Category: biography and memoir

Rebecca Mead on The Road to Middlemarch

Rebecca Mead at Toppings BathRebecca Mead is an English-born, Brooklyn-based, New Yorker staff writer. I met her recently when she visited Toppings bookshop in Bath to talk about her new book The Road to Middlemarch. Rebecca’s book explores her fascination with George Eliot’s great novel, which started when she first encountered it at the age of seventeen, and has accompanied her through her life, growing, changing, developing, revealing new aspects, as Rebecca’s own life and experience have changed.

Rebecca Mead Road to Middlemarch jacket‘Reading [Middlemarch]’, she writes, ‘does not feel like an escape from life so much as it feels like an urgent, crucial dimension of life itself. There are books that seem to comprehend us as much as we understand them, or even more. […] This kind of book becomes part of our own experience, and part of our own endurance. It might lead us back to the library in mid life, looking for something that eluded us before.’

Rather than a work of literary criticism, the book is a blend of biography, memoir, travel, and reflection that defies easy classification. Here’s a very short extract to give a flavour of the book and its pleasures:

My favourite image of Eliot and [her partner George] Lewes is provided by a neighbour who used to see them out walking Pug, and reported, Mrs Cadwallader-like: “They were both very unattractive people to look upon, and they used to wander about the neighbourhood, the biggest pair of frights that ever was, followed by a shaggy little dog who could do tricks.” The censorious glimpse from behind the net curtains is a peculiarly English phenomenon, and I derive delicious pleasure from the two Georges’ carelessness about the judgement delivered by smaller minds and smaller hearts than their own.


Of fathers

As this series, Talking about Photographs, continues, I think it’s a fairly safe bet that fathers will feature prominently as a subject – fathers gone and fathers barely known in particular. Here, Sabrina Hazelwood reflects on a picture of her father with some navy friends taken in Cuba in the 1960s.

6. Books of the Year – Catherine Arnold

Cat ArnoldOur final guest who shares the highlights of her past twelve months of reading is historian Catherine Arnold.

I first interviewed Catherine about the second book in her London trilogy, which explores the darker aspects of the city’s past, Bedlam: London and its Mad. You can hear the interview here. (The first volume of the series, as yet unpodcasted, is Necropolis: London and its Dead.)

More recently, we met to talk about her latest book, City of Sin: London and its Vices. You can listen to that here

Here are Catherine’s choices from her 2010 reading:

Newgate London's Prototype of HellLooking back at the books which I’ve enjoyed over the past year reveals that history, personal, national and social, has been much on my mind. I’m currently researching a book about London and crime, and to this end I’ve particularly enjoyed Newgate, London’s Prototype of Hell by Stephen Halliday, and Tyburn, London’s Fatal Tree (Alan Brooke and David Brandon), both from the History Press (Sutton). Gripping accounts of two of the darkest aspects of London life.

Willetts Members OnlyAs I have also become something of an expert on the sins of the flesh, I highly recommend Paul Willetts’ Members Only (Profile Books), a highly entertaining account of the life and times of Paul Raymond. Raymond was Mr Soho, and his life story reflected the changing nature of London’s naughtiest neighbourhood and its transformation from sleazy clubland to sanitized tourist trap.

Gregory Queen's FoolA mixture of the personal and political side of history is one of the most compelling aspects of Philippa Gregory’s writing, and this year I’ve particularly enjoyed catching up on her work, particularly The Queen’s Fool (about a young Jewish girl at the court of Mary Tudor) and The White Queen  (both Simon and Schuster) which sees Miss Gregory heading in a slightly different direction, towards the Plantagenets and their extended, squabbling families. Families, extended, eccentric and otherwise are the focus of two memoirs which have intrigued and entranced me.

Families, extended, eccentric and otherwise are the focus of two memoirs which have intrigued and entranced me.Seymour In My Father's House Lorna Sage’s Bad Blood, about growing up in a dotty vicarage on the Welsh Borders, has been re-issued this year with an introduction by her daughter. Another unusual family feature in Mirand Seymour’s memoir, In My Father’s House (Simon and Schuster) about Miranda’s childhood in a rambling Nottinghamshire mansion with her charming but infuriating father, a motorcycle fanatic and late convert to homosexuality, and her tremendously loyal and long-suffering mother.

