I've read Maugham's memoirs and his nephew Robin Maugham's (annoying & spiteful) bio of him, but Hastings had unprecedented access to materials thI've read Maugham's memoirs and his nephew Robin Maugham's (annoying & spiteful) bio of him, but Hastings had unprecedented access to materials that no one has before. The result is a thorough and sympathetic but clear picture of the man who was the best-selling British author of his time; celebrated, wealthy, and intensely private. When Maugham was in his twenties, Oscar Wilde was prosecuted and imprisoned for his homosexuality and that colored Maugham's whole life. Although many people close t him knew he was gay, he kept a low profile and when he was older, he burned most of his correspondence and asked friends to do the same. Of course, many didn't and the result is that Hastings can tell us quite a lot about his sexual life. But that isn't what interested me about this biography.
When I was in college in the 80's, studying for an English degree, Maugham was never mentioned. In fact, I think he's still left out of the English canon of literature. I had read several of his novels in grade school because they were on my grandfather's shelf and I read anything I could get my hands on, and he continues to be one of my favorite authors. I was so surprised that such a popular (in his time) and high quality writer was ignored that I wrote an essay defending him for my university's English department newsletter. It wasn't because he was gay. It wasn't because he was often classed as a misogynist (which I don't think he was). It wasn't because his prose or topics were dated. Many of the so-called dead white male authors in the canon meet one or more of these criteria. I think this biography finally answered the question for me.
For most of his life, he was hailed as a success. His plays and stories were best-sellers and made lots of money. He was highly social and had many friends. But toward the end of his life, Maugham was surrounded by people who wanted his money and his approbation, and many manipulated him for those things. He began to lash out, sometimes indiscriminately, through his fiction and in other ways. At some point, public opinion turned against him. And I think that distaste, and in some cases misunderstanding, persisted. Thankfully, he seems to be enjoying a small resurgence of popularity. I hope many people read his books. My favorites are The Razor's Edge, Of Human Bondage, and the Ashenden stories.
A few things I learned were new to me. First, I knew that his long-time companion Gerald Haxton was mad, bad and dangerous to know, but I don't think I quite understood just what a flawed and mean person he was. Same with Alan Searle. What an a**hole! And Syrie, Maugham's wife; I knew the bad side of her (who wouldn't with his fiction and non-fiction portrayals of her in his books!), but Hastings is fair and balanced in her portrayal of Syrie and I understood and sympathized with her more.
All in all, it was a quick read for me, even at 640 pages, and I plan to buy my own copy to add to my two shelves of Maugham books. ...more
I picked this up at the library thinking it was going to be stories for, you know, boys. I have a boy; he likes stories. Anyway, it turned out not toI picked this up at the library thinking it was going to be stories for, you know, boys. I have a boy; he likes stories. Anyway, it turned out not to be that at all, but I checked it out anyway and I'm glad I did. I've read a few reviews here and there are a variety of complaints from the author being too introspective (which is, to me, what separates a memoir from an autobiography) to wanting to know more about the dad (I imagine he prefers his privacy). I didn't agree with these criticisms.
In the first few pages, you learn that Martin's (the author's) dad has attempted suicide and then you find out why: He was sexually molested as a child, he was a closeted gay man for the whole of his 39-year marriage, and he sought out hundreds of anonymous sex partners at parks & rest stops. You're thinking this book might be about homosexuality, right? No. I mean yes, but not really. It's about what happens when someone you have loved and trusted for many years turns out to have been lying to you the whole time, turns out to be a different person than you thought you knew. Martin is unflinchingly honest in detailing the phases he goes through in coming to terms not so much with his dad's sexuality as with his dad's long-term dishonesty and with trying to figure out who his dad really is. He's aware that when his dad was young, you didn't admit you'd been molested, you didn't seek help, and you certainly didn't admit if you were a gay man. He sympathizes. He gets why. And he has no qualms about homosexuality. But he also feels betrayed and the results of this feeling can be ugly.
"This American Life," the NPR radio show, did a great segment a few years back about psychopathic liars. Martin's dad is far from that, but the effect is the same, making his son (and his wife, I'm sure) go back compulsively through all his memories to look at them through this new lens, to make sense of it all. Martin has young sons himself and he starts scrutinizing his relationships with them and asking himself whether he's always been honest. And through all this, he's also maintaining a relationship with his mom, whom his dad still really loves.
