Kim at Reading Matters has had the lovely idea of putting together a Book Bloggers' Advent Calendar with daily posts linking to bloggers' favourite books of 2013. As you'll see if you click here, I'm up today, and I've chosen William Nicholson's Motherland (recently released in paperback). Alongside me, Sam at Sam Still Reading has nominated Kate Forsyth's Bitter Greens which I bought recently and am greatly looking forward to reading. Many thanks to Kim for inviting me to take part and join such all-round excellent company.
To a couple more good books now, but from the biography/memoir shelf this time:
Ann Patchett's This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage is a collection of essays and articles representing all stages of her career so far. She explains in the foreword that before she became a novelist she learned her craft as a writer of non-fiction, meeting deadlines and word counts, shaping topics to fit column inches, and she is adept at writing clean, clear, succinct prose. She is also wise, funny, candid, observant, and clear-sighted in her treatment of many subjects ranging from the personal - her difficult first marriage and happy second one, her lately-acquired love of opera (see the wonderful Bel Canto) and long-time love of dogs, her recent experience of opening a bookshop in her home town - to the more universal.
I've already posted extracts from two of the books's essays - they are here and here - and they are good examples of Ann Patchett's style, good sense, and warmth. I never tire of her voice, whether she is talking about books in all their infinite variety, or people (ditto), writing or life, and if you're a fan of her fiction, I'm sure you'll find a great deal to enjoy here.
Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life by Hermione Lee needs no introduction and is an excellent biography. Highly readable, perceptive, comprehensive, setting all its subject's novels and biographies in context and tracing their themes throughout a long life, it benefits from its author's acquaintance with Penelope Fitgerald and many conversations with those who knew her well.
This is, famously, the story of a late-starter, someone whose working life was spent mostly in teaching, who published first when she was 60, won the Booker Prize soon afterwards, but did not achieve real fame until she was 80. Often overlooked or underestimated in their own time, her novels are now seen as "strange and original masterpieces", and their author is, as Hermione Lee says in the opening sentence of her Preface, "a great English writer who would never have described herself in such a commanding way."
Penelope Fitzgerald came from a family whose motto was "do the difficult thing", and in both professional and domestic terms she lived up to that. Her personal life was often fraught, and when she finally came into her own career-wise, it was once there was space in her life for "her half-century of reading, thinking and learning to be shaped into the books she had always known she would write."
A fascinating biography which I recommend without reservation.