A Scottish-Canadian Blethering On About Books

Notes and reflections - not really worthy to be called reviews - written at various times over a long life of eclectic reading.

Still Life (Penny)

Still Life - Louise Penny

The title of this book has at least two meanings in the context of the work: first, and most obviously, the victim of the murder is an artist (and her work - though not exactly still life - contains clues that point to the murderer); secondly, there are references in various conversations to people who do not progress morally, who have "still" (i.e. unmoving, unprogressing) lives.

 

I already like Chief Inspector Gamache, which is a good thing, as he has numerous further adventures and two of them await me on my shelf. And I like his faithful lieutenant, Beauvoir. I am left speculating whether Agent Yvette Nichol is going to have a story arc of her own in which she learns not to let her own egotisms and insecurities stand between her and becoming a good officer. She certainly gets the rough edge of Gamache's tongue in this volume; I am wondering if she is the police equivalent to the much darker case of the murderer - someone who obstinately refuses to learn, but wallows in past mistakes. As such, she might be a one-off character.

 

The jury's still out for me on whether I'm going to embrace this series whole-heartedly. There's something about the rather jumpy conversational style that holds me at a bit of a distance from the characters. I can't quite put my finger on it. On the other hand, I really liked the characterizations (the gay couple running the Bistro, and the sharp-tongued eminent old lady who's a poet, stand out for me). I liked the rural Quebec setting, and the fact that Gamache was clearly an outsider in some ways, but still knew his way about. I liked the range of cultural reference, and the way that the police officers didn't just listen to the answers to their questions, but also read the way people answered (or didn't answer) them. I liked the specificity and oddness of the detail about hunting bows and painting technique.

 

Onward to volume 2 in the series for me.

Death in Focus (Perry)

Death in Focus - Anne Perry

This is the first in a new series, with a new chronological setting, from Anne Perry. Elena Standish is a photographer, but with high connections in the British establishment. She knows that her father is a former diplomat from Germany (indeed she lived in Berlin as a child); she does not know until the end of the novel that her father's father is the retired head of MI6. The events of this novel take place in the lead-up to World War II, chiefly in Germany, and although Elena is not a spy, it's essentially a spy thriller, not a mystery like the Pitt or Monk stories.

 

As a non-professional in a violent world, Elena is very vulnerable, and some of her decisions (such as deliberately going out to photograph the book-burning) might qualify her, in the jargon of modern fanfic, as TSTL (too stupid to live). However, her principal failing, which might not be so very unrealistic, is relying on whichever nearby male appears to know what's going on. Without introducing any spoilers, I think we can safely point out that not all those males have the agenda they appear to have. However, there's remarkably little in the way of sexual threat to our heroine. She does sustain some physical damage at the hands of the SS.

 

I think I actually preferred some of the subsidiary characters to Elena. The dynamic between her grandfather (a crony of Churchill, who gets a cameo) and her father, the diplomat who still thinks appeasement is possible is quite interesting, the more so since I think that most of us would incline towards the side of those who desperately did not want a repeat of the First World War.

 

I enjoyed this. It had a certain energy that I thought was lacking in the latest Monk outing, which seemed to be falling back on formula; perhaps the 1860s had ceased to be interesting to Perry the inveterate researcher.

The Search for Anne Perry (Drayton)

The search for Anne Perry - Joanne Drayton

"Anne Perry explains herself in her writing, in the stories of flawed protagonists who fail the world and themselves but can transcend their past to find forgiveness. They battle their history, the corrupting influences of the world and their own fallibility and self-doubt. It is a familiar literary conceit that, for Anne, has become a default position. Its suspense and resolution are perfectly suited to crime fiction. She writes prodigiously, and with imagination and penetrating intelligence. And until the world finally 'gets it', and she can forgive herself, it is a story she will tell over and over again."

 

That's the last paragraph of Joanne Drayton's sympathetic literary biography of Anne Perry, born in 1938 as Juliet Hulme, who in her teen years, along with her best friend, murdered that best friend's mother; as Anne Perry, beginning in the 1970s, she has published dozens of novels, mostly murder mysteries, to general acclaim.