It was an engrossing read, with some interesting tangents. I learned more about Walt Whitman than I knew before and I got a book recommendation for my young son. There were interesting quotes from various literary and non-fiction sources. On the whole, I recommend it. More so if you've been betrayed yourself by someone who was dishonest with you in the long-term. ...more
In the late 50's, when her children were, I believe, 2 or 3 and 9, she and her husband took them to England for an extended trip during which they visIn the late 50's, when her children were, I believe, 2 or 3 and 9, she and her husband took them to England for an extended trip during which they visited places relevant to the many children's books they had all read. Some of them are books you don't hear much about these days (such as Kipling's "Puck of Pook's Hill," "Johnny Crow," and Caldecott's illustrated verses), but many are familiar: "The Wind in the Willows," "The Tailor of Gloucester," "The Chronicles of Narnia," and "Swallows and Amazons," for example.
Joan Bodger eventually became a world-class oral storyteller, but this book keeps us at a bit of a distance. I learned why later. Still, I really enjoyed hearing about their adventures and mishaps trying to find King Arthur, Toad Hall, and Beatrix Potter's farm.
My one warning is don't do what I did and read about her before you read the book. Just enjoy the book for what it is. By knowing what happened after the book, it was hard for me not to read into every page the signs of the future. Wait until you're done with the book, if you're curious. ...more
After reading the engrossing and well-written Cazalet series, which is the saga of a family before, during, and after WWII, I wanted to know more abouAfter reading the engrossing and well-written Cazalet series, which is the saga of a family before, during, and after WWII, I wanted to know more about the author. I enjoyed reading about her own life, which she used as a model for the series. ...more
Fictionalized memoir of a girl growing up in colonial Trinidad, then moving to Britain at age 12 to go to school (which almost all colonials did), andFictionalized memoir of a girl growing up in colonial Trinidad, then moving to Britain at age 12 to go to school (which almost all colonials did), and finally, going to the US to learn to be a teacher. The most interesting parts of this book for me were the picture of turn-of-the-century Trinidad and the look at what it was like to be a teacher in the US in the WWI era. She teaches kindergarten and shows the conflict between the ideas of Frobel (who invented kindergarten), which sound quite Waldorfy, and the newer methods, which sound more like Montessori, following the children's interests. The thread that holds the memoir together is that the main character wants to be a writer and tries in various ways to get there. A sweet, if somewhat dated portrait of a "bluestocking" woman trying to make her way as a working writer in a bygone era. ...more
Poor Christopher. It must've been hard to live in his literary twin's shadow. Despite the hint of bitterness and melancholy, I enjoyed this memoir ofPoor Christopher. It must've been hard to live in his literary twin's shadow. Despite the hint of bitterness and melancholy, I enjoyed this memoir of the childhood of the real Christopher Robin. ...more
I wish I could say I liked this book. I so wanted to love it, being crazy for books myself. I found her range quite narrow and, well, snobby. She dismI wish I could say I liked this book. I so wanted to love it, being crazy for books myself. I found her range quite narrow and, well, snobby. She dismisses all Canadian and Australian literature, past and present, in one vague sentence, with no more apology or explanation than, "(I know, I know.)" I still don't know why she doesn't like them. Except for a scant few Russian and European authors, her book was filled with white British and American authors. I'm a big fan of many of her favorites, but come on, hasn't she read more widely than that?
Also, the name-dropping bored me and I think I may have strained my eyes rolling them. It often felt like she was choosing favorite books based not on the books' merits, but on whether she had some personal connection to the author that she could mention. And some were so tenuous as to be silly. She didn't know Virginia Woolf, but she did know one of Woolf's sales reps. She didn't know E. M. Forster, but he once dropped a book on her foot in the library and apologized. She didn't know T. S. Eliot, but he once gave her an owlish smile as they both waited for someone to answer the door at a party. And failing even the briefest acquaintance, there are at least two authors of whom she could only say that she *could* have met them if she wanted to, but she never managed to find the time. Sure, there were interesting parts where she talked about authors she did know well and I enjoyed those, but the rest of the name-dropping told me nothing about the authors, their books, or why she liked them. If she talked to me at a cocktail party in the way she writes about her brushes with fame, I'd be nodding and saying "Isn't that nice for you?" while looking desperately toward the drinks table and hoping someone would rescue me.
