A rant … about how books are described

Few things are as annoying as finding a novel described in this way: ‘a Hemingway rewrite of Kafka’. Really? L’Etranger by Albert Camus is a Hemingway rewrite of Kafka? I don’t think so.

It annoys me because this description, from the Spectator, does no favours to Camus, Hemingway or Kafka, and moreover nor does it help the reader understand anything about L’Etranger. In fact, I find it such a confusing amalgam of writers that my brain rejects the whole idea. Why are books described in this way?

Other examples

Sad reader that I am, I have been collecting some recent examples that grated on me.

Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark is a very affirming short book about the importance and power of seeing alternatives to the present situation, and the importance of books in achieving this. It’s an important book. So what can we make of this description, included in the front pages?

Like Simon Schama, Solnit is a cultural historian in the desert-mystic mode, trailing ideas like butterflies. (Harper’s)

My brain baulks at three things in these two lines. Why did the Harper’s reviewer want to couple Simon Schama to Rebecca Solnit? Is the reviewer saying, Look at me! I read cultural history! And what on earth is the desert–mystic mode, and does it tell the potential reader anything about these writers? I don’t know any desert-mystics and I am fairly sure that it is not helpful to describe either of these writers as in this mode. And finally the image of the butterflies is contrary to my experience of them. Butterflies are more likely to flit away than trail after a writer. So even if you miss out the first three words, the reviewer still provides no idea about the value of Hope in the Dark. Please read more about it here, with no reference to Simon Schama, or deserts or butterflies.

Elizabeth Strout, in writing Amy and Isabelle, is twice likened to other writers.

This beautifully nuanced novel steers a course somewhere between the whimsy of Alice Hoffman, and the compassionate insight of Anne Tyler and Sue Miller, and is sure to delight fans of all three. (Publisher’s weekly)

And as if three (female) writers were not comparison enough we also get this from another review:

Alice Munro fans should lap up this atmospheric and tender novel (Image)

Independent People by Halldor Laxman (1934-5) is a big story about the hard rural life in Iceland. A gnomic comment on the rear cover of my copy merely says:

See also Far From the Madding Crowd.

And Thin Air by Michelle Paver (2016) is described in this way:

… like Touching the Void rewritten by Jack London Thin Air is a heart-freezing masterpiece (The Guardian).

Is Amazon to blame?

We could blame Amazon for this way of describing books, because long ago the website introduced the idea that ‘if you like this book you might also like x, y or z.’ And ‘People who viewed book x also bought book y’. This can be annoying, but I admit that at times it can be helpful.

Marketing by publishers?

These comparisons, extracted from reviews, have a use for publishers,. Quoting them is intended to promote less well-known, less-purchased books on the back of more successful authors. Readers must be hooked in to buy with the hope that by association of the two books the potential purchaser will buy this one. It has a secondary function; the comparison with another known author together with the cover signal the book’s genre – chick lit, noir, classic whodunits and historical romances. It helps the reader place the book.

Not so common now?

I have a feeling that the practice of comparisons, or likenings, is less common than it used to be. But I am not sure. Perhaps I pay less attention to blurbs now my tbr pile is so big, influenced more by reviews and recommendations by friends and fellow-bloggers than reading the blurb.

But it irritates me to bits. I don’t want to know what books or authors are brought to mind for a reviewer. I want to know its quality, something of its plot, about that book, not other books.

What do you think?

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The Yanks are Coming! The Yanks are Coming!

The United States joined the war effort in Europe, sending troops to Britain in 1942. Britain had been at war since September 1939 and taken a pounding in the Blitz in 1940-41. The blackout was in force and rationing was strict. The Allies’ experiences of the war were different, and both sides were keen to avoid exploitation of differences.

More than the difference experiences of war, most US servicemen had not been to Britain, and US war department issued seven pages of guidance to the men making the Atlantic crossing called Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain 1942. Differences between the countries were acknowledged, but the claim was made that values and principles were the same, the differences lay in some daily aspects of life.

The most evident truth of all is that in their major ways of life the British and American people are much alike. They speak the same language. They both believe in representative government, in freedom of worship, in freedom of speech. But each country has minor national characteristics which differ. It is by causing misunderstanding over these minor differences that Hitler hopes to make his propaganda effective. (4)

Instructions for American Servicemen

The Instructions is an interesting historical document. It tells us a great deal about Britain and its peoples by presenting them to Americans with little knowledge or experience of Britain. It also tells us some things about how Britain has changed since 1942.

