Review: The Other Elizabeth Taylor, by Nicola Beauman

The Elizabeth Taylor in this biography was a British novelist (1912-1975).  Although she was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize (for Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont), to the average reader she is a complete unknown.  I discovered her work through Virago Modern Classics, and she quickly became a favorite author.  So this year, to celebrate the centenary of her birth, I thought I’d learn more about the life of this talented, but very private, woman.

This is a classic chronological biography, beginning with Taylor’s childhood and her secondary school education at the best school for girls in Reading, her home town.  Beauman shows how Taylor developed as a writer, even as she also became a wife, a mother, and even a mistress.  She was dedicated to writing even as she juggled these other roles, but it wasn’t until she was 32 that her first novel was published.  From that point on she had a lucrative career with twelve novels and a considerable number of short stories, many of which were published in The New Yorker magazine.  Despite her success, she never wanted to play the game expected of authors, making public appearances and so on.  This probably cost her some fame, but allowed her to stay a devoted wife and mother, which she valued highly.  Still, Taylor’s career had a certain arc.  Her first few novels were considered her best, and the 1960s brought a shift in public sentiment where readers gradually began seeking out other authors with more modern points of view.

I was pleasantly surprised by this book.  All too often, biographies are dry, factual accounts.  Nicola Beauman’s thorough research infused this biography with real people and emotion.  In the course of her research she was able to meet with a man who had been Taylor’s lover in the 1930s.  He never stopped loving her, and Beauman’s meeting with him was quite touching.  Beauman also successfully conveyed Taylor’s emotions during difficult periods, like when her later work attracted negative reviews.

By the end of this year I will have read all of Elizabeth Taylor’s twelve novels.  I plan to use this book as a reading companion, returning to it with each novel to remind myself of what was happening in Taylor’s life at that time, and of how her life experiences influenced each book.

Midweek @ Musings: Middlemarch, First Impressions

Q: How do you eat an elephant?

A: One bite at a time.

That’s exactly what I’m doing with George Eliot‘s Middlemarch.  And I’m not the only one; I’ve joined dovegreyreader’s Team Middlemarch in a readalong that spreads this loooong book over most of 2012.  Now that I’ve read Book I (Miss Brooke), I see the wisdom in this approach.  First published in serial form in 1871-72, it’s meant to be read in short sittings.  There are 12 chapters in Book I; 130 pages altogether.  To a modern reader, the language requires a certain level of concentration until you get immersed in the story.  I found it easy to knock out a chapter or two at a time.  Prolonged reading sessions didn’t work so well, as I kept losing focus.

Middlemarch is subtitled, “A Study of Provincial Life,” and describes the lives of ordinary people in 19th-century England.  The book opens with a young woman, Dorothea Brooke, making up her mind to marry Edward Casaubon, who is much older but Dorothea admires him and has ideals about being his intellectual companion.  But Eliot foreshadowed other possibilities, and introduced considerable humor into the text, particularly concerning the role of women.  It’s clear she’s writing a very different sort of novel from her contemporaries, and indeed Sparknotes backs this up:

Eliot hated the ‘silly, women novelists.’ In the Victorian era, women writers were generally confined to writing the stereotypical fantasies of the conventional romance fiction. Not only did Eliot dislike the constraints imposed on women’s writing, she disliked the stories they were expected to produce. Her disdain for the tropes of conventional romance is apparent … Eliot goes through great effort to depict the realities of marriage.

By the end of Miss Brooke, Eliot had introduced about a gazillion characters, and I found myself wondering which ones will turn out to be “important,” and which ones are secondary.  Also, who are the good guys?  The baddies?  I’m curious and ready for more to be revealed in Book II (Old and Young).

I missed the Team Middlemarch discussion of Book I, but the Book II “brougham halt” is March 24-25, and you can bet I’ll be there.  I hope there are scones.  Proper ones.  Yum.


Review: Dissolution, by C.J. Sansom

Between 1536 and 1541, King Henry VIII disbanded monasteries across England, Ireland, and Wales.  This was not without controversy and resistance.  Dissolution imagines a possible scenario involving murder and corruption.  Matthew Shardlake is sent to investigate the brutal murder of a king’s commissioner at a monastery on the south coast of England.  Shardlake and his assistant, Mark Poer, are invested with the authority to interview anyone they choose, examine the monastery’s financial records, and move pretty much without let or hindrance to identify the murderer.  They soon learn almost everyone has a motive, but at the same time almost everyone has an alibi.

