Dec 2013 TBRTwo sporting autobiographies today, almost read in order; I am skipping about a bit but the temptation to put my reads in pairs is pretty overwhelming. Hopefully it all makes sense. I was doing MARVELLOUSLY with my TBR, too, getting it down to two books by the time a Macomber taken from the back had allowed a front shelf book to pop behind and those first three books to the left were read or getting read … then it was the BookCrossing Birmingham Christmas Do last night, complete with Secret Santa, and a new flood of incomers was inevitable. But what lovelies – read on to see those! But first, reviews of two good books read this month.

Clare Balding – “My Animals and Other Family”

(04 May 2013 – Sainsburys)

An impulse buy in paperback for a low price. Sorry, independent bookshops (not that there are any in Birmingham, I found when I was looking into ordering books through Hive). Now, I did check before I read this, as I knew there were lots of animals in it, and I’m not good with upsetting animal stuff. And yes, each chapter is based on a different dog or horse, and yes, some of them do meet their ends. I did cope, because as she’s neither harsh nor maudlin over them, expressing her upset and some on occasion traumatic events, it’s not gratuitous and she is always respectful of her animals and her readers. So if you’re as sensitive to this sort of thing as I am, you’ll probably be OK.

The book takes the author to age about 20. This is absolutely fine: unlike with some other celebrity autobiographies, this is a natural stopping point, when she ceases to be a jockey and embarks upon her university career, and doesn’t feel forced in order to sell two volumes. In fact, the section at the end brings us up to date, so I’m not even sure that a second volume is planned (however, I’d love to read one, and I bet lots of other people would, too).

Famously, now, Clare Balding has a rather odd family. This oddness, and her relationships with them, are told unsentimentally and unsparingly, but never with self-pity. She just gets on with it, much as she appears to have done growing up.  It’s very touching, nonetheless, when she details the few times when her family praise or respect her. Her relationship with her brother is told very nicely, with all the rivalries and conflicts, but pulling together in adversity: like the rest of the book, it’s not sugar-coated, but by no means a misery memoir. She shows us her own mistakes and failings, too, from getting in with the wrong crowd to making riding mistakes, but again clear-headed and with no self-pity.

Basically, she doesn’t disappoint readers who will be looking for the same endearing, straightforward and strong character that she appears to be on the TV and radio. Deeply loving and respectful of her animals, hardworking and persistent and celebrating these values, this is a good read with depth and none of the surface gloss of the standard celebrity autobiography. Lovely line drawings of the animal represented in each chapter complement the good range of photos in the book. I’m glad that I read this.

Seb Coe – “Running my Life”

(11 May 2013, The Works)

A post-dentist Works buy; I must have bought something else at the same time, I can never buy just one. Anyway, this is a good, full, satisfying read that covers his early life, sporting career, political career and the run-up to and progress of the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics.

I was always for Coe rather than Ovett – what about you? Although he was The Northern One, he also seemed to be The Polite One and The Non-Scary One (although I was fonder of Steve Cram than I was of Ovett). These great middle-distance runners define an era for those of us in our mid-30s to mid-40s, don’t they, and it was good to read all about the background to their few encounters on the track.

He obviously has some scores to settle, being at pains to vindicate his dad’s often combative behaviour and keen to explain the details of the professionalisation of athletics and some of the activities of promoters and journalists around the sport. He also gives great descriptions of what it’s like to attend an Olympic Games, which is something I always like reading about. He’s just as detailed and passionate about his political career, too, and I got some insights into the Conservative Party under Hague which were interesting.

Family life in terms of his own wives and children is kind of left out here, but it feels respectful rather than secretive. There are photos, but little narrative to accompany or explain them, which does seem slightly odd. Friendships shine through, which is always nice (I particularly like his relationship with the irrepressible Daley Thompson). It’s excellent on the Olympics bid, with plenty of behind the scenes snippets, and on the Games themselves, with the section on the Opening Ceremony making me cry (of course: add that to brass bands, choirboys and people dancing outdoors to be on the tear-inducing list for ever more). In my opinion, it treats the intertwined story of 7/7 very well, ending with a moving encounter with a Gamesmaker.

With good photographs and written reasonably well (it could have done with the odd edit here and there), this was a genuinely good read that I will keep to read again.

New acquisitions

December 2013 1So, we had the BookCrossing Birmingham Christmas do at Las Iguanas in central Birmingham (and very nice the meal was, too, catering well for our gluten-free friend and for my low-fat requirements, and doing sterling work of tidying away crackers and wrapping paper). We do a secret Santa every year, which is not particularly secret, because we give each other books registered on BookCrossing, so as soon as you catch your haul online, you discover who gave them to you. I was very lucky to have this bumper crop from Julia (we’ve all known each other for around 6-8 years, which makes it all the more lovely): I’d added Elizabeth Jane Howard to my wish list after encountering her at the Elizabeth Taylor day and coming across mention of her books since, but never having read any, and now I have the first of her Cazalet Chronicle, as well as two other novels. I’ve read the first two volumes of Paul O’Grady’s excellent autobiography, so was pleased to find the third one, and then thrilled to open Paul Magrs’ “Diary of a Dr Who Addict”, sadly out of print, I believe, and one I’ve wanted to read for AGES. What treats!

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I’m currently reading “Barbara at the Bodleian” by Yvonne Cocking, exploring the Oxford archives of Barbara Pym’s letters and notebooks, and Hunter Davies’ “Behind the Scenes at the Museum of Baked Beans”, which narrates a journey around the maddest museums in the UK. Good reads, both, and reviewed here relatively soon. See, this is why I don’t prepare my Top 10 Books of the Year until the year is over – you never know what you’re going to get at the back end of the year. After all, if I’d finished Daniel Deronda more quickly, it would have been Number One for 2012 as the last book I read that year!