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One From the Archive: ‘What There Is To Say We Have Said: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and William Maxwell’, edited by Suzanne Marrs *****

First published in 2016.

What There Is To Say We Have Said: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and William Maxwell is one of my most anticipated books – well, ever.  Maxwell is one of my favourite writers (and it pains me that he is so little known), and I very much admire Welty.  Regardless, I knew little about them as individuals, so when I spotted this volume, I immediately put it at the top of my birthday list. 97805477503231

Marrs’ introduction is wonderful.  She writes with such passion, and compassion, for her subjects.  From the very beginning, I knew that I would have loved to meet both of those whom Marrs clearly deeply admires.  Welty was an incredibly sassy, shrewd woman; of Jane Austen’s house, she wrote that it ‘looks big, but is really small.  The opposite of her novels.’  Bill, who struck up a wondrous friendship with her, was an incredibly humble, humane man, filled with a myriad of thoughts, and devoted to all of those around him.

It goes without saying that both are incredible writers.  Learning about the process of their craft was fascinating enough, but getting to know the pair as individuals was far more rewarding.  That rare thing is so evident here; that enduring friendship, built upon mutual respect, which was all the more cherished as the two lived far from one another (Maxwell in New York, and Welty in Mississippi).  They could see one another only at long intervals, but in some ways, both found this beneficial; the therapeutic motion of penning (semi-) regular letters to one another lasted for decades, and much was learnt about the other in consequence.

What There Is To Say We Have Said is a stunning read, and I was a little sad when I came to its end.  Throughout, one is nudged to remember just how important communication is (and just how much the majority of us in the modern world almost instantaneous communication for granted), and how beautiful the art of letter writing.  There is not a single dull sentence in this 450-page long volume, and if it had been twice as long, I would have been thrilled.

I could type out quotes at length here, but I shall leave you, dear reader, with the ones which really touched me:
– Maxwell to Welty: ‘There are enough similarities in our two childhoods to make me feel […] that they grew up on a tandem bicycle.’
– Maxwell to Welty, on the publication of one of her works: ‘But I wanted to write to you now, because when a book first comes out, it is really like a party, and when I am invited to a party, I like to come early.’

1

The Book Trail: From McCullers to Manning

I am beginning this edition of The Book Trail with a novel written by one of my favourite authors, Carson McCullers.  As ever, I have used the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool on Goodreads in order to generate this list.  A couple are books which I have already read, and others are ones which are slowly creeping up my vast to-read list.

 

1. The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers 6577412
‘Twelve-year-old Frankie Adams, longing at once for escape and belonging, takes her role as “member of the wedding” to mean that when her older brother marries she will join the happy couple in their new life together. But Frankie is unlucky in love; her mother is dead, and Frankie narrowly escapes being raped by a drunken soldier during a farewell tour of the town. Worst of all, “member of the wedding” doesn’t mean what she thinks. A gorgeous, brief coming-of-age novel.’

 

2. Delta Wedding by Eudora Welty
‘Set on the Mississippi Delta in 1923, this story captures the mind and manners of the Fairchilds, a large aristocratic family, self-contained and elusive as the wind. The vagaries of the Fairchilds are keenly observed, and sometimes harshly judged, by nine-year-old Laura McRaven, a Fairchild cousin who takes The Yellow Dog train to the Delta for Dabney Fairchild’s wedding. An only child whose mother has just died, Laura is resentful of her boisterous, careless cousins, and desperate for their acceptance. As the hour moves closer and closer to wedding day, Laura arrives at a more subtle understanding of both the Fairchilds and herself.’

 

5268723. North Towards Home by Willie Morris
‘With his signature style and grace, Willie Morris, arguably one of this country’s finest Southern writers, presents us with an unparalleled memoir of a country in transition and a boy coming of age in a period of tumultuous cultural, social, and political change.   In North Toward Home, Morris vividly recalls the South of his childhood with all of its cruelty, grace, and foibles intact.  He chronicles desegregation and the rise of Lyndon Johnson in Texas in the 50s and 60s, and New York in the 1960s, where he became the controversial editor of Harper‘s magazine.  North Toward Home is the perceptive story of the education of an observant and intelligent young man, and a gifted writer’s keen observations of a country in transition. It is, as Walker Percy wrote, “a touching, deeply felt and memorable account of one man’s pilgrimage.”‘

 

4. The Voice at the Back Door by Elizabeth Spencer
‘In the mid-1950s, the town of Lacey in the Mississippi hill country is a place where the lives of blacks and whites, though seemingly separate, are in fact historically and inevitably intertwined. When Lacey’s fair-haired boy, Duncan Harper, is appointed interim sheriff, he makes public his private convictions about the equality of blacks before the law, and the combined threat and promise he represents to the understood order of things in Lacey affects almost every member of the community. In the end, Harper succeeds in pointing the way for individuals, both black and white, to find a more harmonious coexistence, but at a sacrifice all must come to regret. In The Voice at the Back Door, Mississippi native Elizabeth Spencer gives form to the many voices that shaped her view of race relations while growing up, and at the same time discovers her own voice – one of hope. Employing her extraordinary literary powers – finely honed narrative techniques, insight into a rich, diverse cast of characters, and an unerring ear for dialect – Spencer makes palpable the psychological milieu of a small southern town hobbled by tradition but lurching toward the dawn of the civil rights movement. First published in 1956, The Voice at the Back Door is Spencer’s most highly praised novel yet, and her last to treat small-town life in Mississippi.’