It was written to provide guidance on unfamiliar aspects of British life. Some of these were longstanding, like the coinage (pounds shillings and pence in those days) and use of certain words. But US servicemen were also warned about changes brought about by the war, such as rationing and the blackout.

And as a historical document to study today, we can see how much change has occurred in the 75 years since it was issued. Perhaps the most significant difference is that it is not necessary for US citizens to be informed about Britain these days. American dominates our popular culture (film, social media, music, coffee shops etc). And a curious visitor can find out much through the internet.

I obtained my copy of Instructions as background reading for a short story I am writing, but also as part of my interest in the history of the 1940s and 1950s.

Warnings to US servicemen

As well as underlining the similarities and common purpose of the two countries the booklet warns the reader how not to offend the British, or how to understand them. Chief among these was the description of the British character as reserved.

So if Britons sit on trains or buses without striking up a conversation with you, it doesn’t mean they are being haughty or unfriendly. Probably they are paying more attention to you than you think. But they don’t speak to you because they don’t want to appear intrusive or rude. (5)

Foreigners on London’s tube today might perceive the same behaviour. Country buses, by the way, are a different matter.

More importantly Britain was a country involved in total war and may look ‘a little shop worn and grimy to you’.

The houses haven’t been painted because factories are not making paint – they’re making planes. The famous English parks and gardens are either unkempt because there are no men to take care of them, or they are being used to grow needed vegetables. British taxi cabs look antique because Britain makes tanks for herself and Russia and hasn’t time to make new cars. British trains are cold because power is needed for industry, not for heating. There are no luxury dining cars on trains because total war effort has no place for such frills. The trains are unwashed and grimy because men and women are needed for more important tasks than car-washing. The British people are anxious for you to know that in normal times Britain looks much prettier, cleaner, neater. (11)

Locals and United States troops meet at the Dove Inn, Burton Bradstock, Dorset in 1942. Imperial War Museum (D20142). via WikiCommons

And they are reminded that Britain is a small country, ‘hardly bigger than Minnesota’, and has weather that is almost continuously damp. They are warned of different refreshments: warm beer and ubiquitous tea rather than coffee. Pubs will welcome you so long as you remember that the pub ‘is “the poor man’s club,” the neighbourhood or village gathering place’.

As a historical source revealing attitudes of the time, the Instructions are mostly about the behaviour and customs of the men of Britain. You might have noticed that there were ‘no men’ to take care of the parks and gardens. Actually there was a huge land army of women working on the farms.

Turnip Singling in 1943 by Evelyn Dunbar

On gender issues there is a section that reveals more about American attitudes than about Britain’s women. I cringe when I read the warning to the Americans

A British woman officer or non-commissioned offer can – and often does – give orders to a man private. The men obey smarty and know it is no shame. (25)

And to reinforce the respect of British servicemen for their female counterparts the leaflet explains:

For British women have proven themselves in this way. They have stuck to their posts near burning ammunition dumps, delivered messages afoot after their motorcycles have been blasted from under them. They have pulled aviators from burning planes. They have died at the gun posts and as they fell another girl has stepped directly into the position and “carried on.”

And as if this information about the ‘girls’ is not enough the writer reassures the Americans,

There is not a single record in this war of any British women in uniformed service quitting her post or failing her duty under fire.

Not quite finished with this subject, the writer cannot pass up an opportunity for this comment:

… and if she has a bit of ribbon on her tunic – remember she didn’t get it for knitting more socks than anyone else in Ipswich.

Another difference that the Americans were advised to keep quiet about was the differentials in pay between a US private soldier and the British Tommy.

Over Here

The D-Day Landings were more than two years ahead and there were still three more years of the European War and four of the war in the Far East. The arrival of the US forces added more changes to those that the bleak first years of the war had brought to British society.

The booklet says nothing about attitudes in Britain to ‘coloured’ people. The segregationist activities of some US servicemen, especially from the South, were very alien to the British and offended them greatly. (See the film Welcome to Britain where it was dealt with).

No doubt from time to time Americans forgot to drive on the left, broke the rules on the blackout, complained about warm beer and lack of decent coffee, and their hosts’ lack of soap, and were confused about British coins. From this point, however, the course of the war began to change.

Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain. Original version issued by War Department, Washington DC in 1942. Reproduced by the Bodleian Library University of Oxford in 2004. Available from the Bodleian Library and from the Imperial War Museum, London.

Welcome to Britain was a film for newly arrived US servicemen made by the Strand Film Company for the Ministry of Information. You can find it on You Tube.

Related post

In April 1944 a rehearsal for D-Day went badly wrong and 946 US servicemen were killed by ‘friendly fire’ on Slapton Sands in Devon. I wrote about it as part of a walk I did last year: 26 Steps: Walking and Writing

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Why use real people in fiction?

So why do writers use real people as characters in their novels? Doesn’t the choice of real people as characters limit the writer’s creativity? Perhaps the author wishes to correct a settled view of the character, or offer an alternative interpretation to the established version of events as in Burial Rites (see below). Perhaps the discipline of keeping to what is known about a person, limiting to some extent the creation of the character, allows freedoms elsewhere in the writing? It may be that people’s actions and motivations, being the stuff of fiction, are more vivid when they are drawn from life.

I seem to have read a number of fictions based on historical events or people recently. So here are some thoughts on factual fictions (or is it fictional facts? – no it isn’t!), some reviews and mentions of other novels.

Writing about real people

For the writer it may be that it is useful that the storyline is already established. But there are some challenges. Not least, the outcome may constitute a spoiler. Or not. I was pleased, as a reader, that I knew Agnes’s fate in Burial Rites. Knowing that she was to be executed focused my mind on the changing relationships as her fate approached, which I believe was Hannah Kent’s intention.

A danger lies in the writer’s attachment to all that research. Some writers appear to include everything. Some writers wear their research lightly. Hilary Mantel appears to be in complete command of all her material, even when her interpretation counters some established ideas. I think of the righteousness of Sir Thomas More in Wolf Hall, for example. She presents a very different view from what I learned in my A Level classes, or to Robert Bolt’s A Man For All Seasons. Research is a very seductive part of writing. Writing on the booksbywomen blog Anna Mazzola reflects on writing her novel The Unseeing and advises:

Work out what to research, and know when to stop.

She spent a year researching London and criminal justice in the 19th century and the murder at the centre of the plot.

In retrospect, I should have mapped out the plot and deduced from that which questions I needed to answer in order to write the book.

Perhaps her most useful advice comes in her recommendation

Recognise that the history is not the story.

The job of the fiction writer is not to be a historian or biographer but to provide ‘a wider sense of what people’s lives might have been like in a particular era: to fear, to love, to escape, to survive’.

So here are some recommendations.

Burial Rights by Hannah Kent

This unsettling novel is based on the true story of Agnes, executed for her part in two murders in Iceland in 1829.

The novel focuses on the period leading up to her execution when Agnes is billeted on a farm. We read about the responses of the family, neighbours and the priest she has asked to help her prepare. The everyday interaction with Agnes as well as her muted behaviour and then the retelling of her life story help gradually shift attitudes towards her.

In some ways it is a feminist novel. Hannah Kent has interpreted Agnes as a strong and independent woman who does not fit the norms of Icelandic society. In Burial Rites she stands up to male abuse to herself and a younger girl, and this eventually leads to the death of her tormentor. The younger girl is pardoned, being pretty and somewhat simple.

The details of Icelandic life fit well with what I have read, and the harsh realities of the law and the hierarchy of the island (subject to distant Danish rule) are well evoked. The writing is vivid and moving.

Recommended by Morag in a comment on the post Bookword in Iceland.

Burial Rights by Hannah Kent, published by Picador (2013) 355pp

The Great Lover by Jill Dawson

Jill Dawson has made her writing career writing about real people. The Great Lover features Rupert Brooke during his years at Cambridge and in Tahiti. Other historical figures make an appearance, including Lady Ottoline Morrell and Virginia Wolf. The girl whom Rupert thinks he loves attended Bedales School, known for naked swimming and free lessons.

It was a Richard and Judy summer read, which must have brought Jill Dawson and Rupert Brooke to the attention of many readers who had not known them before. The story zips along, through endless pre-war sunny days, endless glimpses from afar and endless self-examination by the main characters.