 

Those looking for a straightforward "true crime" narrative will likely be put off by the extensive - and, I think, intelligent - analysis of Perry's writings which is interleaved with the story of her life. Indeed, Drayton conducts a large part of her search for Anne Perry in the work itself, though she appears to have managed to have had some fairly privileged personal access as well, in the small Scottish village where Perry was living at the time of this biography. Nonetheless, whether Perry is just naturally reserved, or whether she feels she has given everything she can give to the various biographical writings and documentaries about her (or both), I get the sense that Drayton did not obtain any very overwhelming insights from the personal contact. Under the circumstances, it makes sense to seek understanding from the more oblique way in which Perry has herself sought to express and understand herself, even while acknowledging that in fiction she can, and will have, shaped and controlled that understanding.

 

Drayton also spoke extensively to the various people who have been involved with publishing Perry over the years, and from this we get not just their personal perspectives, but also - for bibliophiles like me, anyway - some interesting insights into how the modern book publishing industry operates and has operated for the last 40 years or so.

 

I found this well worth reading (and particularly so since I've also read a fair number of Perry's works, though far from all). I've decided to look into Drayton's other biography of a notable New Zealand-born crime novelist, Ngaio Marsh.

Me (Elton John)

Me - John  Elton

There is actually more humility on display here than you would expect from the egocentric title. Elton John is one of the survivors amongst his hard-living generation of rock stars, and one reason for that is that he developed a bit of self-knowledge along the way, as well as the (eventual) courage to jettison his drug/alcohol habit with the help of some remarkably loyal friends.

 

At the distance of a few weeks, none of the anecdotes in this heavily anecdotal (and quite readable) memoir leaps to mind as the most remarkable, though the life itself has been altogether remarkable in its good fortune; that good fortune appears to have been supported by a pretty good work ethic (except during the most depressed episodes) and a solid sense of how the business works as a whole. Like just about any other celebrity autobiographer I've read, Elton John has his own tales of venal &/or inept management. But it seems he has managed to hang on to control of his own work pretty well, and even managed to dictate his own terms with heavy hitters like Disney. And he has also, against all odds, acquired a happy domestic life - with marriage (to a Canadian!) and kids - in his old age.

 

John has a legendary temper. He admits to it here, but I doubt he really admits to all the damage he has likely done with it over the years. He does provide a bit of insight into its origins when he discusses the painful and lengthy friction with his mother.

 

I enjoyed this while I was reading it, and would recommend it to anyone interested in the period, but really I'd far rather go back and listen to "Your Song", "Rocket Man" or "Crocodile Rock" than read it again.

Best Russian Short Stories (ed. Thomas Seltzer)

Best Russian Short Stories [With ATOC] - Various, Thomas Seltzer

Edited and translated by Thomas Seltzer. Author list (cribbed from Goodreads): Alexander Pushkin; Fyodor Sologub; Ignaty Potapenko; Sergey Semyonov; Maxim Gorky; Leonid Andreyev; Mikhail Artsybashev; Aleksandr Kuprin; Nikolai Gogol; Ivan Turgenev; Fyodor Dostoyevsky; Leo Tolstoy; M.E. Saltykov-Shchedrin; Vladimir G Korlenko; Vsevolod Garshin; Anton Chekhov.  This corresponds with the e-version I read; later editions may have additional stories. 

 

This is a compilation of translations of Russian short stories, ending in the early part of the twentieth century (it was first published in 1917, an interesting cut-off date). There is an introductory essay by the compiler/translator, Thomas Seltzer, that rewards re-reading after the stories, bearing in mind, of course, Seltzer's own ideological predilections (he refers to the Russian Revolution as the start of true democracy in Russia and "the beginning, perhaps, of a radical transformation the world over."

 

Although of course there are individual exceptions, the stories in this volume left a general impression of earnestness, particularly political, class-based earnestness, observational rather than imaginative writing, and in response to censorship, a tendency towards (in Seltzer's words) "an editorial or essay done into fiction." I don't intend to slander Chekov, Pushkin or Tolstoy with that characterization, but there are certainly examples of it present in this collection.