 

5. Dreams of Sleep by Josephine Humphreys 897991
‘Alice Reese knows that the cheerful sounds of her family eating breakfast mask a ten–year marriage falling apart. As Alice and her husband, Will, struggle to understand–and perhaps recapture–the feelings that drew them together in the first place, their interior lives are sensitively and convincingly explored.’

 

6. Household Words by Joan Silber
‘The year is 1940, and Rhoda Taber is pregnant with her first child. Satisfied with her comfortable house in a New Jersey suburb and her reliable husband, Leonard, she expects that her life will be predictable and secure. Surprised by an untimely death, an unexpected illness, and the contrary natures of her two daughters, Rhoda finds that fate undermines her sense of entitlement and security. Shrewd, wry, and sometimes bitter, Rhoda reveals herself to be a wonderfully flawed and achingly real woman caught up in the unexpectedness of her own life.’

 

4397317. A Way of Life, Like Any Other by Darcy O’Brien
‘The hero of Darcy O’Brien’s A Way of Life, Like Any Other is a child of Hollywood, and once his life was a glittery dream. His father starred in Westerns. His mother was a goddess of the silver screen. The family enjoyed the high life on their estate, Casa Fiesta. But his parents’ careers have crashed since then, and their marriage has broken up too.  Lovesick and sex-crazed, the mother sets out on an intercontinental quest for the right—or wrong—man, while her mild-mannered but manipulative former husband clings to his memories in California. And their teenage son? How he struggles both to keep faith with his family and to get by himself, and what in the end he must do to break free, makes for a classic coming-of-age story—a novel that combines keen insight and devastating wit to hilarious and heartbreaking effect.’

 

8. School for Love by Olivia Manning
‘Jerusalem in 1945 is a city in flux: refugees from the war in Europe fill its streets and cafés, the British colonial mandate is coming to an end, and tensions are on the rise between the Arab and Jewish populations. Felix Latimer, a recently orphaned teenager, arrives in Jerusalem from Baghdad, biding time until he can secure passage to England. Adrift and deeply lonely, Felix has no choice but to room in a boardinghouse run by Miss Bohun, a relative he has never met. Miss Bohun is a holy terror, a cheerless miser who proclaims the ideals of a fundamentalist group known as the Ever-Readies—joy, charity, and love—even as she makes life a misery for her boarders. Then Mrs. Ellis, a fascinating young widow, moves into the house and disrupts its dreary routine for good.  Olivia Manning’s great subject is the lives of ordinary people caught up in history. Here, as in her panoramic depiction of World War II, The Balkan Trilogy, she offers a rich and psychologically nuanced story of life on the precipice, and she tells it with equal parts compassion, skepticism, and humour.’

 

 

Have you read any of these books?

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1

‘One Writer’s Beginnings’ by Eudora Welty ****

I very much enjoy Eudora Welty’s fiction, but know comparatively little about her childhood.  I read the wonderful What There Is To Say We Have Said a couple of years ago, which features much of the correspondence between Welty and another favourite author of mine, William Maxwell.  This autobiographical work, which is composed of a wealth of memories largely from Welty’s Mississippi childhood, works as a wonderful companion volume.

Of One Writer’s Beginnings, William Maxwell writes, ‘It is all wonderful…  The parts of the book that are about her family… are by turns hilarious and affecting.  They are a kind of present… from Miss Welty to her audience.’  Penelope Lively believes it to be a piece of ‘entrancing reading’, and Paul Binding writes in the New Statesman: ‘A writer for whom “genius” is for once a not inappropriate word…  A book of great sensitivity – as controlled and yet aspiring as a lyric poem.’

9780674639270In One Writer’s Beginnings, which was first published in 1984, Welty decided to tell her story in one ‘continuous thread of revelation’.  The book provides, says its blurb, ‘… an exploration of memory by one of America’s finest writers, whose many honours include the Pulitzer Prize, the American Book Award for Fiction, and the Gold Medal for the novel.’  This book consists of three essays – ‘Listening’, ‘Learning to See’, and ‘Finding a Voice’ – which have been transcribed from a set of three lectures which Welty gave at Harvard University in April 1983.

When ‘Listening’ begins, Welty’s words set the scene immediately: ‘In our house on North Congress Street in Jackson, Mississippi, where I was born, the oldest of three children, in 1909, we grew up to the striking of clocks.’  Throughout, Welty’s voice is lyrical, candid, and often quite moving.  She reveals her deep love of books, which was present even when she was a tiny child.  ‘I learned,’ she writes, ‘from the age of two or three that any room in our house, at any time of day, was there to read in, or be read to.’  Welty’s writing is particularly beautiful when she discusses her love of stories: ‘It had been startling and disappointing to me to find out that story books had been written by people, that books were not natural wonders, coming up of themselves like grass.  Yet regardless of where they came from, I cannot remember a time when I was not in love with them – with the books themselves, cover and binding and the paper they were printed on, with their smell and their weight and with their possession in my arms, captured and carried off to myself.  Still illiterate, I was ready for them, committed to all the reading I could give them.’

