>> My favourite book(s)
Man at the Helm and Love, Nina: Despatches from Family Life – Nina Stibbe wrote not one but two of my favourite books this year. Love, Nina is a non fiction novel made up of the letters the author wrote to her sister while working as a live-in nanny to Mary-Kay Wilmers’s (editor of the London Review of Books) sons Sam, 10, and Will, 9. Nina is 20, a terrible cook and completely out of her depth but she can hold her own against MK and her two sons, frequent visitor Alan Bennet and other luminaries such as theatre/opera director Jonathan Miller, biographer Claire Tomalin and novelist/playwright Michael Frayn. The letters record snippets of dialogue between all these formidable characters and they are often absurd, strangely touching and unexpectedly laugh-out-loud funny. The book is hard to describe and it took me a little while to get into but once I was caught up in the rhythm of it I kept revisiting it. I wish I had Alan Bennett as a neighbour – not only can he cook but he is handy (fixing the washing machine, fridge, car) and a fountain of surprisingly effective tips. Did you know that if you bash the ends of flower stems you can extend the life of cut flowers for up to a week? It’s true!
My sister and I and our little brother were born (in that order) into a very good situation and apart from the odd new thing life was humdrum and comfortable until an evening in 1970 when my mother listened in to my father’s phone call and ended up blowing her nose on a tea towel – a thing she’d only have done in an absolute emergency.
From the opening paragraph of Man at the Helm we are introduced to the predicament of our narrator Lizzie (9) her older sister (11) and little Jack (7) who move to a remote and hostile English village after their parents divorce with their flighty and artistic mother. Worried about being made wards of the court and desperate to put a stop to their mother’s playwriting they devise a ‘Man List’ (never mind that most men on this list are already married) aiming to find a new ‘man at the helm’. What they really desire of course is respectability, normalcy and a stable family life (their mother is not only depressed, ‘a drunk and a menace’, she is also ‘temperamentally unsuited to housework’). Lizzie is an irresistible narrator both pragmatic, wise beyond her years and incredibly naive. She reminds me of Cassandra, the heroine of old favourite I Capture The Castle (who is also exasperated with her unreliable father) but Man at the Helm deals with more adult and serious issues with a light touch, real warmth and a lot of humour. It’s a book that I started re-reading almost as soon as I finished it.
>> My favourite TV show
True Detective may be only 8 episodes (it’s actually a perfectly realised 8 hour film) but it has made more of an impression than countless other TV shows that I have watched, not just in 2014, but the past five years. From the stunning opening credits and the perfectly chosen Handsome Family song it is clear that this mini series is something very special. True Detective follows the lives of detectives Rustin Cohle and Marty Hart (such excellently named characters) over a period of 17 years as they try to solve a serial murder case. The series suffered some backlash when viewers felt the conclusion of the murder case did not live up to the build up but, for me, the mystery at the core of the show is almost incidental – the narrative hook that holds together the real story: the relationship between the two men. Matthew McConaughey has never been more mesmerising as Rust – an ‘adorable nihilist’ (to quote my husband) whose misanthropic philosophising rubs his partner Marty (an equally superb Woody Harrelson) completely the wrong way. The series doesn’t follow conventional TV tropes but is structured like a novel – creator Nic Pizzolatto is an author – with an atmosphere that completely gets under your skin. There’s a real sadness to True Detective – missing, abused or dead children are at the core, the Louisiana setting in the aftermath of hurricanes Andrew and Katrina is drenched with a slowly eroding decay (‘this place is like someone’s memory of a town, and the memory is fading’), death seems to be hanging in the air. This is one to watch again and again and the exceptional acting, casting, writing, cinematography and music have ruined most other TV shows for me.
>> My favourite film
Director Richard Linklater has directed my favourite movie trilogy of all time (Before Sunrise / Before Sunset films) and with Boyhood he has created something truly unique. Boyhood follows the life of Mason from age 6 to 18 and the movie was actually filmed over a period of 12 years allowing actor Ellar Coltrane (and his sister, played by Linklater’s own daughter) to literally grow in front our eyes, from chubby-cheeked child to gawky teenager to handsome young man in the space of 2+ hours. There’s isn’t much of a plot – it’s a story about growing up, and growing old, it’s just about… life. I kept expecting something dramatic to happen but, apart from one sequence involving the stepdad, the film unfolds at a slow pace – it’s all about the small moments and minor milestones and about how life changes all of us. The children grow up, slowly and sometimes painfully. The parents make mistakes, change and settle into new roles and inevitably age. There’s a scene towards the end when both children are grown and about to move out when the mother (played superbly by Patricia Arquette) breaks down in tears shocked by how quickly her life is speeding past. It’s impossible to watch the film as a parent and not be moved. It’s impossible to watch the film as a human and not be moved.
>> My favourite documentary
The photographs of Vivian Maier are truly beautiful, impeccably framed and sometimes emotionally devastating. But who was Vivian Maier? Until very recently she was completely unknown and would have remained that way if it weren’t for boxes brimming with thousands of negatives (and undeveloped rolls of film) which were auctioned off when she could no longer afford to pay the storage fees. Three photo collectors bought parts of her work: John Maloof, Ron Slattery and Randy Prow. Initially her photographs failed to ignite any interest but eventually when Maloof (who bought the majority of her belongings) posted her shots on Flickr they created a sensation. He tried to trace photographer behind the images but it was only after Maier died that a Google search led him to her obituary. Maloof set out to uncover who this incredibly prolific, intensely private and eccentric woman was. You will find some clues in his documentary Finding Vivian Maier – Vivian was a nanny and carer for over 40 years who took thousands of street photographs but kept her work to herself. Even after you watch the documentary, which includes interviews with some of her former employers and charges as well as film footage shot by Maier herself, her character remains a fascinating enigma and you get the impression that Vivian would have preferred it that way.
I am entering this post to #Currysfiresidefiction Amazon package competition.