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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Five Great… Novels (E-F)

I thought that I would make a series which lists five beautifully written and thought-provoking novels.  All have been picked at random, and are sorted by the initial of the author.  For each, I have copied the official blurb.  I’m sure that everyone will find something here that interests them.

1. The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald
“The year is 1794 and Fritz, passionate, idealistic and brilliant, is seeking his father’s permission to announce his engagement to his heart’s desire: twelve-year-old Sophie. His astounded family and friends are amused and disturbed by his betrothal. What can he be thinking? Tracing the dramatic early years of the young German who was to become the great romantic poet and philosopher Novalis, ‘The Blue Flower’ is a masterpiece of invention, evoking the past with a reality that we can almost feel.”

2. A Million Little Pieces by James Frey
“James Frey wakes up on a plane, with no memory of the preceding two weeks. His face is cut and his body is covered with bruises. He has no wallet and no idea of his destination. He has abused alcohol and every drug he can lay his hands on for a decade – and he is aged only twenty-three. What happens next is one of the most powerful and extreme stories ever told. His family takes him to a rehabilitation centre. And James Frey starts his perilous journey back to the world of the drug and alcohol-free living. His lack of self-pity is unflinching and searing. A Million Little Pieces is a dazzling account of a life destroyed and a life reconstructed. It is also the introduction of a bold and talented literary voice.”

3. Middlemarch by George Eliot
“George Eliot’s most ambitious novel is a masterly evocation of diverse lives and changing fortunes in a provincial English community prior to the Reform Bill of 1832. Peopling its landscape are Dorothea Brooke, a young idealist whose search for intellectual fulfilment leads her into a disastrous marriage to the pedantic scholar Casaubon; the charming but tactless Dr Lydgate, whose marriage to the spendthrift beauty Rosamund and pioneering medical methods threaten to undermine his career; passionate, idealistic and penniless artist Will Ladislaw; and the religious hypocrite Bulstrode, hiding scandalous crimes from his past. As their stories interweave, George Eliot creates a richly nuanced and moving drama.”

4. The Little Shadows by Marina Endicott
“”The Little Shadows” tells the story of three sisters making their way in the world of vaudeville before and during the First World War. Setting off to make their fortune as a singing act after the untimely death of their father, the girls, Aurora, Clover and Bella, are overseen by their fond but barely coping Mama. The girls begin with little besides youth and hope but evolve into artists as they navigate their way to adulthood among a cast of extraordinary characters – charming charlatans, unpredictable eccentrics, and some who seem ordinary but have magical gifts. Marina Endicott lures us onto the brightly lit stage and into the little shadows that lurk behind the curtain, and reveals how the art of vaudeville – In all its variety, madness, melodrama, hilarity and sorrow – echoes the art of life itself.”

5. Maurice by E.M. Forster
“Maurice Hall is a young man who grows up confident in his privileged status and well aware of his role in society. Modest and generally conformist, he nevertheless finds himself increasingly attracted to his own sex. Through Clive, whom he encounters at Cambridge, and through Alec, the gamekeeper on Clive’s country estate, Maurice gradually experiences a profound emotional and sexual awakening. A tale of passion, bravery and defiance, this intensely personal novel was completed in 1914 but remained unpublished until after Forster’s death in 1970. Compellingly honest and beautifully written, it offers a powerful condemnation of the repressive attitudes of British society, and is at once a moving love story and an intimate tale of one man’s erotic and political self-discovery.”

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Flash Reviews (4th March 2014)

A beautiful William Morris print

Pre-Raphaelite Poetry: An Anthology by Paul Negri ****
I adore the Pre-Raphaelites, and have wanted an anthology like this for such a long time.  The introductory note, which one presumes is written by the book’s editor, Paul Negri, is insightful.  The book’s blurb states that it ‘contains a rich selection of works by the major Pre-Raphaelite poets’.  These ‘major’ poets are comprised of five in total – Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Christina Rossetti, Algernon Charles Swinburne, William Morris and George Meredith.  I would not personally call it an anthology in this respect, but each to their own.  I liked the little biographies which appeared at the start of each poet’s work, and it is true to say that this is such a lovely collection and, indeed, selection of work.

