An Odyssey: Daniel Mendelsohn

★★★★★

A Father, a Son and an Epic

In January 2011, Classics professor Daniel Mendelsohn began to teach an undergraduate seminar on the Odyssey at Bard College in New York. It would be one of the most unusual experiences of his career, for one of his students was his 81-year-old father, Jay Mendelsohn. The tale of the term that followed is distilled into this extraordinary book, part memoir and part literary criticism. An insightful and passionate teacher, Mendelsohn conveys his enthusiasm for Homer’s epic; but he is also a sensitive chronicler of the human soul, and his story spirals out from the seminar to encompass the history of his complex relationship with his prickly, combative father. Written with compassion, it is both intellectually and emotionally brilliant – not to mention hugely moving.

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Blonde: Joyce Carol Oates

★★★★★

You may think I’m getting soft, seeing the second five-star rating in four days, but trust me on this. I’ve been reading this book since November and, at almost a thousand pages, it is a dazzling modern classic: a sprawling, daring, combative act of imagination. First published in 2000, it gains an even more fervent urgency when read in the light of last year’s snowballing Hollywood scandals. Hovering between fiction and non-fiction, it tells the story of the most iconic woman of the 20th century – so recognisable that you only need a wisp of platinum-blonde hair and the feathered end of a dark eyebrow to put a name to the face on the cover. Yet this is not a biography but a creative reconstruction of the life and times of the girl who started life as Norma Jeane Baker and ended up crushed beneath the glittering celebrity of her alter ego, Marilyn Monroe.

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Cleopatra: A Life: Stacy Schiff

★★★★★

What do you think of when you think of Cleopatra? The asp? The siren lure of Egypt? Danielle de Niese, dripping with jewels? Elizabeth Taylor? Whatever we think of, it’s almost certainly incorrect. In this beautifully-written biography, Stacy Schiff tries to peel away the centuries of accretions in the form of purple prose, propaganda and the overheated male gaze, to reveal the ruler beneath. Don’t judge this book by its cover. The publisher has done the author no service in that respect. It’s packaged like a lightweight historical novel, with the traditional faceless woman in historical costume and lashings of pink and gold. It deserves better. Intelligent, gripping and extremely readable, this is the best biography I’ve read in some time.

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The Eagle Huntress

Aisholpan and her eagle

★★★★★

Many of the films and books tackled as part of my ‘wider world awareness’ project have thrown a pretty grim light on being a woman in other cultures, so I was thrilled to find this magnificent documentary about a very feisty 13-year-old girl in Mongolia. Aisholpan has grown up in a nomadic tradition where the grown men of a family hunt with golden eagles in order to feed their families. Her beloved father and grandfather are both celebrated hunters and she has longed to join them since she was a little girl. There’s just one problem. Female eagle hunters aren’t exactly common, let alone when they’re barely into their teens. And so Aisholpan and her father set out to prove, to the Mongolian eagle-hunting community, that anything a man can do, a girl can match.

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Gone: Min Kym

★★★★

A Girl, a Violin, a Life Unstrung

As someone with no musical ability whatsoever, I’ve never quite understood the bond that musicians have with their instruments. Now, however, I’m a little closer to appreciating that blend of physical and emotional reliance, thanks to this extraordinary and frank memoir. You may not recognise Min Kym’s name, but you will have heard her story: she is the brilliant violinist whose Stradivarius was stolen at Euston Station in 2010. This beautifully-written book is overshadowed throughout by that theft hanging in the future, but it is also a thoughtful and very poignant exploration of what it means to be a child prodigy and a top-flight soloist – and the psychological cost to be paid.

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Dancer

Sergei Polunin

★★★★½

(directed by Steven Cantor, 2016)

Classical ballet has always been a foreign country to me. Until Thursday, I hadn’t even heard of Sergei Polunin. But then I read a review of his current show at Sadler’s Wells which, in turn, led me to YouTube and his video Take Me to Church. Even on an iPhone screen, it took my breath away. I’m always alert to the beauty of the human form, and I admire dancing in which we see the body pushed to its limits, at the point where grace and power blend into a singular alchemy of expression. This four-minute piece, danced by a lone young man in ripped leggings in shafts of sunlight, was a ravishing spectacle of exactly that. What was the story behind this raw and emotional performance? Fortunately, this newly-released documentary was on hand to tell me more.

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As Nature Made Him: John Colapinto

★★★★

The Boy Who Was Raised As A Girl

Following on from Geniethis book explores another case which featured prominently in my A level Psychology textbook. It’s one of the most famous stories in the canon, a case which has been used on both sides of the nature-nurture debate, and one which does more than any other to prompt outrage at the medical establishment. It tells the tale of twin baby boys, born in Winnipeg in 1967 and admitted at eight months old for circumcision. When error, either mechanical or human, caused catastrophic burns to the penis of the elder twin, doctors advised that the only option was to castrate the child and raise him as a girl. His distraught parents followed this advice. This is the story of David Reimer: a story of dizzying medical hubris and humbling resilience, made deeply poignant by a tragic coda which postdated the publication of this study.

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The Ladies of Llangollen: Elizabeth Mavor

★★★★

Like the Chevalier d’Eon, the Ladies of Llangollen came my way thanks to a work project. When trying to find an introduction to their lives, I judged that Elizabeth Mavor’s book seemed the best option, despite now coming across as slightly dated (it was published in 1971). Yet, for all that, it presents a thorough and sensitive discussion of these two remarkable women, who created an idyllic lifestyle together on their own terms and in defiance of social convention. Drawing on the Ladies’ own journals and correspondence, along with the letters of their immediate circle, newspaper reports and other documents, Mavor’s book isn’t just the sound introduction I was looking for, but an admirably unbiased and scrupulously fair double biography.

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The Kingdom of Women: Choo WaiHong

★★★

Life, Love and Death in China’s Hidden Mountains

Some time ago, I heard about a book called Leaving Mother Lake, which told the story of a young woman raised in a remarkable tribe in western China near the Tibetan border, and her journey into mainstream Chinese life. I haven’t yet got round to reading that, but it meant that I immediately jumped on this forthcoming book about the same Mosuo tribe, this time told by someone entering, rather than leaving, the community. The Mosuo are remarkable as (apparently) the only remaining matriarchal and matrilineal society in the world, and this book tells the tale of a successful Singaporean lawyer who takes early retirement and finds a spiritual home in this unique community.

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The Swashbuckling Life of the Chevalier d’Eon

The Chevalier d'Eon

I mentioned in my post on Monsieur d’Eon is a Woman that I’d been asked to give a lecture in my professional capacity about the Chevalier d’Eon. I’m pleased to say that it went very well and feedback suggests that the Chevalier’s story exerts just as much fascination today as it did back in the 18th century. Since there’s a lot of misleading information about the Chevalier online, and since this remarkable story deserves to be known more widely, I decided to turn my lecture into a blog post. What follows is, therefore, considerably longer than my usual posts but is amply illustrated. The British Museum has almost sixty prints and other documents relating to the Chevalier’s life in London, many of which I reproduce here. So let’s delve in to a tale of espionage, secrecy, swashbuckling and remarkable self-fashioning.

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