Friday, March 07, 2014
My Sunday mornings are filled with the dawn sky, a cup of tea, the sounds of birds at the feeders, and The New York Times Book Review. The first feature in the review I look for is “By the Book” – usually an interview with an author who has a new book or won a prize. Recently, the column featured Alice Hoffman. The most interesting question in this series is the interviewees “favorite overlooked or under-appreciated writer.” Hoffman mentioned Penelope Lively, so I decided to read Moon Tiger, Lively’s 1987 Man Booker Prize-winning novel.
According to her website, Penelope was born in Cairo, Egypt. She came to England at the age of twelve and went to boarding school in Sussex. She subsequently read Modern History at St. Anne's College, Oxford. Lively now has six grandchildren and lives in London. She has written 20 novels along with several works of non-fiction and a whole shelf of children’s books.
Moon Tiger is the story of Claudia Hampton, who lies in a bed and passes in and out of consciousness. She has written historical works and decides she will write a history of the world. The novel alternates between lucid moments, plans for the history, and remembering her visits to those places. When doctors, nurses, her daughter, Lisa, or her sister-in-law, Sylvia, stop by for visits, she chats a bit but then falls asleep. She delineates the chapters of her book, but she always slides toward recalling visits to those places while a correspondent during World War II. Interestingly enough, these “out-of-consciousness” moments shift between first and third person accounts. The “History of the World” slowly devolves into a “History of Claudia.”
I found these changes in point of view a bit disconcerting at first, but once I became accustomed to them, the novel carried me along to Egypt. From that point on, I could hardly put it down.
Claudia has some disdain for Sylvia. Lively writes, “She has given little trouble. She has devoted herself to children and houses. A nice, old-fashioned girl, Mother called her, at their third meeting, seeing quite correctly through the superficial disguise of pink fingernails, swirling New Look skirts and a cloud of Mitsouko cologne spray. There was a proper wedding, which Mother loved, with arum lilies, little bridesmaids and a marquee on the lawn of Sylvia’s parents’ home at Farnham. I declined to be matron of honour and Gordon got rather drunk at the reception. They spent their honeymoon in Spain and Sylvia settled down to live, as she thought, happily ever after in North Oxford” (23). I detected a note of jealousy, because Claudia and Gordon were rather close.
I first read this book nearly 30 years ago when first published in paperback. The story has not aged and still enthralls. Two young American graduate students sell everything they own to purchase a round-trip ticket to South Africa. They board the plane with about $6,000, and buy train tickets in Johannesburg for Gaberone, Botswana. Arriving there, they burn through quite a bit of their money waiting for permits to study the wildlife on a game preserve. A few months later, they buy what supplies they can, including a beat up Land Rover, and set off for the Kalahari Desert with the idea of finding some unstudied animal life. No experience in the desert and nothing more to guide them than their love and enthusiasm for wildlife speak of tremendous courage and dedication.
Cry of the Kalahari is the story of Mark and Delia Owens' years in Africa. When their adventure began, in the middle 70s, they had great respect for the animals and the environment. They carefully observed lions, leopards, jackals, and brown hyenas, along with the myriad ungulates, birds, rodents, reptiles, and insects, while trying not to intrude or disturb them in the least.
The area of the desert they chose had never been visited by humans. They made friends with lions and much of the other wild life they encountered. At first, surrounded by a pride of curious lions, Mark and Delia, seem scared but calm. Gradually, the lions accepted them as part of the landscape. Numerous photos depict the close contact between the Owens and the big cats, as well as hyenas, which became the principal focus of their work.
|Mark and Delia Owens|
The couple shared the writing of the book, and the chapters written by Delia display a somewhat more technical style, while those by Mark are more concerned with observing the landscape, the wild life, and the climate.
Today the couple runs the Owens Foundation for Wildlife Conservation based in Stone Mountain, GA. Their website is http://www.owens-foundation.org/ . Donations are welcome. Their story is also the struggle for preservation of the predators of the Kalahari, as well as a constant struggle for funding to continue their work.
If you love animals, adventure, courage, with funny moments mixed in, Mark and Delia Owens' Cry of the Kalahari is a must-read. Five stars.
