When you want to feel good about life – three great reads

Here are my three companion pieces that I went away from invigorated.

First, Kurt Vonnegut’s If This Isn’t Nice, What Is? It is a slim collection of his speeches at school and university graduations. At the heart is the premise, adopted from his Uncle, that when life is good one must pause and say ‘if this isn’t nice, what is?’ It is a mantra that I have adopted and repeat to my son on holidays, on days when the air is crisp and the sky is blue, and when we are all tucked up together reading in bed. This phrase is an antidote to my pessimism and fits his natural zest for life.

Kurt Vonnegut, ‘If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?’

I was prompted to read Vonnegut’s speeches by this letter to the US government, regarding his son’s consciousness objector status during the Vietnam War, ‘There’s no hope in war‘. I can only aspire to be this articulate, thoughtful and brave in my parenthood.

Next, Sam Philips’ Everywoman. Sam Phillips celebrates women.  Her tone is upbeat, her anecdotes raw, real and often funny and she clearly aims to inspire.  She’s beckoning to the women behind her to follow her lead. ‘If I can do this then so can you’, she practically yells from the page.

Each chapter is Phillips’ ‘truth’ on a theme – violence, equality, sisterhood, motherhood etc. – and her chapter ‘The Truth About Trolling’ is a great first person contribution to ‘The internet is a bad bad thing‘ .

I think every woman would go away from this book heartened.

My final recommendation is My Life in France by Julia Child. Her zeal for life is astounding and jumps from the page. She had me wanting to skip over to Paris to learn to cook at Le Cordon Bleu. But it’s not really about cooking or celebrity, it’s a book about love, partnership, passion and playing the cards that life deals you well.


What would you choose for ‘A Good Read’?

My husband drunkenly ponders and lists the eight songs he would choose for Desert Island Discs (Pixies, Bowie, Can, Dylan blar, blar, blar…). ‘You are spoilt!’, I cry. ‘When I’m on A Good Read with Harriet Gilbert, I can only choose one book.’ ONE BOOK. The impossibility of such a task.

So in my ongoing quest to select the perfect good read for a show I will never be invited to appear on, here is my current short-list* of three:

The Book of Daniel by E.L. Doctorow. If I have to commit to my favourite novel, this is it.

The Girls’ Guide to Hunting & Fishing by Melissa Bank. This book is simply pitch perfect. Every sentence so beautifully wrought. Every vignette delightful.

NEW ENTRY! Clothes, Music, Boys by Viv Albertine. By turns hilarious and harrowing, it’s a searingly honest memoir from the guitarist of British punk band ‘The Slits’.

A single selection will be made when the producer calls…

*One of my rules is it can’t be a book already recommended on the programme, which rules out a couple of favourites – The Hours by Michael Cunningham and Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton.

BREAKING NEWS: Disaster – Hadley Freeman chose The Girls’ Guide To Hunting And Fishing on A Good Read this week, so I’ve had to drop it from my list… But she loves it as much as I do, so all ends well.

London life in the Second World War: three great books.

I rediscovered Good Evening, Mrs Craven just before Christmas, and through happenstance was given Jan Struther’s Mrs Miniver not once, but twice for Christmas. The two are perfect bedfellows and now I only need to cast my mind about to find a third companion piece.

Mrs Miniver is a series of vignettes from the point of view of our eponymous heroine as she transitions from peace time into war, culminating in her writing her ‘1939 Christmas List’. Taken as a whole the novel is a celebration of life reported through the minutia of the everyday experience, from the fireworks at ‘Guy Fawkes’ Day’ to ‘London in August’.  Mrs Miniver’s ‘delight in noticing things’ can be profoundly moving as Panter-Downes creates an intimate tapestry of personal moments that make up a ‘lucky’ life, which becomes all the more precious as time passes and war looms.

“And when the first rocket went up Mrs Miniver felt the customary pricking in her throat and knew once again that the enchantment was going to work.  Some things – conjurers ventriloquists, pantomimes – she enjoyed vicariously by watching the children’s enjoyment: but fireworks had for her a direct and magical appeal.  Their attraction was more complex than that of any other form of art.   They had pattern and sequence, colour and sound, brilliance and mobility; they had suspense, surprise, and a faint hint of danger; above all, they had the supreme quality of transience which puts the keenest edge on beauty and makes it touch some spring in the heart which more enduring excellences cannot reach.”

As war then becomes a daily reality – queuing for gas masks, barrage balloons appearing over London and rehoming evacuees – Mrs Miniver expresses her hopes that some what she witnesses will become permanently embedded in London society.