 

The whole exercise of reading it, too, left me with an emotional impression of deep sadness. The stereotype, it appears, is based in fact.

 
 

The Scarlett Letters: The Making of the Film Gone With the Wind (Mitchell, ed. Wiley)

The Scarlett Letters: The Making of the Film Gone With the Wind -

This collection of Margaret Mitchell's correspondence succeeds largely on the strength of Mitchell's own wit and charm as a writer. It's also properly presented with lots of contextual information and historical lacunae filled in by a loving editor (I believe the introduction says he was her godson).

 

The actual subject matter of the letters - the making of, release, and aftermath of the movie Gone With The Wind - is actually slightly less interesting than one might suppose. That's because Mitchell took a strong stand, which I think was also a wise one, not to take any active role relating to the movie once the rights were sold. So a very great deal of the correspondence consists of her explaining, over and over again, that it's Mr. Selznick's movie not hers, and no, she cannot arrange auditions for aspirants to the role of Scarlett, etc. etc. She also had occasion to rebuke both the studio and various publications assuming she would automatically take an active role in the marketing of the movie.

 

That said, it was clearly not her intention to be actively obstructive, and she also had a vested interest in the movie's historical accuracy, since she had apparently put very substantial effort into that aspect of her book. So, despite herself, we see her being drawn into controversies over which way round a Mammy would wear her head kerchief, or whether Tara would have white pillars. In the end, she used her connections to supply the studio with local Atlanta experts, which seems to have worked well. This does not prevent, however, her complaints of the constant barrage of demands on her attention. In fact, she wrote no other novel, and one gets the sense that she blamed it largely on the decade-long fuss that attended the making, release, and subsequent re-release (in post-war Europe) of the movie. And then, of course, she died tragically early in a motor vehicle accident.

 

Mitchell is very much a woman of her time and place when it comes to racial matters, though of course even then there was a spectrum of behaviour, and she was on the more human end of it. She apparently liked Hattie McDaniel, and made an effort to have her invited to the post-premiere party in Atlanta, even though McDaniel was, shockingly, excluded from the Atlantic movie theatre (as all Black people were) for the premiere itself. Her conservatism and racism (mixed together) mostly make themselves felt in occasional remarks about the early Black rights leaders, whom she felt, presumably along with most white people of her class, to be a threat.

 

I would recommend this as a fairly interesting and on occasions quite amusing read to anyone interested in Hollywood history.

Treasure Island (Stevenson)

Treasure Island - Robert Louis Stevenson

If I read this in childhood - and it would have been in a children's abridged edition, I should think - it didn't leave any memory of its rather gory plot, nor of the curious moral ambiguity of it principal villain, Long John Silver.

 

Nonetheless, once it got going, it was more or less what I expected: an adventure story featuring a young man with more courage than sense. The abrupt change out of his first-person narrative to another point of view for parts of the plot took me by surprise a bit - but frankly, that would never have bothered me in the slightest if I'd read it when I was younger.

 

The e-version I read the story in was rather bad. Each page of the first 100 or so was interrupted by an illustration having nothing to do with the text (mostly the same scene of pioneer America, repeated over and over). No-one had bothered to supply the missing first letters of opening words in each chapter (likely decorative initials in the scanned original.) The file is entitled "Complete Works of R.L. Stevenson", but it contains exactly 3 of his most famous novels - probably volume 1 of a collected edition.

 

And all this notwithstanding, I enjoyed reading this missing piece from my childhood. It was clear, straightforward, vivid storytelling.

Charlotte Bronte: A Fiery Heart (Harman)

Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart - Claire Harman

Other than Mrs. Gaskell, I had not read a full-length biography of Charlotte Bronte, so I do not know how this modern scholarly biography stands up to its competitors. However, it completely satisfied me, filling in the gaps, based on primary sources of evidence, and interpreting the whole with sympathy but not outright partisanship.

 

I'm actually glad I came to the Bronte biographies late. I think it would have interfered with my full enjoyment of the fiction to know how deeply rooted Charlotte's stories are in the incidents and personages of her own life, and to be distracted by the game of similarities and differences from the more straightforward enjoyment of fictional characters and plots. That said, reading this biography encourages that new game, and I may find myself at some point picking up Jane Eyre or The Professor again.

