Monday, 2 April 2018

The Secret History

"I hope we're all ready to leave the phenomenal world, and enter into the sublime?" The Secret History

I've spent this rainy Easter weekend re-reading The Secret History, Donna Tartt's wonderful dark story of the undergraduates who take their studies in Ancient Greek a little too far when they re-enact the bacchanal.  The narrator is Richard Papen, an outsider at an elite liberal arts college in Vermont who falls in love with the wintery landscape and becomes enthralled by a group of five  students; Bunny, Henry, Francis, and twins Charles and Camilla who study Ancient Greek with charming Classics professor Julian Morrow.  The classes are only open to students personally selected by Julian who doesn't take a salary and teaches in a classroom full of flowers.  They dress in a classic English style in quality fabrics, write with old-fashioned pens and exude a cerebral dark glamour.

The novel is relayed retrospectively by Richard in the manner of the unnamed narrator in Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca and this works to great effect.  Like Rebecca, too, nobody is particularly likeable or trustworthy in The Secret History.  Richard  believes he is accepted into the group and begins to study with them and spend weekends at an isolated country house belonging to Francis, but he is unaware of their occasional nightly intoxicated rampages across the countryside based on the ecstatic elements of Greek Dionysia.

The Secret History unfolds into a page-turning whydunnit with dark consequences but it is also an entertaining campus novel and so beautifully written that - along, with Richard Papen - you can almost see the 'Commons clock tower, ivied brick, white spire' of Hampden College and the Vermont nights 'disordered and wild with stars.'

Friday, 23 February 2018

These Happy Golden Years


Least said, soonest mended.' Ma Ingalls

Since reading Caroline Fraser’s brilliant biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder over Christmas I’ve been racing through the Little House books which I didn’t read as a child, although I did see the television series which I now know is very different to the books. It’s interesting that the first books are clearly written for children but when you get to the fifth book The Long Hard Winter and Laura reaches adolescence they take on a more sophisticated tone, unlike, say The Little Women books which become sentimental after Good Wives.

These Happy Golden Years is the last of the original six books and Laura is now teaching school aged 15(!) in order to pay for her sister Mary to study at a college for the blind in Iowa. Although not fond of teaching she acquits herself very well and controls the naughtiest boy in the class when he pins a girl’s braid to the desk. The twelve mile journey to the school across the snow-covered prairie in below freezing temperatures is tempered by Almanzo Wilder who has taken a shine to Laura and drives her in his sleigh and takes her home at weekends so she doesn’t have to stay with the troubled Brewster family. 

Ma finally puts her foot down when Pa gets restless and suggests moving on again. The poor woman has travelled in a covered wagon - often pregnant - from Wisconsin through Minnesota and endured the hard Dakota winters. Charming though Pa is I suspect it was really Ma who held the family together. When Almanzo proposes to Laura, Ma helps Laura to make her wedding trousseau and advises her to include a black cashmere dress ‘Every woman should have one nice black dress.' When the wedding has to be bought forward there is no time to make a wedding dress and Laura marries in the black cashmere.

 Married at eighteen, Laura’s childhood is over. She lived through a unique period of American history and never forgot it, but it is Laura’s character, her bravery, kindness and pioneer spirit which makes the books so charming.

Sunday, 24 December 2017

Prairie Fires - The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder


Laura Ingalls learned from her parents how to appreciate the simple pleasures in life 'a song, a carpet of wildflowers, a floor swept clean.'  Caroline and Charles Ingalls were among the pioneers of the late 1800s who travelled the plains and prairies with their three children Mary, Laura and Carrie looking for land to farm.

It wasn't until she was in her late fifties after the loss of her mother that Laura Ingalls Wilder was able to reflect back on her childhood and find the words to write The Little House on the Prairie which of course became a best-selling children's book and one of the icons of prairie literature.

And what a childhood she had!  Moving ever westwards amidst wolves, plagues of grasshoppers, dust storms and sub-zero temperatures with never enough food or money.  One of the blizzards they lived through was so bad her father had to shovel snow off of her bed in the morning.  One wonders at times why her father put his family through it but the pioneers were a tough breed and Laura adored him.

By twenty-seven she had married Almanzo and finally settled in Missouri.  Her daughter Rose became a renowned journalist and biographer, editing her mother's books.  She comes across as quite a little madam, too!  Laura never forgot her childhood love of the pioneer life and landscape and this is a recurring motif in this superb biography:

Laura Ingalls came to consciousness gazing through the keyhole opening in the cinched canvas covering her family's wagon, swaying over an expanse of prairie grasses as they launched slowly southwest from Missouri to Kansas.

Caroline Fraser has produced a highly readable and enjoyable biography.  I now want to re-read Willa Cather's My Antonia, another classic of prairie literature.

Happy Christmas!

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Ladder of Years


Yeah, so I abandoned Alice Hoffman's The Rules of Magic after reading a few chapters and realising I have absolutely no interest in witches and magic.  Nothing wrong with the book, just didn't speak to me.  My cat took a fancy to it though.

Turned with relief to Anne Tyler and re-read Ladder of Years the story of Cordelia who abandons her family on a Delaware beach.  Almost without intending to and thinking she can turn back any moment she walks away, keeps walking, hitches a ride to another town and starts a new life.  Mourning the recent loss of her father, married to an undemonstrative family doctor, bossed around by two older sisters and mother of typically indifferent teenagers, Delia is not so much ignored as overlooked.  When her extended family take their annual holiday her children set up their beach mats a good twenty feet from the adults and she exchanges the kind of petty digs with her husband familiar to all in long-term relationships.

Her entire marriage unrolled itself before her: ancient hurts and humiliations theoretically forgotten but just waiting to be revived at moments like these.

