A bit of a mixed bag for the first reviews of December. Well, the Hardy was my last book of November’s rather pathetic five, actually, but never mind. Two books from reading challenges I’m doing (the last one in the Elizabeth Taylor centenary year series and over half way through the works of Hardy now) and almost the last of my buys from my January spree in Stratford (only Tony Blair to go out of those, I think now …).

Thomas Hardy – The Laodicean

(Kindle)

Read on the Kindle for Ali’s Hardy challenge, which was a little annoying as I didn’t know where I was up to in the book, it being part of a collection. Anyway, a very enjoyable read that I would not have looked at were it not for the Hardy challenge, so thanks for that, Ali!

This was somewhat of a departure from his other books, literally, in the fact that a chunk of the action takes place around Italy and Germany in a chase around Europe that is frustrating and almost comical for all concerned, including the reader. Modern heiress, Paula Power, daughter of an engineer, must choose between a scion of the local aristocrats, fallen on hard times, whose ancestral castle she has indeed bought, or a more modern hero. She’s a typical changeable, capricious Hardy heroine, and our hero is confused and dazzled by her. Hardy is rightly celebrated as a describer of landscape and the rural worker, but surely there is no one better at portraying a young man over-thinking the vacillations of a lady.

George Somerset is nicely portrayed as he tries to build up his career:

“Somerset began to feel more professional, what with the business chair and the table and the writing-paper.”

and I loved this description of De Stancy’s suppression of one aspect of his character:

“By this habit, maintained with fair success, a chamber of his nature had been preserved intact during many later years, like the one solitary sealed-up cell occasionally retained by bees in a lobe of drained honey-comb.”

as well as a lovely encapsulation of the architect’s mind when confronted with a scene that delights and interests him:

“It was a street for a mediaevalist to revel in, toss up his hat and shout hurrah in, send for his luggage, come and live in, die and be buried in. She had never supposed such a street to exist outside the imaginations of antiquarians.”

One last quotation, almost unbearably poignant, in this lovely book out of which I got a lot of reading pleasure:

“The tower clock kept manfully going till it had struck one, its face smiling out from the smoke as if nothing were the matter, after which hour something fell down inside, and it went no more.”

Elizabeth Taylor – “Blaming”

(28 November 2012)

Gosh, I really didn’t have all of Taylor’s novels … but I do now! This was the last of her novels, written a little before her death and published posthumously. It’s elegiac because of that, and because of the subject matter, although amusing and hopeful too, in a way, with the younger generation coming through proud and strong with some marvellous young grand-daughters portrayed.

When Amy’s husband, artist Nick, dies on holiday in Istanbul, the rather flaky and too-modern Martha takes charge, and a complicated relationship based on beholden-ness is established. It’s an uncompromising look at marriage, family and blame, but the social milieu of the novel allows for the rather charming Ernie Pounce, a live-in servant with a penchant for chatting up lady wrestlers and a doctor who makes rather too familiar house calls. Martha reminds me of one of Iris Murdoch’s rather grubby bohemians and the portrayal of her – apparently from life – is a little merciless. But it’s a good read, if short, and the portrayal of young Imogen and Dora masterful. Classic Elizabeth Taylor: perhaps not the best of hers to read first, but deeply satisfying as a close to the year of reading her novels.

Kenneth O. Morgan – “Michael Foot: A Life”

(26 January 2012)

A masterful and excellent biography, properly researched, astoundingly well-written and fascinating throughout. Particularly good on his relationships with Nye Bevan, including their falling-out,, and on Foot’s biographies of Nye, which I very much enjoyed reading last year, and Tony Benn, and meticulous at tying him in with contemporary Labour thought and figures, contemporary occupying a long tranche of Labour and British political history, of course. The author chooses to ignore some of the “revelations” which came out of a recent biography of Foot’s wife, Jill Craigie, which was interesting, and I’d kind of like to know why. But even though political biographies, even the best, can waver into the dull zone at times, this was anything but. Hours on the exercise bike whizzed by as I immersed myself in it, and I was sad to finish it. It even mentioned Iris Murdoch, very briefly, as a member of the Communist Party.

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Currently reading: I’ve moved on to the next Hardy, which I should finish this month, the rather enticing “Two on a Tower”, and carrying on with the Michael Muhammad Knight, which is rewarding but fairly hard work …