 

I made a few notes for myself of the more amusing interesting tidbits, and of course immediately lost those notes. I do, however, remember that many of the Jane Eyre names (including "Eyre" and "Rochester") can be found in a single churchyard that Bronte visited. Much of the understanding we have about her relationship with the Belgian employer she fell hopelessly in love with (Constantin Héger) appears to derive from letters that were preserved by his wife - a bit of an enigma there. Some of those letters were actually torn to bits and carefully reassembled (there is a photograph in the images section).

 

Harman also expands considerably on what Mrs. Gaskell had to say about the Brontes' relationship with their publishers, and about Charlotte's interactions with other writers. She was the only one of the sisters to become in any way part of the literary "scene" of the time, chiefly because she was the only one who lived long enough to do so.

 

If I were inclined to go far down the rabbit-hole of Bronte studies, Harman's book, with its extensive notes and bibliography, would be an excellent starting point.

The Black Robe (Collins)

The Black Robe - Wilkie Collins

I found this story of a nerve-stricken man and his shattered marriage to be less entertaining than Collins' usual, mainly because it relies on an uncomfortable strain of anti-Catholicism - and associated mercenary motives - for its villain, Father Benwell, who is just about as stereotypical a Jesuit schemer as you could find in any of Mrs. Radcliffe's Gothic romances. Collins makes an attempt to introduce some supernatural or apparently supernatural occurrences into the mental/emotional breakdown of his protagonist, Romayne - aptly named, since he becomes an avid Catholic convert and priest, to the point of abandoning his pregnant wife Stella - but the haunting voices in the lonely old house aren't very enthusiastically portrayed, and Collins doesn't seem to be terribly interested in convincing us of either a plausible or a supernatural explanation for them. The associated story of the mentally ill younger brother of a victim of Romayne (in a duel) has possibilities, but we never really get to know him, nor to understand the massive coincidence of his being the unwitting transmitter of some important documents.

 

There are a couple of sympathetic characters, one being Stella, Romayne's wife, and the other a Jesuit enthusiast (but with a moral compass) named Penrose, who is packed off on some dangerous adventures in the New World. And, of course, there is one Winterfield, who is a noble but (while Romayne lives) hopeless alternate suitor for Stella, who wooed her under the impression his first wife was dead, was forced to leave Stella at the altar when that first wife resurfaced, and of course has the most terrible trouble re-establishing his claim thereafter. But, sympathetic or no, I just found myself a little bit detached from all of them, probably because they all seemed far too easily duped by Father Benwell and his endless lies and sophistries directed at retrieving Romayne's estate for the Church. There is, of course, a happy ending of sorts, brought about by a little boy throwing things in a fire (at his expiring Father's urging).

 

It wasn't bad, but Collins can do better than this.

An Echo of Murder (Perry)

An Echo of Murder - Perry Anne

This latest entry in the Victorian William Monk series, set in London's Hungarian diaspora, had me thinking that the Monk series has played itself out. The efforts to include Hester Monk in the plot, by making her an ex-colleague of a (highly unconvincing) red-herring suspect, were, I thought, a bit more perfunctory than usual. And, as always, the plot wrap-up in a typically bizarre courtroom scene, was extremely rushed.

 

That said, what always provides some interest in a Monk book is the detailed historical and local colour, and in this case, also the clear current relevance of a principal theme of the book, prejudice against immigrants. Add to that Perry's continuing obsession with the toxic effects of past hidden crimes (something I've always been somewhat aware of, but which was highlighted for me by a Perry biography). It's enough to keep me reading to the end, but in a way I'm glad she's found a new period to write in, and hope she lets the Monks retire gracefully. And oh, how I wish she were a little better at plots!