Finally, she makes such sweeping generalizations. I laughed out loud when I read that people who put bookplates in their books are posers! There's nothing I like more than to buy an old book and find a bookplate in it. I don't put them in my books any more, but I did when I was young. I did it because I loved those books more than anything. They were my link to a sane world. Far from being posers, I think people often do it because their books feel like a part of them. Right or wrong, I certainly don't think that people who bother to buy and affix bookplates are posing to anyone. It's a private process and one that people who don't love books wouldn't take the time to do. It's funny that she's okay with writing interlinear and margin comments, but not with inscribing a book or writing your name in it. To me, those are just as much a postcard to the future as writing "Indeed!" next to a favorite assertion. And unless she can provide some sort of data, I must disagree with her assertion that "Girls read more than boys, always have, always will. That's a known fact." Perhaps she didn't get to know the right boys. In the end, though, her generalizations didn't bother me as much as the other two aspects. For the last third of the book, I was just scanning for titles and skimming all the anecdotes.
I'm glad others enjoyed it and there were certainly many good books mentioned. But I wasn't able to add much to my "to read" list. ...more
I read this in college. Turnbull was an ethnographer who spent years living with Pygmy tribes in Africa, not as a disinterested observer, but as a friI read this in college. Turnbull was an ethnographer who spent years living with Pygmy tribes in Africa, not as a disinterested observer, but as a friend and member of their communities. Turnbull was gay (although that isn't mentioned in this 1983 memoir/philosophical treatise) and growing up in 1930s and 40s Britain was a harsh and cold experience for him. He contrasts English parenting, schools & social norms to the warmth and caring of the tribes he lives with. While I don't think it was a balanced portrayal of either, I found it moving and compassionate and it supported my growing conviction that closeness with children is more important and effective than discipline and structure. Turnbull's long-time partner wasn't too happy that he wasn't mentioned in the book. ...more
Victorian fictionalized memoir of an Englishwoman married to a German she calls "the Man of Wrath." Transplanted to their German country house, she woVictorian fictionalized memoir of an Englishwoman married to a German she calls "the Man of Wrath." Transplanted to their German country house, she works with her gardeners to restore/build a garden as an escape from the constrained tedium of a woman of her time and station. I think I expected to like this more than I did. She is certainly witty and I can see why the book was such a success at the time. She has a lot of forward-thinking things to say about women and she says them in such a dry and funny way. I also enjoyed her love of her garden and the woods around their property. At the same time, I found her to be a snob and though her views or servants and children were in keeping with her era and social standing, I still found them tiresome. Her views on women may have been ahead of their time, but her modernism didn't apply to how she saw others in similarly powerless situations. I kept putting down the book in annoyance and and not finding good reason to pick it back up. The library due date forced me to finish. It was a nice enough book, but suffered in comparison to the many glowing reviews i read. Same author who wrote Enchanted April and Mr. Skeffington. ...more
I had seen the Masterpiece Theatre production of this book with Imelda Staunton as the mother and loved it, and we have Durrell's wonderful "The AmateI had seen the Masterpiece Theatre production of this book with Imelda Staunton as the mother and loved it, and we have Durrell's wonderful "The Amateur Naturalist," which details how to observe, care for, and learn from wildlife. I so enjoyed reading and laughing with this memoir of 10-year-old Gerry moving from Britain to the Greek Island of Corfu with his family and spending his days watching, capturing, documenting, and obsessing over the local fauna. Really, it's a terrific picture of a child pursuing his own interests without the stultifying aids of a classroom, desk, worksheet, or exam. His mother tries periodically to engage a tutor, but it is usually short-lived because Gerry isn't interested in much beyond biology & natural history. Durell's family is quirky (his brother Lawrence Durrell was a controversial writer) and sometimes infuriating, and the adventures and misunderstandings they have with the local people are often laugh-aloud funny. Durrell grew up to be an influential environmentalist and started the first zoo whose main goal was breeding endangered animals in captivity. It's great to peer into his early years and see his passions for animals as they were developing. I think one of my favorite aspects of the book is the names the family comes up with for animals, boats, and people. The topper is Gerry's boat, which is launched with the unweildy name of The Bootle-Bumtrinket (bumtrinket apparently being a not-very-nice epithet). ...more