Finally, for anyone looking for a diverting but thought-provoking read, I’d recommend This Charming Man by Maria Keyes which ventures boldy into some dark territory (domestic violence and alcoholism) whilst maintaining her distinctive warm, witty tones – she’s the slightly dotty Irish best friend every girl needs.

4. Books of the Year – Andrew McConnell Stott

Andrew McConnell StottAndrew McConnell Stott is an award-winning writer and academic. For several years he was a stand-up comedian, described by London’s Evening Standard as “an absurdist comic with a satirical eye for popular culture.” The world, however, was unprepared for such hilarity and so he decided to give it up.

He is the author of Comedy (Routledge, 2005) and The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi (Canongate, 2009). The latter was praised by Simon Callow in the Guardian as a “great big Christmas pudding of a book, almost over-stuffed with rich and colourful life”.  Jenny Uglow in the Observer called it a “fast-paced, rumbustious biography” and said:  “A round of applause is due to this exuberant, impassioned portrait, for bringing the great Grimaldi, ‘Joey the Clown’, into the limelight again.” You can hear my interview with Andrew by clicking here.

Andrew is currently a Fellow at the New York Public Library’s Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers. Here is his selection of books he has enjoyed this year:

I don’t tend to read that many books-of-the-moment, because I’m usually researching something that demands full monogamy on pain of wreaking horrible revenge in the form of shocking biographical errors. At the moment, I’m working on failed Romantic poets, so I’ve been catching up on all the bad literature written between the French Revolution and the accession of Queen Victoria. There’s quite a lot.Geoff Dyer Out of Sheer RageWhen I do get a day off, I’m inevitably catching up. This year, for example, was the first time I’ve managed to read anything by Jonathan Lethem, John Le Carre, or Nicole Krauss. I even read Bram Stoker’s Dracula for the first time. Two particular favourites from the catch-up pile were Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage: Struggling With DH Lawrence, probably the greatest work ever about not getting work done; and Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s From Hell, a graphic novel about the Whitechapel murders that was one of the most bizarre and chilling volumes of any genre I’ve read for quite some time.

From Hell coverOf recent publications, I was particularly taken with two works of non-fiction: David Grann’s The Lost City of Z: A Legendary British Explorer’s Deadly Quest to Uncover the Secrets of the Amazon, which is the kind of book I aspire to write – a swashbuckling adventure, told with a novelist’s attention to character and plot – and Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx, drawing on more than a decade of research and standing as a monument to what good non-fiction can achieve.

Gaitskill Don'ty Cry coverFinally, I loved the stories in Mary Gaitskill’s Don’t Cry. I don’t think there is another writer in America capable of writing the emotions with such razor-sharp precision as Gaitskill. The way external phenomena transmute into internal emotional states in her work feels exactly like feeling – at least to me.

3. Books of the Year – Louise Foxcroft

Louise FoxcroftOur third guest reviewer of this year’s publishing highlights is Cambridge-based historian of medicine, Louise Foxcroft.

Louise won the Longman/History Today Prize in 2009 for her book Hot Flushes, Cold Science: A History of the Modern Menopause. You can hear a podcast in which she discusses the book here.

And here are Louise’s favourite books of the year:

Brian Dillon Tormented Hope

Michael Frayn Father's Fortune
Antonio Damasio Self Comes to MindBrian Dillon’s Tormented Hope: Nine Hypochondriac Lives (shortlisted for the Wellcome Prize 2009) is a terrific account of a debilitating but abstract condition.

It is told through the experiences of articulate sufferers: Proust, who expired, his fears vindicated, in his cork-lined sick room; Warhol who had a dread of doctors and hospitals but couldn’t avoid them; the glamorous Glenn Gould loved his prescription drugs and medical paraphernalia but died of self-neglect; and Boswell, the London Magazine‘s resident “Hypochondriack”, used exercise, regular dining and lots of sex to help him deal with his bodily fears.

All these anxieties were made worse by the fallibility of doctors who had few medicines but plenty of platitudes, and whose knowledge was said to progress one funeral at a time. Anyone with the merest twinge of health anxiety, and that’s probably all of us, will be fascinated.

Michael Frayn is one of my favourite writers, his novels are always funny, tragic, clever, and very perceptive. My Father’s Fortune: A Life is another one, like Spies, that I will re-read endlessly.