Beautiful on the Outside (Rippon)

Beautiful on the Outside - Adam Rippon

Like most memoirs of figure skaters written at peak saleability (i.e. right after an Olympics), this is a book about someone with most of their life - and possibility the most interesting part - still ahead of them. So I didn't come to "Beautiful on the Outside" with particularly high expectations, and I'd say, without being mean, that my level of expectations was met. This is the somewhat gossipy sentimental history of a young gay man negotiating the various levels of a competitive sport that requires concentrated effort for ten to twenty years (in Rippon's case, closer to twenty) in order to reach - or possibly not reach - the prize of an Olympic medal.

 

The difference between this memoir and, as a good point of comparison, Brian Orser's "Orser: A Skater's Life" (1988) are largely the differences between society in general 30 years ago and now. Orser's "autobiography" is heavily filtered through a co-writer's authorial voice. His public persona (as it existed at the time, through the press and television) was similarly heavily controlled, and certainly - by general consent - did not include revelations about his sexuality, let alone any youthful indiscretions such as drinking or drug use. While both books feed into the notion of the skater as a marketable commodity, Rippon's marketability is based upon the candour (some would say the excessive candour) of the world of social media in which he exists as a personality far beyond his actual accomplishments as a competitive skater. Far from being considered a drawback, his status as the "first openly gay athlete" to compete for the US in the Olympics is a selling-point for Rippon. His public twitter spat with notoriously homophobic Vice-President Pence just before the 2018 Olympics only fed into that particular identification of Rippon as the [sassy] gay one, an identification he doesn't particularly seem to mind.

 

Rippon's voice here is almost certainly pretty much entirely his own. He sets the tone (and probably alienates a generation or two of readers) by dropping his first f-bomb on the first page. He withholds (in a half-hearted sort of way, easily circumvented by Google) the names of a few people about whom he has uncomplimentary things to say, such as Nikolai Morosov, his first major-league coach. His story is far less the "I entered competition X, placed 2nd, and then dealt with injury" formula of the memoirs of Orser's generation, and includes far more of the "I spent several weeks sulking in bed (or partying, or refusing to work with coach Y)" of, say, Johnny Weir's generation of memoir. Not that there aren't competition results and nasty injuries chronicled here - it's just that they're not the entire narrative. This makes for a more interesting read, though I doubt very much whether the life itself was more interesting.

 

Despite his public life, Rippon appears to be still fairly much enwrapped in a celebrity bubble of sorts; and it's entirely possible he'll make a career out of that. If he does find a path to more interesting, if somewhat more low-profile things (as Orser has done, becoming a truly world-class coach), I hope that he ends up writing about that too. He can even leave in the f-bombs, if he feels he has to!

A Complicated Kindness (Toews)

A Complicated Kindness - Miriam Toews

There is a chicken on the front cover of this novel, and an axe hovering threateningly in the upper corner. The relevance of these objects is explained early on - as an adolescent Mennonite girl in a closed community, our first-person narrator Nomi (a childish version of Naomi) has few options for her adulthood but to work for years in the chicken slaughterhouse that partially sustains her community. You wouldn't think there's much kindness associated with that theme, but of course there are degrees of kindness associated with the slaughter.

 

The novel shows teenage Nomi becoming increasingly rebellious against her hyper-restrictive religion, shaving her head, smoking weed, pursuing a sexual relationship and the like, as well as trying to deal with a seriously ill friend and the breakup of her (also rebellious) family. Her mother and sister are both gone elsewhere, separately, by the point in the narrative where we begin. All through the cruelties, mostly inflicted by the church but also by her boyfriend Travis, we see through Nomi's interested, imaginative eyes, and we're made aware of little, complicated kindnesses in her life.

 

But we're left with the most desolate image of all - Nomi excommunicate and alone in the house of her broken family, deserted by the last person she loves, her father, who departs the town rather than force his own shunning on her (or having it forced on them) in a final complicated act of kindness.

 

It is the brilliance of the observation, the quirkiness of the plot, and the honesty of the depiction of co-existing resilience, apathy and despair that we all experience to a degree as adolescents, that save this novel from being merely, as my generation would have called it, a "downer." As an insider's view of a little-known world, a foreign subculture set in the borderlands of Manitoba - with the different foreign-ness of the U.S. only a short drive away - I can very much see how this book fits well into the Canlit establishment's agenda of promoting any work that describes and celebrates Canadian diversity.

