Archive for the ‘Memoir/Biography’ Category

Blue Remembered HillsAfter dragging it out as long as I could, I have finally finished reading Blue Remembered Hills by Rosemary Sutcliff.  Sutcliff’s memoir of her childhood and early adulthood is delightfully-written but cruelly slim.  I rationed myself, reading only little bits at a time, trying to savour the treat as long as possible.

I should admit now that I’ve never read any of Sutcliff’s historical novels, which is bizarre.  I am not sure how we never crossed paths during my historical fiction-crazed childhood but we did not and so this was my first introduction to her.  I can’t imagine a better one.

The danger of childhood memoirs is always that they might descend into that treacly swamp of sentimentality that can only leave the reader feeling queasy and the author, one hopes, embarrassed.  This is decidedly not one of those memoirs.  Sutcliff is affectionate in her remembrances but never boringly nostalgic for days gone by or pitying for the circumstances she faced.  She has a marvellous sense of humour and wonderful eye for detailing, making the reader feel part of the episodes she shares with us.

Born in 1920, Sutcliff was the daughter of a naval lieutenant and, with the exception of long hospital visits, spent much of her childhood surrounded by other naval families, both in Malta and the UK.  She developed Still’s Disease (a crippling and painful form of juvenile arthritis) as a toddler, and though her disability and the pain made her life different from most children’s, she does not dwell on these differences.  As a child, she was determined to live as normally as possible, when not in hospitals or nursing homes.

While young Rosemary casually dismissed her disabilities, the situation was more difficult for her parents, especially her mother who had to care for an extremely sick daughter alone while her husband was at sea.  Sutcliff generally speaks of her mother with fondness and admiration, but there are mentions of tensions between them that escalated as Sutcliff aged.  The only thing that marred this book for me was my feeling that Sutcliff wasn’t quite as fair to her mother as she might have been.  Especially since, from all she shares of herself, Sutcliff can’t have been an easy child to parent!  Aside from the unimaginable stress her illness must have had on her parents, she seems to have been frustratingly willful when healthy.  She remained determined not to learn how to read for an extraordinarily long time, more than content to listen to the stories her mother told her.  This gap in her education bothered her not at all but was deeply alarming to her parents:

…I still had my inability to read.  My father now joined the battle, and had small serious talks with me.

‘When you can read to yourself, old girl, you will find a whole new world opening up to you.’

‘Yes, Daddy,’ said I.  Polite but unconvinced.

He resorted to bribery.  I longed to model things.  He bought me a box of ‘Barbola’ modelling clay with all its accompanying paraphernalia, and promised me I should have it when I could read.

‘You can’t go on like this for ever!’ he said.

‘No, Daddy,’ I agreed.  I had every intention of going on like it for ever.

‘Don’t say “No, Daddy”.’

‘No, Daddy.’

Obviously, she eventually learned to read.  She did so while attending Miss Beck’s Academy, where she had gone despite having “no real desire to learn to read, but the dignity of schoolgirlhood appealed to me strongly.”  Miss Beck and her old-fashioned academy was one of my favourite parts of the book and a wonderful glimpse into the peculiar middle-class engine of the empire, since all her students were children of naval or military officers and often remained in that world themselves:

Christmas cards from old boys in big ships of the China Station and dusty cantonments on the plains of India; from fishery protection gunboats tossing in the North Sea; from Camberley and Greenwich and the Persian Gulf.  Christmas cards from old girls in married quarters and rooms and small rented houses up and down the world, usually enclosing letters and snapshots and messages of love from small sons and daughters whom Miss Beck had never seen.  Miss Beck’s old pupils seldom forgot her, and woe betide any of them who did.  ‘I have not heard from Elaine this year.  Of course her mother was always unsatisfactory, and they allowed her to use face powder much too young.  I shall write to her in the New Year.’  Or, ‘I must say, I did not think Peter would have forgotten me so soon.  He was a very affectionate little boy.  I suppose getting his regiment so young has gone to his head.’ 