To talk about the poetry, then.  I very much adored all of Christina Rossetti’s work, as I knew I would, and I loved much of her brother’s too.  Swinburne and Meredith were both poets whom I had not read before, and I very much enjoyed their style.  The imagery which their poems created in my mind was stunning.  I was so pleased to see William Morris here, and think it quite sad that his poetry is so neglected.  For me, it is as beautiful as his prints:

He did not die in the night,
He did not die in the day,
But in the morning twilight
His spirit pass’d away,
When neither sun nor moon was bright,
And the trees were merely grey.
(From ‘Shameful Death’)

‘Silas Marner’ by George Eliot (Penguin)

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Silas Marner by George Eliot ***

Having not read any of Eliot’s work for some time, I had the sudden urge to plunge headfirst into Silas Marner, a far shorter work than the likes of Middlemarch and The Mill on the Floss. Silas Marner is a linen weaver living in the ‘early years of this century’.  He has moved to the Midlands after being falsely accused of a crime in the northeast.  A cruel and miserly young man named Dunstan Cass creeps into Marner’s deserted cottage one day and steals all of the money which has been secreted beneath the floor.

Whilst the social history was well exemplified, some of the details which Eliot wove in seemed a little superfluous at times – for example, the constant talk of horses and making profits on them.  I did not grow to like any of the characters, but I found them all interesting.  Overall, Silas Marner was not as enjoyable as Middlemarch or The Mill on the Floss, for me – the lack of a powerful and feisty female, perhaps?  It must be said however that Eppie, the baby found in Marner’s home after her mother perishes in the snow outside, was wonderfully built up to the point that she felt real.

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Listening to Whales: What the Orcas Have Taught Us by Alexandra Morton ***

A killer whale (BBC)

My dear friend Caroline sent me this after writing such an insightful review of it.  It took such a long time to come out of my choice jar, but I was so glad when I pulled out the little slip of paper with its title on.  Morton has studied whales for twenty five years, and even has a hydrophone installed in her home in Western Canada.  She often wakes to the calls of whales, which sounds like a beautiful way in which to live.  ‘I am their shadow’, Morton says, describing the way in which she follows every whale sighting in her boat.

Listening to Whales is part nature book and part memoir.  At the start of the volume, Morton sets out her childhood love for animals and her life before she decided to devote it to tracking and trying to learn as much as possible from whales.  She began to work with dolphins, studying them with the help of a small time, and was captivated by the behaviour of two whales whilst working at an aquarium in California.

For me, the most interesting part of the book was to see how science had progressed since the late 1970s, with regard to such things as gestational periods, the preferred diets of sea creatures, and their habitats.  A drawback was the way in which the illustrations throughout had been put in rather haphazardly.  During a chapter which focuses upon killer whales and those who study them, a drawing of a sperm whale has randomly been included.  Overall, Listening to Whales is really interesting, and I certainly learnt a few things from it.

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Flash Reviews (19th August 2013)

The Lifted Veil by George Eliot
My favourite aspect of Eliot’s writing is the way in which she crafts places.  She does so incredibly deftly, and she weaves her settings and scenes into beautiful views which come to life in front of your eyes.  I also love her writing style.  Despite this, I do not feel that novellas really suit her authorship.  She is far better, in my opinion, when she is filling a novel and crafting her beautiful words without any kind of restriction upon them.  It feels as though her creative spirit has been suppressed a little in this form, and it is a real shame.  The Lifted Veil is rather a quite novella – a nice enough story, but not a memorable one, unfortunately.