 

Fortunately, it's also an intriguing read with a strong female personal voice.

Chrystal, the Newest of Women (by an Exponent)

Chrystal: the Newest of Women - Exponent

The question was not, Why had she been born? - the answer to that came simply enough; she had been born in consequence of the satisfying of her parents' instincts. The question was, What had she been born for? Finding herself in the world, a new person who had never lived before, but who was obliged to live then, she had wanted to know what was to be the purport of her existence. Mrs. Yorke had pointed her to motherhood; she had said nothing about men and women's love.... But Chrystal could answer the question for herself now. It is the cultivation of all the faculties that makes a human being complete.The passions, the affections, the physical, mental, and moral powers, must all be exercised. She had children, two acquaintances, books, and active enjoyment, but she could not be content. The New Woman wanted the New Man.

 

As a manifesto from 1896, that's not bad - there's little here that a modern woman, let alone a modern feminist, would quarrel with. The sequence of events that the anonymous "Exponent" has chosen to illustrate her manifesto is a bit more questionable: it smacks of too much selfishness, as even the sympathetic reviewer in The University Magazine and Free Review of 1897 felt bound to point out. Chrystal enters (albeit consentingly) into a more or less arranged marriage with a man who has poor health, and bears a sickly child by him. Admittedly she does not abandon the child, but she does abandon the man; she then has an affair with a man she does not love, in order to have a healthy child, whom she quite obviously favours over the first; finally, she finds a man philosophically aligned with her, and marries him for love and has a third, and most favoured child by him. The trouble is, in carrying out this highly mechanical demonstration of the steps of enlightenment in adjusting the relations between the sexes, the author manages to create a heroine who is at best unlikeable and at worst inhuman. It's a tricky business, when arguing against a social order that demands women submerge their own needs and desires in unselfish service to everyone else, to find the point at which self-assertion becomes mere selfishness, and this author, alas, didn't quite land on it. Chrystal's Progress, like that of the Pilgrim, is not the story of a real human being, but a series of scenes illustrating philosophical points.

 

Still, it's a fascinating document of its time. I found the title in the University of Toronto Libary catalogue, and read it (in a scan of that library's copy) on the Internet Archive.

Kamouraska (Hébert, trans. Norman Shapiro)

Kamouraska - Anne Hébert

A sympathetic modern reader might consider this novel an up close and personal depiction of the effects of PTSD, triggered by an impending loss of a spouse. It's actually a bit too studied and a bit too chronological to be that, but it certainly is a phantasmagorical walk through the thoughts (and nightmares) of a woman who has passed through a traumatic event. Said traumatic event is the murder of her husband by her lover, apparently with her full complicity, but whereas a nineteenth-century treatment of this event would be chiefly concerned with the immorality of that act and the outcome of the judicial process (it's based on an actual case in the 1830s in rural Quebec), neither of those things greatly preoccupy us as we inhabit the mind of Elisabeth. Instead, years and years later, about to be set free from a somewhat unsatisfactory marriage by the (natural) death of her second husband, Elisabeth finds herself prostrate and unwillingly (and in great sensory and emotional detail) reliving the events surrounding her freedom from her highly unsatisfactory marriage to her first.

 

That's a very dry and probably unfair summary of a book that's rich in moments, and whose central character is (for me, at least) compelling enough to keep me turning pages to see how she felt and experienced the already-known, or at least already hinted at, plot points. The stream of consciousness is handled very skilfully, and after a few pages orienting myself to the three houses in three towns that signify the three main stages of Elisabeth's married life, I never felt lost.

 

I'm glad I read this in translation; it's the sort of book where having merely schoolgirl French would completely ruin the experience. So kudos also to Norman Shapiro, the translator. What I read, fragmentary, associative, idiomatic without being slangy, could have been written originally in English for all that I could tell: I never stumbled, as one sometimes does in translations, over a strange phrase that could only be a compromise between two incongruent languages.

 

I'm generally pretty impatient with stream-of-consciousness narratives, so it says something that I actually looked forward to picking this one up and reading a few more pages every time I had the chance (the very short chapters, I found, were entirely conducive to the kind of reading you have to do with stream-of-consciousness).

