Anna Campbell

May 2021

Recent Reading – Part 10

I’ve got three fantastic nonfiction books to talk about this month that wend their way across a wide variety of subjects.

I’ll start with Gossip from the Forest: A Search for the Hidden Roots of Our Fairytales by Sara Maitland. Often when people ask me to describe my work, I say I write adult fairy tales. Which is true but I don’t think it conveys the vast affection I feel for the stories I heard as a little girl and that I have continued to explore as an adult.

There’s something really primeval about a good fairy tale. You feel like you’re accessing ancient secrets that continued to hold incredible power over the modern, technological world. Not to mention they’re fun and romantic and exotic and give you a great dose of narrative, usually in a pretty compressed space. What’s not to like?

Gossip from the Forest is an enchanting book which takes the author across the U.K., searching for the kind of places that inspire fairy tales, mostly mysterious and haunted forests. Sara Maitland then retells the tales with her own twist, so calling this book nonfiction is not entirely true. One side effect of reading this marvelous, magical book was that I found myself pining for my annual trip to the UK which hasn’t taken place for the last two years. Maitland describes the forests she visits in such vivid detail that I longed to see them myself.

My next choice is Just Kids, a poignant and beautiful memoir from poet and singer Patti Smith. This charts the story of a love affair and a lifelong friendship between Smith and brilliant, but doomed photographer and artist Robert Mapplethorpe.

In 1967, Smith and Mapplethorpe meet in the louche, dangerous, bohemian New York of that time and become a couple. Despite their poverty, both are determined to make it as artists on their own terms, Smith as a writer and Mapplethorpe as a painter.

Along the way, they meet most of the famous artistic personalities of the Big Apple in its wilder years and discover who they are and where their talents lie. As life unwinds, both discover success and tragedy, but the powerful bond they share with each other never shatters.

I emerged from the pages of this book in floods of tears. It’s a vivid read that’s so real and sad and moving. The story is about being true to yourself and loving unconditionally and pursuing your art wherever it leads you. Just Kids is one of the best memoirs I’ve ever read. Highly recommended.

My last choice goes from the sublime to the ridiculous. Well, not entirely. There’s plenty of sublime moments in Judd Apatow’s Sick in the Head: Conversations about Life and Comedy. Apatow is mainly known as a filmmaker on adult shock comedies like Knocked Up and This Is Forty and The Forty-Year-Old Virgin, which I thought was an absolutely lovely movie. If you haven’t seen it, give it a go. It’s really sweet and wise which I hadn’t expected from the publicity.

Apatow knew at a very early age that he wanted a career in comedy and he went about achieving his ambition in a very methodical fashion. At the age of 16, he volunteered as a roving reporter for his high school radio station and using that as his calling card (none of the celebrities were aware when they agreed to a radio spot that they were going to be talking to a teenage self-confessed comedy nerd), he started interviewing famous comedians like Jerry Seinfeld and Gary Shandling. Most of the stars took Apatow’s arrival in good spirit and were happy to give him advice on how to make it as a comedian.

When he got into standup, he continued to learn from the best. So this book is fascinating on several fronts. It’s a great history of the comedy movement in the US over the last 30-odd years (it’s interesting and heartening how women have made their mark over recent times). It includes some really apt hints on how to work as a full-time writer and how to create a cohesive story. And it also gives us an insight into some really interesting people: always smart, occasionally troubled, always with something relevant or fresh to say.

The book is transcriptions of all the interviews Apatow has done since he was sixteen, so the format takes a little getting used to. But take my word for it, it’s worth the effort. A fascinating insight into life and art for anyone with a sense of humor!