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Magpies and other Memories, Plus Free Audiobooks

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I have read two books since I last posted, George A Magpie Memoir by Frieda Hughes and Biography of X by Catherine Lacey.  So to my first review.

George a Magpie Memoir, Frieda Hughes (Profile Books, 2023)

Hughes writes:

“I’ve spent so much of my life rescuing wounded birds and animals (a compulsion begun in childhood which eventually grew to include friends, boyfriends and derelict houses).”

After a long spell in Australia, Hughes and her husband (he doesn’t have a name – is referred to throughout simply  as ‘The Ex’) have moved back to settle in Wales.  As well as a house needing vast amounts of work, they are the proud owners of a garden which needs constructing from scratch, a task Hughes undertakes on her own (including mixing concrete and laying walls).  All this at the same time as owning three dogs,  publishing poetry books, working on paintings and having a weekly poetry column in The Times.  Also the author lists various health problems from which she suffers.

On top of such a to-do list enters George, a baby magpie, fallen or chucked out of its nest.  Hughes, the natural adopter of needy things, is called to action.

Accompanied by charming black and white drawings of George by the artist herself, these diary entries chart the development of said rescued magpie with whom the author falls madly in love although it seems the Ex doesn’t.

I’m not sure if I entirely blame him.  Although the behaviour of the Ex may be reprehensible in other ways, in terms of the magpie, I had sympathy!  I was not as fond of George as I felt I should have been.    As well as nicking things, breaking things, scaring and dive bombing visitors to the house, George poops everywhere (well he is a bird)  and requires constant work and effort.

Still ours not to reason why, ours but to read the book.  Which I did. And enjoyed it.  During the course of passing time a large aviary is built to house the various needy birds that flit through the pages. By the end of the book a number of owls have moved in and the bird sanctuary is in full swing.

If I have a criticism, it is that the book is more magpie than memoir, although it is based on diary entries written between 2007 and 2009 when the events took place..   But as soon as Frieda appears we all expect…what?       She writes that she is heartily sick of being introduced to people as This-is-Frieda-Hughes-the-daughter-of-Ted-Hughes-and-Sylvia-Plath, rather than simply this is Frieda Hughes the poet and artist.

The impossibility of escaping one’s past.  And my heart goes out to her for not wanting to talk about any of this stuff any more.


Since I last posted I have also read Biography of X by Catherine Lacey.

This book is about as different from Hughes book reviewed above as it is possible to get but interestingly also features a character called X.  What greater anonymity can there be than to go through life with a letter instead of a name!

This is a strange book but also quite compelling.  It’s main thesis is that X, the eponymous hero, is (or was) an ultra famous artist and author, a mover and shaker of the second half of the 20th century, along with David Bowie, Susan Sontag, Andy Warhol et al, most of whom she mixed with, worked with, knew.   None of this is true of course.  Well, the famous names are true, but X is a fictional character and has therefore done none of the things the book claims for her.

I found it surprisingly difficult to keep hold of the fictionality of this work as I read.  Lacey sprinkles fictional elements among her reality so deftly that I found it hard to distinguish the two.

Bereaved and mourning,   X’s widow seeks to address her grief by writing the life of her famous partner.  But C is appalled to find that someone else claims to have written just such a biography of the woman she has loved and lived with for years.  Such a biography was never authorised and cannot, she believes,  be accurate.    C therefore embarks upon her own research into X’s life.  Slowly she comes to realise she knew nothing about X.  Nor it seems did anyone else.

Narrator, C, says:

“In fact, until I set about doing my own research, even I did not know where she had been born.  She once told me she had no memory of her life before she was eighteen, and another time said she could not legally reveal the identity of her parents, but occasionally she claimed that they were dead, tragically dead, or that they’d kicked her out.  She sometimes said she was born in Kentucky or Montana…”

Lacey sets what is known about X (which is little enough) against an oh so credible background.   The ‘Southern Territories’ of the US have ceded from the North, built a wall and become a violent theocracy (not an oxymoron apparently) which no one is allowed to leave and in which church and worship are compulsory. The powers that be, rape, torture and murder their way through swathes of the population – all in the name of Jesus of course.

This is so convincingly portrayed  that I had to keep checking up.  For example, Renata Adler  a (real) journalist and critic who worked for the New Yorker for four decades, is quoted as going  undercover to report from the Southern Territory in the 1970s saying:

“The more cultivated elements of theocratic fascism have evolved their own schizophrenic logic – a seamless garment of nonviolence in the one hand and a blood soaked rag hidden in the other.”

X we learn is one of the few people to have made it out of the Southern Territories alive, having taken part in her teens in a resistance movement (or terror attack, depending whose side you are on) with a few others. After escaping, she adopts multiple personae on her way to becoming the aforementioned famous artist and marrying C in the North.

Ultimately Biography of X is not a biography at all.  It is a fiction pretending to be a biography of someone who never existed.  How Lacey keeps track of her shapeshifter I have no idea, but keep track she did.

Many times Lacey made me question myself and google her sources. Seeing references to articles and interviews in The New Yorker and Rolling Stone, it is natural to assume they are legit.  But no.  All the notes, references and interviews are made up, although mixed in with real journals, times, places and people.  There are even photographs both of X and other characters in the book.

Lacey’s book is not the cheeriest read ever – if you need happy stay away from this.   But A Biography of X  is certainly a huge achievement in its realisation of the potential for fascism inherent in all extreme ‘belief’, untempered by wisdom or compassion.  At its root  this book is an interesting experiment in pushing the boundaries of fiction.


Finally, I am very excited to have discovered Librivox, the app, for listening to audiobooks .   These books are free and in the public domain.    Recordings are done by volunteers from all over the world.  You won’t find Stephen Fry on here but I’m listening to a Conan Doyle Story – The Return of Sherlock Holmes and I think the reader is excellent.     You can even volunteer to be a reader yourself, which I am tempted to do.  In order to volunteer as a reader you  have to get your head around Audacity, the recording software used by the site.  Also you need to be able to edit your own recordings.

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The Volatile Muse

Poetry, literature, film and all things in between

Runes are ancient scripts, magical signs for secret or hidden laws.   I chose a name which I felt brought to mind the infinitely variable nature of the written word.


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