(Simon, wise man that he is, seems to have been equally taken with Miss Beck and her school when he read this.)

The book follows Sutcliff from her childhood into her twenties, when she worked as an artist before becoming a writer.  This period includes a detailed account of her first painful love affair with a dashing young officer who, though delighted with Rosemary as a platonic soul mate, had no idea of marrying her.  Not an easy experience for her to live through but an interesting and valuable one that helped her to grow up and helped her along her way to becoming a writer.

I’m not quite sure what I expected going into this but this exceeded my expectations in every way.  Sutcliff writes so warmly and affectionately of the people that formed her that you can’t help but feel you have missed out by not having known them yourself and her enthusiasm for life and new experiences is wonderful to behold.  A charming book and one that, delightfully, is readily available from Slightly Foxed, who have an unerring talent for picking perfect books.

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The Wry Romance of the Literary RectoryI have decided to put my Christmas day to good use and what better use could there be than the contemplation of wonderful books?  I hope some of you may have found The Wry Romance of the Literary Rectory by Deborah Alun-Jones under the Christmas tree or perhaps already have it in hand because, to my way of thinking, it is a rather perfect book to spend the holidays with.  Alun-Jones combines two of my favourite reading topics – families and the clergy – in her entertaining survey of writers who lived in rectories.  Some were the children of clergy, some were clergymen themselves, and some were drawn to rectories by the romantic connotations they hold.  In Alun-Jones’ hands, all of their lives are interesting.

There are certain authors whose lives are so closely entwined to their rectory(/parsonage/vicarage, etc) upbringings that even the most disinterested reader is aware of them.  Alun-Jones mentions Jane Austen and the Brontës in her introduction but, much to her credit, does not focus on either family.  Much (too much) has already been written about their lives already.  Instead, she focuses on a selection of authors both familiar and unfamiliar, most of whose lives (with the exception of Dorothy L. Sayers) I knew very little about beforehand.

While I enjoyed most of the chapters (the weakest, to me, were the final two, which focus on rectories where more than one author has lived), I was truly delighted by the sections on Alfred Tennyson, R.S. Thomas, and Sydney Smith.  I am not sure I had ever heard of R.S. Thomas (a Welsh poet and clergyman) before reading this but I was absolutely fascinated by his domestic life at Manafon Rectory in the Welsh borders. And I loved learning about the Tennysons growing up at Somersby.  I was especially delighted to hear that Alfred and his brothers went around wearing “long flowing capes and dark sombreros” as young men.  Their eccentric habits (and their vicious, unbalanced father) would have made them awful neighbours but they are absolutely fascinating subjects.

But best of all was Sydney Smith, the essayist and diarist.  Smith’s diaries have been on my to-be-read list for a while now and, after reading what Alun-Jones has to say about him, I am so much more eager to read them.  Smith sounds wonderful.  His home sounds wonderful.  His family sounds wonderful.  So many other writers she profiles had awful parents or were bitter misanthropes or impractical romantics who I could never identify with.  Smith, on the other hand, is described as someone who did good work as a clergyman but, more importantly, who was deeply loved by both his family and his large circle of friends.  He sounds entirely delightful and this brief portrait has only reinforced my desire to become better acquainted with him.

The portraits of Dorothy L. Sayers growing up in her father’s rectory and of Rupert Brooke’s lodgings at the now immortalized Old Vicarage, Grantchester are both excellently done.  I was less enamoured of the chapters discussing George Herbert and now Vikram’s Seth’s time at Bemerton and the rectory in Lincoln inhabited by the Benson family and, later, the de Waals.  The pages devoted to the Bensons are very well done but these chapters do not fit as well with the rest of the book.  I am also frankly skeptical of the de Waals’ literary credentials.

