Reading Notes

I haven’t done one of these for a while but I seem to have a lot of books to chat about and insufficient stamina to focus in depth on any one. We’ve had a week of snow here in the UK, most unusual for us, and that harsh, white light that it casts made me realize how grubby the house was. So this morning I set to, tidying and cleaning, and nearly destroyed myself sweeping the stairs with a brush because it’s easier in some respects than struggling to get the vacuum cleaner over them. This reminded me of my childhood, when my mother would sweep and clean the whole house daily in a routine that made going to the gym for a workout look like something only wimps and sissies did. As I sank, relieved, in front of the computer to write this post I realized that my mother has aged so well in part at least because she must be extraordinarily fit. Note to self: cleaning house has beneficial effects beyond the obvious, but thank goodness it’s over now.

Happily my arms still have residual strength enough to pick up a few books. I’m currently reading The Sister, a novel based on the life of Emily Dickenson by the Argentinian writer Paola Kaufmann. After all the dramatic books I seem to have been reading lately, this one is a quiet, gentle gem of a novel, narrated from the perspective of Dickenson’s younger sister, Lavinia. The attribution of the title hovers indeterminately between them – which sister is the focus of the narrative? – as Lavinia slowly unspools the thread of family life, each chapter adding another layer to the complex relationship that binds the women together and (at the moment at least) gradually charting Dickenson’s retreat into complete seclusion. I’m really enjoying this; it’s one of those books that slows you down as you read it and speaks in a language of restrained beauty. Nothing showy here, just the grip of an extraordinary life, recounted from up close with love and elegance. It’s published by the small independent, Alma Books, which has just a wonderful selection of contemporary books, mostly in translation. I’ll review it properly when I’m finished.

An altogether different beast is the popular non-fiction book by Malcolm Gladwell entitled Outliers that I finished last week. The reviewing delay shouldn’t be taken as an admission of lukewarm enthusiasm – I read it with great admiration. Gladwell seeks to take apart the well-worn myth of the highly successful individual as a self-made man, as someone who has come from nowhere, with nothing, and yet miraculously managed to alter the face of his profession. Alas, it is rather male-focused, if that bothers you, as the only successful woman he discusses is his own mother. But that’s probably not surprising once you realize the premise of the book is that successful people have an awful lot of advantages that may not be immediately apparent, but which stem from family background and the deeply inbred patterns of their cultures or race. For instance, he starts off with a story about Canadian ice hockey teams, who have, on the face of it, an egalitarian system for choosing the best players. Until someone suddenly realized that almost all the star players had birthdays in January, February or March. What was going on? Well, Gladwell explains that the cut-off date for applications to those early selection boards was January, and so the children who were born almost a year prior to that date were inevitably the biggest and strongest. This small advantage meant that those kids got to play more hockey and benefit from more coaching, and so when subsequent selections took place, they had an even greater advantage. It’s not that children with October birthdays can’t make the cut, not at all, nor is Gladwell suggesting that talent and hard work are irrelevant. But those early birthdays do make a difference. And if Canada had two selection dates for children, then the consequence may well be double the amount of good players available for the national squad.

The book is organized as a series of stories each designed to illustrate a factor buried deep in the foundations of outstanding success. But Gladwell’s interest is not so much individual – he isn’t selling a formula for readers interested in making it, exactly – as community-based. He explains how children from poor homes do less well in school, not because schools fail them, but because the long summer break puts them at a disadvantage when compared to middle and upper-class children, who spend their time at educational camps or at least benefiting from their parent’s bookcases and games cupboards. And he explains how the general sense of a lack of entitlement can really affect an adult’s ability to do well. Now a lot of these points when stated baldly do look obvious – you could figure several of them out for yourself. But the interest is in the way Gladwell spins his stories, and the engaging material he uses. This was another book that I really enjoyed; it is tremendously easy to read, very accessible, and its heart is in the right place. The newspaper reviews that I read were most sniffy. Almost without exception the reviewers huffed that a few stories were not enough basis on which to create a proper case, and what about exceptions? This, of course, completely misses the point that Gladwell spells out very clearly; he’s looking for trends that underlie success stories so that we might be able to make a few changes – in education, for instance – and level the playing field up a bit, offer more people the advantages they need to do well. But Gladwell is himself one of the most successful non-fiction writers around, and the kind of review that says ‘this book really ought to be a completely different sort of book, more to my idea of what a book like this should be’ is always the sound of someone sucking on sour grapes, I fear.

