Book Review: James Tait Black Awards 2013 (Biography)

My shortlist

  1. Nicholas Shakespeare. Priscilla: The Hidden Life of an Englishwoman in Wartime France
  2. Paula Byrne. The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things
  3. Emily Rapp. The Still Point of the Turning World


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Al Khafaji, Dorothy. Between Two Rivers: A Story of Life, Love and Marriage from an English Woman in Baghdad

 This rough diamond of a narrative relates the story of a young woman from Lancaster who marries an Iraqi man and goes to live with his family in Baghdad. Beginning in the 1960s and unfolding over 18 or so years, Dorothy’s tale centres on her domestic life in Iraq: her pregnancies, the births of her children, her experiences of child-rearing, shopping, socialising and trying to fit in with her in-laws. Through these domestic details, political realities are unobtrusively revealed, from mysteriously vanishing neighbours to tense roadside run-ins with Baathist officials. Al Khafaji quite brilliantly illuminates the gripping and shocking events from this time, which in hindsight read as dark portents of the still more harrowing events to come. Her proximity to Saddam Hussein is a particularly startling aspect of the memoir; her son was a classmate of Hussein’s monstrous son Uday and her daughter was forced to participate in Hussein’s birthday celebrations. People who Al Khafaji knew personally were imprisoned, tortured and killed, including men, women and children. An air of paranoia laces the narrative – the walls have ears wherever she goes – and yet a surprising sense of humour and normality pervades; this is far from a depressing read.

Al Khafaji does particularly well in portraying the status and plight of women in this society, bravely detailing her own abortions and the actions of her often verbally aggressive and seemingly uncaring husband. There are, unfortunately, dozens of typographical errors throughout the text, from missing punctuation marks to a couple of incidences where line-breaks have been unnecessarily added, leaving sentences hanging in a limbo of white space for no reason. Even the cover page fails to give the ‘woman’ of the title a capital letter. This shouldn’t reflect on the story itself, but it is irritating and undermines the work. The author also has a habit of repeating information (at one point remarking that she has yet to mention the issue of abortion in Iraq, despite having described a doctor renowned for carrying out secret abortions) and uses phrases like ‘cheesed off’ when a more forceful word or phrase is required, or exclamation marks that aren’t necessary.

However, on the whole, Al Khafaji’s lucid, engaging, humorous and conversational story-telling style, which often trips back and forth between various decades, helps the narrative to both meander pleasurably at some points and at other points zoom-in on certain incidents with effective intensity. She depicts a vibrant side of Iraq that most people – used to seeing the country only in the bleakest of news reports – will not previously have witnessed, and this is perhaps the book’s greatest strength. This is a riveting read and a good edit would remove its flaws and allow it to dazzle.

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Byrne, Paula. The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things

‘Yet this sketch reveals more than has been realised by previous biographers’ (328). This is a typical comment from Paula Byrne’s hugely confident and entertaining biography of Jane Austen. Austen was, Byrne informs her readers from the start, the first novelist to offer accurate representations of ordinary life, without the need for Gothic melodrama. Walter Scott made the comparison between Austen and the Flemish school of painting, and by focussing on ordinary objects such as a writing desk, a shawl, a cushion, a miniature painting etc., building her chapters around each object, Byrne’s format perfectly reflects the Still Life approach so brilliantly executed by Austen. Yet, despite the domestic nature of the items examined, the book does not stay indoors. Instead, Byrne uses these items as platforms from which to launch the connections she makes between Austen’s work and events as far-reaching and dynamic as the French Revolution and the Slave Trade. Not that indoor events are intrinsically safe or boring; the Austen family’s history of madness is a particularly intriguing example of the extraordinary events that can occur in so-called cosy and sheltered domestic worlds.

Byrne’s approach is a bold one, culminating in her discovery of a potentially new portrait of Austen, the evidence for which she conveys in a highly compelling manner. Such boldness is well-founded; she cross-references her seemingly encyclopaedic knowledge of Austen in order to contest certain claims. For example, she cites a comment made in one of Austen’s niece’s letters to geographically locate the setting of a watercolour sketch of the author, painted by Austen’s sister – which had previously been of unknown setting. She also cites a shopping spree that Austen went on before her book had made a profit in order to refute a claim made by Austen’s brother that Jane had little confidence that the book would do well. It is a feat in itself to produce a work as fresh, original and enlightening as this when the topic has been discussed so often before.

Byrne readily admits that she is heavily indebted to Deirdre Le Faye’s chronology of Jane Austen from 2006 and Park Hanan’s biography from 1987 and, indeed, there is a lot of familiar territory here for Austen fans (albeit pleasurably familiar territory). But, all in all, Byrne’s admirable quest for new angles, alert attention to minute detail and celebration of small things make this a pleasure to read, as does her accessible writing style and seemingly effortless knack for structuring thorough and nuanced research. Recommended for the shortlist.

