Elisabeth’s Lists: A Book Review

My signed copy of Elisabeth’s Lists: A Family Story by Lulah Ellender

There is a word in Japan for unread books left to pile up around one – tsundoku! I’m guilty of a few tsundoku collections of books; ones bought with well-meaning and tingling anticipation. Somehow they become unintentionally forgotten and lay precariously balanced with other books, dangling over the edge of shelves.

Often treasures of literature are hidden among these and this is the case for one such book which I recently extricated from a listing pile and eagerly I started to read the book.

‘Elisabeth’s Lists’ by Lulah Ellender is a gem! I was hooked from the very beginning and it is incredibly moving and thought-provoking.

The beautifully crafted book is an eloquent memoir based on the life of Lulah’s grandmother. A life recorded in meticulous detailed lists; lists which were entrusted to Lulah by her own mother. 


The lists started during Elisabeth’s childhood whilst growing up in 1930s China. Just as her father was a diplomat, so was her husband, Gerry and her world travels continued into adulthood. The lists, many innocuous and of everyday items, included information about  packing, dinner parties, price of food and even the names of hens and number of eggs laid.  The lists are endless. A touching heirloom in their own right, they have been transformed into a moving and heartfelt book by Lulah. Her research and dedication are superlative and the end result is a sweeping and engrossing story of Elisabeth’s life.

Postings abroad included Madrid under Franco’s  regime, post-war Beirut and Rio. In sharp contrast Elisabeth endured the hardship and deprivation of bombings and food rationing in England during World War Two, whilst at the same time finding a certain peace and harmony as a normal suburban housewife, away from the hectic duties of a diplomat’s wife. Throughout the book the various eras are exquisitely captured and provide a vivid impression of the times.

It was not all a joyous time however, as occasional bouts of depression, some post-natal,  forced Elisabeth to seek medical care and time away from the family. Furthermore, a family tragedy darkened her life.

The author, Lulah Ellender

The book develops into a deeply profound study as Lulah weaves the threads of her own life and that of her mother into the memoir. The three generations of women effectively become the focus of this family story; their lives remarkably intertwined and the memoir gives not only insight and comfort about motherhood, family, and loss to Lulah but also to the reader. 

Even more heartbreaking and poignant is that the book is written whilst Lulah’s mother is terminally ill with the cancer; the very disease which killed Elisabeth when her daughter was only nine-years-old. As Lulah delves deeper into Elisabeth’s life she finds some solace and acceptance in her own life; a process which she describes with exceptional clarity and feeling.

As she must feel, I believe that without our past, our present is unclear, our future unnavigable.

To conclude, ’Elisabeth’s Lists’ is an enriching, gifted and rewarding book and one I highly recommend. 

I just want to add that I had the privilege of briefly meeting the author following a talk in March 2018 as part of Essex Book Festival. Her intelligence, warm and kind nature sparkled and she spoke with ease and confidence at great length without any notes whatsoever! 

RATING: 5 out of 5 stars.

AVAILABLE: From bookshops, libraries, online such as Amazon UK and Amazon US

Finally, if this book seems slightly familiar to you from my blog, I mentioned it briefly in May 2018 in my post Books in the Shingle.

The title page of ‘Elisabeth’s Lists’ with inscription to myself and signed by the author.

90 thoughts on “Elisabeth’s Lists: A Book Review

  1. Pingback: 2019 GOODREADS CHALLENGE – Annika Perry's Writing Blog

  2. hilarymb

    Hi Annika – sorry really late … but I’d kept the post for the word ‘tsundoku’ … wonderful word – and I’ll probably use it sometime.

    However back to this memoir – what an amazingly wonderful sounding book – places in the world, experiences felt … life as it is – happy with wells of sadness, which we manage to climb out of or work our way round to an understanding … great view – and yes I’ll try and read sometime – thank you – cheers Hilary

    1. Hilary, now it’s my turn to apologise for not replying earlier! Oh, I do hope you get to use the word tsundoku – I find myself throwing into conversation with friends and they all love the explanation of its meaning and are carrying it forward!

      I’m touched by your deep understanding of the book and your beautiful literary description of it as the ‘happy with wells of sadness’. That’s exactly it … and the world travels, experiences on so many levels makes this incredibly memorable memoir. I do hope you have a chance to read it sometime and I feel it is a book that should be better known!