The Great Lover by Jill Dawson, published by Sceptre (2009)

Other fictions based on real people by Jill Dawson include Fred and Edie (2000) and The Crime Fighter (2016), which I recently reviewed, here.

Magda by Meike Ziervogel

Magda is the wife of Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels. The novella’s narrative captures different moments in her life. We meet her first as a girl, for example, in a convent, where the endemic cruelty of the sisters and the other girls is designed to promote conformity. The sections are filtered through different women: Magda herself in the convent, later it is her mother, her daughter’s diary, her own imagination of what it her life will be like after the war, and a more detached narrator.

We get a sense that abuse rattles down the generations, reinforced through institutions especially the Catholic Church and National Socialists, which is presented as a religion. It’s a vivid, and raw account of what it meant to be a child in pre-war Germany, as it was collapsing in 1945, and it meant to be one of the favoured ones in that distorted society.

Magda is an interesting mix of historical fact and imaginative exploration. I understood something more about how Bavarians and Catholics became such keen advocates of National Socialism, how women were abused by the ideas of fascism, and how women are forced to use their sexuality to make anything of themselves, especially in times of crisis and chaos.

Magda by Meike Ziervogel Salt Publishing (2013) 103pp

Recent reviews on this blog:

Ghost Light by Joseph O’Connor In this novel the main character is the actor Molly Allgood.

Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien A searing look at how charming and seductive evil can be, hiding in plain sight, even if he is the Beast of Bosnia.

Other fictions that I am tempted by …

The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes (Shostakovich) (2016)

Or have read in the past.

Memoirs of Hadrian by Margaret Yourcenar (1951). The Emperor writes a letter to his successor towards the end of his life.

Summer in February by Jonathan Smith (1995); a circle of painters in Cornwall, three of whom create a doomed love triangle. Laura Knight, Harold Knight, Alfred Munnings among them.

Tom and Will by Matthew Plampin (2015). A novel based on a possible episode in the lives of two young painters JMW Turner and Tom Girtin.

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The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie

This is my third post in the Decades Project, and we are into the 1920s. This classic whodunit was published in 1926. The genre was already established. Hercule Poirot had appeared in two previous novels. He solves the mystery of who killed Roger Ackroyd despite protesting that he wanted to retire. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was voted best crime novel ever in 2013 by the Crime Writer’s Association.

We are a decade on from O Pioneers! and oh so far away. This is cosy, unchanging rural England, where people are putting The Great War behind them and where people still know their place.

The story of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

We have many characters with the motivation to kill Roger Ackroyd, and many activities designed to throw the reader off the trail of the killer. There is a little back story: Roger Ackroyd, who is very rich, was about to marry a widow Mrs Ferrars. Mrs Ferrars was being blackmailed because she poisoned her brutish husband. She commits suicide, but has written to Roger Ackroyd to tell him who the blackmailer is.

On the point of revealing the identity of Mrs Ferrars’s blackmailer, Roger Ackroyd is found dead and her letter is missing. There is a nephew who benefits from his death; his sister’s daughter whose smallest bills he was in the habit of scrutinising; a creepy housekeeper with a secret she will hide at all costs; a manservant who creeps about; a housemaid who is not what she seems; a male secretary who may be greedy; a big game hunter, likewise; and a mysterious stranger seen at the house around the time of the murder. Our narrator is the village doctor Dr Sheppard, who has access to all households. What he doesn’t know his sister Caroline is sure to discover and gossip about. These two are able to keep the reader well informed.

Who is to solve the mystery? Poirot has retired to King’s Abbot in Devon, hoping to grow vegetable marrows and stay out of the limelight. His friend, Captain Hastings is in the Argentine so it falls to Dr Sheppard to act as Poirot’s sidekick and to ask the questions we want answered.

No spoilers here. But the ending has the requisite clever twist.

Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie in 1925

Born in Torquay in 1890, Agatha Christie has probably sold more novels than any other writer – 2bn copies. She lived in interesting times. She met and married her husband in 1914. He went off to the war in the newly formed Royal Flying Corps and she signed up as a VAD nurse. After the war she continued her reading and writing, and in the year that The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was published she disappeared for six days. Her marriage was in difficulties. Divorced in 1928, she got remarried 2 years later to an archaeologist, Sir Max Mallowan. Already familiar with Cairo she frequently accompanied him on his expeditions. Egypt and the Middle East form the background to many of her novels. During the Second World War she worked in a pharmacy in London. She lived until 1976, aged 85.

She had written 66 detective novels and 14 collections of short stories. They have, of course, been adapted for tv and film.

Greenway House in Devon was Agatha Christie’s holiday home, and it was from here that Allen Lane was travelling when he had the idea for Penguin paperbacks. Greenway House is now a National Trust property.

My reflections

It’s a very long time since I read a detective novel, and it was interesting to notice the plotting. Although I enjoyed reading this classic murder-mystery it has not converted me to an enthusiasm for the genre.

As a historical artefact it was interesting. It is set in the 1920s, when vacuum cleaners were a new fangled idea, but the novel celebrates continuity of the village community in rural England. John Major’s vicar’s wives are cycling past warm beer on the village green in the background. It’s not like that now, and I wonder how much was disappearing even then. The decades have brought changes here in rural Devon just as surely as in New York and Nebraska (the locations of the two previous novels in this series).

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie. First published in 1926. I read the Penguin 1948 edition, a gift from my sister. 250pp

The Decade Project

I took my idea for the Decades Project from my library’s Reading Passport scheme. To encourage readers the passport is stamped each time you complete a book from a different decade. I like the idea of selecting a book from every decade from 1900 onwards. I am reading one a month, from 1900s in January, from 1920s in February and so on and review them here.

Reading passport 315

Previous posts in the Project

O Pioneers by Willa Cather, published in 1913.

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, published in 1905.

The next decade: 1930s

I plan to read Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (1938) for April’s choice. Please make suggestions for subsequent decades.

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Being a Nice Book Blogger

Recently some corners of the book blogging world have been in turmoil. It seems that some authors have objected to the critical comments in on-line reviews. They especially minded if they provided the copy for review. Abusive comments were sent. Trolling occurred.

This is not the first time book bloggers have been in trouble. In 2012 the Man Booker Prize head judge Peter Stothard complained that book bloggers are harming literature. I think this argument has about as many legs as those who say that comics prevent children from developing good reading habits, texting damages spelling, Kindle will kill off ‘real’ books and so on. There is space for book bloggers alongside the more traditional literary criticism.

Do bloggers have to be nice?

I think two principles can collide in book reviewing on-line. The blogger should be respectful, not take opportunities to be negatively critical, offensive or rude. But there is also a human obligation to the truth, and let’s face it some books are disappointing, challenging to finish when the writer has not made you interested in the characters; when the book is distractingly littered with typos, spelling and grammar mistakes.

The blogger has no obligation to write an endorsement for an author who has provided a book. They do have an obligation to their readers to declare the source of the book if it was not from their own stock. Some editors appear to think that bloggers owe them something. Here’s a link to Spiritblog who wonders if an angry editor knew what book bloggers can and do do to promote books.

And despite a recent flurry remember that book bloggers are readers, or as the hashtag has it #Bloggersarerealpeople. Margaret Madden wrote a piece for the Irish Times in February 2017 about some nasty goings on in the book club world: Book Bloggers are Real People.

Do authors have to be nice?

Well, authors don’t have to be nice, but they should not be not nice, not troll bloggers who don’t want to review their books or judge their books unfavourably. The blogger and tweeter Terry Tyler posted on Rosie Amber’s blog some advice to writers: Bookblogger bashing: in the end you’re hurting yourself.

On Bookword

Bookshop at the British Museum 2016

As a reader of many, many books I have to select what to review on my blog. Some books I read don’t get reviewed because they don’t fit the profile of the blog: Mark Doty’s memoir Dog Years was a fascinating book that made me cry, about animals and death, but not in the genres that I have lead my readers to expect. Most of the books I review are fiction, but not all.

I don’t always agree to review books I am offered. This may be because they are only available on-line, or because they don’t interest me. Some books I read aren’t included on my blog because they are not special enough. There are too many great books out there to waste readers’ time on mediocrity. (Yes, I’m a book snob.)

I can’t see that anything productive would come from making negative comments, except if I am exposing stereotypes, as in the series on older women in fiction. If a book does not do justice to an older woman, drawing on the sweet, eccentric image I say so. There are only a couple of those.

And reading would be bland if everything I reviewed I said was lovely. And I try to add more detail than a simple recommendation: excellent characterization, nuanced examination of tricky subjects, imaginative plotline, and so on.

