Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

Ivy Compton-Burnett’s life “takes on the contours of a fully orchestrated Iris Murdoch novel…”

Iris Murdoch

Reviewing The Life of Ivy Compton-Burnett by Hilary Spurling, Joyce Carol Oates writes:

Since her subject left virtually no record of her life, it is natural that Ivy Compton-Burnett’s biographer look to numerous other sources. By degrees, after hundreds of pages of eyewitness reports, an appealing portrait emerges of a woman who is both fiercely secretive, yet ”public”; aloof, proud, possessed of a frequently malicious wit, yet often girlish and mischievous; wholly predictable in the habits and patterns of her life, yet wholly unpredictable in its particulars. As her life unfolds it takes on the contours of a fully orchestrated Iris Murdoch novel and by no means the attenuated quality of a novel by Compton-Burnett; and there is a delightful whiff of Barbara Pym too, surely, in the spectacle of the much-revered literary sibyl who astonished admirers by eating ”like a horse,” devouring half a pot of raspberry jam by herself and ”surreptitiously wiping her sticky fingers” on the cover of her host’s sofa, and, upon numerous occasions, greatly embarrassing dinner guests at formal dinners by groping about in her bloomers beneath the table – in search of her handkerchief, which she usually carried in that very practical place.

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Ivy Compton-Burnett’s novels “are written to formula yet unfailingly inventive within the confines of the genre”

Ivy Compton-Burnett

Reviewing The Life of Ivy Compton-Burnett by Hilary Spurling, Joyce Carol Oates writes:

Ivy Compton-Burnett’s books will strike most American readers as quintessentially English: spare, decorticated, tightly constructed drawing-room comedies in which everyone (3-year-olds, 90-year-olds, butlers, governesses) speaks in finely honed language. They are unrelievedly arch, even campy, contrived dramas of domestic life in a fantasy England, circa 1885-1901, of country estates, down-at-the-heels gentility, family tyrants and hapless scheming victims enmeshed in plots of mock-tragic resonance – Aeschylus and Sophocles funnily reinvented by Oscar Wilde, perhaps. Informed too by a genial cynicism – antireligious, anti-”family” – reminiscent of Samuel Butler, whose ”Note-Books” made a powerful impression on Ivy in 1918, the novels are written to formula yet unfailingly inventive within the confines of the genre. They exhibit their kinship with one another openly, being given markedly similar titles – among them ”Pastors and Masters” (1925), ”Brothers and Sisters” (1929), ”Men and Wives” (1931), ”Daughters and Sons” (1937), ”Parents and Children” (1941), ”Darkness and Day” (1950), ”The Present and the Past” (1953), ”Mother and Son” (1955), ”A Father and His Fate” (1957).

What Katherine Paterson Thinks We Can Learn From Cuba

Holly Beretto writes:

Katherine Paterson evokes fangirl and fanboyism. It’s as simple as that. Her writing takes you immediately back to childhood when you devoured her iconic novels and felt you weren’t the only one who was just a wee bit different, trying to make your way in the world.

Now 85, the two-time National Book Award winner (who also claims a Newbery Medal), just completed her 18th novel, My Brigadista Year, about a young Cuban girl named Lora from Havana, who spends a year in the mountains of her country, teaching families to read. The novel is based on a real initiative devised by Fidel Castro to eradicate illiteracy. Paterson will make a Houston pit stop for a reading of the novel, part of the Cool Brains! Inprint Readings for Young People series, on Sunday, Nov. 12.

Her sophisticated yet approachable style of writing has made Paterson a staple of children’s literature since the publication of her first children’s novel, The Sign of the Chrysanthemum, in 1973. A writer of contemporary and historical fiction, Paterson says she’s never been one for writing sequels, which might be part of why each of her books hits a unique note.

“I think every story has a special way to be told,” she says. “I try to listen to the story and see how that might be. This is Lora’s story, and I’m a little surprised when people tell me, ‘You know just how I’m feeling [when I read what the characters go through.]’ I just turned 85; it’s a miracle I can connect.”

Paterson’s latest work draws from a period she didn’t know very much about. She had traveled to Cuba once and had fallen in love with the landscape and the Cuban friendliness. But when she told her friend Mary Leahy (sister of Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy), who had been the director of Central Vermont Adult Basic Education, she learned about Castro’s 1960s campaign to eradicate illiteracy. To do so, an army of volunteers fanned out across the island nation, spending a year teaching reading and writing. In return, they were offered free schooling, both at the high school and university level. The idea captured Paterson’s imagination and her research led her to her latest novel.

“I would lie down and die if I couldn’t read,” she says, so the idea that a nation’s leader would embrace such a high ideal was a thread too good to pass up.

She’s quick to point out that the book, which takes place in 1961, amid the backdrop of the end of the Cuban revolution and the Bay of Pigs fiasco, doesn’t embrace the country’s communist sympathies. Instead, she sees the swirl of history as a natural place for the drama of this coming of age story to unfold.

“We don’t always like to hear good things about our enemies,” she says. “But I think the world would be a better place if we did.”

