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.