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Dixon, James. Out of Birmingham: George Dixon (1820-98), ‘Father of free education’

Dixon drops a name or two in his preface (‘Seated beside Sir Stephen Tumin, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, over dinner…’ (8)) and I’m afraid I never fully recovered from this. The biography relates the life of the author’s great-grandfather George Dixon, who played a key role as leader of the Birmingham-based National Education League, campaigning for compulsory free education in nineteenth century England and Wales. According to the author, his ancestor has been overlooked by historians due to the eclipsing fame of Joseph Chamberlain and John Bright, and he wishes to rectify this.

Dixon was renowned for not having a single enemy; Charlotte Bronte, who knew the family, described him as being polite and pretty but ‘without a backbone’ (23). The author talks at length about what a good, mild-mannered. modest gentleman his ancestor was (the fact that Dixon would not have wanted a statue of himself erected is mentioned more than once), which is all very lovely but it does mean that the subject lacks bite, and makes one wonder whether the fact that Dixon has been overlooked by historians might be because he’s just a bit…dull. It’s written with clarity, but there’s an abundance of very short paragraphs which makes the book look like a textbook and creates a more juddering, fragmented reading experience than is entirely comfortable. It’s a dry, if worthy, topic, and there are so many footnotes listing books, their publication details and page numbers, that it feels more like reading an impressively researched thesis than a full-bodied biography.

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Hamilton, Duncan. Immortal: The Approved Biography of George Best

The clue is in the title of this hugely romanticized biography of football legend George Best; it is totally unsurprising that this hefty 520-page tome has achieved ‘approved’ status. The praise for Best listed in the book’s foreword borders on the hysterical. He is described by Hamilton as ‘physically perfect’, ‘debonair’ and ‘virile’ with a near Mensa-level IQ. ‘Genius?’ asks Hamilton. ‘He was much more than that.’ Even the blurb states that: ‘Every man envied him and every woman adored him.’ Well, no, not every man envied him and not every woman adored him, and it is this exaggeration that makes an otherwise well-written book rather tiresome.

Best was an undoubtedly remarkable sportsman, and Hamilton’s obvious passion for football and Best himself infuses the book with zest and energy. But, ultimately, Hamilton is so preoccupied with romanticizing past events that, whilst it is no doubt a captivating read for fans of Best and of football in general, non-fans (like myself) will be left bored to tears by large sections of the book and possibly tittering at the photo captions describing Best as a ‘model-in-waiting’ ‘with seldom a hair out of place’, ‘the perfect billboard for his own clothes’, a ‘pin-up’, ‘fashion icon’ and ‘perfect physical specimen’. Indeed, so much attention is paid to Best’s appearance that it becomes comical and, at times, borders on the homoerotic.

Best was, of course, a deeply flawed individual and Hamilton does address his icon’s pig-headedness, his womanising ways, excessive materialism (for example, buying garish and costly shirts that he would wear only once before discarding) and other less saintly character traits. His death by alcoholism at the age of 59 is treated with an admirable sense of compassion, and rightly so. Hamilton paints vivid and endearing pictures of the folk who touched Best’s life, from his salt-of-the-earth landlady Mrs Fullaway to enigmatic manager Matt Busby, and skilfully evokes the varying atmospheres of the shifting decades and the changing nature of our ‘celebrity’ culture. It is undeniably well-researched and well-structured, but left me longing to read an earthier, more honest and altogether less blinkered account of the talented, troubled soul.

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Muirhead, Fergus. A Piper’s Tale: Stories from the World’s Top Pipers

This is more a collection of brief interviews with various musicians than a cohesive exploration of piping. Each quick chapter discusses the career of a different piper/group and the book isn’t tied together in any other way than this. The conversations with the likes of the Red Hot Chilli Pipers do give a good insight into the life of a musician; the dedication it takes to become skilled in the art of piping, life on the road and so on. Muirhead’s writing style is unfussy, lucid and flowing, but the book is filled with jargon that outsiders aren’t likely to understand fully and, for me, became tedious when things like tuning were discussed, or when competitions were listed as if they were already familiar to the reader. The forewords by Eddie Reader and Carlos Nunez are also pretty poorly written and that’s not a great way to begin a book and goes to show that great musicians/singers do not necessarily make great writers. This is probably a pleasurable read if you’re a piper yourself, or even a musician in general, but for non-musical folk like me it felt like being on the outside looking in at a world I’m not particularly interested in. One for the fans.

