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review 2019-11-19 17:31
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.

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review 2019-11-19 17:14
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.

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review 2019-11-19 04:05
Life As We Knew It (Last Survivors #1) by Susan Beth Pfeffer
Life As We Knew It - Susan Beth Pfeffer

Date Published: October 1, 2016

Format: Kindle

Source: Library

Date Read: November 13-14, 2019

 

Trigger Warning: disordered eating (LOTS!)

 

Review

This was a fun ride through the last days of a normal life, and then into the apocalyptic event and the immediate aftermath (up to about nine months after the big event). Miranda is an almost sixteen year old and is a diarist; through her diary we see life in a typical small town NE Pennsylvania life with divorced parents, an older brother, a younger brother, her hardcore Christian BFF, her hedonistic other BFF, and school. The big event is an asteroid hitting the moon and can be seen at night - the entire world is having parties and making plans to view this event. However, the moon gets hit a little too hard and moves much, much closer to Earth. 

 

And then all hell breaks loose. 

 

Living through the devastation and disease by using common sense and ingenuity, the family survives. Miranda was not the "chosen one" or "super special savior" type of character - she was real and relatable but when the family needs her to rise above and get stuff done - she does by using common sense and digging deep inside her to be brave. There is going to be death, there is going to be a lot of leaving, but Miranda just carries on while also having meltdown moments. 

 

I'm honestly looking forward to book two. Please heed the trigger warning above though; I wouldn't recommend it to everyone, especially young women and girls with issues related to body dysmorphia or disordered eating. 

 

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review 2019-11-17 16:16
Ideal for the middle school or high school student
Julius Caesar: Dictator for Life (Revised Edition) - Denise Rinaldo

My son is currently studying Roman history at school, and during one of our trips to our local library a couple of weeks ago he picked up as many books about Roman history as he could find. This Julius Caesar biography was among them, and while it's geared to a slightly older group of learners I'm not one to tell someone what they can't read. As soon as we arrived home, though, the books landed on the floor in his room, where they've sat ever since.

 

One of the reasons for this is that reading it wasn't an obligation. While he has a considerable amount of homework every week, he's allowed to choose what he wants to read. Because of this, he usual meets his obligations by reading books in the Diary of a Wimpy Kid or Dog Man series, both of which he enjoys greatly. In addition to that, though, he also has a weekly project due that rotates between Literature, Writing, Science, and Current Events. This week Literature came up in the rotation, which means that he has to not just read a book but "respond" to it in some way. I decided to use the assignment to push him to read the Caesar biography, and for it I decided to read it myself.

 

For an adult it's a quick read, with plenty of illustrations and info boxes. Denise Rinaldo does a good job of presenting the basic facts of Caesar's life, with some helpful short-term background information added in for context. Overall, it's a fine introduction for anyone seeking "just the facts" on one of history's big names, and is ideal for the middle-school or high school audience to whom it is geared. Hopefully with a little help an elementary school reader can enjoy it as well!

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review 2019-11-17 02:49
WWII History Part 1 of 4
Our Uninvited Guests: The Secret Life of Britain's Country Houses 1939-45 - Julie Summers

This book explores the history and uses of the country estates that were requisitioned by the British government for use during World War II. These uses ranged from training facilities for spies, invalid homes for injured servicemen, hospitals for pregnant women, and boarding facilities for children evacuated from London. Not only does it delve into the minutia of what the houses were used for but also what kinds of changes occurred to them (the houses that is). For some, they were never again used by their original owners. For others, the buildings much like the people themselves, were forever changed (or completely destroyed). The only thing missing from this book was an annotated bibliography (you know how much I love those) even though it is clear that Summers did her research. 8/10

Source: readingfortheheckofit.blogspot.com
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