 

Recommended if you like historical and a woman's point of view, and are not too put off by non-linear narrative.

The Life of Charlotte Brontë (Gaskell)

The Life of Charlotte Brontë - Elizabeth Gaskell, Elisabeth Jay

I'm sure I'm not saying anything very original when I write that the principal virtue of Mrs. Gaskell's Life of her friend Charlotte Bronte is the immediacy, both chronological and, to a degree, personal, between the life and the writing of the life; while, on the other hand, the principal drawback of the work is a tendency to suppress uncomfortable or unflattering details, not just because of Victorian prudery (though there's some of that at work) but also because the biography was written when Charlotte's one remaining close relative, her father, was still alive and was in fact the one who asked for the book to be written.

I find it interesting, though it perhaps says as much about me as about Bronte, that the passages I have chosen to highlight as I read almost all refer to her opinions on other authors. It also, I think, says quite a lot about Mrs. Gaskell's choice of materials from the reasonably large amount of correspondence (most of it from one close friend, though) she had at her disposal.

 

Here's a passage that I find in equal measure fascinating and irritating (the latter because the entire set of recommendations, to a female friend, are premised on what is "safe"):

You ask me to recommend you some books for your perusal. I will do so in as few words as I can. If you like poetry, let it be first-rate; Milton, Shakspeare, Thomson, Goldsmith, Pope (if you will, though I don't admire him), Scott, Byron, Campbell, Wordsworth, and Southey. Now don't be startled at the names of Shakspeare and Byron. Both these were great men, and their works are like themselves. You will know how to choose the good, and to avoid the evil; the finest passages are always the purest, the bad are invariably revolting; you will never wish to read them over twice. Omit the comedies of Shakspeare, and the Don Juan, perhaps the Cain, of Byron, though the latter is a magnificent poem, and read the rest fearlessly; that must indeed be a depraved mind which can gather evil from Henry VIII., from Richard III., from Macbeth, and Hamlet, and Julius Caesar. Scott's sweet, wild, romantic poetry can do you no harm. Nor can Wordsworth's, nor Campbell's, nor Southey's--the greatest part at least of his; some is certainly objectionable. For history, read Hume, Rollin, and the Universal History, if you can; I never did. For fiction, read Scott alone; all novels after his are worthless. For biography, read Johnson's Lives of the Poets, Boswell's Life of Johnson, Southey's Life of Nelson, Lockhart's Life of Burns, Moore's Life of Sheridan, Moore's Life of Byron, Wolfe's Remains. For natural history, read Bewick and Audubon, and Goldsmith and White's history of Selborne. For divinity, your brother will advise you there. I can only say, adhere to standard authors, and avoid novelty."

 

(The casual admission that she didn't bother with reading history made me smile).

 

And here, although no doubt quoted to death in the critical literature, are her thoughts on Austen:

 

Why do you like Miss Austen so very much? I am puzzled on that point. What induced you to say that you would have rather written "Pride and Prejudice,' or 'Tom Jones,' than any of the 'Waverley Novels'? I had not seen 'Pride and Prejudice' till I read that sentence of yours, and then I got the book. And what did I find? An accurate, daguerreotyped portrait of a commonplace face; a carefully-fenced, highly-cultivated garden, with neat borders and delicate flowers; but no glance of a bright, vivid physiognomy, no open country, no fresh air, no blue hill, no bonny beck. I should hardly like to live with her ladies and gentlemen, in their elegant but confined houses. These observations will probably irritate you, but I shall run the risk.

 

The liking for Scott appears to be genuine: on her one trip north to Scotland, she made a point of spending time in Scott country & at Abbotsford, and she also mentions elsewhere the Scott monument as one of the highlights of Edinburgh.

 

Gaskell leaves us with a rather sad portrait of a highly intelligent woman, bedevilled by lack of self-esteem and recurrent depression, and trapped by circumstance (unhealthy surroundings and susceptibility to an infectious disease). It's amazing, in fact, that she produced three high-quality novels before her untimely death (four, if you count the first-written but only posthumously published The Professor), although it's less amazing that the first-published, Jane Eyre, which propelled her to a most uncomfortable celebrity status, is still generally acknowledged to be the best.

