What I Read In January

UntitledGeddy Lee: My Effin’ Life Frank Zappa once quipped (and I am working from memory here) that rock journalists are people who can’t write interviewing people who can’t talk for the benefit of people who can’t read. I am mostly inclined to agree — the memoirs of rock musicians, often ghost-written, are not generally works of great literature, and neither is this one. It is however a great deal better than most, for two reasons. First, the author (who had a little editorial help) is the bass player and lead singer of the rock band Rush, which, as they came from Canada, have what can be described as a cult following (that’s me, and possibly Ricardipus) but only if one regards Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings as the biggest home movie ever made. Rush was very much on the intellectual end of the rock spectrum, combining dense, complex arrangements with lyrics based on science-fictional themes or social or historical commentary. Although much of this came from the drummer and lyricist, the late Neil Peart, it would hardly have succeeded were his bandmates, Geddy Lee and guitarist Alex Lifeson, not also intellectually in tune, and this depth is echoed in this book. The second reason is Lee’s background. He was born Gershon Eliezer Weinrib to two Polish Jewish emigres who’d come to Canada following the Holocaust. Indeed, Lee’s parents met in a Nazi concentration camp, and that both survived can be put down to a series of hair-breadth ‘scapes. Lee has researched the Holocaust and his parents’ experiences and these and the wider context are described in two moving chapters. (‘Gershon’ became ‘Gary’ became ‘Geddy’ following his mother’s inability to pronounce ‘Gary’ in her thick Polish/Yiddish accent. ‘Eliezer’ was shortened to ‘Lee’). Lee’s father died when Lee was just twelve, leaving this nerdy boy with the responsibility of saying kaddish thrice a day for eleven months just before his own bar-mitzvah, a period he describes as his ‘year of woe’. Although Lee gave up formal religion after that, his Jewish background informs his writing and world view, and as a fellow Red-Sea Pedestrian whose mother was a Holocaust survivor, this part of the book resonated strongly with me. I suspect that many Rush fans will skip those chapters. The rest of the book will probably be of little interest to anyone else. But for Rush fans who happen to be Jewish, this will hit the spot.

UntitledHilary Mantel: A Memoir of my Former Self: A Life In Writing The late Hilary Mantel was the author of Wolf Hall and its sequelae, together a fictionalised account of the rise and fall of Thomas Cromwell, the canny and ruthless advisor to King Henry VIII. Wolf Hall and its immediate sequel, Bring Up The Bodies, both won the Booker Prize, but even more prestigious accolades awaited: Wolf Hall was my read of 2016, and the third volume, The Mirror and the Light, was in my top ten in 2021. A Memoir of my Former Self is an anthology of her journalism. It’s an eclectic collection, including assorted film reviews for the Spectator (she liked RoboCop, but not Mickey Rourke); delvings into her ancestry; reflections on the craft of writing historical fiction (and for her, writing was very much a craft); occasional pieces on travel; musings on a fetish for stationery; and — most of all — her reprinted Reith Lectures. What shines through this scatter of pieces, sometimes funny and demotic, occasionally dense and philosophical, is a barely suppressed rage at her own treatment by the medical profession. In her twenties she experienced agonising abdominal pains, which were brushed off by (male) doctors as symptoms of depression. It’s turned out that they were gynaecological and very real. Severe endometriosis required a complete hysterectomy and the excision of parts of her bladder and bowel at the age of 27, the consequences of which she was to endure for the rest of her life. Even in this supposedly enlightened age, the medical profession treats female patients as so many hysterical women, to be patronised with valium and told to go away and pull themselves together. Mantel’s death in 2022, aged only 70, from a stroke, was a grievous loss to literature.

About Henry Gee

Henry Gee is an author, editor and recovering palaeontologist, who lives in Cromer, Norfolk, England, with his family and numerous pets, inasmuch as which the contents of this blog and any comments therein do not reflect the opinions of anyone but myself, as they don't know where they've been.
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