'The Luckiest Girl in the School' by Angela Brazil

‘The Luckiest Girl in the School’ by Angela Brazil

The Luckiest Girl in the School by Angela BrazilI still can’t resist a good school story, and it’s quite a few years since I left education.  I hadn’t read anything of Brazil’s before, and so I was intrigued to see how The Luckiest Girl in the School would compare to my favourite school stories – the St. Clare’s and Malory Towers series by Enid Blyton.  The book is incredibly well written, and doesn’t dumb itself down to a child or teenage audience, which I think goes in its favour.  The characters are all rather sweet.  Unlike in Enid Blyton’s school stories, there is nobody who really stands out that much, but in the grand scheme of things, I don’t think it matters particularly here.  I loved the ‘jolly hockey sticks’ atmosphere woven throughout – all the nature rambles and the school spirit, for example.  There was a little too much focus upon games and hockey for my liking, however, so for that reason I don’t feel too bothered about carrying on with the series.  Still, a very enjoyable story, and one which lends itself well to be read in the summer.

The Little Shadows by Marina Endicott
I have been looking forward to this novel since it came out and I first read its blurb, and despite requesting several review copies, I had to wait until it was given to me as a birthday present back in June. What I found when I opened its pages was a marvellous novel.  I am so interested in vaudeville, and this story is such a great one.  I love the way in which the story is split up into sections pertaining to the theatre – ‘Ouverture’, ‘Act 1/Act 2’, ‘Intermission’, ‘Act 3/Act 4’ and ‘Finale’.  Endicott’s descriptions are sublime, particularly those which relate to the theatre.  Her words weave a vivid picture.  I loved the relationship which she built between the Avery sisters, and their care of one another was very sweet.  The many strands of story which come together and then separate again have been well realised, and make for a very rich and unforgettable plot.  True to its content, The Little Shadows is a novel which sweeps you up and takes you on tour with it, and I for one cannot wait to read more of Endicott’s books.

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates
The atmosphere and setting which Yates builds in Revolutionary Road builds are truly stunning.  He writes with such assertiveness, understanding and power.  The strength of this novel – and there are many strengths, believe you me – describes the fragility of life with such clarity and sadness, and he portrays the damaged elements of his protagonists in the same way.  The intricacies of the relationships which exist between characters here, some of them unexpected, are described with such knowledge that in consequence, everything feels so very realistic.  This is a novel which I have nothing but praise for.


Sunday Snapshot: Classics

1. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
No classics list for me would be complete without Jane Eyre.  The story is a timeless one, and it resonates with

Jane Eyre

Jane Eyre (Photo credit: Valerie Reneé)

readers today as much as it ever has done.  Bronte’s writing is beautiful, and the characters and settings she crafts are marvellously lifelike.  Jane Eyre is at the peak of the classics list for me, and I’m sure I shall read it many more times in future.  It stands to reason that many film versions have been released of the book, and I feel that Bronte is as popular as she deserves to be.

2. Middlemarch by George Eliot
I studied English and History at University, and as George Eliot was a relatively local resident to the city, my Humanities building was named after her.  Middlemarch was the first of her novels which I read, and I was blown away by it.  The sense of place and time which she builds up is truly stunning, and I felt as though I was right beside the characters as they lived their lives.  As a social and political study of the 1800s, you cannot get much better than Middlemarch.

3. Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
I adore Hardy’s writing style, and his descriptive passages are rarely equalled in literature.  Tess of the d’Urbervilles is not a happy book by any means, but it exemplifies the hideous poverty which many had to live through.  Tess is a lovely character on the whole, and she is also incredibly memorable.  This novel proves a marvellous introduction to Hardy’s writing.

4. The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde
I find Wilde fascinating, both as an author and a singular figure.  He was such an exuberant and witty character, and this shines through in everything he writes.  Many are familiar with The Importance of Being Earnest from various film versions and theatre performances, but I feel that the best way to appreciate the play is in its original form.  Wilde’s writing sparkles, and his characters are simply superb.

5. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
As far as I am concerned, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is a timeless book, much like the aforementioned Jane Eyre.  I have read it countless times, yet still find it utterly magical.  Carroll’s imagination is stunning, and the many film versions of the book – yes, I have seen lots of them – have made such wonderful use of the original material.