I can think of a hundred ways in which the war has bought us to our senses.  But it oughtn’t to need a war to make a nation… carry rear-lamps on its bicycles, and give all its slum children a holiday in the country.  And it oughtn’t need a war to make us talk to each other in buses, and invent our own amusements in the evening, and live simply, and eat sparingly, and recover the use of our legs, and get up early enough to see the sun rise.  However, it has needed one; which is about the severest criticism our civilisation could have.

I wonder whether it is too much to hope that afterwards, when all the horror is over, we shall be able to conjure up again the feelings of these first few weeks, and somehow build our peace-time world so as to preserve everything of war that is worth preserving?  

You might think it wartime propaganda, but I believe that much of Struther’s writing is astute and illuminating, and this book deserves a wider readership today.

My second recommendation is by Mollie Panter-Downes. Maybe best known for One Fine Day, Good Evening, Mrs Craven is a selection of her letters and 21 short stories that Panter-Downes’ wrote as the London correspondent for The New Yorker during the Second World War.

Banter-Downes captures so many facets of the war-time experience.  She is a shrewd and witty writer and her short stories are varied, insightful and, by turn, funny and moving.  In ‘Combined Operations’, the Butlers flee their friends and hosts, the Parsons, to head back to Blitz-hit London to the delight of all parties (the horror of unwanted guests is a recurrent theme in the stories, and even in Mrs Miniver her friend Lady J. insists on staying in London to avoid being a nuisance to her ‘awful’ son-in-law and ‘dreadfully country’ daughter).  Pacifist Don Merril joins the army, not through heroism, but an urgency to eat and is thereafter forever alienated from his previous bohemian existence (Fin De Siegle).    Ruth is broken, not by her husband initially shipping out, but by his almost immediate return and the strain of knowing they must part again (‘Goodbye, My Love’).  A mistress must cautiously call her lover’s wife to determine if he is dead or if she has simply been discarded (‘Good Evening, Mrs Craven’)

This collection also gives a nod to her war time journalism for The New Yorker, which you can find collected in London War Notes 1939 – 1945.   If you haven’t heard of or read any Mollie Panter-Downes, I do recommend starting with Good Evening, Mrs Craven, it is wonderful.

Casting my mind about for other great women writers of the period, I instead became fixated on Miss Roach from Patrick Hamilton’s The Slaves of Solitude. I will confess my love of Patrick Hamilton. I think Hangover Square is one of the finest novels of the twentieth century. And Kathy Burke thinks its a smasher too.  Also, Hangover Square has the greatest last line in all of literature, but no spoilers here.  So back to The Slaves of Solitude or ‘Hamilton’s greatest novel’ as my husband wrongheadedly claims. What makes The Slaves of Solitude a companion piece to Good Evening, Mrs Craven, and even Mrs Miniver, is Hamilton’s depiction of the bleaker side of London life during the war. Hamilton’s heroine Miss Roach is reminiscent of Miss Birch in Panter-Downes’ short story ‘It’s The Reaction’ where a lonely spinster rallies but fails to reconnect with her neighbours following the previously enforced intimacy of the air-raid shelter: “It was going to be another nice quiet evening after all, she thought hopelessly”.

In The Slaves of Solitude Miss Roach escapes the Blitz to lodge in a suburban guest house, which, like the novel, is dominated by the tyrant Mr Thwaites. After the lonely Miss Roach strikes up a romance with American GI Lieutenant Pike, her friend Vicki Kugelman becomes her love rival and Thwaites’ pitiless collaborator. Like many of Hamilton’s novels, the base cruelty of key characters, combined with the overall sense of Miss Roach’s isolation and helplessness, means it is at times an anxious and almost tortuous read.   However, whilst bleak, the writing is terse and brilliant and the characterisation strong.  The novel is also made more bearable by its satisfying denouement. Don’t let me put you off with ‘torturous’, it is a book that rewards more with every reading.

Beyond their London wartime setting, while the tone and class-focus differs, for me these three works are connected through a sense of immediacy, authenticity, eye for detail, and wit.  There is a sense of reportage in much of the writing that, if sometimes bleak, is revealing of the multifaceted reality of London life leading up to and during the Second World War. And, as always in Companion Pieces, all three are the work of great writers.

My three companion pieces on London life during the second word war are:

  • Mrs Miniver by Jan Struther
  • Good Evening, Mrs Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes by Mollie Panter Downes
  • The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton
Jan Struther, Mollie Panter-Downes
Mrs Miniver and Good Evening, Mrs Craven

You want further recommendations?   Why not try:

Who were the other great writers capturing London life during the Second World War?