In a series of vignettes, Welty talks about stargazing, singing, childhood illness, learning the alphabet, religion, schooling, and the quirks of her in some ways unconventional parents, amongst other things.  The imagery which she conjures up is often lovely; for instance: ‘All children in those small-town, unhurried days had a vast inner life going on in the movies.  Whole families attended together in the evenings, at least once a week, and children were allowed to go without chaperone in the long summer afternoons – schoolmates with their best friends, pairs of little girls trotting on foot the short distance through the park to town under their Japanese parasols.’  When she discusses the travels which she went on with her family each summer, she writes of their positive effect upon her later writing: ‘I think now, in looking back on these summer trips – this one and a number later, made in the car and on the train – that another element in them must have been influencing my mind.  The trips were wholes unto themselves.  They were stories.  Not only in form, but their taking on direction, movement, development, change.  They changed something in my life: each trip made its particular revelation, though I could not have found words for it.  But with the passage of time, I could look back on them and see them bringing me news, discoveries, premonitions, promises – I still can; they still do.’

One Writer’s Beginnings spans Welty’s childhood, and includes comparatively brief reflections about her time at college, and the early days of her writing career.  She is insightful about the creation of her characters, and the knowledge which one must have as an author to create enough depth.  ‘Characters take on a life sometimes by luck,’ writes Welty, ‘but I suspect it is when you can write most entirely out of yourself, inside the skin, heart, mind, and soul of a person who is not yourself, that a character becomes in his own right another human being on the page.’

One Writer’s Beginnings is a beautifully written celebration of stories, of Welty’s own, and of those which filled her girlhood.  I was pulled in immediately, transported to the Deep South in the early twentieth century.  This is a joyous account, filled with depth and insight.  Welty’s voice is utterly charming, and sometimes quite profound.  I shall close this review with one of the most wonderful quotes from the book: ‘The memory is a living thing – it too is in transit.  But during the moment, all that is remembered joins and lives – the old and the young, the past and the present, the living and the dead.’

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3

The Book Trail: The Biographical Edition

I am beginning this particular instalment of The Book Trail with a fantastic biography of one of my favourite children’s authors.  As ever, I am using the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool on Goodreads in order to generate this list.

1. Storyteller: The Life of Roald Dahl by Donald Sturrock 8789494
A single-minded adventurer and an eternal child who gave us the iconic Willy Wonka and Matilda Wormwood, Roald Dahl lived a life filled with incident, drama and adventure: from his harrowing experiences as an RAF fighter pilot and his work in British intelligence, to his many romances and turbulent marriage to the actress Patricia Neal, to the mental anguish caused by the death of his young daughter Olivia. In “Storyteller, “the first authorized biography of Dahl, Donald Sturrock–granted unprecedented access to the Dahl estate’s archives–draws on personal correspondence, journals and interviews with family members and famous friends to deliver a masterful, witty and incisive look at one of the greatest authors and eccentric characters of the modern age, whose work still delights millions around the world today.

 

2. Eudora Welty by Suzanne Marrs
Eudora Welty’s works are treasures of American literature. When her first short-story collection was published in 1941, it heralded the arrival of a genuinely original writer who over the decades wrote hugely popular novels, novellas, essays, and a memoir, One Writer’s Beginnings, that became a national bestseller. By the end of her life, Welty (who died in 2001) had been given nearly every literary award there was and was all but shrouded in admiration.  In this definitive and authoritative account, Suzanne Marrs restores Welty’s story to human proportions, tracing Welty’s life from her roots in Jackson, Mississippi, to her rise to international stature. Making generous use of Welty’s correspondence-particularly with contemporaries and admirers, including Katherine Anne Porter, E. M. Forster, and Elizabeth Bowen-Marrs has provided a fitting and fascinating tribute to one of the finest writers of the twentieth century.

 

53505433. Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor by Brad Gooch
The landscape of American literature was fundamentally changed when Flannery O’Connor stepped onto the scene with her first published book, Wise Blood, in 1952. Her fierce, sometimes comic novels and stories reflected the darkly funny, vibrant, and theologically sophisticated woman who wrote them. Brad Gooch brings to life O’Connor’s significant friendships–with Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Hardwick, Walker Percy, and James Dickey among others–and her deeply felt convictions, as expressed in her communications with Thomas Merton, Elizabeth Bishop, and Betty Hester. Hester was famously known as “A” in O’Connor’s collected letters, The Habit of Being, and a large cache of correspondence to her from O’Connor was made available to scholars, including Brad Gooch, in 2006. O’Connor’s capacity to live fully–despite the chronic disease that eventually confined her to her mother’s farm in Georgia–is illuminated in this engaging and authoritative biography.

 

4. Passionate Minds: Women Rewriting the World by Claudia Roth Pierpont
With a masterful ability to connect their social contexts to well-chosen and telling details of their personal lives, Claudia Roth Pierpont gives us portraits of twelve amazingly diverse and influential literary women of the twentieth century, women who remade themselves and the world through their art.  Gertrude Stein, Mae West, Margaret Mitchell, Eudora Welty, Ayn Rand, Doris Lessing, Anais Nin, Zora Neale Hurston, Marina Tsvetaeva, Hannah Arendt and Mary Mccarthy, and Olive Schreiner: Pierpont is clear-eyed in her examination of each member of this varied group, connectng her subjects firmly to the issues of sexual freedom, race, and politics that bound them to their times, even as she exposes the roots of their uniqueness.