It turns out the commissioner wasn’t the first person to be murdered there, and soon there are still more bodies.  What’s an investigator to do?  Matthew Shardlake is shrewd, with superb analytical skills, and quickly forms a hypothesis.  At this point, the reader can glance at the number of pages remaining and be fairly certain Matthew is not on the right track, but even as one theory is proven wrong another forms.  The situation is more complex than simply knocking off someone sent to shut down the abbey.  A long history of rivalry, corruption and “cooking the books” adds to the intrigue, resulting in a rich, layered mystery.

I enjoyed this novel’s historical setting.  C. J. Sansom brought a dark side of Tudor England to life, especially the environment of fear and control.  Matthew Shardlake and Mark Poer were simply functionaries with a job to do.  But their investigation also challenged them to face the beliefs and systems that made them who they are, and each resolved that conflict in his own way.  This is the first book in a series, and I will definitely be back for more.

Review: A Dance to the Music of Time: Third Movement, by Anthony Powell

Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time is a series of twelve novellas originally published between 1951 and 1975.  Narrated by Nick Jenkins, the story begins during his school days in the 1920s, and continues for more than half a century.  The books are not as much about Nick as they are about people he meets, and how their paths repeatedly cross over time.  Chicago Press published the series as collections of three novellas they called “movements”.  I read the first two movements last year, and discovered a gem of English literature.  The Third Movement is set during World War II; the titles of each novella — The Valley of Bones, The Soldier’s Art, The Military Philosophers — have a distinct military tone.

This installment opens with Nick assigned to a military unit stationed in Ireland.  The war is in its early days, and very few have seen real action.  Nick finds himself banded together with a variety of men, many bankers by trade who cannot relate to his work as a writer.  And there are some from less educated classes whom he would never meet outside the military.  Inevitably, there are connections between new characters and those we’ve met in earlier books, and so the dance continues.

Nick’s military career is a slow one, and almost entirely administrative.  He never goes to the front (isn’t that a convenient way for the main character to survive the conflict?), but the war still takes a personal toll.  Nick experiences his share of loss, and I was struck by the way he often learned of death indirectly, and long after it occurred.  Nick’s personal life advances too, but this is very much in the background.  His wife only occasionally enters the picture, and the reader doesn’t learn much about how the war affected her, even though she would have been devastated by one of the more significant losses in this book.

As I’ve come to expect from Dance, there is considerably more talk than action.  It’s difficult to describe the pleasure that comes from reading these books.  It’s all in the dance metaphor, which is so rich and satisfying.  I love the element of surprise when a nameless character is described at great length, and Powell gradually reveals they are a significant player from a earlier novella.  When new characters enter the story, I look for clues to their significance: will they enter the dance later?  And in what way?

I have only one movement left to read, and I’m torn by wanting to complete the series, and yet wishing it would never end.

My reviews of the earlier books:

Review: Good Behaviour, by Molly Keane

For certain families, keeping up appearances in public is of prime importance.  The St Charles family is one of these.  Daughter Aroon, now the ungainly, unmarried daughter, looks back on her childhood at Temple Alice and how expectations of “good behaviour” ultimately brought unhappiness and even tragedy.  Aroon and her brother Hubert grew up in the care of a cool and distant mother and a philandering father.  Mummie preferred to look the other way, rather than confront Papa’s infidelity.  Papa loved his children on one level, but preferred riding, fox-hunting, and women to life at home.  When Papa is wounded in the war, his convalescence provides Aroon and Hurbert an unexpected opportunity to enjoy a new level intimacy with their father.  Mummie remains aloof, and can’t hold back a sadistic glow when she realizes her husband is unable to ride.

As Aroon grows into a young woman, she sets her sights on Hubert’s best friend Richard.  She wildly misinterprets his behavior towards her, and convinces herself they are lovers. She fails to see what’s obvious to the reader: Richard and Hubert are much more than friends.  When Richard suddenly goes off to Africa, Aroon continues her delusion, sure he will return for her one day.  When a letter finally arrives, she is at first disappointed — until she finds a way to infuse each paragraph with hidden meaning.