Self Comes To Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain is an excellent piece of popular science by Antonio Damasio, Professor of Neuroscience Brain and head of the Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California. Damasio’s writing is lyrical and concise, so that difficult concepts are made clear and are a pleasure to read.

He illustrates how the conscious mind results from the smoothly articulated operation of many brain sites with the analogy of an orchestra and its conductor, but in this case it is the orchestra and its performance that produces the conductor. The great paradox, he says, is that our self is our entry into knowledge, and yet here we are questioning it. He makes thinking about your self seem quite acceptable

1. Books of the Year – Elizabeth Speller

Elizaberh SpellerToday we begin a new series of guest posts in which writers and publishers choose their favourite books of 2010.

Our first guest is Elizabeth Speller, whose first novel, The Return of Captain John Emmett, was published to great acclaim earlier this year. You can hear my interview with her about the book here.

Her second novel, The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton, will appear in May 2011. Here are her choices (you’ll find an interview with one of her selected authors, Madeleine Bunting, here):

Harris Romantic ModernsMy greatest pleasure this year came from reading Alexandra Harris’ Romantic Moderns: English Writers, Artists and the Imagination from Virginia Woolf to John Piper. Read selectively, randomly or straight through (I did all three, in order) it is a wonderfully intelligent and lively journey through the landscape of the imagination between the wars.

Harris informs but also has huge fun with the creativity, fantasy and sometimes spectacular self-indulgence of the period. I’m delighted to see publishers producing such visually beautiful but serious books to compete with e-publishing. It was announced yesterday that Harris has just won the Guardian prize for a first book.

Six Weeks coverMy second choice is more sombre: Six Weeks: the Short but Gallant Life of a British Officer in the First World War by John Lewis-Stempel. This intimate history is taken from the letters and diaries of very ordinary young men. These are, in the main, not poets, not heroes, just soldiers buying expensive uniforms, being brave, bored and scared, doing their duty and trying (and often failing) to survive. They are also very young: there is one poignant account of a dying subaltern asking his puzzled corporal to tell Uppingham (his school) that he did “all right”. Lewis-Stempel proves there is still more to know about that most terrible and most studied of conflicts.

Bunting The Plot coverFinally, Madeleine Bunting’s The Plot: A Biography of My Father’s English Acre maps a personal and national biography on to one tiny piece of land in Yorkshire. About spirit of place and passionate attachment to land- it is memoir, history, and exploration of identity in one.

Tolstoy’s bedtime story

Rosamund Bartlett Tolstoy biographyI was in Oxford on Friday to interview Rosamund Bartlett about her recent Tolstoy biography, which coincides with the great man’s death a century ago on 20 November 1910.

The interview will appear shortly on the Blackwell Online website, but in the meantime, here is Rosamund reading a short extract from the book itself, in which Tolstoy as a boy listens to his grandmother’s blind storyteller recount a bedtime story…

Click here for the reading.

Summer Reading Choices: Graham Farmelo

Graham FarmeloGraham Farmelo is Senior Research Fellow at the Science Museum, London, and Adjunct Professor of Physics at Northeastern University, Boston, USA. He edited the best-selling It Must be Beautiful: Great Equations of Modern Science in 2002. His biography of Paul Dirac, The Strangest Man, won the 2009 Costa Biography Prize and the 2010 Los Angeles Times Science Book Prize.

You can listen to my interview with Graham about The Strangest Man by clicking here.

And here are Graham’s summer reading choices:

David Mitchell Cloud AtlasSummer reading seems to be synonymous with light reading. Not for me. These relatively quiet months often present the best opportunities to read challenging, off-piste books that I tend to put on the shelf invisibly marked “when I have time”.David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas has been there for too long. It took an appreciative review of his latest, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, by the notoriously sniffy James Wood to nudge me into taking the plunge. I’m glad I did – though Cloud Atlas is not always easy to read, Mitchell’s virtuosity makes it strangely compelling. I’m still waiting to be moved, though.

Is it my imagination or are good scientific biographies becoming a bit thin on the ground? An exception is Oren Harman’s hefty The Price of Altruism, a cross between a biography of the American population geneticist George Price and a history of the origins of altruism. Here is a biography with intellectual bite, worth multiply rereading.