 

5. Muriel Spark: The Biography by Martin Stannard 7905899
Born in 1918 into a working-class Edinburgh family, Muriel Spark became the epitome of literary chic and one of the great writers of the twentieth century. Her autobiography, Curriculum Vitae, recorded her early years but politely blurred her darker moments: troubled relations with her family, a terrifying period of hallucinations, and disastrous affairs with the men she loved. At the age of nineteen, Spark left Scotland to get married in southern Rhodesia, only to divorce and escape back to Britain in 1944. Her son returned in 1945 and was brought up by Spark’s parents while she established herself as a poet and critic in London. After converting to Catholicism in 1954, she began writing novels that propelled her into the literary stratosphere. These came to include Memento Mori, The Girls of Slender Means, and A Far Cry from Kensington.  With The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961), later adapted into a successful play and film, Spark became an international celebrity and began to live half her life in New York City. John Updike, Tennessee Williams, Evelyn Waugh, and Graham Greene applauded her work. She had an office at The New Yorker and became friends with Shirley Hazzard and W. H. Auden. Spark ultimately settled in Italy, where for more than thirty years—until her death in 2006—she shared a house with the artist Penelope Jardine.  Spark gave Martin Stannard full access to her papers. He interviewed her many times as well as her colleagues, friends, and family members. The result is an indelible portrait of one of the most significant and emotionally complicated writers of the twentieth century. Stannard presents Spark as a woman of strong feeling, sharp wit, and unabashed ambition, determined to devote her life to her art. Muriel Spark promises to become the definitive biography of a literary icon. 16 pages of b/w photographs.

 

6. John Keats: A New Life by Nicholas Roe
This landmark biography of celebrated Romantic poet John Keats explodes entrenched conceptions of him as a delicate, overly sensitive, tragic figure. Instead, Nicholas Roe reveals the real flesh-and-blood poet: a passionate man driven by ambition but prey to doubt, suspicion, and jealousy; sure of his vocation while bitterly resentful of the obstacles that blighted his career; devoured by sexual desire and frustration; and in thrall to alcohol and opium. Through unparalleled original research, Roe arrives at a fascinating reassessment of Keats’s entire life, from his early years at Keats’s Livery Stables through his harrowing battle with tuberculosis and death at age 25. Zeroing in on crucial turning points, Roe finds in the locations of Keats’s poems new keys to the nature of his imaginative quest.  Roe is the first biographer to provide a full and fresh account of Keats’s childhood in the City of London and how it shaped the would-be poet. The mysterious early death of Keats’s father, his mother’s too-swift remarriage, living in the shadow of the notorious madhouse Bedlam—all these affected Keats far more than has been previously understood. The author also sheds light on Keats’s doomed passion for Fanny Brawne, his circle of brilliant friends, hitherto unknown City relatives, and much more. Filled with revelations and daring to ask new questions, this book now stands as the definitive volume on one of the most beloved poets of the English language.

 

37541007. George Eliot by Jenny Uglow
Best known for her masterpieces Middlemarch and Silas Marner, George Eliot (1819–1880) was both one of the most brilliant writers of her day, and one of the most talked about. Intellectual and independent, she had the strength to defy polite society with her highly unorthodox private life which included various romances and regular encounters with the primarily male intelligentsia. This insightful and provocative biography investigates Eliot’s life, from her rural and religious upbringing through her tumultuous relationship with the philosopher George Henry Lewes to her quiet death from kidney failure. As each of her major works are also investigated, Jenny Uglow attempts to explain why her characters were never able to escape the bounds of social expectation as readily as Eliot did herself.

 

8. A Great Unrecorded History: A New Life of E.M. Forster by Wendy Moffat
With the posthumous publication of his long-suppressed novel Maurice in 1970, E. M. Forster came out as a homosexual— though that revelation made barely a ripple in his literary reputation. As Wendy Moffat persuasively argues in A Great Unrecorded History, Forster’s homosexuality was the central fact of his life. Between Wilde’s imprisonment and the Stonewall riots, Forster led a long, strange, and imaginative life as a gay man. He preserved a vast archive of his private life—a history of gay experience he believed would find its audience in a happier time.  A Great Unrecorded History is a biography of the heart. Moffat’s decade of detective work—including first-time interviews with Forster’s friends—has resulted in the first book to integrate Forster’s public and private lives. Seeing his life through the lens of his sexuality offers us a radically new view—revealing his astuteness as a social critic, his political bravery, and his prophetic vision of gay intimacy. A Great Unrecorded History invites us to see Forster— and modern gay history—from a completely new angle.

 

Have you read any of these?  Which, if any, will you be adding to your to-read list?

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1

A Month of Favourites: ‘What There Is To Say We Have Said: The Correspondence of William Maxwell and Eudora Welty’, edited by Suzanne Mars

First published in December 2016.

What There Is To Say We Have Said: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and William Maxwell is one of my most anticipated books – well, ever.  Maxwell is one of my favourite writers (and it pains me that he is so little known), and I very much admire Welty.  Regardless, I knew little about them as individuals, so when I spotted this volume, I immediately put it at the top of my birthday list. 97805477503231

Marrs’ introduction is wonderful.  She writes with such passion, and compassion, for her subjects.  From the very beginning, I knew that I would have loved to meet both of those whom Marrs clearly deeply admires.  Welty was an incredibly sassy, shrewd woman; of Jane Austen’s house, she wrote that it ‘looks big, but is really small.  The opposite of her novels.’  Bill, who struck up a wondrous friendship with her, was an incredibly humble, humane man, filled with a myriad of thoughts, and devoted to all of those around him.