The Old Rectory, Farnborough (photo credit: Paul Barker)

The Old Rectory, Farnborough (photo credit: Paul Barker)

The whole book is beautifully and generously illustrated, with photographs, drawings, and paintings of the homes, churches, surroundings, and people Alun-Jones describes.  The chapter on R.S. Thomas is particularly interesting, with illustrations by his wife, the artist Elsi Eldridge (who sounds like a far more interesting person than her husband).  All of these illustrations helpfully allow the reader to do some superficial comparisons between the rectories and I must say that John Betjeman’s home at the Old Rectory in Farnborough looks to me to be the nicest of all the rectories surveyed.  But, as Alun-Jones points out, these rectories were often built by cash-strapped clergymen and what may have looked nice outside was cramped and barely habitable inside (at the Old Rectory, water had to be fetched from the village pump well into the 1950s).

All in all, a rather wonderful book.  I find that so many authors struggle with the kind of brief biographical sketches this book is made of; Alun-Jones does them very well indeed.  I, being someone who is fascinated by all things clergy-related, was the perfect audience and I was certainly a very appreciative one.

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A User's Guide to Neglectful ParentingI love Guy Delisle’s graphic travel memoirs.  Shenzhen, Pyongyang, Burma Chronicles and Jerusalem are all well observed records of Delisle’s time abroad, humourously depicting the culture shock he experiences while also addressing the very serious political issues he confronts in his travels.  But as much as I love those books, it was delightful to just be able to have fun with Delisle’s most recent book, the 100% lighthearted A User’s Guide to Neglectful Parenting.

The book is short, just a collection of anecdotes about Delisle’s more irresponsible interactions with his son and daughter.  I loved it.  After a busy day last week, I sat down with it after dinner and had a very pleasant half hour giggling my way through Delisle’s missteps.  I still can’t decide which vignette was my favourite.  Was it Delisle repeatedly forgetting to act as “la petite souris” several nights in a row after his son loses a tooth and having to persuade his son that the mouse is running behind schedule?  Or was it when he is trying to convince his daughter that she prefers sugary cereals so that he can keep his precious Shredded Wheat, brought all the way from Canada, to himself?  Or perhaps when he decides to offer his daughter his professional opinion of her drawing?  They are all enjoyable.  If you’re looking for a fun distraction, this is the book for you.

How to traumatize your children with the aid of red chainsaw oil

How to traumatize your children with the aid of red chainsaw oil

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How Reading Changed My LifeSometimes you need little filler books, something that can easily be carried around and pulled out on a bus, in a waiting room, or, in my case, over a lunch hour salad.  I spent the last few days reading Trollope and, delightful as he is, he is not well suited for being carried around in a handbag or for being read in short bursts.  How Reading Changed My Life by Anna Quindlen, an extended essay masquerading as a book, on the other hand, was perfect.

In four short essays, Quindlen tracks her lifelong progression as a reader.  I love reading this sort of bookish memoir and though I doubt this one will stand out in my mind, it did make me like Quindlen far more than I had ever thought I would (after having read and disliked several of her other books).  It is difficult not to feel some affection for a woman whose passion for reading so closely mirrors my own.  I especially related to her memories of childhood, with parents who couldn’t understand why their child wanted – needed – to read so much.  But to other readers it is the easiest thing on earth to understand:

Reading has always been my home, my sustenance, my great invincible companion.  “Book love,” Trollope called it.  “It will make your hours pleasant to you as long as you live.”  Yet of all the many things in which we recognize some universal comfort – God, sex, food, family, friends – reading seems to be the one in which the comfort is most undersung, at least publicly, although it was really all I thought of, or felt, when I was eating up book after book, running away from home while sitting in that chair, traveling around the world and yet never leaving the room.  I did not read from a sense of superiority, or advancement, or even learning.  I read because I loved it more than any other activity on earth. 