I have frequently written about my fondness for the Tudor Dynasty, which lasted from 1485 to 1603. The period featured scads of colorful and interesting characters, drama, espionage, treachery, love, hate, corruption, and nearly any other positive or negative activity from tennis to mass executions one can imagine.
Anna Whitelock’s recently published volume, The Queen’s Bed: An Intimate History of Elizabeth [I]’s Court peers into the most closely guarded secrets of the Court of the Virgin Queen. These secrets involve the women closest to her. This platoon of servants were with her from dawn to dusk; from the moment she opened her eyes in the morning through her several-hour ordeal of dressing, primping, and applying makeup, until she is disassembled and readied for a night’s sleep. The most favored women share her bed chamber through the night, and sometimes even her bed.
Rumors of scandals quickly began swirling around Elizabeth almost from the moment she received the crown of England. The rumors largely revolved around her single status. Whitelock’s meticulously researched and documented work stuns the reader with its depth and breadth of detail. Eight pages of color pictures – including well-known portraits of Elizabeth and those of her Ladies-in-Waiting and Maids of the Chamber -- are a treasure trove of insights into one of the most powerful women in history.
Among a series of epigrams, Whitelock quotes the queen, “We princes, I tell you, are set on stages in the sight and view of all the world duly observed; the eyes of many behold our actions, a spot is soon spied in our garments; a blemish noted quickly in our doings.” This was in the days long before cameras, paparazzi, and gossip columns.
Whitelock writes, “The Queen’s Bedchamber was at once a private and public space. The Queen’s body was more than its fleshly parts; her body natural represented the body politic, the very state itself. The health and sanctity of Elizabeth’s body determined the strength and stability of the realm” (8). As pressure grew on England from without – the excommunication by the pope, plots by her cousin Mary, Queen of Scots, and Spanish supporters of Mary I, her deceased half-sister, and from within that she should marry and produce an heir, Elizabeth maintained her kingdom. William Cecil, Lord Burghley, her most trusted advisor said, “The state of this crown depends only on the breath of one person, our sovereign lady.”
We also learn some astounding statistics. “The court [included] more than a thousand servants and attendants, ranging from brewers and bakers, cooks, tailors and stable hands to courtiers and ambassadors” (17). Whitelock notes, when Elizabeth moved between her homes, three hundred carts of personal possessions moved with her (17). 146 yeoman of the Guard accompanied the queen wherever she happened to be (18).
Anna Whitelock’s, The Queen’s Bed, provides endless fascination for readers of history and biography of significant women on the world’s stage. 5 stars
Sunday, February 16, 2014
Recently, I mentioned my interest in nineteenth century women writers including George Eliot. Her greatest work is Middlemarch, the quintessential novel of the nineteenth century. While reading the book for that review, I came across a book about Eliot’s wonderful tale of life in the fictional town of Middlemarch, something like Coventry, England.
Rebecca Mead is a staff writer for my favorite magazine, The New Yorker. Eliot’s novel profoundly influenced her love of reading, and, while she admits to slacking off on the amount of books she reads, she still has a special, intimate corner of her mind firmly fixed in Middlemarch. My Life in Middlemarch examines the qualities of the novel which make it the great piece of literature it has become. I remember the first time I read this novel, and I immediately became awestruck by the power of the prose, the meticulous detail, and the close bond I developed with the characters. Middlemarch grabbed me by the lapels, dragged me into the nineteenth century, and introduced me to all the residents there – Jane Austen, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë, Elizabeth Gaskell, and, of course, George Eliot.
Born Mary Ann Evans to Robert Evans, the manager of the Arbury Hall Estate for the Newdigate family in Warwickshire, in 1818. She lived a rather unconventional lifestyle for the nineteenth century, and adopted a male pseudonym. She wanted her fiction to be taken seriously and separate herself from most female writers of the century know for light comedies. She also wanted to shield herself from criticism because of a long-standing affair she carried on with the married George Henry Lewes, whom she met in 1851. They began living together in 1854 until his death in 1878. While many Victorians carried on affairs, Eliot and Lewes scandalized the world because of their open admission. They considered themselves married for the rest of their lives. She died in 1880.