It goes without saying that both are incredible writers.  Learning about the process of their craft was fascinating enough, but getting to know the pair as individuals was far more rewarding.  That rare thing is so evident here; that enduring friendship, built upon mutual respect, which was all the more cherished as the two lived far from one another (Maxwell in New York, and Welty in Mississippi).  They could see one another only at long intervals, but in some ways, both found this beneficial; the therapeutic motion of penning (semi-) regular letters to one another lasted for decades, and much was learnt about the other in consequence.

What There Is To Say We Have Said is a stunning read, and I was a little sad when I came to its end.  Throughout, one is nudged to remember just how important communication is (and just how much the majority of us in the modern world almost instantaneous communication for granted), and how beautiful the art of letter writing.  There is not a single dull sentence in this 450-page long volume, and if it had been twice as long, I would have been thrilled.

I could type out quotes at length here, but I shall leave you, dear reader, with the ones which really touched me:
– Maxwell to Welty: ‘There are enough similarities in our two childhoods to make me feel […] that they grew up on a tandem bicycle.’
– Maxwell to Welty, on the publication of one of her works: ‘But I wanted to write to you now, because when a book first comes out, it is really like a party, and when I am invited to a party, I like to come early.’

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1

Mini Reviews: ‘The Robber Bridegroom’, ‘Girl Number One’, and ‘Uncle Montague’s Tales of Terror’

The Robber Bridegroom by Eudora Welty ****
‘Legendary figures of Mississippi s past-flatboatman Mike Fink and the dreaded Harp brothers-mingle with characters from Eudora Welty s own imagination in an exuberant fantasy set along the Natchez Trace. Berry-stained bandit of the woods Jamie Lockhart steals Rosamond, the beautiful daughter of pioneer planter Clement Musgrove, to set in motion this frontier fairy tale. For all her wild, rich fancy, Welty writes prose that is as disciplined as it is beautiful.’ 9780156768078

There is nothing quite like a Southern Gothic fairytale, and there is also nothing quite like Eudora Welty’s writing. After reading the fabulous correspondence between Welty and William Maxwell, I sought out a couple of her volumes from my personal collection, and spent a morning with The Robber Bridegroom. From the beginning, there are elements of the Brothers Grimm – as one might expect, I suppose, given its title. In fact, the novel (novella?) begins almost like a bedtime story, in that it is set in a place far, far away some centuries past, and the narrative voice is lilting and lovely. Welty’s writing is sometimes simple but always intelligent, and her story builds marvellously. Her character descriptions also ensure that vivid beings spring to life from the page.

The Robber Bridegroom is one of the most inventive and original novels which I believe I have ever read. Welty has such a hold over her characters and settings, and everything is beautifully evoked.

 

Girl Number One by Jane Holland *
9781503938212As a young child, Eleanor Blackwood witnessed her mother’s murder in woods near their farm. The killer was never found.  Now an adult, Eleanor discovers a woman’s body in the same spot in the Cornish woods where her mother was strangled eighteen years before. But when the police get there, the body has disappeared.  Is Eleanor’s disturbed mind playing tricks on her again, or has her mother’s killer resurfaced? And what does the number on the dead woman’s forehead signify?’

I am getting more and more into thrillers of late, and downloaded this from Netgalley as the premise sounded interesting. Alas and lackaday. I found it cliched from the very beginning. It had the usual girl-with-traumatic-past-goes-running-excessively-in-order-to-try-to-put-said-traumatic-past-behind-her. It doesn’t work, obviously. The ‘thrilling’ part of the book ensues once excessive running and whiny narrative voice has been established (which takes far longer than it should, let’s be honest), which is predictable enough to not be thrilling at all. Not that well written, and honestly, if you’ve read Ruth Ware’s In a Dark, Dark Wood, you probably don’t ever need to pick this up. It seems to follow the same style, just without the wedding party in the woods thing, and is a lot less enjoyable to boot.

 

Uncle Montague’s Tales of Terror by Chris Priestley *** 9781408802762
‘Uncle Montague lives alone in a big house and his regular visits from his nephew give him the opportunity to retell some of the most frightening stories he knows. But as the stories unfold, another even more spine-tingling narrative emerges, one that is perhaps the most frightening of all. Uncle Montague’s tales of terror, it transpires, are not so much works of imagination as dreadful, lurking memories. Memories of an earlier time in which Uncle Montague lived a very different life to his present solitary existence.’

Chris Priestley’s work appeals to me, even though I’m a grownup and should probably have left the realm of children’s books behind me when I left my teens. Saying that, children’s literature is magical and wondrous and unpredictable, and I don’t want to lose those qualities; they are just as important for grownups, in my opinion. If I therefore want to read a children’s book I will do so, and I will do so proudly; hence my wish to pick up Uncle Montague’s Tales of Terror.

I love Gothic fiction, and from the beginning I was reminded of Neil Gaiman and Colin Meloy’s Wildwood series. The scope of the tales here is broad; I admired the way in which one could not quite guess where the story was going. It perhaps goes without saying that these stories are beautifully illustrated too.