I loved Quindlen’s shock when she discovered that there was a “right” way to read, or, more importantly, that there were “right” books and “wrong” books and that the middlebrow novels she was drawn to (Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga is singled out as one of her first great loves) were most assuredly, shamefully the wrong sort of reading material.  Happily, she vocally rejects that sort of snobbish elitism throughout the book:

…there was a right way to read, and a wrong way, and the wrong way was worse than wrong – it was middlebrow, that code word for those who valued the enjoyable, the riveting, the moving, and the involving as well as the eternal.

Most of all, I envied Quindlen for having Mrs LoFurno in her life.  Mrs LoFurno was a neighbour, a friend of Quindlen’s parents, who had a large and eclectic book collection that she invited her young neighbour to explore.  This opened up not just a whole world of new books for Quindlen but a world where there were other passionate readers:

I was about ten when Mrs LoFurno began allowing me to borrow books from her basement, books without plastic covers, without cards in brown paper pockets in the back filled with the names of all the others who had read Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates before me.  Many of her books were older books, with the particularly sweet dusty smell that old books have; they had bookplates in the front, some of them, sepia coloured, vaguely redolent to me of a different sort of world, a world of tea and fires in the fireplace and doilies on chair backs and, in some fashion, a world in which people read, read constantly, avidly, faithfully, in a way in which, in my world, only I did.  It was both a world in which, I imagined, books would be treasured, honoured, even cosseted on special shelves, and a world that had formed its imaginary self in my mind from books themselves.

As for the collection of books she found in that basement, it sounds like the sort of thing I know some of my readers dream of and Quindlen attacked it with the wonderful energy and open-mindedness of a child who hasn’t yet learned to be snobbish in her reading:

In the language of literary criticism, which I have learned to speak, or at least mimic (and, covertly, to despise), it was uneven.  There was Little Women and lots of Frances Hodgson Burnett and some treacly books for girls written between the world wars.  There was A Girl of the Limberlost, which no one reads anymore, and there was Pride and Prejudice, which everyone should read at least once.  The truth is that I cannot recall feeling that there was a great deal of difference between the two.  I had no critical judgement at the time; I think children who have critical judgement are as dreadful and unnatural as dogs who wear coats. 

How lucky any child would have been to have a Mrs LoFurno – and her basement – in his or her life!

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Without ReservationsHer in late fifties, divorced and with two grown sons, journalist Alice Steinbach decided to take a sabbatical from her work in Washington, DC and spend a few months travelling alone in Europe.  Her aim was to rediscover her independence (having spent years defining herself in relation to others) and she recorded her experiences in this lovely memoir, Without Reservations.

Steinbach did not explore much of Europe but instead focuses on a few specific areas – Paris, London, Oxford, and various locations in Italy – all of which, I think we can agree, would be lovely place to spend any amount of time.

Though she sets out on her own, Steinbach seems to spend very little of her travel time alone.  In Paris, she falls in love with a Japanese businessman whom she is able to reconnect with throughout her time in Europe.  In Milan, she meets the most engaging of her travel companions, a young American woman on her way to her fiancé in Florence.  In London, she falls in with loud, outgoing and obscenely wealthy Australians.  Even on a day trip into the Cotswolds she manages to find someone to spend the afternoon with.

This way of travel is utterly foreign to me and, though I would frankly find these constant connections a bit hellish, I cannot help but admire the ease with which Steinbach attracts new friends (even if the friendships only last the day).  She is a true journalist, unable to resist a chance for conversation, the opportunity of hearing someone’s life story, and so she spends more time recording the details of these encounters than she does describing the places she visits.  In this way, this is not quite the travel memoir it at first appears to be: Steinbach is a wonderful writer and a fabulous observer of people, but not places.

Mostly, Steinbach reflects on her life so far and her family.  The focus of her thoughts is generally on how her routine, busy life in Washington differs from what she really wants in life, what it is that makes her happy and excites her.  A lot of time is also spent remembering her grandmother and pondering how her father’s early death affected her personality.