Finally, I’ve been reading up on the life of Tamara de Lempicke, one of the few famous women painters of the Modernist period. Her name probably won’t mean much to you, but if you click on this link, I’m sure you’ll recognize her work. She had an extraordinary life; exiled from Russia (although confusingly of Polish origin) due to the Bolshevik Revolution, she abandoned a life of luxury for a tiny apartment in Paris, her glamourous husband reduced to a wreck by the experience. Tamara de Lempicke was not a woman to say die and within one year she had transformed herself into a successful artist. Her motivations were money and fame (she declared she would paint until she made enough money to buy a diamond bracelet, and then keeping painting until she had an armful), but notoriety mostly sufficed. Tamara threw herself into the inter-war life of decadence and debauchery in the name of a good cause – her success as a beautiful, scandalous woman artist. But in reality, it suited her manic character to do so. Now what interests me in all of this is that she had a young daughter, Kizette, who was, on the face of it, neglected in the most heartless manner so that de Lempicke could put all her energies into her art. Kizette grew up dazzled and bewildered by her mother, spending at most rare holidays with her during which Tamara expressed love in the only way she knew, by painting her portrait. Kizette was mostly left to the care of her grandmother, and then a succession of boarding schools. You could say that this is a classic tale of the kind of sacrifices that women artists who had children were obliged to make, but as is always the way, the story is far more complex than that. At the moment I’m feeling I’d quite like to write about her. We’ll see how it goes. We are forecast yet more snow on the weekend, so I’m really looking forward to a quiet, cozy couple of days at home. I’ve cleaned the house and stocked up on food, and am contemplating reading Barbara Vine, Marilyn French and/or Lorna Sage’s memoir, Bad Blood, once these books are finished.

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20 thoughts on “Reading Notes

  1. The Gladwell book sounds quite interesting, and I imagine it was a useful tie-in to your earlier thoughts about (and objections to) the blindness of social Darwinism.

    The myth of the self-made man is indeed a myth in most cases. In a way, I can see why successful women wouldn’t be included in a book such as that … the successful woman is dealing with an entire meta-structure of obstacles that “self-made” men don’t face, so in a way, it wouldn’t be equitable to put successful women under the same lens. Their journey is much more difficult.

  2. I hadn’t heard of the artist. Thanks–and I look forward to you writing more about her. Regarding her being of Polish origin, Poland was partitioned into 3 parts at the end of the 18th c: one part was under Prussian rule, one under Russian rule, and the 3rd under the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In the Russian part, kids were taught in Russian and teaching Polish literacy was illegal and severely punished. Poland became independent at the end of WWI. But the boundaries were not the same as in pre-partitioned Poland. The history gets even more complicated because there were Polish gentry in the Ukraine, when the Ukraine was part of Poland (back in the day) and the Ukraine was claimed by the Soviet Union as part of greater Russia. So it isn’t surprising that she had that history.

    I think an important point of Gladwell’s work is that small changes (and perhaps big ones) can give more people a chance to shine. In the winner-take-all mentality of American Idol and so on, that just means more competition. But there is a completely different way to see things: that society benefits the more talented people have the chance to express their talents.

  3. I love the sound of the Dickinson book! I can imagine you settling down to it after your flurry of housekeeping. I am a big fan of the literate and smart Malcolm Gladwell also — there was a terrifically inspiring piece in the New Yorker last year all about late bloomers that was a delight to read. Thanks for the glimpse into your current reading. xo

  4. I’ve been wondering how you’ve been doing there with the snow. The only thing snow inspires me to do in terms of house cleaning is wash the windows but it is too cold to do that because the vinegar freezes on the panes. So I wait until summer but by then I have spent so long not noticing that I don’t notice again until winter.

    The books you are reading sound interesting and I can’t wait to read a long review of The Sister and the Lemicke book.

  5. David – I don’t know whether this happens to you, but sometimes when I start to read about something (or someone) it turns up all over the place. You’re right this has interesting links with Darwinism, but I’m also reading a history of childcare that shows how the science of childcare itself was one of the first consequences of Darwinism. Darwin wrote an account of his child’s early life in a scientific journal, others hastened to do the same, and the thought that evolution might be controllable within a generation’s time frame did the rest. The result was a generation of neurotic children, with the adults blissfully unaware that being continually watched, observed and measured was not in fact good for them. As for what you say about women, ‘an entire meta-structure of obstacles’ is a perfect way to describe it.

    Lilian – thank you for that useful information about Poland. The biography goes into this in part, but only the parts that are relevent to de Lempicke’s family. Her father was Russian, but Jewish, which at that time meant he needed a permit to even live in Moscow. I found that chilling, too. And yes, re Gladwell, success breeds success, which is fine, but could be done much better.

    Bloglily – how nice to see you! I think you would like the book about Dickenson – it has an understated elegance that makes me think of you. :) And I would love to read Gladwell in his New Yorker incarnations. All my favourite non-fiction writers write for the New Yorker – I ought to just go through their contributor list, I think!

    Stefanie – lol! Windows are the worst to clean. I like your strategy. Review of The Sister certainly coming up, but Lempicke might end up much longer, perhaps another separate chapter thing. But it might all fall apart when I try to actually write it. :)

  6. The result was a generation of neurotic children, with the adults blissfully unaware that being continually watched, observed and measured was not in fact good for them.