My three-star rating is the result of two things; firstly, that some of the stories were better than others, but I expected as much to be the case when I began; and secondly, that it lost quite a bit of momentum as it progressed. Even though the stories were different, and contained different people, the characters had shared attributes on the whole, and were presented in quite similar ways. Perhaps due to the format of the novel, the sections featuring Edgar and Uncle Montague seemed very samey too. A good book, but perhaps a little long; not a series I will be continuing with, I’m afraid.

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1

‘What There Is To Say We Have Said: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and William Maxwell’, edited by Suzanne Marrs *****

What There Is To Say We Have Said: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and William Maxwell is one of my most anticipated books – well, ever.  Maxwell is one of my favourite writers (and it pains me that he is so little known), and I very much admire Welty.  Regardless, I knew little about them as individuals, so when I spotted this volume, I immediately put it at the top of my birthday list. 97805477503231

Marrs’ introduction is wonderful.  She writes with such passion, and compassion, for her subjects.  From the very beginning, I knew that I would have loved to meet both of those whom Marrs clearly deeply admires.  Welty was an incredibly sassy, shrewd woman; of Jane Austen’s house, she wrote that it ‘looks big, but is really small.  The opposite of her novels.’  Bill, who struck up a wondrous friendship with her, was an incredibly humble, humane man, filled with a myriad of thoughts, and devoted to all of those around him.

It goes without saying that both are incredible writers.  Learning about the process of their craft was fascinating enough, but getting to know the pair as individuals was far more rewarding.  That rare thing is so evident here; that enduring friendship, built upon mutual respect, which was all the more cherished as the two lived far from one another (Maxwell in New York, and Welty in Mississippi).  They could see one another only at long intervals, but in some ways, both found this beneficial; the therapeutic motion of penning (semi-) regular letters to one another lasted for decades, and much was learnt about the other in consequence.

What There Is To Say We Have Said is a stunning read, and I was a little sad when I came to its end.  Throughout, one is nudged to remember just how important communication is (and just how much the majority of us in the modern world almost instantaneous communication for granted), and how beautiful the art of letter writing.  There is not a single dull sentence in this 450-page long volume, and if it had been twice as long, I would have been thrilled.

I could type out quotes at length here, but I shall leave you, dear reader, with the ones which really touched me:
– Maxwell to Welty: ‘There are enough similarities in our two childhoods to make me feel […] that they grew up on a tandem bicycle.’
– Maxwell to Welty, on the publication of one of her works: ‘But I wanted to write to you now, because when a book first comes out, it is really like a party, and when I am invited to a party, I like to come early.’

Purchase from The Book Depository

1

The Book Trail: From Correspondence to the Jazz Age

I have decided to begin this particular Book Trail with a marvellous book filled with correspondence.  As soon as I began What There Is To Say We Have Said back in September, I knew that I would absolutely love it.  It leads us through a wonderful selection of biographies, all of which I am itching to get my hands on.

97805477503231. What There Is To Say We Have Said: The Correspondence of William Maxwell and Eudora Welty, edited by Suzanne Marrs
What There Is to Say We Have Said bears witness to Welty and Maxwell’s more than fifty years of friendship and their lives as writers and readers. It serves as a chronicle of their literary world, their talk of Katherine Anne Porter, Salinger, Dinesen, Updike, Percy, Cheever, and more. Through more than three hundred letters, Marrs brings us the story of a true, deep friendship and an homage to the forgotten art of letter writing.’

 

2. Byron: Child of Passion, Fool of Fame by Benita Eisler
In this masterful portrait of the poet who dazzled an era and prefigured the modern age of celebrity, noted biographer Benita Eisler offers a fuller and more complex vision than we have yet been afforded of George Gordon, Lord Byron.  Eisler reexamines his poetic achievement in the context of his extraordinary life: the shameful and traumatic childhood; the swashbuckling adventures in the East; the instant stardom achieved with the publication of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage; his passionate and destructive love affairs, including an incestuous liaison with his half-sister; and finally his tragic death in the cause of Greek independence. This magnificent record of a towering figure is sure to become the new standard biography of Byron.

 

3. Young Romantics: The Tangled Lives of English Poetry’s Greatest Generation by Daisy Hay
9781408809723
Young Romantics tells the story of the interlinked lives of the young English Romantic poets from an entirely fresh perspective—celebrating their extreme youth and outsize yearning for friendship as well as their individuality and political radicalism.  The book focuses on the network of writers and readers who gathered around Percy Bysshe Shelley and the campaigning journalist Leigh Hunt. They included Lord Byron, John Keats, and Mary Shelley, as well as a host of fascinating lesser-known figures: Mary Shelley’s stepsister and Byron’s mistress, Claire Clairmont; Hunt’s botanist sister-in-law, Elizabeth Kent; the musician Vincent Novello; the painters Benjamin Haydon and Joseph Severn; and writers such as Charles and Mary Lamb, Thomas Love Peacock, and William Hazlitt. They were characterized by talent, idealism, and youthful ardor, and these qualities shaped and informed their politically oppositional stances—as did their chaotic family arrangements, which often left the young women, despite their talents, facing the consequences of the men’s philosophies.  In Young Romantics, Daisy Hay follows the group’s exploits, from its inception in Hunt’s prison cell in 1813 to its disintegration after Shelley’s premature death in 1822. It is an enthralling tale of love, betrayal, sacrifice, and friendship, all of which were played out against a background of political turbulence and intense literary creativity.