For me, this introspection could, at times, grate.  Steinbach is very intelligent but also very romantic and very earnest.  Some of her fantasies had me rolling my eyes and I am still not sure I can forgive her for her almost complete lack of a sense of humour.  She is very enthusiastic and optimistic and that should be endearing but I found her continued earnestness almost embarrassing.  The combined lack of humour and determined, almost aggressive focus on self-discovery don’t mare the book but do clearly signal the author’s nationality.

I have read this before, shortly after it was first published in 2000, and will doubtless read it again one day.  Steinbach only published three books before she died in 2012 – two travel memoirs and a book of personal essays – but she was a beautiful writer, clear and concise, and I look forward to reading her other books.

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How to be a WomanAfter I finished reading Moranthology, I had all sorts of questions about Caitlin Moran.  There are just enough details about her life in that collection of articles  – about her childhood, her husband, her teen years as a wunderkind journalist – to make me want to know more.  Her memoir, How To Be a Woman, happily answers all of those questions and proves that she can be just as entertaining a memoirist as she is a columnist.

The memoir is framed around various experiences in Moran’s life that have helped to define (for her) what it means to be a woman.  She discusses with her usual humour her first period, her overweight youth, her first encounter with sexism in the workplace (which she handles with impressive bravado), her marriage, her experiences with childbirth and abortion, and her opinions on those hot button issues that allow outraged responses from a good proportion of readers (topics like the porn industry, modern standards towards body hair, how female celebrities are treated in the media, etc).  Moran is never short on opinions and, whether you agree with her or not, she is always entertaining in her arguments.

Admittedly, I only agreed with her opinions about 50% of the time but this is not meant to be a general guide to others on how to be a woman: this is a book about Moran and how she, over the course of more than twenty years, tried to figure out what it meant for her.  Does every woman’s path to becoming a woman include the contemplation of what to call their genitals?  God, I hope not.  But that doesn’t mean they can’t appreciate other lessons Moran learned along the way.

For me, the chapters on “Why You Should Have Children”, “Why You Shouldn’t Have Children” and “Abortion” were the most interesting.  They felt more sincere and less jokey than other sections of the book and I found Moran’s account of her abortion very powerful, both in her description of the physical process and in her analysis of how uncertain society is around women (especially ones who are already mothers) who do not weep with despair when they choose to terminate a pregnancy.  There was certainly no weeping for Moran:

I can honestly say that my abortion was one of the least difficult decisions of my life.  I’m not being flippant when I say it took me longer to decide what worktops to have in the kitchen than whether I was prepared to spend the rest of my life being responsible for a further human being, because I knew that to do it again – to commit my life to another person – might very possibly stretch my abilities, and conception of who I am, and who I want to be, and what I want and need to do – to breaking point.  The idea that I might not – in an earlier era, or a different country – have a choice in the matter, seems both emotionally and physically barbaric.   

The most attractive thing about this book is how self-aware Moran is and how good natured she is about making fun of her younger self.  There is nothing so insufferable as a writer who cannot recognize how insufferable they are (or, hopefully, were).  Moran handles some weighty subjects in a humourous and thoughtful way, making this book a pleasure to read.

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All the Books of my LifeWhen I finished reading All the Books of My Life by Sheila Kaye-Smith, I was almost giddy with delight.  A memoir focused on Kaye-Smith’s reading throughout her life, I was enchanted by it to the point that when I finished I told Simon (who read it last year and adored it) that “if I wrote the review right now it would be so gushingly, adoringly positive that only people who have read and loved the book already will be able to make sense of my ramblings.”  So, for your benefit dear readers, I have waited.  Let us see if I am any more coherent now.