Of course, what she's really doing is leaving her family before they leave her.  The 'empty nest' sadness that can affect women in later life is rarely explored in fiction and Anne Tyler nails it as always.  When Delia finds a job and a lonely rented room she is haunted by dreams of her children when they were young and wakes to find her face wet with tears.

Occasionally some jolt to the senses - a whiff of coconut oil, the grit of sand in her swimsuit seams - bought to mind the old family beach trips.... that packing up moment toward sunset each day when children beg to stay a little bit longer ... she remembered the bickering, and the sting of carelessly kicked-up sand against burned skin, and the weighty soft-boned weariness. She recalled each less-than-perfect detail, and yet still she would have given anything to find herself in one of those moments...

It's not all sad, there is skewed humour and a brilliant ending.  Ladder of Years is Anne Tyler's thirteenth novel and I think, her most perfectly representative work. 

Abandoned any books lately? 

Thursday, 12 October 2017

A Life of My Own


Claire Tomalin's 1997 biography of Jane Austen is generally thought to be one of the best - extensively researched, clear-sighted and affectionate.  I particularly liked her thoughts on Persuasion:
The warmth and softness of the book is all Anne Elliott's in her responses to people, landscape and season, she and Marianne alone among Austen heroines cherish the beauty and sadness of autumn.
I'd not made a connection between Anne Elliott and Marianne Dashwood from Sense and Sensibility before.  That's the thing with Austen, the more you read, the more you see.

Claire Tomalin has just published a biography of her own life which makes for fascinating reading.  There are chapters devoted to her early life with a French father and musical mother, her undergraduate days at Newnham, Cambridge, her marriage to the journalist Nick Tomalin who was later killed on assignment in Israel leaving her to raise three daughters and a young son with disabilities.  There is also a very moving chapter on the loss of one of her daughters who was a student at Oxford.

Despite personal tragedy Tomalin continued to work as a book reviewer and editor with a strong belief in the importance of critical discourse and the power of good writing.  At the age of 53 she left the Sunday Times where she was literary editor and began to write widely acclaimed literary biographies and finds personal happiness when she marries again.

I always like to re-read Persuasion in the autumn, what are your seasonal reading plans?   

Monday, 28 August 2017

Jean Hanff Korelitz


I do like the writing style of Jean Hanff Korelitz. She has a gift for describing clothes and food and interiors and I like all that detail. You may be familiar with Admission her enjoyable 2009 novel about the competitive world of Ivy League college admission. The new novel The Devil and Webster returns to academia and the central character is Naomi Roth whose career trajectory has taken her from professor to dean to President of Webster, a New England college with a rising reputation. Politically engaged, Naomi has raised a strong-minded daughter, Hannah, now a sophomore at Webster.

When a student protest arises after a popular professor is 'let go’ following a plagiarism charge Naomi - perhaps nostalgic for her own student days - allows it to go on too long and gain too much momentum and it begins to threaten her relationship with her daughter and her own career.

Well, what I thought would happen in this novel did happen and then something I wasn’t expecting also happened so I was rapidly turning the pages until the end! I loved this description of Naomi lying in the bath trying to read a much-hyped novel by a former graduate:

She climbed into the deep 1920s tub, and the rising heat made it ever more difficult to follow the novel’s story: a missing briefcase full of something. A formula? A code? The paper-thin female character, decribed with a leering male eye, insufferably perky. She hoped that the author did not go around crediting the creative writing teachers he’d studied with a Webster, nof for this. A car chase, cinematically described. The hero’s name was Chance. Of course it was. Jean Hanff Korelitz

I’ve been to Brighton for my daughter’s graduation ceremony and I also managed to catch the Jane Austen By The Sea exhibition at Brighton Pavilion. It was amazing to see drafts of Sanditon in her meticulous handwriting and very poignant to see a lock of her hair which had faded from its original auburn to blonde.  It's a small exhibition but worth seeing and it's on until January 2018. 

Saturday, 10 June 2017

Jane Austen at Home


Another day, another book about Jane Austen!  This one is particularly enjoyable.  Lucy Worsley is a charismatic historian and television presenter and brings her signature style to Jane Austen at Home.

I've read quite a few Austen biographies but there were lots of intriguing little details in this one that were new to me.  For example, Worsley ponders whether the new and fashionable paint colour 'patent yellow' or 'Indian yellow' which was all the rage in Bath at the time Jane, Cassandra and her mother were living there was used to paint the walls in the apartment they lived in.  She comes to the conclusion that as they had to move to increasingly reduced circumstances in Bath they wouldn't have had their rooms painted. 

It is known that Austen wasn't keen on the 'white glare' of Bath and relieved to leave it, but of course it gave her the creative inspiration for two of her finest novels Northanger Abbey and the wonderful Persuasion.  Worsley is good at identifying possible building and characters that Austen utilised in her novels and it would never have occurred to me that one of her own brothers may have been the model for the awful Mr Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility!

I cannot agree with Worsley that Sense and Sensibility is the least favourite Austen novel with modern readers or that Elinor Dashwood 'is a bit dull'   In fact, she possesses a rather dry humour of her own particularly when she teases the romantic Marianne for her passion for dead leaves. That said, Worsley is clearly a fan and her passion for Austen comes through in this book.  I'm so glad she takes Charlotte Bronte to task for her famous critical comments about Pride and Prejudice.  Worsley rightly points out that Austen paved the way for subsequent women novelists.

Highly recommended if you like Jane Austen or if you are interested in the Georgians.  The cover has a simply beautiful eighteenth century textile design and a yellow spine.  They should do more books with yellow spines.