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. 

Elisabeth

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.

BOOKS IN THE SHINGLE

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Don’t worry, these books aren’t being mistreated – as always my garden provided the perfect backdrop to the photos.

For one reason or another I read mostly on Kindle these days, so it’s a perfect excuse to share my recent unusual paperback and hardback purchases. A spending splurge in the past weeks has seen me with a pile of seven pristine books. Don’t they all look so tempting!?

Although I must admit, I’ve delved into a couple, most are unread and I thought I’d write a bit about the reason for the purchase as well as including the blurb from each. Enjoy!

Three acquisitions followed encounters with the authors and it was an honour and delight to meet them all. Furthermore, who doesn’t love autographed books with a personal slant!

Elisabeth’s Lists by Lulah Ellender        Still to Read

4DA92A22-4DC9-414A-941D-9039485E257FIt was a pleasure to chat briefly to Lulah after her talk along with her agent and publisher during the Essex Book Festival. There is an increasing trend for fictional biographies and this book slots neatly into that genre. Reading about Elisabeth’s Lists I just had to listen to Lulah’s talk about her journey to publication. A journey that became increasingly fraught and heartfelt as she faced the loss of her mother.

On the face of it, Elisabeth’s lists seemed rather ordinary – shopping lists, items to be packed for a foreign trip, a tally of the eggs laid by her hens. But from these everyday fragments, Lulah began to weave together the extraordinary life of the grandmother she never knew – a life lived in the most rarefied and glamorous of circles, from Elisabeth’s early years as an ambassador’s daughter in 1930s China, to her marriage to a British diplomat and postings in Madrid under Franco’s regime, post-war Beirut, Rio de Janeiro and Paris. But it was also a life of stark contrasts – between the opulent excess of embassy banquets and the deprivations of wartime rationing in England, between the unfailing charm she displayed in public and the dark depressions that blanketed her in private, between her great appetite for life and her sudden, early death.

Disposal by David Evans     Still to Read

462462BC-095D-4FD9-B199-C55F255F92CFMy writing group was lucky to have David Evans come and chat to us about his writing and to listen to our work. Following an interesting and productive morning, I  bought one of his books but was warned NOT to read on a plane if I was a nervous flyer! (I am!)

August 1976 and it seems as though the long hot summer will never end. Early morning at Clacton on the north Essex coast, a light aircraft takes off from the airstrip but struggles for height and crashes into the sea. First on the scene, Sgt Cyril Claydon pulls the pilot’s body from the wreckage. But something else catches his eye. A bulky package wrapped in black plastic is on the passenger seat. Returning to investigate, he makes a grim discovery – another body. And so begins a series of events that puts him and others in danger as he is drawn into the investigation, having to work alongside DI ‘Dick’ Barton, a man with totally alien attitudes. Can they work together?

Sleeping Through War  Jackie Carreira     Still to Read

6BEBB457-8C0A-4320-82C5-5C69FBC35966Being advised by a fellow writer in the UK to do a book signing event in a bookshop I decided to visit one first. Having read about Jackie’s Carriera’s book I couldn’t wait to meet the author. We had a lovely long chat, discussing at length the events in 1968, glancing through a folder of newspaper front pages from the year (great tip!) and discussing her thoughts behind the book. A chap from Holland joined our conversation and I feel this was a meeting that could have lasted for hours.

Set against the backdrop of real, world-changing events, these are the stories that are forgotten in the history books.

The year is 1968 and the world is changing forever. During the month of May, students are rioting and workers are striking across the globe, civil rights are being fought and died for, nuclear bombs are being tested, there are major conflicts on every continent, and war is raging in Vietnam. Against this volatile background, three women strive to keep everything together.

Rose must keep her dignity and compassion as a West Indian nurse in East London. Amalia must keep hoping that her son can escape their seedy life in Lisbon. And Mrs Johnson in Washington DC must keep writing to her son in Vietnam. She has no-one else to talk to. Three different women, three different countries, but all striving to survive – a courageous attitude that everybody can relate to.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman    Read

4219620A-4FEE-4BF3-906B-D934EAA28E95I’d seen but steered clear of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine for months. The title and hype alone made me unsure and I was not enamoured by the blurb. Then I read yet one more glowing review and I succumbed! During the first couple of chapters I nearly gave up but I’m glad I persevered as I’d have missed out on a terrific novel.