Mead focuses on the effect the novel had on her from her first encounter with Eliot at age 17. She quotes extensively from the novel, letters, and contemporary reviews and comments by those who knew George. She also explains her philosophy of books, writing, and reading. Mead writes, “Reading is sometimes thought of a s a form of escapism, and it’s a common turn of phrase to speak of getting lost in a book. But a book can also be where one finds oneself; and when a reader is grasped and held by a book, reading 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 just as much as we understand them, or even more. There are books that grow with the reader as the reader grows, like a graft on a tree” (16). Rebecca mead and I have a lot in common!
One frequent source for Mead is Virginia Woolf. Rebecca writes, “the early works, Scenes of Clerical Life, Adam Bede, and The Mill on the Floss, … seem drawn from Eliot’s own rural experience and are peopled with characters so true to life that readers forget they are fictional” (45). She then quotes, Woolf, “‘We move among them, now bored, now sympathetic, but always with that unquestioning acceptance of all that they say and do, which we accord to the great orginals only. We scarcely wish to analyse [sic] what we feel to be so large and deeply human’” (45-46).
I haven’t read Middlemarch in quite a few years, but I will get back to it soon. If you haven’t read it, Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch will surely whet you appetite for one of the most noted authors of the nineteenth century. 5 platinum stars.
When I first attended grad school at Baylor University, I felt pretty certain my area of research would focus on 19th century women writers – Austen, the Brontës, Gaskill, and Eliot. However the influence of time, tides, and professors I admired, shifted my vision towards other vistas. Nevertheless, I still have a great affection for these marvelous story tellers.
Margaret Drabble holds an exalted place in this coterie of British Women novelists. She has written 16 novels, a collection of stories, biographies of Angus Wilson and Arnold Bennett, as well as the role of editor for the 5th and 6th editions The Oxford Companion to English Literature. The dust jacket of her 17th novel informs me that for her contributions to English Literature, the Queen named her a Dame of the British Empire in 2008. Her sister is the Book-Prize winning author of Possession, A.S. Byatt.
Drabble is one of those writers who causes me to pounce on the latest novel. The Pure Gold Baby did not disappoint. Nellie narrates the story years later. She is a friend of Jessie’s, a graduate student in anthropology, who finds herself pregnant after an ill-advised affair with one of her professors. She conceals the name of the father from all her friends, and decides to raise the child, Anna, on her own. At first, Anna seems perfect. The child has great beauty, pleasant and polite personality, and she always smiles. Anna anxiously tries to please not only her mother, but the circle of friends who enclose Jessie and Anna as a protective shield.
Drabble writes detailed descriptions, mixing the ordinary with the unusual, the everyday with the rare and wonderful. She writes: “Jess walked towards Enfield Lock and the canal and the River Lee, and then began to walk, thoughtfully, reflectively, receptively, along the tow path. Anna liked the water. Anna Jess thought, would like the water walkway. The lock was old and quiet, with a stationed narrow boat and a cluster of old buildings from another age – the dark-brick lock-keeper’s cottage with white fretted wooden gables, a row of tidy little houses, a pub called the Rifles. Jess sensed there was a historic arsenal connection here, as in Highbury, a military link, but the waterside this day was peaceful in the sun. The track was overgrown with elder and buddleia and nettles, with long greens and purples. Jess walked on and through a gate and over a wooden stile, and the water flowed strongly. She had left the placid canal bank and joined the path of the deep full river. A warning notice leaning rakishly on a rotting board told her the water was deep and dangerous. Small golden-winged birds flew in swift flurries in a light June breeze through tall willows and reeds. Dark dragon flies. blue-black, hovered and coupled over the rapidly moving surface.
I learn a lot from her novels. I find myself Googling images of stiles, buddleia, and dragon flies, along with a healthy scoop of unfamiliar words. I have 14 of her novels, and I am reminded the time has come to fill out my collection. The Pure Gold Baby shows Drabble is still at the height of her power as a novelist, and clearly deserves -- 5 stars.