Book Notes

I’ve recently finished reading two books:

It’s taken me several weeks to read Eden’s Outcasts and at one point I nearly abandoned it because I thought it was too much about Louisa May Alcott’s father. I’m glad I persevered because the second half of the book  concentrates much more on Louisa and I realised that the title does convey the subject matter very well as it reveals the relationship between them. Bronson Alcott was a complicated person who appeared to have mellowed as he grew older. Louisa, well known and loved for her children’s books never achieved her ambition to write serious books for mature readers, enduring debilitating illness in her later years.

I learnt a lot from this book about their lives and their relationships with other writers such as Emerson, Thoreau and Hawthorne. It’s a very detailed book and there is no way I can summarise their lives in a few words and a double biography is even more difficult to deal with. In the final  paragraph Matteson sums this up very well:

To the extent that a written page permits knowledge of a different time and departed souls, this book has tried to reveal them. However, as Bronson Alcott learned to his amusement, the life written is never the same as the life lived. Journals and letters tell much. Biographers can sift the sands as they think wisest. But the bonds that two persons share consist also of encouraging words, a reassuring hand on a tired shoulder, fleeting smiles, and soon-forgotten quarrels. These contracts, so indispensable to existence, leave no durable trace. As writers, as reformers, and as inspirations, Bronson and Louisa still exist for us. Yet this existence, on whatever terms we may experience it, is no more than a shadow when measured against the way they existed for each other. (page 428)

Turning to Climbing the Bookshelves by Shirley Williams,  I thought an autobiography would maybe include more personal recollections and descriptions of events. It starts off very well with her descriptions of her early childhood – her earliest memory from 1933 when she was three and fell on her head from a swing at the Chelsea Babies’ playground. I was very impressed by her memories of the time she spent in America as a young girl during the Second World War and her self-reliance and independence.

However, much of the book consists of her accounts of her political life, making it very much a political history of Britain, rather than a personal account of her life. There are some personal memories and I particularly liked her descriptions of her fellow politicians – Harold Wilson, Jim Callaghan, Roy Jenkins and so one – very little about Margaret Thatcher and a few pertinent comments about Tony Blair. Having said that she comes over as a very honest, genuine person who cares deeply about being a good politician. And maybe it is more personal than I originally thought because in the last chapter she writes these words:

Being an MP is like being a member of an extended family. You learn to love your family with all its knobbliness, perversity, courage and complexity. You learn respect and build up trust. …

To be a good politician in a democracy you have to care for people and be fascinated by what makes them tick. … The politician whose eyes shift constantly to his watch, or to the apparently most important person in the room, feeds the distrust felt by the electorate. It is a distrust born of being manipulated, conned, even decieved and it is fed by a relentlessly cynical national press. (page 389)

A side effect of reading this book is that I’m going to read her mother’s book, a best seller published in 1933 – Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain. Shirley describes it as

… an autobiography of her wartime experience as a nurse and her personal agony in losing all the young men she most loved … (page 13)

In the preface to Testimony of Youth she wrote:

Testimony of Youth is, I think, the only book about the First World War written by a woman, and indeed a woman whose childhood had been a very sheltered one. It is an autobiography and also an elegy for a generation. For many men and women, it described movingly how they themselves felt.

This looks like a much more personal autobiography.

Read, Reading, To Read – Sunday Salon

I’ve just finished reading Exit Lines by Reginald Hill, a Dalziel and Pascoe novel – my post to follow. I’m almost up-to-date with reviews of books I’ve read recently, just Exit Lines and Molly Fox’s Birthday by Deirdre Madden to do.

As usual when I’ve finished one book I’m not sure what to read next. I’m still reading Eden’s Outcasts: the story of  Louisa May Alcott and Her Father and have yet to get going again on The Matchmaker of Kenmare by Frank Delaney, but I fancy reading something different.

I go to a face-to-face book group and the next book we’ll be discussing is Climbing the Bookshelves by Shirley Williams. I think I’ll start reading it soon. I know very little about her, other than the bare facts that she was a member of the Labour party for years before becoming one of the founders of the Social Democratic Party, one of the ‘Gang of Four’. I particularly like the title of this autobiography, which came about as she and her brother liked challenges; one challenge being her

parents’ bookcases which ran from floor to ceiling like climbing-frames, with the added zest of forbidden books on the top shelf. Soon after I could read, I sneaked Havelock Ellis and Marie Stopes from that top shelf. I had learned from my brother that these were naughty books. They turned out to be very boring, but I was amazed by one illustration, a blurred spot underneath which was written: ‘This photograph of a human egg is several times life-size’. (page 3)

Although we’re not meeting until the last week in April I think I’d better start reading this soon as autobiographies/biographies take me longer to read than novels.

But I’d like to fit in something else as well. I have now built up quite a lot of books and samples on my Kindle and having watched some of the My Life in Books programmes last week I’m quite keen to read some of the books mentioned – such as Black Beauty, Crime and Punishment, The Moonstone, Treasure Island and Nicholas Nickleby, all of which I have at my fingertips. As usual, my wishes run away with me – so many books and not enough time to read all of them. And my reading time has been reduced recently as I have started to go to an art group. Painting, even though I’m terrible at it or maybe because I’m so inexperienced and lacking in talent, is just as time-consuming as reading – but it is so very enjoyable.