings in the Kitchen

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 Cooking on the Run by Boria Majumdar, book reviewA cricket writer and sports scholar writing about food? That’s a surprise for a start, even though cricket writers certainly eat and probably enjoy their food as much as anyone else. Boria Majumdar’s book, though is written with specific agenda, to get men who cannot cook into the kitchen and make them comfortable with the pots and pans. He describes his book as “simply the average Indian man’s survival mechanism in times of need” and begins by explaining that one point he couldn’t even make an omelette. Then, while at Oxford on his Rhodes scholarship stint, he encountered Professor Talib Ali who invited him to dinner and fed him a comfortingly spicy home cooked meal that made Majumdar feel perfectly at home and determined to master food before his wife arrived on the scene.


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