  3. Beautiful review of what sounds like an exquisite book. Your reviews have never steered me wrong. I’m in the middle (almost) of Youngblood Hawke, thanks to you! I usually read a book in 4-5 days. This one? Ummm, may take a few more. 🙂

    1. Pam, I read Elisabeth’s Lists just after Youngblood Hawke and it was the perfect choice/tonic after such a tome! It is a very unique book, especially as it delves into the three generations of women. I’m sure this is one you’ll love! As for Wouk, it is definitely a marathon but wow, the ending had me up late/early morning to finish. Unforgettable.

        1. The recipe idea is inspired, Pam and locks into so many interests in today’s world! Are you seriously thinking of doing this? I definitely think you should and could be on to a winner. Xx

    1. Barbara, I did think of you when writing the review and I am sure you would love it just as much as I did! Lulah has done an amazing feat by creating such a vivid and rich novel from these lists, it is wonderfully creative. It must have been a daunting enterprise but one thoroughly understands that she was driven to write this … for herself and for the wider market. It is a most magnificent tale of the era and of the personal story as well. Enjoy when you have a chance to read it.

  4. I have never been particularly interested in memoires – or non fiction for that matter – but i can see how this one got a high rating and such a nice review. i agree with that quote and chuckled with the concept of listing number of hens and eggs.
    And it’s always a bonus when you meet the author face to face.

    1. Jina, you are right that it is a huge bonus to meet an author and it was an enriching experience to hear Lulah talk about the book, how it came to be written and the process undertaken, both practically and emotionally. I rarely read any memoirs, and still read far too few, but I’ve discovered the depth of them and if well-written they are fascinating and very ‘readable’. I had to mention the egg and hen names as this struck me particularly, the incredible detail listed and the interest shown by Elisabeth in all she did in life.

  5. Thank you for sharing this book, Annika. I am going to find it. Memoirs are one of my favorite genres. I am truly grateful for those who write memoirs, the stories of real people.

    1. Inese, I’m so glad you like the sound of this book and it’s in one of your favourite genres. It is one of the best and most original memoirs I’ve read and as you can tell, a hugely inspiring book! I am in awe of those who write memoirs as it is a massive responsibility to convey the life of others, often ones close and loved! Enjoy when you have a chance to read and I would very much like to know your thoughts about Elisabeth’s Lists.

    1. Andrea, it is amazing how Lulah has built up the story of her grandmother’s from these lists … which on their own are interesting but dry in comparison to this enriching narrative. haha … so many of us are guilty of tsundoku … do you reckon we should set up a self-help group?! 😀

    1. Teagan, it is a very intriguing concept and I imagine it is one that grew over time … it certainly gets one thinking about one’s own memories and of the lives of those closest to us. It touches me to see you found the review mindful – thank you.

      I join you in wishing Lulah success in her future writing and it will be very interesting to see her next book.
      Wishing you a beautiful Sunday, hugs xx

    1. Thank you so much, Jennifer! 😀 So happy you enjoyed the review!

      Yeah! I like the sound of your daughter, Queen of Lists! She should keep them all … you ever know where they will lead.😀

  6. Never knew there was a Japanese word for a pile of unread books. It sort of seems like all books, whether read or unread, have a purpose and to be treasured. They are always waiting, waiting to be picked up and for you to enjoy whenever you are ready. Haven’t heard of this book by Lulah, and it sounds like it’s set in a time before our time. The three generations of family among the characters must have proven great for character development and for the narrative as a whole.

    1. Mabel, I first read of tsundoku in a writing magazine and then double-checked it online. There is even a discussion to create a word for unseen film collections!

      How lovely to say that all books, whether read or unread, are treasures … and yes, they most definitely do have a purpose. Unread, there is always the expectation, new unexplored worlds.

      Yes, the book is set in the past, mainly from the 1930s to 1950s but it is such a personal story, the ‘history’ of the era is secondary to the characters, emotions, events. I also love history and was fascinated by the minutiae of the time, rather than the big global picture. Elisabeth and her life becoming increasingly interwoven with Lulah’s as she recognises the strength of the familial relationship, even if through these lists!

      1. Unseen films. So interesting there is a concept behind that as well. So much out there we have yet to discover, waiting for us if we take the bait 🙂

        History is so important. Even if it doesn’t take centre stage in a narrative, as you alluded to it can take a minutiae role – always there, providing some context to tie everything together.