Kaye-Smith uses the books in her life as markers, guiding the reader through her childhood (full of Victorian children’s novels where the heroes and heroines all seemed to die), her teen years (when she was warned off reading the classics – a topic that prompted a very interesting discussion here), her early adulthood (when she finally felt mature enough to handle all the novels she had forbidden herself when younger) and so on and so on, tracking her evolution as a member of the literary community and, eventually, her conversion to Roman Catholicism (I must admit, she lost me briefly at this point, her theological readings being far too dense for my understanding).  All those stages and, most importantly, all those books contributed to the woman she became, the one who wrote this book:

I do not want to exaggerate the effects of reading on character, but the influence of a book is probably as strong as any to be gained from most human contacts.  After all, a book is the voice of a fellow creature, calling through the print, perhaps from somewhere close at hand among our own interests and occupations, perhaps from across the world, perhaps from across the ages.  It is one of the many forms taken by experience, and through reading it we may find ourselves transported into an entirely new field of perception.  Even if we do not choose to remain there we probably shall not leave it as if we had never entered it.

Kaye-Smith had already published a conventional memoir by the time she sat down to write this and, because of that, seems to have felt little need to go into specifics about her personal relationships with non-writers or even much detail about her career as a writer (only a few of her books are mentioned by name).  Instead, by tracking the evolution of her tastes, her different motivations and influences over the years, you get a wonderful sense of her personality.  I particularly enjoyed hearing about her priggishness as a teenager, when “…like the schoolmistress my conscience would cry ‘Stop!’ when anything suggested deviation from strict propriety occurred or seemed likely to occur in a book.”  Her parents had little patience for such affectation and did their best to discourage it.  I was also interested to see her frustrated reminder to readers about the career ambitions of Edwardian girls, something that the 1950s cult of domesticity (the book was published in 1956) was doing its best to ignore:

It is generally supposed that in the early years of this century girls left school only to lead a vapid social life at home until somebody came along and married them; but nearly all my contemporaries left to take up some sort of profession – to be nurses, teachers, missionaries, and even doctors.  I left to become a writer, to the disappointment of my father, who would have liked me to go to Cambridge…

Not every page of the book is about Kaye-Smith’s reading but the real fun does come from hearing her thoughts on authors and books that are still read today.  Simon, for instance, adored her musings on Ivy Compton-Burnett.  I loved everything she had to say about Jane Austen (though not as much as I loved Speaking of Jane Austen, a book of essays by her and G.B. Stern that I finished on Saturday and cannot wait to discuss with you all) but probably had even more fun reading her thoughts on the books she didn’t like.  As delicious as it is to hear her enumerate all the reasons why Emma is a perfect book, it is much more fun to hear her complain about Little Women:

My failure ever to read Little Women must be put down to more humbling causes.  I found the March family much too good for me.  I liked children to be naughty – to ‘get into scrapes’ as we called it then – so that I need not inevitably feel inferior to those I read about.  The unselfishness of the Marches in giving their breakfast to feed the poor, and sacrificing their Christmas presents to help the Union Army was more than I could bear.  They had performed actions of which I was incapable and I hated them for it.  I never got beyond Jo’s sacrifice of her hair.

For all the recognizable titles she mentions, there are just as many obscure ones by authors long forgotten.  There is an entire chapter, “Sad Pageant of Forgotten Writers”, devoted to them but the second-rate reading material of her youth belongs there too.  Kaye-Smith is very sensible about it all, being not particularly sentimental about childhood favourites and recognizing that the bulk of the reading material from her Victorian and Edwardian childhood was poorly written and not worth preserving.

I am not sure I’ll ever want to read Kaye-Smith’s novels – like Simon, I am afraid they are just the kind of rural novels that Stella Gibbons had such fun skewering in Cold Comfort Farm, though I do already have Joanna Godden sitting on my bookshelf – but I loved reading this.  It is such a fun, appealing format for a memoir and Kaye-Smith carries it off beautifully; the balance between her life and her reading is just perfect and the writing is beautiful and humourous.  I thought it would be a difficult book to top…but then I read Speaking of Jane Austen (aka Talking of Jane Austen) and that was even better.  Thanks to Sheila Kaye-Smith, my reading for the year is off to a very good start!

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