Ian Sample Massive coverThis is a good time to prepare for the Klondike of fundamental scientific insights soon to arrive, fingers crossed, courtesy of the Large Hadron Collider. Ian Sample’s lively Massive is a first-rate curtain-raiser. This is a science book you can read on the beach, as refreshing as a giant choc-ice but conscience-free: it makes light of heavy stuff. An ideal summer read.

Summer Reading Choices: Michael Bywater

Michael BywaterOur next guest recommender of Summer Reading is Michael Bywater, author (of Lost Worlds and Big Babies, inter al.), broadcaster, and – as you will see when you read on – now writing for the stage…

This summer I’m too too utterly utterly up to my ears in queers, dears. Specifically the (slightly illusory) late nineteenth century London homosexual world and the point at which it collides, in a flurry of ortolans’ tongues and lilies, with the largely abortive English Aesthetes.

This is no indulgence – actually at times it’s hard going – but work: I’m writing (it may sound improbable) a musical about Oscar Wilde with (equally improbably) those two giants of American popular music, the songwriting duo Leiber and Stoller.

The work itself is a treat, but Oscar himself poses three problems: his literary work was something (in England at least) of a dead end; most of the legends about him are untrue; and the world is well-supplied with Oscar mavens who’ll be on the edge of their seats, not with delight, but with anticipation of my making a mistake. So if anyone should think the phrase “Actually, I’m researching a musical” is an oxymoron, let them think again.

Complete Letters of Oscar WildeApart from Richard Ellmann’s definitive biography (Hamish Hamilton, 1987) and Merlin Holland and Rupert Hart-Davis’s edition of Oscar Wilde’s Complete Letters (Fourth Estate, 2000), the two most enlightening books about him are Oscar Wilde by Martin Fido (Hamlyn, 1973) and the lovely, gossipy, meticulous and utterly humane The Unrecorded Life of Oscar Wilde by Rupert Croft-Cooke (W H Allen, 1972).

Ellmann Wilde coverCroft-Cooke himself did time, for the crime of being what he calls “a queer”. Here he is on Wilde’s co-defendant, Alfred Taylor: “[He was] an empty-headed invert, gossipy and good-natured, a talented pianist, ‘artistic’ with all the awful implications of the word at that time, and he was to show later that he was capable of a selfless loyalty and courage which made almost everyone in the sorry prosecution of Wilde look mean and treacherous . . . A vapid innocuous queen . . . who under any sane system of legislation would be mildly derided perhaps, or accepted as a harmless anomaly. In most European countries he would have existed happily enough with his own kind, but in England in the ‘90s he was told by a learned judge that he was guilty of the worst crimes he had ever tried and sent to two years’ hard labour.”

It’s hard for me, as a pretty unequivocal heterosexual, to understand the appeal of gay sexuality, and of course the feeling is mutual; but the idea that it should be criminalized (and there are still plenty of people who believe that) is simply incomprehensible. Terror, I suppose; pure terror. Heaven will be full of queers, no doubt, and also of judges, the devout, and family-values bigots, who will slowly begin to realise that they’ve been sent to Hell.

City of Veils coverOff-duty reading

In my off-duty reading, curiously, intolerance, fear and bigotry – under the guise of morality – persist. They pervade Zoe Ferraris’s two novels; City of Veils and Finding Nouf. Ferraris is an American who married a Palestinian Bedouin and lived in Jeddah.

Her subject is Saudi Arabia, that sink of unearned income, sexual segregation and the unmitigated supine terror-of-everything which is Wahabi Islam, and she draws it beautifully. To say that Ferraris enlightens her readers about the hidden life of Jeddah would be another oxymoron, because there is no light to be seen; but she does, brilliantly, make clear the reigning darkness.

The Finkler Question coverOur Roth

And next up: Howard Jacobson’s new novel, The Finkler Question (Bloomsbury, July 2010). Jacobson has not made a false step in the last decade or more. His energy and invention only increase with time.

I suppose when Jacobson is 96 and still producing masterpieces, we’ll eventually acknowledge that he’s a genius who puts the entire galère of hacks, poseurs and drivellistas to navel-gazing shame. He’s our Roth and we should acknowledge it. Until we do, though, just read his books. All of them. You’ll thank me for this advice.