    1. Vashti, intrigued is good … I’ve come away from many book reviews reading something very different to my typical choices. It’s been lovely to share this book here. Wishing you a lovely weekend! Xx 😀🌺

  7. Thank you Annika, for this fascinating review and recommendation. Some books never come into notice despite being so brilliant. Memoirs do carry raw emotions and this one seems to be one of them. I liked your review and your choice of words, as usual is inspiring. I look forward to reading it.

    1. Balroop, I was just wondering about that when I read the book … why wasn’t it more well known? It really should be … and then yesterday I read on a book review that over 300,000 books hit the shelves in the US and UK every year. A daunting figure indeed!

      How true that the raw emotions often make a memoir and this is definitely the case with this book – and trebly so as we hear not only of Elisabeth’s feelings and life, but also the very raw feelings of Lulah and also some of her mother, as a child and adult.

      Thank you so much for your great comment and it means a lot when you my words are inspiring … that is one of the most wonderful gifts us writers can give each other. Inspiration!

    1. Glad you’ve got a wonderful book to offer up as your defence, Jacqui! 😀 I think lists are often a form of keeping control in an otherwise over-busy and hectic life … and just imagine if you’d kept all yours over the years and what they would reveal about your life!

  8. Tsundoku… I didn’t know it was a term, but it’s definitely something I’m guilty of (if I’m using it correctly).

    You always share the most eclectic books. This one looks great, and I doubt I’d have given it a second glance otherwise. And how nice that you got it signed!

    1. Thank you, Staci … I’m glad you find my book recommendations eclectic and must admit that since blogging I’ve become a lot more adventurous with my choices! This is one I loved the sound of, the cover is so attractive and it was special to talk briefly with Lulah and have the book signed. Having hosted a few events myself I know how amazing it is to have people buy a book from me and want it signed!

      Oh yes, tsundoku is one of those words which is desperately needed for all us bibliophiles with burgeoning unread book collections. (Although I’m not quite sure how to use the word either … I’m just winging it!)

  9. What a wonderful review of an unusual book I would have certainly overlooked were it not for this post. You made me want to know about Lulah, her mother, and her grandmother. How lucky you were to have met the author – that’s one of my most favorite things, and I treasure the autographs I collect at such events. I’ve become more interested in memoir in the last year or so, and this book is now on my TBR list.

    1. Shari, thank you so much and I’m so happy you enjoyed the review. I wanted to do the book justice. I think many might not look at this as they think it is a straightforward memoir; it is so much more! I’m sure you’ll be taken with the family story of these incredible women. Oh yes, it is special to have a signed copy … I don’t have many autographed books but wouldn’t mind starting a collection! 😀 Happy Weekend & Reading! Xx

  10. Mike

    Well you have me hooked Annika after such a wonderful review. The book sounds fascinating and multi-layered and it is now on my list of “must reads”. I bet you wish you’ read it sooner than almost a year after you got the book – and a signed copy at that!


    1. Haha! 😀😀 Yep, you caught me out, Mike and that is exactly what I thought as I started the book – wished I’d started it earlier! I seemed to have acquired a lot of books around that time and just rediscovered them all! Also, when I travel abroad I just take the kindle as it weighs barely anything.

      Thank you for your great comment and so glad you were hooked by the review. If you have a chance let me know your thoughts on the book! Happy Weekend!

  11. So this is the book. It sounds riveting and tender and full of emotion, Annika. I do love stories that traverse the generations, particularly those about women. I’m adding this to my pile. 🙂 Thanks so much for the thoughtful review and the recommendation. ❤

    1. Diana, I thought this would interest you and riveting is just the word. It’s not often these days that I read a book in a couple of days, but I took this one up any spare moment and finished it in two days! Now I find I’m rereading certain sections again! It was so very special how the three women and their lives become intertwined and became integral to each other somehow. Enjoy when you have a chance to read … have a lovely weekend! ❤️

      1. It’s not a book that I would ordinarily pick up, which is why these reviews are so important. I’ve read some great books based on your recommendations. 🙂 Have a great weekend too, my friend. ❤

  12. Oh, how I am hooked with your review. I just ordered a dozen titles from Amazon and will now go back to get this. Thank you so much. It sounds intriguing. When I was a Fulbright Teacher in Berlin, our violin teacher gifted me a copy of Hera Lind’s Superweib which I enjoyed and passed on. Now I am returning to her since I have not read in German for some time. I digress. A thousand thanks for this recommendation, Annika.

