Book of the Month
A diary can be the ideal friend: always available, never answering back. Or it can be a reproachful reminder of a weakness of resolve: how many end up with 11 months of blank pages, abandoned after the first flush of New Year? Diaries can record journeys of the soul, plans for the future and guilty secrets or inform the world from beyond the grave. There are diaries of the everyday or those written in special times. Some, such as those written by prisoners, become the only world in which the writer can fully live. Most of all, diaries remind us that the commonplace can be extraordinary.
We have six diaries (three fictional, three real) for January's Book of the Month selection:
Simon Gray: The Smoking Diaries
How do you resist a book described by one reviewer as 'the prose equivalent of a clown speed-riding a unicycle across a high wire'? Playwright Simon Gray is erudite, witty, self-deprecating, brutally frank – everything you want in a diarist. He describes his life in theatre, muses on death, sex, love, and chronicles his attempt to give up smoking, all of it in a madly digressive and rollicking style. Definitely one to read with a large drink in your hand.
Dodie Smith: I Capture the Castle
'I write this sitting in the kitchen sink,' begins Cassandra Mortmain, Dodie Smith's fictional heroine, who yearns for romantic attachment but worries about not meeting any men, 'even hideous poverty-stricken ones'. She lives in bohemian and impoverished fashion in a crumbling castle with her beautiful sister, hippy-dippy stepmother and eccentric novelist father. The arrival of the American heirs to the estate throws everyone into disarray, and Cassandra into her first love affair. Dodie Smith wrote the book when she was 52 but as she says: 'I knew that family, I lived in that castle.' Dodie's own teenage diary was titled 'An Eye to Posterity' but this seminal novel is her real legacy.
George and Weedon Grossmith: The Diary of a Nobody
This classic fictional diary began as a serial in Punch and the book that followed in 1892 has never been out of print. Mr Pooter is an immortal comic character, an office clerk and upright family man in a dull 1880s suburb. His diary is a wonderful portrait of the class system and the inherent snobbishness of the suburban middle classes, as Pooter desperately tries to be 'somebody' and gets it wrong every time. A funny satire that has as much relevance to modern aspirational society as it did in Victorian times.
Belle de Jour: The Intimate Adventures of a London Call Girl
Scandalous anonymous diaries are always good fun. This one, supposedly by a high-class call girl, is kinky, witty and unashamedly detailed. There has been much controversy over the real authorship, but who cares if it is all true or not – the main point is that it is enjoyable. Possibly not for everyone, but it is escapist, eye-opening and entertaining.
Patricia and Robert Malcolmson (eds): Nella Last's Peace
Mumsnet featured Nella Last's War in our very first Book Club. Now we have Nella (aka Housewife, 49) in peacetime, still writing her diaries for Mass Observation but with entirely new preoccupations. She reflects on the changes the world is undergoing, the plight of refugees, the effect of two atomic bombs. She wonders what role and purpose she will have when the war jobs are terminated – will she still be able to go out to work? Sensitive, observant and touching, this is an insight into ordinary private and public life in extraordinary times.
Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl
'I'll begin from the moment I got you, the moment I saw you lying on the table among my other birthday presents.' So begins one of the greatest books of the 20th century. Anne Frank's curiosity about her emerging sexuality, her acute portraits of her fellow prisoners, her sense of fun and her innocent assuredness reveal a brilliant writer in the making. This is not only the story of the Holocaust but the universal struggle of the human spirit in diversity.
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