Inevitably, the family’s fortunes change.  They have lived way beyond their means, with a bad habit of stuffing every bill into a drawer.  Their solicitor knows the score and tries to help, but Mummie and Papa are compelled to maintain the illusion of wealth and society, so their irresponsible spending continues unchecked.  Even in the most intense and private situations, good behaviour rules:

When the last speechless hand-grip was completed, Papa, Mummie, and I were left in the hall, with empty glasses and the empty plates; funerals are hungry work. We exchanged cool, warning looks — which of us could behave best: which of us could be least embarrassing to the others, the most ordinary in a choice of occupation?  (p. 113)

Good Behaviour landed Molly Keane firmly on my favorite authors list.  Her characterizations are classic examples of an author showing, not telling. At an early age Richard is “caught” reading poetry in a treehouse.  Richard and Hubert go to great lengths to be together alone.  Slowly, the reader comes to realize they are gay.  It’s brilliantly done.  She conveys emotion with similar skill.  When Aroon goes to a party alone and finds she’s been paired with an older, misfit of a man, her pain is palpable.  And yet there are also moments of delightful wit, such as Mummie’s visit with neighbors, when she finds the primary bathroom already in use.  Her host directs her:

‘You’ll have to try the downstairs. I’ll just turn out the cats. They love it on a wet day.’ I could imagine them there, crouched between the loo and the croquet mallets and the Wellington boots and the weed killer.  (p. 157)

My Virago Modern Classics collection includes several more books by Molly Keane (who also wrote under the pseudonym M.J. Farrell).  I can’t wait to discover more of her talent.

2012 Off The Shelf Challenge

Every reader has this problem, right?  We acquire books with every intent to read them, and then … well … somehow they don’t get read as soon as we think.

In 2011, I decided to make a noticeable dent in my stacks, and I did, sort of:  I read 17 books acquired before 2011, plus 11 from my Virago Modern Classics collection.  But I also added 65 books to my library, including 32 Viragos.

So.  As I write this, I have over 60 unread books just lying around, not including 140+ Viragos.  The Off the Shelf Challenge, hosted by Bookish Ardour, is just what I need to help me keep the pile at a manageable level.  I’m going for the Making A Dint level, requiring 30 books.  I actually hope to do better, but the next level up requires 50 books, way more than I can imagine!

I plan to read 12 Virago Modern Classics, and at least 24 other books acquired before 2012.  I’ll share progress reports in my quarterly reading updates.

2012 Non-Fiction Non-Memoir Challenge

”2012Not long ago, I posted about reading more nonfiction.  I need some outside forces to motivate me, so I joined a Non-Fiction Challenge group on LibraryThing.  Then I came across the year-long Non-Fiction Non-Memoir Challenge, hosted by Julie @ My Book Retreat.  I’m in!

The challenge offers multiple levels of participation.  The “Diploma” level requires reading 10 books, enough to stretch me a little.  My list is very much subject to change, but at the moment I definitely want to read:

And I have several other books on my shelves that qualify, including:

I’ll report progress in my quarterly reading updates.  Let’s go!

2012 Chunkster Challenge

I hadn’t planned to join any 2012 challenges, but Wendy and Vasilly made this one sound so fun, I fell right into their trap.

A chunkster is defined as 450 pages or more of ADULT literature, whether non-fiction or fiction. A chunkster should be a challenge.  eBooks and audio books are not allowed — this is about dragging a really chunky tome around with you until it’s finished.

I’m signing up at The Plump Primer level, or 6 books, and I have a partial list:

  • A Dance to the Music of Time: Third Movement, by Anthony Powell
  • A Dance to the Music of Time: Fourth Movement, by Anthony Powell
  • Dark Fire, by C.J. Sansom
  • Cutting for Stone, by Abraham Verghese

I’ll be back with progress reports in my quarterly reading updates.

Review: Remembering Babylon, by David Malouf

Set in mid-19th century colonial Australia, Remembering Babylon explores issues of race and class through a young man named Gemmy Fairley.  Gemmy turns up in a Queensland village, seemingly out of nowhere.  He is white, but “appears” black and speaks the language of native people.  He is most comfortable communicating with the three children who first discovered him, members of the McIvor family.  Through various means of communication, Gemmy shares his background as a ragamuffin boy tossed from a ship, who lived with aboriginal people for 16 years.  The McIvor family take him in, providing for his basic needs and giving him work to do around their property.  Gemmy baffles the community:

He had started out white. No question. When he fell in with the blacks — at thirteen, was it? — he had been like any other child, one of their own for instance. (That was hard to swallow.) But had he remained white?