Eleanor Oliphant has learned how to survive – but not how to live.

Eleanor Oliphant leads a simple life. She wears the same clothes to work every day, eats the same meal deal for lunch every day and buys the same two bottles of vodka to drink every weekend.

Eleanor Oliphant is happy. Nothing is missing from her carefully timetabled life. Except, sometimes, everything.

One simple act of kindness is about to shatter the walls Eleanor has built around herself. Now she must learn how to navigate the world that everyone else seems to take for granted – while searching for the courage to face the dark corners she’s avoided all her life.

Change can be good. Change can be bad. But surely any change is better than… fine?


The Old Man and the Sea
by  Ernest Hemingway        Read

F139C29B-2652-42DB-B628-FDF4FAEE2B7BI was intrigued by this book after reading a review by Robbie (which can be seen here). The very same day I found myself  in a book shop. I wholeheartedly concur with Robbie’s passionate review and must agree that ‘The Old Man and the Sea is one of the most amazing books I have ever read.’ I can’t wait to reread it soon!

The last novel Ernest Hemingway saw published, The Old Man and the Sea has proved itself to be one of the enduring works of American fiction. It is the story of an old Cuban fisherman and his supreme ordeal: a relentless, agonizing battle with a giant marlin far out in the Gulf Stream. Using the simple, powerful language of a fable, Hemingway takes the timeless themes of courage in the face of defeat and personal triumph won from loss and transforms them into a magnificent twentieth-century classic.

86490ABE-6ED6-40D7-AE9A-788BCE46B62BThe Scandal by Fredrik Backman     Read

Wow! Double and triple Wow! This is a masterpiece. I have just finished the book and am blown away by the writing, the concept, the story, the characters. It is a literary tour de force and a huge step up from his other books. I was hooked, in awe, shocked, moved. A brilliant study of human psyche.

My only bugbear is how the title has been changed! Sold in America as Beartown (which is the direct translation from the original Swedish), it is currently being marketed in the UK as The Scandal. The change seems totally unnecessary!

As an aside, the other day I noticed NetGalley were offering pre-release copies of his latest book out in June entitled Us Against You, also set in Beartown. Not having much hope, I applied to read and review it – imagine my yelp of joy when I was notified I’d been accepted. This is now my next read!

In a large Swedish forest Beartown hides a dark secret . . .

Cut-off from everywhere else it experiences the kind of isolation that tears people apart.

And each year more and more of the town is swallowed by the forest.

Then the town is offered a bright new future.

But it is all put in jeopardy by a single, brutal act.

It divides the town into those who think it should be hushed up and forgotten, and those who’ll risk the future to see justice done.

Who will speak up?

Could you stand by and stay silent?

Or would you risk everything for justice?

Which side would you be on?


The Joy of Mindful Writing by
Joy Keyword     Still to finish 

7DD660EF-989A-4729-9AB0-39AAB217662EMy head seems to be spinning with the everyday at the moment and at times I feel as if my creativity is being swamped with ‘things’. This book title spoke directly to me with not only promising to find the joy of writing once again, but also inspire creative awareness. Its dreamy idyllic image on the textured hardback cover, with the old-time single-colour spine proved irresistible . I still have to try any of the exercises but have found the ideas and questions poised thought-provoking … I just had’t realised I needed to set time aside to write! I will get to it, I’m sure!

Embrace the process of writing and the rich potential of conscious creativity and mindfulness with this enlightening insight into mindful writing. Exploring how writing mindfully can create deeper connections with your words, your characters, and yourself, this carefully crafted manual invites you to embrace the writing process as much as the completed work; plotting out sparkling stories with a Zen-like awareness. Through meditative exercises, engaging anecdotes, and astute notes on perception, imagination, and focus, author helps you to flow, flourish and lose yourself in writing. Containing 20 mindful writing exercises, this unique guide explores how conscious writing creates mindful awareness, offering a fresh angle on shifting writer’s block.

Havey you read any of these, and if so, what are your thoughts on them? Are you enticed by the descriptions to buy any of these books? Have you had an opportunity to splash out on books recently? What tempted you? And why? I look forward to all your comments; it’s a brilliant excuse to chat all about books!