 

Inevitably, a biography of Charlotte will by default also be a primary source on her siblings. Some of the details about Emily, especially one violent incident with her dog, remain uncomfortably in the memory. One can sense that Mrs. Gaskell has to exert herself to temper what was probably a fairly common reaction to the most unsociable of the Brontës - sheer dislike. Here is her summary of the relationship between the sisters, as she saw it:

 

Emily was impervious to influence; she never came in contact with public opinion, and her own decision of what was right and fitting was a law for her conduct and appearance, with which she allowed no one to interfere. Her love was poured out on Anne, as Charlotte's was on her. But the affection among all the three was stronger than either death or life.

 

Mrs. Gaskell was a better contemporary biographer than Charlotte Bronte would have had reason to expect: she consulted widely instead of just making the work a memoir of her own association with Bronte, and as another woman writer, she had a particular sensitivity to the motives and circumstances under which Bronte wrote, or didn't write. Different though they were, in personality and in politics, Mrs. Gaskell had strong grounds for understanding and sympathizing with her subject, and she shapes her narrative well. If a modern reader grinds her teeth at one of the sympathetic motives of that narrative - to defend Charlotte Bronte against contemporary accusations that she was coarse, vulgar, unfeminine, etc, accusations that we now see as absurd - still, there was enough detail and enough intelligent analysis brought to the shaping of that argument that after all these years, we can still see this biography as a primary source on a very interesting writer.

 

As with all contemporary sources, too, reading this book was a motivation for me to seek out a more recent biography, with all the promise of perspective and (possibly) wider-ranging sources that such a work will have. In particular, I look forward to exploring the one obviously gaping hole in this biography, the nature of Bronte's relationship with her teacher/employer Constantin Héger, in Belgium, who leaves his mark so heavily on her novels.

The Talented Miss Highsmith (Schenkar)

The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith - Joan Schenkar

My experience in reading this very thorough and accomplished biography was a disjointed one, because, being in constant competition for my library's electronic version, I lost access several times for a period of weeks each time. This may have unfairly cost Ms Schenkar a star in my rating, because, with her unconventional though effective choice to arrange her biography by subject matter rather than chronology, I did find it difficult to re-orient myself each time I picked it up. (And, e-books being e-books, I didn't discover how to use the extensive chronology at the end until much too late in the process).

 

One of the things I realized as I was reading is how little of Highsmith's prodigious output I've actually read, not just novels and short stories under her own name but also various types of work to which she never owned or only, as with "The Price of Salt", only relatively late in her career. As a result, I was doing less "matching" than usual between the description of the life and the experience of the work, and was thrown more intensely into the details of the life itself. Blessings on Ms Schenkar for having synthesized the apparently massive legacy of self-documentation, in the form of diaries, "cahiers" and letters (not to mention a voluminous acquaintance ready and willing to speak). What emerges from all that synthesis, I'm sorry to say, is a picture of a truly unhappy and difficult woman who became increasingly anti-social as she aged (or perhaps counter-social, since she didn't exactly isolate herself, just antagonized everybody).

 

There are some very useful literary insights, especially around the inextricability of sex and death in Highsmith's work, and her invariable tendency to work in pairs of characters (something she shares with Wilkie Collins, I think). And though I can't think of anything in my own limited Highsmith reading that matches the sheer intensity (and viciousness) of her relationship with her mother, just knowing of some of that details of that particular inescapable love/hate does shine a light on Highsmith's darkness (as it were).

 

Schenkar is blunt in her assessment of Highsmith's stylistic defects: she has a "tin ear" and very little wit. In this, her biographer is her superior. I had to laugh out loud at this particular bon mot about Patricia's girlfriends: "Pat was still not sleeping with Chloe, but she would always prefer the bird in the bush to the bird in her bed."

 

This was, disjointed or no, a good read, and actually engendered in me a desire to read more of the works written by its subject. That's the mark of a successful biography.