    1. Mary Ann, it’s lovely to read your bubbly comment and I’m so happy you are keen to read this. I think it is still quite expensive on amazon which is why I mentioned libraries as I saw a copy in my local library the other day (prominently displayed even!) I’m sure you’ll love the book as much as I did. I enjoyed you digressing and always fun to chat about books. Superweib is a book that obviously meant a lot to you and will be special to return to once again. I haven’t read in German for ages either … time seems in short supply and I’m sticking to English for now!

      1. Digressions are so much a part of me and my mind. Since I love the hard copy in my hand and have disdain for reading on devices, I ordered anyway. Since I am currently singing in German, I decided to activate that part of my brain and read again in German. Why not? I’ll let you know how that goes.

    1. Mae, it really is an exceptional read and one which touched me deeply. I’m already rereading certain segments from the book. Oh yes, it was lovely to meet Lulah and to listen to her talk about the book, the various edits, approaching her agent and later the publisher. She was very professional yet so personable … not an easy combination!

    1. That sounds like a great idea, Mary! 😀 I think we will be inundated with members as tsundokuitis seems to be a common symptom amongst bibliophiles!😀

      Thank you so much for your comment about the review … I really wanted to do the book justice and bring across the wonderful and original the family story.

  13. Annika, this must be one of your most wonderful reviews. I say that in spite of finding your
    reviews altogether superb. A sensitive and wonderful presentation of Lula Ellender’s book which I now will read. It won’t be far down on my list.

    I am amazed how Lula has managed to draw so much from her grandmother Elisabeth’s lists and can imagine how much research it must have taken.
    What a colourful life, moving from e.g. China, Madrid, Beirut, Rio, England … all at difficult times.
    You say so deeply :

    As she must feel, I believe that without our past, our present is unclear, our future unnavigable. ”
    I do strongly believe the same.

    Thank you 🤗.


    1. Wow! Miriam, I’m so moved by your amazing words about my reviews and over the moon you enjoy them all so much. ‘Elisabeth’s Lists’ touched to the core and I wanted to convey this in my review. You will love the book just as much as I did and please let me know your thoughts here when you’ve finished it.

      Your second paragraph expresses my initial concerns of a book based on lists – how is this possible without becoming rather dull?! The answer is this book … using the lists as a backdrop, researching intensely and also bringing in her diaries as well as her mother’s memories as well as her own emotions. An amazing mix!

      Thank you so much for your wonderful comment and for quoting me … always means a lot! Happy Reading, my friend. xx

    1. Amy, it is a wonderful and special book – a very worthy one for your list and enjoy when you get round to reading it.

      Tsundoku is one of those words we just didn’t realise how much we needed it … hope you have a chance to read some of the books soon! 😀

  14. I love the sound of this book. Thanks for the great review and how nice to have a signed copy. I too am guilty of tsundoku. Too many books, too little time. Now if only I didn’t have to sleep.

    1. Darlene, it is a wonderful and unique book … and one that will stay with me and has also inspired me. Ahh…I treasure books that have been signed and as yet don’t have too many. I’m attending a few events at this years Essex Book Festival so will no doubt pick up a few more!

      Oh, I totally agree that there is far too little time for all the books one wants to read. No, I think you need your sleep although when I was younger I used to think meal times were a waste of good playing time … we could skip these for reading?!😀

  15. I’m guilty of more than a few tsundoku collections of books too, Annika! My Kindle and bookshelves are packed. Thank you for this lovely review. As someone who enjoys keeping lists, this book sounds intriguing.

    1. Jill, it is amazing the insight lists carry with them! I wanted to say the book is as far from a list as possible, with a wonderful and moving narrative … it is lovely to see photos of some of the original handwritten lists.

      When I came across the word tsundoku I made a note of it immediately – one of those words which is missing from the English language! Perfect! I read a blog post where they were making up similar words in Japanese for piles of unwatched DVDs etc

    1. Rosie, that is exactly the wonders of memoirs! Also this book became even more poignant and unique with the merging of the three generations at times as well as its philosophical reflections.

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