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Norman, Jesse. Edmund Burke: Philosopher, Politician, Prophet

A book written by a Conservative MP, with an endorsement from Boris Johnson on its front cover, is hardly likely to be 100% palatable to a non-Tory reader, and Jesse Norman’s biography of Edmund Burke is no exception. Norman’s writing style is, for the most part, lucid and flowing and is laced everywhere with the author’s obvious enthusiasm for his subject. The first half of the book, focussing on Burke’s life, is generally successful and often stimulating. The second half, focussing on Burke’s work and how this relates to politics today, is less successful. With regards to Burke’s life, Norman’s references to Burke’s contemporaries, including womanising, squint-eyed John Wilkes or wealthy playboy Charles James Fox (who lost his virginity to a Paris Madame when he was just 14), are highly entertaining, and actually left me wishing I could follow their stories instead of well-behaved Burke’s. Not enough attention is paid to Burke’s personal life; though Norman admits that ‘Burke took care not to allow private matters to intrude into his public life, but there was no great gap between the two’ (97), he almost completely ignores Burke’s wife Jane. For example, he refers to her miscarrying a child but dismisses the topic in less than a sentence.

Indeed, Norman mentions Mary Wollstonecraft’s dislike of Burke’s ‘patronizing and offensive view of women’ (142), especially his discussion of beauty in the Enquiry, and readily admits that Burke ‘has little of interest to say about women’ (279). The same, sadly, could be said of Norman, since references to women in this book are fleeting. Burke’s defence of the poor and abused, especially the Irish peasantry, is inspiring to read about, but the fact that he did not support extension of the franchise cannot be ignored. The result of this is that Norman’s incessant need to relate Burke’s work to politics today becomes irritating and intrusive. Norman states at the end of the book that ‘The political context was quite different from that of today, of course’ (228), and that ‘some key aspects of Burke’s thought may strike a modern audience as wrong, irrelevant or merely offensive’ (279). He’s right, which wouldn’t be an issue if he didn’t keep trying to make Burke seem particularly relevant to our modern society. In short, the first half of this book is generally entertaining and enlightening, but the second half is dust-dry and tries too hard to drag Burke’s political inclinations into the 21st century.

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O’ Kell, Robert. Disraeli: The Romance of Politics

O’ Kell reads Disraeli and his career through his novels rather than vice versa, and this is a refreshing angle to take. It gives dual weight to Disraeli’s status as a novelist and politician, which here seems thoroughly justified. The literary and political aspects of Disraeli’s career are united by O’ Kell’s focus on Disraeli’s imagination and his ties to romance. He claims his book is not a ‘typical biography’, nor a critical study, but is instead a narrative focussing on Disraeli’s dual careers and the emotional intensities inherent in both. This approach gives coherence to O’ Kell’s portrait of Disraeli which, even if it is a partial portrait, does result in a generally entertaining end product. However, at over 600 pages long this is a very long partial study, featuring numerous very long plot summaries of Disraeli’s novels and a sometimes tiresome, self-argumentative style. It is an extremely detailed work and draws a great variety of sources together in a neat and nifty fashion (novels, speeches, memoranda, newspaper articles, pamphlets and letters) but, despite the entertaining subject matter, it is an ultimately arduous read.

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Rapp, Emily. The Still Point of the Turning World

Reading the blurb of this might well lead some people to dismiss it as another dismal misery memoir. The story relates the moment and aftermath of the author’s son being diagnosed with Tay-Sachs disease when he was just nine months old, a degenerative and always fatal condition. It’s the kind of book I normally swerve to avoid. Yet this story is filled not with misery but with a deeply philosophical sense of what it means to love, to live, to grieve, and how to turn this grief into art. It questions the danger of placing one’s self-worth in ambition and the pursuit of goals, the quest for happiness not in the present but in some sunny always-in-the-future ideal. Rapp’s style is contemplative but lucid, free-flowing but exceptionally well-orchestrated. Her approach is pragmatic and contemplative: ‘this great capacity to love and be happy can be experienced only with this great risk of having happiness taken from you – to tremble, always, on the edge of loss.’ (23)

Rapp challenges media representations of disabled people as being either objects of pity and sadness or achieving magnificent feats. She cites a remarkable letter that Mary Shelley wrote to James Hogg just hours after her child had died, relating her own experiences of grief to those before her. Rapp challenges the American ideal of the pursuit of happiness, its elevation of high achievement, ambition, capitalistic cravings, the need to strive, to have purpose, to be the thinnest, smartest, funniest, best, most famous, most rich. How can any of this relate to her son when he has no future? How can any of these things matter to her now that the worst has happened? Such things are all about transformation; if I achieve this my life will be better. Her son will never transform and can only degenerate: does this mean his life has no value? This is a seam of questioning with rich rewards.

High-flying Rapp had to unburden herself of such preoccupations and misconceptions, and it’s an interesting process to be made privy to. She describes how the parents of her writing students wanted to know how many hours tuition their kids would need before their work was publishable, dissecting the commodification of children, the way certain parents look at their children as some sort of investment; how she too did this before the awful diagnosis was made. She details the way in which the Tay-Sachs gene was the result of persecution and isolation, of Eastern Europeans forced into shetls and thereby having to intermarry and develop the mutant gene. She dismisses images of angels and heaven as insincere and useless in the face of overwhelming grief, the existence of luck, and the warped hierarchy of people’s grief, as if grief is ever quantifiable.

Rapp writes that to turn grief into art it must be revised, the words shaped. She describes her experiences with Reiki, its principle that healing should not be regarded as the means to an end goal but as a moment-to-moment thing, writing sensuously of placing a pine needle under her son’s nose or rubbing his bare feet in the soil. Rapp draws on the work of C. S. Lewis, Seamus Heaney, Sylvia Plath, Louise Gluck, Pablo Neruda and a host of other writers who have addressed death and grief, a sort of literary therapy. She writes beautifully of what it is like to love and lose an infant, evoking all the smells, textures and sounds of her son so that he becomes not just a symbol of grief but a living, tangible human being whose brief life meant something. All these elements combine to create a work of honesty, intelligence and a deep-felt sense of humanity. I recommend it for the shortlist.

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Shakespeare, Nicholas. Priscilla: The Hidden Life of an Englishwoman in Wartime France

This thrilling tale relates the life of the author’s beautiful and glamorous aunt Priscilla, who was sent to live in Paris as a child and, as a young woman, remained there throughout the German occupation during WWII. Because she owned a British passport she was one of the 4,000 British women sent to an internment camp in Besancon near the Swiss border, where open cesspits, frostbite, pneumonia, diarrhoea, malnutrition, food poisoning and dysentery were a daily grievance. It is a subject about which not much has been written. As Shakespeare comments, on discovering accounts of this terrible time: ‘I had the freakish impression of being taken by the wrist and being led down, through a procession of unlocking doors, into the cellars beneath one of the most fascinating and yet, in spite of all the literature on it, incompletely explored moments of the twentieth century – a period over which France continues to draw firm bolts: “Four years to strike from our history,” is how the French still refer to it.’ (217).

Having found boxes filled with his mysterious aunt’s letters, diaries, photographs and stories, Shakespeare decided to write the story of Priscilla’s life, and it is a very juicy story indeed, filled with love affairs, tempestuous family relationships, infidelities and a whole lot of mystery. ‘It was a period which encouraged doubles and pseudonyms’ (271) and, indeed, the author clearly had to do a lot of detective work in order to piece together the accounts of Priscilla, her lovers and her friends. That Priscilla chose to remain in Paris during the war, when she could have escaped to begin with, is one such mystery. Once she remained she was stuck, and it is at this stage that the tale takes on the air of a thriller in which Priscilla had to follow the ‘rules of concealment that John Buchan imposed on his hero Richard Hannay […] “If you are hemmed in on all sides in a patch of land there is only one chance of escape. You must stay in the patch and let your enemies search it and not find you.”’ (276)

When the war was over, and having had love affairs with Germans (possibly even Nazis), Priscilla was in a dangerous situation. Women accused of sleeping with the enemy were often stripped naked, their heads shaved, and paraded through the streets as traitors. Not that men who had slept with German women were victimised, as Shakespeare notes: ‘Horizontal collaboration was a crime uniquely pinned on French women, for whom sleeping with the enemy may have been the only way to feed their children’ (336). Shakespeare’s sympathetic exploration of the plight of women is one of the book’s strongest points. Indeed, at the book’s conclusion, Shakespeare writes that his aunt’s ‘life is a reflection of how hard it was to be fulfilled as a woman, even until recently. The two things she had wanted to do, she could do today, without the help of a man: she could have told her story honestly, and she could have had a child out of wedlock’ (405).

What a wonderful insight into the life of a remarkable but damaged woman this is: a beautifully written, well-structured, sensitive, evocative, intriguing, moving and engrossing read. Highly recommended for the shortlist.

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Victor, Maria Paez. Liberty or Death! The Life and Campaigns of Richard L Vowell

 I felt bombarded with information reading this biography of an obscure British Legionnaire. You have to wade through 12 pages of background and 6 pages of maps and diagrams just to get to chapter one, and the whole thing feels much more like reading a dense history textbook than a biography with a linear, unifying plot (not helped by the tiny text and large page-size). I also found the abundance of endnotes distracting. In chapter one alone there are 34 notes, despite the chapter being only 6 pages long. The subject is an interesting one, and the sheer amount of research that has gone into the project is evident and impressive. If you are passionate about nineteenth century wars in South America, and have a background knowledge of the subject, then this book may well have great merit for you. However, with the (what feels like) thousands of names and dates that swarm over every page, added to the author’s fondness for long sentences, I found it a frustrating and inaccessible read. A skilled writer of biography should be able to make extensive and detailed information accessible to a wider audience and I do not believe that the author achieves this here.

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