Two books about reactions to literature today (shoehorns books together into one review). I can’t believe it’s 11 June and I’ve only got two to review, although I am part-way through another. I made heavy going of one of these, though, I have to say. Although quite a few people I know enjoyed Rebecca Mead’s book, it left me a little cold. However, the Robertson Davies was a delight, AND it gave me my 44th Reading a Century book – nearly half way!).
Robertson Davies – “Tempest Tost”
(20 September 2014 – charity shop)
I’ve been reading and enjoying the works of this Canadian author since the 1990s – I had a single copy of this novel which I acquired in 1997, for example. Most of his novels fall into trilogies, and I have unfortunately patchy cover of the trilogies, owning just one or two of each one, hence picking up this lovely omnibus last year. I highly recommend him to anyone who likes involved novels about communities with great characterisation and a slight wicked streak (oh – I’ve just remembered I used to add a “Will appeal to people who …” line to my reviews – when did I stop doing that? Did you like it?).
Anyway, this novel is set in the city of Salterton, which outsiders think is quaint and insiders think is quite normal. We follow the members of the Salterton Little Theatre as they attempt to put on a production of “The Tempest”, with prodigal son, Solly, put upon terribly by his invalid mother, Hector the middle-aged maths teacher who suddenly acquires a desire to act and professional womaniser Roger vying for the hand of the rather static and uncaring Griselda, playing Ariel mainly because her father has been forced to lend his gardens for the affair. Griselda’s sister, Freddy, steals the show with her over-seriousness and wine-making – when she opens the novel, you know it’s going to be a good one.
All of the characters in what is very much an ensemble piece are beautifully drawn, from the gardener, Tom, with his difficult surname and desire NOT to have his lawn dug up, thank you, to the dotty elderly lady who’s always “done” the stage makeup and needs to be prevented from doing any more damage. We switch viewpoints and allegiances as Davies digs into people’s characters and their formation, providing detailed or sketchy back stories as he sees fit.
It’s so beautifully observed and can be deliciously waspish, for example when a hostess provides an ice cream dish injected with creme de menthe, “as if with venom”. But Davies essentially has a humane and kind world-view which reminds one of George Eliot or Anthony Trollope (in fact, he’s described as a latter-day Trollope on the back of this edition, and one character enjoys reading AT!)
You’ll like this if … You like being involved in the world of a novel, a world rich and peopled with characters amusing and tragic and appealing and unappealing. You like reading novels.
Rebecca Mead – “The Road to Middlemarch”
(ebook, 31 December 2014)
I don’t mind books that relate an writer’s life and works, and I like ones where the author follows in a writer’s footsteps, visits their haunts and houses, etc. However, this intensely personal book about the author’s relationship with “Middlemarch” went a bit too far for me, I’m afraid.
The book follows the progress of the novel “Middlemarch” rather than Eliot’s life, which makes for some odd sequencing in that life, as she flits from death and reputation to times by the seaside, etc. The author also relates many of Eliot’s life experiences to her own, especially relationships with all of her boyfriends and then husband, and also claims that as well as the book giving her life lessons, her life teaches her to read the book in different ways, for example finding hints of Eliot’s life with her stepsons in a novel with none of these relationships. I feel that she weaves her life and the book together a bit too much – and that’s coming from someone who’s read the book several times and has indeed found it’s different in different stages of my own life (I used to think it was about love and marriage, now I think it’s about inheritance and politics, as I mentioned last time I reviewed it).
There was also far too much conjecture for me – in one passage, Mead manages to invent three things that Eliot and her dining companions “might” have talked about, based on stuff that was going on at the time and things Eliot said about vaguely related subjects at other times in her life. I found this a bit much, and would have rather she stuck to the facts and known conversations.
Mead lets slip that she did English Lit at Oxford at a time when Critical Theory was all the rage, and although she rather self-consciously “took to” it then, she seems to have eschewed it here, talking about readers making books in their own image and that image changing with time (fine), but relating herself and her experiences to her idea of the author and book rather than a close reading of either.
There is good material in here on other people’s reactions to Eliot, but I would have preferred a straighter biography. I started thinking that I can’t be the audience for this book – but as a mid-40s English graduate with a strong liking for “Middlemarch”, I rather suspect that I am. I’m glad I bought this when it was on sale, I’m afraid.
You’ll like this if … Hm … you have a high tolerance for loads of personal stuff and conjecture or you’re so obsessed with Eliot and “Middlemarch” that you’ll read everything about them.
I’m currently reading Leonard Woolf’s “The Wise Virgins” but I haven’t got far enough into it to know much about it yet. It’s a Persephone and an attractive read so far. I also Came To A Decision and removed “Sociology Through Literature” and “Practical Criticism” from the TBR – they are going to live with my (OK, unread) tomes on bibliography that I acquired from the university library when it was weeding that section. I’m just not going to read them, although “The Act of Reading” I will read, as it’s a good source for my research.
I have acquired a pile of Debbie Macomber novels from my dear friend Linda, however some of them are returnees, and two need a first one bought before I can read them – basically, I haven’t sorted them out or photographed them.
Do you cull your TBR regularly? How’s your summer reading going?