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.

Saturday 22 April 2017

The Provincial Lady in America

Miss S. of the Post-Office draws me aside to ask if it is true that I am going to America? I admit that it is, and we agree that America is a Long Way Off.
I’m not sure about the cover of this Penguin Modern Classics edition of The Diary of a Provincial Lady, somehow it doesn’t say 1930's to me. Good introduction by Rachel Johnson, though. With each re-read I’m struck by how fresh and funny these fictional diaries are. I’ve also read the Violet Powell biography of E M Delafield but I think we are overdue for another examination of her life and work.
Invited by her American publishers to take a literary tour of the United States the Prov Lady boards the passenger liner for the crossing and finds herself feted in America although (as usual) her wardrobe never quite comes up to scratch and she bitterly misses Robin and Vicky and Robert. Her publishers have her on a relentless schedule, but upon reaching Boston she insists on taking a trip to Concord to visit the family home of Louisa M Alcott.
All is snow, silence and loveliness, with frame-houses standing amongst trees, and no signs of either picture-houses, gasoline-stations or hot-dog stalls. Can think of nothing but Little Women, and visualise scene after scene from well-remembered and beloved book.  
Could willingly remain there for hours and hours. Time, however, rushes by with its usual speed when I am absorbed and happy.
This theme comes up again when the Prov Lady runs into Mademoiselle in New York and they go to see a film of Little Women. This must have been the 1933 film with Katherine Hepburn as Jo March.
Home again where Robert is Glad to See Her and Our Vicar’s Wife hopes they will come to tea on Thursday, five o’clock, not earlier because of Choir Practice.

Saturday 4 March 2017

Anne Bronte

Agnes Grey is one of my favourite Bronte novels and I've never needed convincing that Anne Bronte had a creative genius equal to that of her two sisters, but it is good to read a passionate defence of Anne. Take Courage - Anne Bronte and the Art of Life by Samantha Ellis isn't a conventional or heavily academic biography. It has a traditional 'womb to tomb' structure but it also includes elements of the author's own life. Yet it's not exactly a bibliomemoir in the style of Rebecca Mead's My Life in Middlemarch either.

I loved the chapter about Tabby, the Bronte's devoted housekeeper who was something of a mother substitute to the young girls and regularly took them for walks on the moors, fostering their love of the natural landscape. It was Tabby who told them that when she was a girl there were fairies on the moors and the details about wild bilberries and bogs bursting and moorland flora and fauna are fascinating. Ellis is astute in her literary criticism and observes that Anne and Emily's early passion for 'botanising' surfaces in the heavily autobiographical Agnes Grey.

This book creates a portrait of a resourceful, independent young woman who wasn’t easily daunted and wrote two highly accomplished novels while still in her twenties. Of course, she didn’t reach her thirties and the account of Anne’s death at Scarborough is heart-breaking, particularly as Scarborough was where she set the final romantic scenes of Agnes Grey. Maybe she had written the happy ending she would have liked for herself. Ellis’s account of seeing Anne’s blood-stained linen handkerchief at the Parsonage sends a chill down the spine as you consider the realities of consumption.

This account of the life of Anne does not always reflect well on Charlotte and I'm not convinced that she actively suppressed her younger sister's writing career. That said, I enjoyed this book. There is an impressive bibliography and Ellis lists The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett which she re-read while researching the Yorkshire landscape. I must re-read it, too!

Tuesday 17 January 2017

Love in a Cold Climate

One morning I sat by my window gazing idly at the pattern and thinking idle thoughts, wondering if it would ever be warm again, thinking how like a child’s snowball Christ Church looked through a curtain of flakes.
I’ve been reading Love in a Cold Climate and admiring it all over again. I’ve always preferred the practical Fanny who sells her diamond brooch to pay for central heating in her little Oxford house to the beautiful Polly Montdore who, like the snow queen, has ‘a chip of ice in her heart.’ When Fanny at eighteen is invited to her first country house party at the home of Lord and Lady Montdore she is acutely aware of her ill-fitting tweed skirt and uncontrollable hair that ‘grows upwards like heather’ but relieved to find the fashionable guests take no notice of her at dinner. Until it is discovered that she is the daughter of the Bolter that is ...

There is, of course, an enduring appeal to coming of age stories set in country houses in the 1930‘s but Nancy Mitford’s subversive humour and gift for dialogue elevate Love in a Cold Climate to a timeless classic. I liked the Oxford setting, too, and all the little references to Fuller’s walnut cake, Cooper’s Oxford (marmalade) shopping in Woolworths and of course the digestive biscuits much admired by Jassy and Victoria. 'Not digestives! Vict. - look, digestives!’

A lovely read for a cold winter.