As for what’s next, she’s not entirely sure she’ll write something else. After all, she was pretty sure she was done writing before this story came along.

“But as I wrote Lora’s story, I realized I’d forgotten how much I love to write, and what a joy it was,” she says. “So, this book was a gift even before it was published.”

“Ivy Compton-Burnett’s books will strike most American readers as quintessentially English…”: Joyce Carol Oates

Ivy Compton-Burnett

Reviewing The Life of Ivy Compton-Burnett by Hilary Spurling, Joyce Carol Oates writes:

By the time Ivy Compton-Burnett came to be spoken of as ”the English Secret,” she had acquired a reputation as one of the most original writers of her time. Author of a series of highly stylized, idiosyncratic novels that are primarily dialogues – there were to be 19 in all, in addition to an early (and later repudiated) novel published in 1911 – Compton-Burnett was compared favorably to Jane Austen, Congreve, Aeschylus, Faulkner, Hemingway, and even Picasso. The book critic Cyril Connolly predicted that she would be the only contemporary writer to outlive the century; Raymond Mortimer, who as a young man reviewed her in Vogue early in her career, repeatedly praised her as a genius, ”the single most powerful force at work in the English novel in the generation following James Joyce and Virginia Woolf.” And her work became the curious frame around which the French novelist Nathalie Sarraute erected her own theory of the nouveau roman , though it is unlikely that Ivy Compton-Burnett, with her conservative standards, would have admired Miss Sarraute’s own fiction.

Her books were never best sellers – postwar sales figures held steady at about 7,000 copies for each new novel – but she was consistently lauded by such disparate fellow writers as Graham Greene, Elizabeth Bowen, Mario Praz, V. S. Pritchett, Vita Sackville- West, and Rosamond Lehmann. Pamela Hansford Johnson spoke of her as a writer ”either to be left alone or made into an addiction” – a judgment with which many readers might concur. It is a measure of Compton-Burnett’s strong presence in England that a number Joyce Carol Oates is the author of ”Last Days,” a story collection, and the forthcoming novel ”Solstice.” of well-known younger writers – among them Muriel Spark, Iris Murdoch, and Henry Green – so clearly descend from her.

Ivy Compton-Burnett’s books will strike most American readers as quintessentially English: spare, decorticated, tightly constructed drawing-room comedies in which everyone (3-year-olds, 90-year-olds, butlers, governesses) speaks in finely honed language. They are unrelievedly arch, even campy, contrived dramas of domestic life in a fantasy England, circa 1885-1901, of country estates, down-at-the-heels gentility, family tyrants and hapless scheming victims enmeshed in plots of mock-tragic resonance – Aeschylus and Sophocles funnily reinvented by Oscar Wilde, perhaps. Informed too by a genial cynicism – antireligious, anti-”family” – reminiscent of Samuel Butler, whose ”Note-Books” made a powerful impression on Ivy in 1918, the novels are written to formula yet unfailingly inventive within the confines of the genre. They exhibit their kinship with one another openly, being given markedly similar titles – among them ”Pastors and Masters” (1925), ”Brothers and Sisters” (1929), ”Men and Wives” (1931), ”Daughters and Sons” (1937), ”Parents and Children” (1941), ”Darkness and Day” (1950), ”The Present and the Past” (1953), ”Mother and Son” (1955), ”A Father and His Fate” (1957).

Martin Amis “is wedded to what he considers Romantic virtues: warmth, plenitude, levity, demotic command…”

Martin Amis

Reviewing “The Rub of Time: Bellow, Nabokov, Hitchens, Travolta, Trump and Other Pieces, 1986-2016” by Martin Amis, Leo Robson writes in The New Statesman:

In reality – that distant land – Eliot represents everything Amis dislikes: religious piety, modernist difficulty, analytic rigour, and, clearing the way for these, the critical assault on Romanticism; an exercise in canon-maintenance pursued more systematically by Amis’s bête noire, the irritable Cambridge don FR Leavis. If you studied at Downing College – or one or two other places – between about 1930 and 1965, chances are you would end up a Leavis disciple, with what Amis once called the Leavisite’s “pitifully denuded bookcase” (no Milton, no Shelley, and so on). But Amis studied at Oxford, where he was taught by Jonathan Wordsworth, a collateral descendant and prominent scholar of the poet, and took seminars with the key figure in the Romantic Revival, Northrop Frye – characterised further down page x as “a literary philosopher-king to whom I owe fealty”.

 In consequence, though the Amisian bookcase is marginally fuller, the omissions are similarly stark. His pantheon isn’t exclusively Romantic – that would be deranged – but he is wedded to what he considers Romantic virtues: warmth, plenitude, levity, demotic command, “sublime energy” (the book’s final words), and a hearty lust for life. The essays on writing that constitute the bulk of the collection include plausible acts of tribute to Jane Austen, Christopher Hitchens, and Iris Murdoch. Now and again, you scratch your head as Amis tries to fit his taste to his criteria. An obituary of JG Ballard ends on a note (“a man who loved life with such force”) that will befuddle readers not just of Ballard’s fiction but of all the words that come before it.