States of Desire by Edmund White

Many texts are interesting enough to read but fail to connect effectively with readers outside their time. For example, this piece of journalism lacks a properly grounded sociological standpoint. Further, its repeated attacks on developed theory are evidence of ideological complacency. Similarly, its patriotism is seemingly an obstacle to serious thought.

Nonetheless, White engaged in a type of snobbish gossip which may still appeal to some people. The text shows that the author had an insatiable curiosity. For inquisitive individuals, the mundane details of ordinary life more than three decades ago may prove to be a fascinating slice of social history. Sexuality and sexism are painted in bright colours.

However, there is something elitist and scary about this Cold War era document. It is not the case that affluence is celebrated in a simplistic way, but there is too little effort made to understand why people performed as they did. As White confessed:

“I become uncomfortable when the individual is forgotten or subsumed under Large General Forces.”


Why Be Happy When You Could be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson

This passionate memoir in part looks back at the material covered in ‘Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit.’ The novel was amusing and challenging to conventional morality in its day, but the memoir is a little darker in its content than its semi-autobiographical predecessor. Nevertheless, the genuine virtuosity of the author is on show in both narratives.

The reader is taken on a troubled journey. Identity and love are grappled with in a fragmented text. Although the writer seems harsh on herself and others, she is a winning companion. The pages turn easily. Insights and wit decorate the story, meaning that any temptation to engage in serious criticism is dimmed. Real northern brio from the streets of Accrington is used to subvert the principles of political correctness:

“We went past Woolworths- ‘A Den of Vice.’ Past Marks and Spencer’s- ‘The Jews killed Christ.’ Past the funeral parlour and the pie shop- ‘They share an oven.’ Past the biscuit stall and its moon-faced owners- ‘Incest.’ Past the pet parlour- ‘Bestiality.’ Past the bank- ‘Usury.’ Past the Citizens Advice Bureau- ‘Communists.'”

A Widow’s Story by Joyce Carol Oates

This emotional memoir is an unusual reading experience. In a sense, it is a book about the complex inner life of a writer who depended on her husband for a wide variety of things. The text takes pride in its ostensible honesty- certainly little is not discussed. Emails, poetry, politics, illness, religion, medication and philosophy are all included in the frantic narrative. However, amid the broken thinking about thinking about the past the question of the author’s motivation remains elusive.

The writer bemoans the impact of capitalism on the responses to grief. Nonetheless, she has packaged her own sadness and sold it to the world. Her husband is not given much of a role in the text as her own feelings are given precedence. His love and kindness are mentioned, but his patient gardening and editing is juxtaposed with the writer’s unfortunate passion for Nietzsche. The unconvincing aphorisms of the philosopher make one think of the relevance of Voltaire. Voltaire appreciated the value of communal gardening and was not as delusional as Nietzsche.

Nevertheless, it must be admitted that the author has a remarkable way with words. Her copious references to Plath, Sexton and Dickinson do not seem utterly out of place. And she is ready to embrace criticism:

“Vicious reviews, opprobrium of all sorts are the writer’s punishment for being a writer.”

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris

This allegedly comic text is partly spoiled by tedious misogyny. One clue to this is the regular and gratuitous use of the c-word. However, it is not only prudes who will be bored by the anti-feminist postmodern ramblings central to the novel. The dentist anti-hero is an unreconstructed male who is more knowledgeable about molars than anything else. He could almost have stumbled out of the pages of a  Bret Easton Ellis story.

Certainly, there are a few wisecracks about religion to lighten the mood. And there is a primitive critique of capitalism on display. Further, the alienating aspects of modern technology get a reasonable treatment. However, the refusal of the main character to listen to women is remarkably frustrating. People who find visiting the dentist painful might actually prefer to have a tooth out than to read this work to the end. A novelist who does not show their appreciation for personality can be dull.

Obviously, some individuals must have enjoyed this baggy narrative. Nevertheless, other readers might have struggled with the blatant snobbishness evidenced by a disdain for janitors. More seriously, the following digression on getting older is quite nauseating:

“My patient, Bernadette Marder, looked so hideously old, so hideously and prematurely aged since the last time I’d seen her, that all her most stressful and trying years might have been crammed into six months…Her hair had thinned out and just sort of died on the back of her head. A scaly pink meridian divided one limp half from the other. An array of wrinkles, radiating from her pale lips. had deepened and fossilized, and her face sagged.”

CHARLOTTE BRONTË by Lyndall Gordon

This effective biography draws on sources to which Mrs Gaskell lacked access. Partly as a result, the biographer presents the great author in a modern light. Instead of being viewed as a stoical survivor of tragedy, the creator of the powerful ‘Jane Eyre’ is depicted as having agency, wit and desire.

Dr Gordon is an innovative, bold and imaginative biographer. Ample evidence of this can be found in her compelling work on Virginia Woolf. However, her focus on the emotional aspect of the life of Charlotte Brontë is stunning. She is never tempted to say everything that could be said about her subject. Nor is she afraid to admit that there are other possible interpretations of the narrative. At the same time, she backs up her feminist contentions with a solid firmness.

Gordon is not afraid to be specific, but she makes her shrewd generalisations stand out:

“For advancing women in the nineteenth century, the gap between public and private was so great that the pressure of art…was the more explosive…Still, the novels remain to tell us about the shadow in which Charlotte Brontë lived, and which she interpreted for her ‘Reader.’ Gaps have the interest of suggestion; the works can define their meaning.”