They looked at their children, even the smallest of them chattering away, entirely at home in their tongue, then heard the mere half-dozen words of English this fellow could cough up, and even those so mismanaged and distorted you could barely guess what he was on about, and you had to put to yourself the harder question. Could you lose it? Not just language, but it.  It.

For the fact was, when you looked at him sometimes he was not white. His skin might be but not his features. The whole cast of his face gave him the look of one of Them. How was that, then?  (p.40)

But Remembering Babylon isn’t so much Gemmy’s story as everyone else’s.  Janet, Meg, and Lachlan are forever changed after finding Gemmy.  Several settlers actively work to oust Gemmy, showing their true selves and straining Jock and Ellen McIvor’s relations with them.  And just beyond the hubbub lives Mrs. Hutchence, an eccentric woman who offers love and kindness to everyone she meets. Malouf introduced every type of character imaginable: angry, bigoted settlers, a young schoolmaster, a preacher nearing the end of his career, etc.  Most were not as well-developed as the McIvor family, and after a while I found the frequent new faces a distraction.  The ending was also strange, jumping ahead in time while leaving a number of loose ends back in the 19th century.  Still, this was a worthwhile read, an interesting study of human nature, set in a historic period I enjoy reading about.

Review: A Dance to the Music of Time: Second Movement, by Anthony Powell

The “second movement” of A Dance to the Music of Time is a collection of three novellas:  At Lady Molly’s, Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant, and The Kindly Ones.  Set in England during the years just before World War II, this dance includes many characters familiar to readers of the first movement.  The protagonist, Nick Jenkins, is now an established writer working for a film company.  In At Lady Molly’s, Anthony Powell sets the stage by introducing readers to several new characters who will figure prominently in Nick’s life.   They include the Tolland family (several brothers & sisters, and their stepmother), and Chips Lovell, a professional colleague whose literary role is to introduce Nick to other people and situations.  Social themes are introduced as well,  particularly political developments in Germany, and society’s preoccupation with psychoanalysis during this time period.

While the first novella has a seemingly endless cast, Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant focuses on Nick, his new wife, and their close friends the Morelands.  But the dance continues, with familiar characters moving in and out of their lives, including Nick’s school friends Widmerpool, Templer, and Stringham.  Finally in The Kindly Ones, Powell begins in Nick’s childhood, providing a complete “back story” on certain characters and lending new context to their role in the dance.

There is very little “action” in these novels.  Instead, there are a myriad of social situations where the dialogue moves the action along.  For example, one character will tell a story about another, and in this way we learn of marriages, affairs, deaths, and so on.  One of the intriguing aspects of this series is the way Powell conveys the passing of time.  It’s such a critical element, and yet is only expressed indirectly. Months and years are never mentioned, and rarely do we know someone’s age.  We get a sense of elapsed time primarily through historical or cultural cues (i.e.; the Abdication), and only occasionally by specific mention (i.e.; “several years passed …”).

I also love Powell’s turns of phrase, like this bit:

She was immaculately free from any of the traditional blemishes of a mother-in-law; agreeable always; entertaining; even, in her own way, affectionate; but always a little alarming: an elegant, deeply experienced bird — perhaps a bird of prey — ready to sweep down and attack from the frozen mountain peaks upon which she preferred herself to live apart.

And, at the close of Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant, this powerful paragraph:

I thought of his recent remark about the Ghost Railway.  He loved these almost as much as he loved mechanical pianos. Once, at least, we had been on a Ghost Railway together at some fun fair or on a seaside pier; slowly climbing sheer gradients, sweeping with frenzied speed into inky depths, turning blind corners from which black, gibbering bogeys leapt to attack, rushing headlong towards iron-studded doors, threatened by imminent collision, fingered by spectral hands, moving at last with dreadful, ever increasing momentum towards a shape that lay across the line.

A Dance to the Music of Time is a unique work, and I’m looking forward to reading the rest of this series.

Previous Reviews: