Early on in Charles Moore's biography of Margaret Thatcher, he describes a birthday party at which a school friend tells the future prime minister, "If you don't stop bossing us, I shall stamp on your foot."
It's not hard to imagine that a great many people have wished they could say the same thing to her over the 11 years Thatcher spent as prime minister of the United Kingdom, from members of Parliament to routed Argentine generals. But in his new biography, Moore tries to soften the image of a bossy, domineering Iron Lady. Drawing from interviews and her personal letters, he forms a more complete picture of Thatcher in the years from her childhood in Grantham to the Falklands War (a second volume about the rest of her life is forthcoming).
Moore, who was the editor of the conservative newspaper The Daily Telegraph from 1995-2003, was handpicked by Thatcher to write her authorized biography. She gave him access to an extraordinary wealth of letters and papers, on the condition that the book not be published before her death. Consequently, it seemed likely that Moore — himself a conservative Tory and a longtime supporter of Thatcher — would write little more than a hagiography. But, though he clearly admires Thatcher (she is, as he says, "someone about whom it is almost impossible to be neutral"), he has produced a remarkable biography. The research is staggeringly thorough, and the storytelling vivid and unrelentingly interesting.
One of the many pleasures of Margaret Thatcher is Moore's flair for political drama. In one entertaining episode, as Thatcher was running for party leadership, an interview came out that quoted her saying she bought canned foods in bulk. The press, egged on by her opponent, accused her of hoarding — a serious charge in postwar Britain, which had food rationing until the mid-1950s. She retaliated by inviting the papers into her home to take stock of her larder — a brilliant move that, as Moore points out, not only debunked the accusations, but made her opponent seem silly. Moore exults in these small dramas, as well as the larger ones.
Among the revelations of the book are the details of her romantic life. Moore's unprecedented access to her journals and letters lets him prove that, though she denied it, she dated other men seriously before marrying Denis Thatcher. More shockingly, up until he proposed, she was a little lukewarm about him. At one point, she even wrote to her sister, "I can't say I ever really enjoy going out for the evening with him. He has not got a very prepossessing personality." Moore does his correcting gently, calling her claim that she didn't date anyone before Denis Thatcher an "understandable untruth."
A more serious revelation is that Thatcher, though she publicly said that she would not engage with paramilitary groups, had secret proxy negotiations with the IRA during the 1981 Irish hunger strike. Thatcher was both detested and admired for her refusal to budge as 10 Irish Republican prisoners slowly starved themselves to death in jail, including Bobby Sands, who was elected to Parliament from prison. Moore writes: "Mrs. Thatcher went against her public protestations about not negotiating with terrorists, and actively did so, though at a remove." Had this been known at the time, it would have been a major scandal.
Though Thatcher was Britain's first female prime minister, she wasn't especially interested in being a female pioneer — she bragged more often about being the first prime minister with a degree in science. Like Thatcher, Moore's views on gender seem conflicted. On the one hand, he notes with clear disdain, "The courtesy shown to women Members [of Parliament] had the effect of cocooning them in a cosy irrelevance," and refers again later to the "parliamentary female ghetto." At one point, mentioning her unwillingness to invite certain male university friends over, he notes, "Despite four successful years at the university, she was still in a position of traditional, womanly weakness."
Other times, he seems oddly paternalistic, reporting warmly on her penchant for brown dresses and her good grades. Instead of, say, trying to illustrate that toughness and femininity are not antithetical, Moore domesticates Thatcher. The first third of the book scarcely mentions any event in her life without also describing her outfit. Much is made, too, of her housekeeping: She doesn't just clean — she cleans "with characteristic domestic enthusiasm." Odd little gendered statements populate the book — what, exactly could he mean when he says that Thatcher's "female conscientiousness" was one of her political assets?
This kind of sprawling, discursive book provides a portrait of the biographer as well as the subject. The impression that emerges is, on the one hand prim, patrician and a touch elitist, and on the other, smart, drily funny and well-informed. A little bit of a know-it-all, Moore litters his account with small, fussy jabs. At one point he writes that Thatcher's favorite poetry shows no "originality of literary taste." And when she wrote in a letter that the British sparkling wine Moussec is a "sparking champagne", he notes, primly, "Actually it is an ersatz champagne."
He makes almost no criticisms of policy, though he frequently portrays Thatcher as more of a hard worker than a brilliant thinker, characterizing her as "ill equipped for intellectual battle." Frustratingly, this kind of casual pronouncement rarely comes with a justification. But Margaret Thatcher is so expansive, so sophisticated and so well-written that it's hard to be overly upset by occasional and slight incursions of Moore's personal views. He's paired the research methods of a historian with the kind of writing you only find in the best political journalism — fluid, understated and clean.
"Love is not all," warned the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay. "It is not meat nor drink / Nor slumber nor a roof against the rain." She was right, of course, but if there were ever any advice destined to fall on stubbornly deaf ears, this is it. Love is not all, but it always feels like it is, whether you're happily partnered or bereft.
That's also why it's a notoriously difficult subject for writers, though god knows it hasn't stopped them from trying, with very mixed results. It's rare that somebody gets it right, which is why Matt Bell's debut novel, In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods, is so remarkable. It's one of the most thoughtful recent works of fiction on a subject that defeats many writers before they pick up their pens.
More a book-length fairy tale than a conventional novel, Bell's book follows an unnamed husband and wife who have left their home country to start a new life in the untamed wilderness. The husband builds a house and gathers food; his wife creates objects — bowls, clothing, even a new moon — through song.
They also decide to start a family. "What world we found was not enough for her, not enough for me, not without the children we desired, that I desired and that she desired for me." Their first several attempts are disastrous, resulting in mangled, stillborn fetuses, one of which the husband impulsively, inexplicably, eats. While the couple eventually has a baby, it's not what the husband bargained for; he finds himself driven to near insanity by the jealous fetus, which now lives inside of him. His wife and their son withdraw, disappearing into a house that magically expands into a kind of labyrinth. Alone, the husband tries to come to terms with his decisions, as well as with the mysterious bear and the squid-like creature that live near their house.
It's hard to imagine a book more difficult to pull off, but Bell proves as self-assured as he is audacious. His prose, which manages to be both mournful and propulsive, is undeniable. While he's been compared to authors like Italo Calvino and Jorge Luis Borges, his style is very much his own, lacking any obvious antecedent. In the House contains passages far scarier than most mainstream horror novels, but Bell writes with a warmth, a humanity that renders the scenes gut-wrenching on an emotional level. Characters in fairy tales are often stand-ins for ideas, props used to illustrate a moral. Bell does a superb job of avoiding this trap, though; he writes about the family with both a clear sense of empathy and an expert novelist's unblinking eye.
Bell's novel isn't just a joy to read, it's also one of the smartest meditations on the subjects of love, family and marriage in recent years. In one scene, the husband remembers his father lecturing him, "telling me the purpose of a marriage was the improvement of a man and a woman, each meant to make the other better." The father continues, "It is enough. ... You cannot expect to make the world better, not by any love." It's apparent Bell disagrees; the novel is a monument to the uniqueness of every relationship, the possibility that love itself can make the world better, though of course it's never easy.
This spring, James Salter published All That Is, his first novel in nearly 35 years — and the critics could not have been more excited. Michael Dirda said Salter has "rightly come to be regarded as one of the great writers of his generation." Malcolm Jones for The New York Times said, "If there were a Mount Rushmore for writers, he'd be there already." He's been compared to Philip Roth, Norman Mailer and John Updike.
It's not hard to see why. In Light Years (1975), Salter movingly describes the breakfast table of a middle-aged couple about to divorce: "everything, in fact, every plate and object, utensil, bowl illustrated what did not exist; they were fragments borne forward from the past, shards of a vanished whole." This passage encapsulates the monumental sadness that accompanies the end of a relationship — a sadness which hits first thing in the morning. But Salter, so empathetic and observant when it comes to describing kitchen utensils, is less insightful when describing his characters — especially the women.
Salter's women are described over and over again as meals for the male protagonists to enjoy and then leave behind in various western European countries. Take Anne-Marie, the French love interest in 1967's A Sport and Pastime: "She is talkative and happy. The food seems spread around her like vegetables to a roast. She is simply the living portion of the meal, and she smiles at his appetite which embraces her with glances." This is not just creepy; it's also empty, telling us nothing about Anne-Marie. And it's not like the American protagonist, Ivy League dropout Dean, learns much more about her later. Anne-Marie hardly speaks English, so her lines are pretty much limited to oui or non. And when she dares to speak, "her mistakes begin to be irritating, and besides, she seems disposed to talk only of banal things: shoes, her work at the office."
The book is not about a relationship between two people (clearly, one is hardly even allowed to talk), but about Dean's development. Apparently, to develop, Dean needs to fall in love with a beautiful French girl in the equally beautiful French countryside, and then to leave for college, or in his own words, "organize" himself once he's had his fill of it all. Salter could have depicted Anne-Marie not just as an experience Dean has, but also as a person in her own right — and the story would have been that much deeper.
Lest we think Salter's description of Anne-Marie as lunch reveals anything particular to her, in Light Years Salter uses the same image to describe a different love interest: the Italian Lia Cavalieri is like "a meal all prepared" for protagonist Viri, a lost, American, 47-year old recent divorcÚ. Once again, Salter describes a woman as food — and once again she seems to have nothing worthwhile to say. Viri, after sleeping with Lia, "lay by her side and put his arm beneath her head, drawing the robe over her at the same time as if she were a shop and he were closing her for the night — a shop one had to talk to."
Just as Dean meets Anne-Marie and decides to finish college, Lia is the catalyst that helps Viri begin the second half of his life. After their marriage, he "took stock of himself. He touched his limbs, his face, he began the essential process of forgetting what had passed." He, like Dean, went to Europe to meet a woman and "organize" himself. Lia and Anne-Marie are lunch stops on a man's road to self-discovery, their thoughts no more important to the narrative (and almost as absurd to worry about) as the thoughts of the tagliatelle that Viri actually orders.
Salter's depiction of women in his most recent book, All That Is, is no different, except that it's even more disturbing. The protagonist, Bowman, embarks on a love affair in Paris. He takes his ex-lover's college-age daughter there for a romantic weekend. But, of course, this affair is all about Bowman. When they first sleep together in New York, their sex is questionably consensual: "she moved from side to side and pushed his hand away, but he was insistent. Finally, not without relief, she gave in. She became his partner in it, more or less." In their final sex scene, Bowman realizes he is ready to forgive her mother for leaving him. He sneaks out of their hotel that morning, thinking about not anything she said or did, but rather "the freshness of her, even afterward." Much as you'd remember, well, a meal, though I feel icky just saying that.
I'm not the first to notice Salter's poor treatment of women in All That Is. John Freeman, for The Boston Globe, wrote that the women "listen to men talk and occasionally offer themselves to them, like gifts." Brian Gresko, in the Los Angeles Review of Books, pointed out that "an undercurrent of chauvinism flows beneath the story." And even Tim Sohn, writing for GQ, a publication hardly known for its progressive treatment of women, referred to the book's "slightly retrograde sexual politics."
Of course, our Western canon contains a lot of male writers who write in limiting ways about women. Do writers like Philip Roth and James Joyce treat their female characters fairly? It's endlessly debatable. But at the very least, they do endow their women with human characteristics. In Roth's American Pastoral, Merry is clearly vilified — she's a terrorist, actually — but you can still understand her desire to make her life meaningful through her adaptation of radical politics. Molly Bloom, in Joyce's Ulysses, suffers from an acute sense of penis envy, but her mind is full to bursting of thoughts — jumbled and contradictory, yes, but still assembled into a coherent vision of a person. In Salter, the women are experiences, storefronts, meals, but never people.
It's not that Salter's treatment of women makes me angry, though perhaps it should. Instead, I just find it tired and outdated. In All That Is, Bowman, the protagonist tries to convince his college girlfriend to sleep with him, and she says, "You men are all alike." He retorts, "That's a boring thing to say." And he's absolutely right.
Lidia Jean Kott is an editorial assistant for NPR Books.
At around 10 a.m. ET, the Supreme Court will begin handing down some of the final opinions of their 2012 term. The court usually sets out for its summer recess at the end of June, which means we're quickly running out of time for the justices to issue their opinion on four major cases argued earlier in the term.
As we've told you before, we're waiting for:
— Fisher v. University of Texas, a key test of affirmative action in higher education.
— Shelby County v. Holder, in which the issue is whether times have changed and the 1965 Voting Rights Act should no longer apply to that Alabama county.
The big caveat is we have no idea if the court will issue opinions on any of these cases today. The court gives no advance notice and the Chief Justice says the opinions are released "when they are ready." (The court has scheduled another "decision day" for June 24, and they can add more.)
That said, SCOTUSblog will be live blogging the action and will give us notice as soon as one of these cases is decided. We're embedding their live blog below. They usually fire it up at around 9 a.m. ET.