 

4. Desperate Romantics: The Private Lives of the Pre-Raphaelites by Franny Moyle
Desperate Romantics, a tie-in with a new BBC series, focuses on the scandals, rather than on the group’s ideas, social experiments or artistic development: Ruskin’s loveless marriage and critical championing of Millais, who then went off with Effie Ruskin, Rossetti’s various loves, above all, Lizzie Siddal, his long affair with Jane Morris, and Burne-Jones’s obsession with Mary Zambaco.

 

97818570289115. George Eliot: The Last Victorian by Kathryn Hughes
Mary Ann Evans, aka George Eliot (1819-1880) achieved lasting renown with the novels Silas Marner, Middlemarch, and Adam Bede. Her masterworks were written after years of living an unconventional life, including a scandalous voyage to Europe with the married writer and editor George Henry Lewes. The scandal intensified when she moved in with Lewes after he separated from his wife. Eliot re-entered London’s social life years later, when her literary success made it impossible for respectable society to dismiss her (even Queen Victoria enjoyed her books). She counted among her friends and supporters Dickens, Trollope, and several other Victorian literati. In this intimate biography, author Hughes provides insight into Eliot’s life and work, weighing Eliot’s motivations for her controversial actions, and examining the paradoxical Victorian society which she documented to perfection in her novels.

 

6. The Bronte Myth by Lucasta Miller
‘Following the Brontë sisters through their many reincarnations at the hands of biographers, Lucasta Miller reveals as much about the impossible art of biography as she does about the Brontës themselves. Their first biographer, Mrs Gaskell, transformed their story of literary ambition into one of the great legends of the 19th century, a dramatic tale of three lonely sisters playing out their tragic destiny on top of a windswept moor. Lucasta Miller reveals where this image came from and how it took such a hold on the popular imagination.  Each generation has rewritten the Brontës to reflect changing attitudes – towards the role of the woman writer, towards sexuality, towards the very concept of personality. The Brontë Myth gives vigorous new life to our understanding of the novelists and their culture. It is a witty, erudite and refreshingly unsentimental unravelling of what Henry James described as “the most complete intellectual muddle ever achieved on a literary question by our wonderful public.”‘

 

7. The Bronte Cabinet: Three Lives in Nine Objects by Deborah Lutz 9780393240085
In this unique and lovingly detailed biography of a literary family that has enthralled readers for nearly two centuries, Victorian literature scholar Deborah Lutz illuminates the complex and fascinating lives of the Brontës through the things they wore, stitched, wrote on, and inscribed. By unfolding the histories of the meaningful objects in their family home in Haworth, Lutz immerses readers in a nuanced re-creation of the sisters’ daily lives while moving us chronologically forward through the major biographical events: the death of their mother and two sisters, the imaginary kingdoms of their childhood writing, their time as governesses, and their determined efforts to make a mark on the literary world.  From the miniature books they made as children to the blackthorn walking sticks they carried on solitary hikes on the moors, each personal possession opens a window onto the sisters’ world, their beloved fiction, and the Victorian era. A description of the brass collar worn by Emily’s bull mastiff, Keeper, leads to a series of entertaining anecdotes about the influence of the family’s dogs on their writing and about the relationship of Victorians to their pets in general. The sisters’ portable writing desks prove to have played a crucial role in their writing lives: it was Charlotte’s snooping in Emily’s desk that led to the sisters’ first publication in print, followed later by the publication of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights.

 

8. Irrepressible: The Jazz Age Life of Henrietta Bingham by Emily Bingham
Raised like a princess in one of the most powerful families in the American South, Henrietta Bingham was offered the helm of a publishing empire. Instead, she ripped through the Jazz Age like an F. Scott Fitzgerald character: intoxicating and intoxicated, selfish and shameless, seductive and brilliant, endearing and often terribly troubled. In New York, Louisville, and London, she drove both men and women wild with desire, and her youth blazed with sex. But her love affairs with women made her the subject of derision and caused a doctor to try to cure her queerness. After the speed and pleasure of her early days, the toxicity of judgment from others coupled with her own anxieties resulted in years of addiction and breakdowns. And perhaps most painfully, she became a source of embarrassment for her family-she was labeled “a three-dollar bill.” But forebears can become fairy-tale figures, especially when they defy tradition and are spoken of only in whispers. For the biographer and historian Emily Bingham, the secret of who her great-aunt was, and just why her story was concealed for so long, led to Irrepressible: The Jazz Age Life of Henrietta Bingham.  Henrietta rode the cultural cusp as a muse to the Bloomsbury Group, the daughter of the ambassador to the United Kingdom during the rise of Nazism, the seductress of royalty and athletic champions, and a pre-Stonewall figure who never buckled to convention. Henrietta’s audacious physicality made her unforgettable in her own time, and her ecstatic and harrowing life serves as an astonishing reminder of the stories lying buried in our own families.’

 

Have you read any of these books?

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American Literature Month: Short Story Collections

I thought that I would take the opportunity to recommend some wonderful short story collections during American Literature Month.  Whilst not all of these stories are set in the United States, all of the authors have American nationalities, and there is sure to be something of interest here for every reader.  For each, I have copied the official blurb.

1. Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger (1961)
“The author writes: FRANNY came out in The New Yorker in 1955, and was swiftly followed, in 1957 by ZOOEY. Both stories are early, critical entries in a narrative series I’m doing about a family of settlers in twentieth-century New York, the Glasses. It is a long-term project, patently an ambiguous one, and there is a real-enough danger, I suppose that sooner or later I’ll bog down, perhaps disappear entirely, in my own methods, locutions, and mannerisms. On the whole, though, I’m very hopeful. I love working on these Glass stories, I’ve been waiting for them most of my life, and I think I have fairly decent, monomaniacal plans to finish them with due care and all-available skill.”