    That’s interesting … my current therapist blames part of my complex brand of nuttiness on the fact that I was the child development research project of two Ph. D candidates who happened to work at the preschool I was attending. They were always playing “games” with me which I now recognize to have been targeted at trying to understand what was going on with my cognitive development, but which certainly separated me from the other kids.

    Living in a fishbowl is a weird thing, even when you’re too little to really know what’s going on.

  7. David – interesting indeed, but oh my, being under constant surveillance is particularly weird for the child who doesn’t know what’s going on. You have my full sympathy.

  8. I’m curious what you’ll think of The Glass Castle after hearing your thoughts about de Lempicke; the mother in Jeannette Walls’s book finds some, oh, let’s say some worrisome ways of pursuing her art … I get a little irritated with people who criticize Gladwell. Okay, maybe he’s mainly a popularizer of ideas rather than a great original thinker, but my God, he can write well, and he’s really interesting, and he makes a lot of people think about things in a different way. I think that’s really great.

  9. All right, given my #2 of things I know, I’m going to be restrained and only pick one to add to my Goodreads to read shelf. Probably very unfairly, I’m annoyed by Malcolm Gladwell (although you DO make this book sound interesting), so I’ll eliminate that one. The other two both sound fantastic, but since I love Emily Dickinson so much, and I like the idea of supporting that publisher, I think that one it will have to be.

  10. I hadn’t heard of the artist but thank you for linking the picture. Her work seems familiar somehow and her life sounds fascinating. It’s interesting that she set out to paint and was motivated by fame and money and not so much because she had something to say – or maybe that’s just what I’m picking up. and, thank you for the link to Alma Books – I’m going to be checking that one out!

  11. The Sister sounds like exactly the kind of book I want to add to my list this year. I know very, very little about Emily Dickinson and have wanted to get to know both her poetry and her life for some time now.

    And my brother-in-law was reading Outliers over the Christmas holiday and I snuck a peek at chapter One and decided I needed to get a copy myself – looks very interesting.

  12. I like the way that even after an exhausting cleaning session, you still have the energy to read about three books at the same time. Look forward to hearing more about the Dickenson one and the Gladwell sounds fascinating. I’m all for analyses that put more emphasis on social context than individual brilliance.

  13. Dorothy – I’m reading The Glass Castle at the moment and it is an amazing book. I’ll review it soon, I’m sure (as I can’t put it down). And I agree completely about Gladwell – he is so interesting and accessible. However can reviewers object to that?

    Emily – one is more than I could ask for. ;) I am sure you would enjoy the Dickenson book – it is gentle and sort of ghostly and beautifully written. And I’m all for supporting the small publishers in this climate.

    iliana – de Lempicke was a portrait painter, so the most commercial end of the serious market. She was quite unlike anyone else, stylistically, but her artistic vision was powered by pragmatism, much like all her life decisions were. So she’s a really funny mix of artistry and graspingness. I’m not sure I’ve figured it out myself. :) I’m really interested in what you think of any Alma Books that intrigue you – I always enjoy your reviews.

    Verbivore – yes, I can see The Sister would suit your reading interests well. And Outliers is just plain compelling. I’m glad someone else checks out everyone else’s Christmas books too! :)

    Pete – my husband gauges my illnesses by how much I can read, and he only ever worries if I stop reading altogether! The Gladwell is undeniably a book with a heart, and I couldn’t agree with you more about social contexts.

  14. Last week I had to start processing a cartload of art books at work and one was about Tamara de Lempicke, whose artwork I was familiar with but not her life. Her art work is so modern I always had the idea she was working later than between the war years. She sounds like an interesting person–the book I was looking at had illustrations of her artwork but also photos of her and her family–now that you write about her I may have to look for a biography as well! The book on Emily Dickinson sounds interesting as well–thanks for the heads up on that small publisher!

  15. Danielle – the biography I’ve been reading is by Laura Claridge who wrote the book on Emily Post that you’ve been reading! How about that for a coincidence? It’s very good (if a bit lengthy in places, if you know what I mean). The Emily Dickenson could not be more different – gentle and subtle, but also very good! :)

  16. How interesting. Laura Claridge is a good writer, but she can indeed be lengthy at times. To be honest I’ve temporarily shelved the Emily Post bio for that reason, but I do want to get back to it. She has gone on in great detail about Emily Post’s parents–father in particular, which is fine and important, but please bring on Emily Post, if you know what I mean. I like gentle, subtle reads, too. It’s good to have contrasts like that when you’re reading.

  17. Danielle – I just wanted to add that yesterday I skim read a huge chunk of the middle section of the Lempicke book. Claridge is a very comprehensive biographer, but phew! enough detail already…..

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