Book review: “Not My Father’s Son” by Alan Cumming

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It’s been a very busy few weeks, so my reading rate has been somewhat below par. Besides half term (which, actually, was relatively low-key and relaxing) I’ve been having some further work done in the house; it was a like an ’80s museum when we bought it three years ago and we are gradually working our way through it, room by room. We have been having the final two bedrooms refurbished which has entailed complete chaos, clothes and stuff everywhere, and two weeks on a sofabed. I love it that our builder is happy to work with us in our ‘organic’ (procrastinating!) way, but we are our own worst enemy when it comes to getting the job finished! When we decorate we do so for the long-haul so it has to be right. Consequently, it was the end of October before I got around to reading an autobiography for last month’s reading challenge.

Not My Fathers SonI was really torn between Claire Tomalin, Anjelica Huston and Alan Cumming. I left it in the hands of the local library and it was Alan Cumming that became available first! I’m still waiting for Claire Tomalin, and that is probably the one I was keenest to read. I was attracted to Alan Cumming’s book, however, because its premise is not dissimilar to the book I am writing, namely family research and the uncovering of a long-held secret. There the similarity ends, however, as Alan’s book is much more about his relationship with his father.

I know very little about Alan Cumming, having seen nothing of his work that I can remember (although apparently he is in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut with Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, a film I have seen a couple of times, though I don’t recall him in it). He now works mainly in the US and has done quite a bit of TV over there. He was born and grew up in rural Scotland, where his father managed a saw mill. Alan’s father was violent and abusive and the nature and frequency of the aggression Alan experienced is upsetting. What is clear from the outset, however, is that the young Alan can find no explanation for it.

In 2010, Alan was invited to appear on the BBC television programme Who Do You Think You Are?  where the family history of a celebrity is explored and hopefully something interesting and unusual emerges. In Alan’s case, the mystery to be solved was that of his maternal grandfather, who died in mysterious circumstances as a result of a firearms ‘accident’ whilst serving in the Malaysian police force. It was during the filming of the show that Alan was told by his then terminally ill father, with whom he had had no contact for many years, that he his not in fact his son, but the product of an affair his mother had with another man. This sets Alan off on a journey of self-discovery, forcing him to face up to many of his demons.

It is an engaging and at times very moving story. I’m not sure if there was a ghost-writer involved, but it is well put-together and flows nicely. It’s a decent read, and you’ll like it if you’re a fan of Alan’s work, or if you can relate to any of the themes. What I most admired was how he managed, after such an inauspicious start, to break out of the constraints of his background and upbringing, to become a successful, globe-trotting actor, living in New York, at peace with himself. To that extent it is inspiring.

 

2017-11-14 16.26.50For November, the challenge is to read a book set in or by a writer from the southern hemisphere – which is, broadly, South America, southern Africa and Australasia. As the nights draw in and it gets increasingly wintry I wanted to be reminded that in other parts of the world it is Summer! So, my choice this month is Isabel Allende’s Portrait in Sepia, a book I picked up in my local Oxfam bookshop and which has been sitting on my ‘to read’ pile for far too long. Allende is such a fine writer and I’ve read a number of her books over the years. It’s great to have an excuse to dive into this one and experience the sensuousness of her writing and the world she evokes, as the last leaves fall from the trees here and nature seems to go into hibernation.

What are you reading this month?

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A little non-fiction for a change?

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Literary non-fiction is a genre that most of us rarely, if ever, dip into. There are thousands of non-fiction titles published every year in the UK and the bookshops are full of them, but look at the top-selling list in any given week and you will see that most of the top ten are cookbooks and autobiographies. 2017-02-01-11-42-32I’m not knocking either of these genres, I’m simply saying that literary non-fiction is a very tough genre to sell in. I read recently that the average non-fiction title in the US sells 250 copies a year (one for roughly every million people), or 2,000 copies over its lifetime. It makes you wonder why on earth you would write one! Many seem to be written by academics, journalists or people who have already established themselves in a chosen field and know they are writing for a particular niche. One striking thing about the genre, though, is that authors have a real passion for the topic, and the authenticity of the work is palpable.

 

The Baillie Gifford Prize (formerly the Samuel Johnson Prize) is one of the top prizes in the world for non-fiction. I decided to make space in my reading life for more non-fiction this year and selected two from the 2016 shortlist: Negroland: A Memoir by Margo Jefferson and East West Street by Philippe Sands, who was the winner of the prestigious prize (review to follow soon).

The issue of race, it seems to me, has always been, and continues to be, a profoundly difficult one for the United States, which I find peculiar given the country’s origins and the fact that it is overwhelmingly a nation of immigrants. Last year’s Man Booker Prize winner, The Sellout by Paul Beatty, was a partly satirical fictional exploration of the issue, envisioning a community where segregation is reintroduced. I reviewed the book on this blog last year (read here) and described it as a complicated book, more extended essay than novel. Negroland is equally complex (as befits the topic perhaps) but is from a largely autobiographical perspective. The author gives an account of growing up in Chicago and then her early adulthood at university and beyond.

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Jefferson was born in 1947 and grew up at a time when segregation was still in place in parts of the United States. In the states where segregation had been abolished, discrimination still existed at every turn. Jefferson had the good fortune to be the daughter of educated parents who were relatively wealthy and enjoyed a reasonable social status; her father was a doctor and her mother a refined ‘society’ wife (insofar as black women could be ‘in’ society). Her parents strived to ensure their two daughters felt they could achieve just as much as any of their white peers and that if they worked hard they were just as entitled to the rewards of that success. They sent them to private schools and taught them about social protocols and manners, to make sure they could fit in.

For the two Jefferson girls, equality existed only at a superficial level, and it is clear that Margo grew up confused and ultimately troubled by the contradiction between the opportunities to which she was told she was entitled and her lived experience. She also explores the contradiction between the treatment and opportunities afforded to certain persons of colour (wealthier, educated types like her parents) and the majority, poorer (blacker?) people who remained at the bottom of the social heap and bore the contempt and the prejudice not only from whites but also, to some degree, higher class persons of colour. Thus, Margo found herself in the place she calls ‘Negroland’, not fully part of either the White or the Black community.

The author interweaves her autobiographical story with an exploration of parts of Black history and her own family history. The result is both a work of scholarship but also a highly personal account of life as a young black girl and woman coming of age in 1960s north-east America.

I enjoyed the book, particularly the personal story, though I found some of the historical material, particularly at the beginning, quite heavy-going. We read it in my book club and others enjoyed it less, wanting more of a narrative and less of the stream-of-consciousness. It’s definitely worth a look, particularly if you are interested in the topic or, like me, bemused by what is going on in the US on the race issue at this time.

If you have read Negroland: A Memoir I’d love to hear your views? Do you read much in the way of non-fiction?

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