2. The Complete Stories by Flannery O’Connor (1991)
“The publication of this extraordinary volume firmly established Flannery O’Connor’s monumental contribution to American fiction. There are thirty-one stories here in all, including twelve that do not appear in the only two story collections O’Connor put together in her short lifetime–Everything That Rises Must Converge and A Good Man Is Hard to Find.”

3. Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri (2000) 
“Mr. Kapasi, the protagonist of Jhumpa Lahiri’s title story, would certainly have his work cut out for him if he were forced to interpret the maladies of all the characters in this eloquent debut collection. Take, for example, Shoba and Shukumar, the young couple in “A Temporary Matter” whose marriage is crumbling in the wake of a stillborn child. Or Miranda in “Sexy,” who is involved in a hopeless affair with a married man. But Mr. Kapasi has problems enough of his own; in addition to his regular job working as an interpreter for a doctor who does not speak his patients’ language, he also drives tourists to local sites of interest. His fare on this particular day is Mr. and Mrs. Das–first-generation Americans of Indian descent–and their children. During the course of the afternoon, Mr. Kapasi becomes enamored of Mrs. Das and then becomes her unwilling confidant when she reads too much into his profession. “I told you because of your talents,” she informs him after divulging a startling secret.”

4. The Collected Stories by Eudora Welty (1980)
“Including the earlier collections A Curtain of GreenThe Wide NetThe Golden Apples, and The Bride of the Innisfallen, as well as previously uncollected ones, these forty-one stories demonstrate Eudora Welty’s talent for writing from diverse points-of-view with “vision that is sweet by nature, always humanizing, uncannily objective, but never angry” (Washington Post).”

5. The Ballad of the Sad Cafe and Other Stories by Carson McCullers (1951)
“In The Ballad of the Sad Café, a tale of unrequited love, Miss Amelia, a spirited, unconventional woman, runs a small-town store and, except for a marriage that lasted just ten days, has always lived alone. Then Cousin Lymon appears from nowhere, a little, strutting hunchback who steals Miss Amelia’s heart. Together they transform the store into a lively, popular café. But when her rejected husband Marvin Macy returns, the result is a bizarre love triangle that brings with it violence, hatred and betrayal.”

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Sunday Snapshot: Short Story Collections

Not the End of the World by Kate Atkinson
As far as contemporary authors go, Kate Atkinson is among my favourites. My re-reading of Not the End of the World has confirmed that she is one of a kind – witty, humorous, imaginative and sympathetic towards her cast of characters. I loved this short story collection, I really did. Atkinson’s writing is sublime and I love the many twists and turns her tales take. She is a true master of her craft.

The Birds and Other Stories by Daphne du Maurier
Daphne du Maurier is such a wonderful storyteller. I absolutely loved the majority of the stories in this collection, and her writing was exemplary throughout. Each story was clever and contained a great twist, along with a distinctive narrator. I found the last story a little weak in comparison to the rest of the collection though, which was a shame.

Johnny Panic and The Bible of Dreams by Sylvia Plath
I am absolutely in awe of Plath’s writing. Her prose is beautiful and incredibly startling in . I loved the mixture of short stories and essays throughout. My favourite stories were ‘Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams’, ‘The Fifty-Ninth Bear’, ‘Mothers’, ‘Ocean 1212-W’, the diary extracts, ‘Tongues of Stone’, and ‘Stone Boy with Dolphin’. The book was absolutely wonderful and I’m so glad I’ve read it.

A Curtain of Green and Other Stories by Eudora Welty
Thoughts about the book:
– I love the sense of place which Welty crafts. She paints such a vivid picture of Southern towns in my mind, and her descriptions of the natural world are so well done that they become stunning photographs.
– I admire Welty’s use of different literary techniques, styles and narrative voices.
– I love the comparisons which she makes between humans and creatures throughout.
– There are some great differences between individual tales in this collection. Some I loved, but others I know I won’t revisit through choice. In this respect, the collection is quite an uneven one.
– I like how she wove in the differing roles and expectations held for men and women in society.

Thoughts about ‘Why I Live at the P.O.:
– I really liked the narrative style, and the way that so many surprised exclamations were woven in.
– I found all of the characters intriguing.
– I liked the way in which she presented the family dynamic.
– I really disliked the fact that everyone looked down at and judged Sister, deeming Stella-Rondo far more worthy of their love and attention. The disparity between the siblings was so well drawn. I must admit that I was firmly on Sister’s side throughout.

Favourite stories:
‘Lily Daw and the Three Ladies’, ‘Why I Live at the P.O.’, ‘The Whistle’, ‘A Memory’ (a beautiful story), ‘Clytie’ and ‘Flowers for Marjorie’.

The Schoolmistress and Other Stories by Anton Chekhov
From the first page, I admired Chekhov’s writing greatly. His phrasing is glorious, and his descriptions beautiful. Throughout, the sense of place is built up marvellously. I love the disparities between each of the tales, and can certainly see why Katherine Mansfield so adored him. As psychological studies, these stories are so insightful, and it is clear that Chekhov knows his characters inside out.