 

A place for Blog Reviews?

In answer to the criticisms by Peter Stothard that book bloggers are harming literature, John Self provided a spirited defence in an article called Why book bloggers are critical to literary criticism in September 2012.

I value the editorial processes that ensure standards in literary journals. But bloggers are readers too, and I like nothing more than to be told someone enjoyed reading a book I recommended. Furthermore, as women writers are so badly represented in literary reviews (both as reviewers and as novel writers), bloggers have an opportunity to shift the balance a bit, including many male bloggers.

So I argue that there is a place for professional reviews and for bloggers’ reviews and I will continue to select my reading choices from the reviewers I have come to trust on blogs and from literary publications.

Book-bloggers are readers.

Over to you! Any reactions to these comments?

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What is Not Yours is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi

Here’s a fresh and startling, joyous and playful collection of short stories from Helen Oyeyemi. The ideas spill out, teeming onto the page so that the reader is swept along from the opening of a story to its destination, which might appear to be unconnected. And suddenly you meet a character from another story, or an idea that rocks you backwards and you have to slow down your reading. It was a delightful experience to read What is Not Yours is Not Yours.

The Short Stories

‘Bigarrure’ is a word found on p184 of these stories, defined as ‘a medley of sundry colours running together’. I was so unsettled by Helen Oyeyemi’s creativity that I wasn’t sure if the word existed and had to look it up. It does exist. And it does mean variegation or colourful mixture. And it’s a good word to use about this writer’s style: bigarrure.

As a reader you are entering uncertain territory with this collection. You are given very little guidance. Nothing on the cover or the title page announces that this is a book of short stories. There is no contents page. The nine stories (or perhaps there are 10, it’s not clear) announce themselves by their titles. This is just the beginning. The character who appears to be central turns out to be a minor player. Little indication is given of the gender of first person narrators, or indeed their ethnicity, there are few descriptions of people’s appearnaces. Locations shift. Time is unstable. The reader senses misdirection.

She is an accomplished an experienced author, so one has to accept that Helen Oyeyemi means to unsettle and challenge the reader. So you thought this, she seems to be saying, but that was not what I told you. You assumed.

The stories have some connections. Their locations vary, and are not always clear. Sometimes we are in Prague, sometimes in a fictional country, sometimes in a country that could be part of the UK. But characters reappear, often as narrator, sometimes in walk–on parts. And in every story there is a key, usually locked doors, and therefore secrets and things lost.

The genres of the stories vary, even within a story. The first one, books and roses, begins with a foundling and takes on the characteristics of a fairy story, shifts to a surrealism worthy of Leonora Carrington, then to a love story and in parts is made of letters and notes.

The collection includes a truly awful story, drownings, which begins

This happened and it didn’t happen: (125)

The story is about a tyrant who drowns people on a whim. He has drowned many, many of the citizens in the marshes.

… the marshland stretched out further and further, slowly pulling houses and cinemas, greengrocers, restaurants and concert halls down into the water. If you looked down into the swamps (which he never did) it was possible to see people untangling their limbs and hair, courteously handing each other body parts and keys, resuming residence in their homes, working out what crops they might raise and which forms of energy they could harness. (140-1)

Things work out, in a fashion, in drownings.

Yet more unsettling is presence, a strange tale about loss, and especially the loss of what you never had. An experiment is conducted by two psychologists to conjure up the son who never was.

There are puppets, a public tale of apology through social media, and other stories where ideas seem to pour out of Helen Oyeyemi’s pen.

My reactions

I was excited to read this book. It took me to places I was not expecting, shifting my understanding of the stories, doubling back and leaping to new locations or situations. For once I found the blurb quotations were accurate: strange delights, startling, dazzling, fireworks, disorientating, gothic, captivating. Like life really.

Helen Oyeyemi

Helen Oyeyemi

No review of her work avoids saying that Helen Oyeyemi is young, female and black. Born in 1984 she made a name for herself with prize-winning novels even before she left school. The titles of her novels indicate her love of oppositional ideas:

  • The Icarus Girl (2005)
  • The Opposite House (2007)
  • White is for Witching (2009)
  • Mr Fox (2011)
  • Boy, Snow, Bird (2014)

A little digging reveals that she is a peripatetic writer, born in Nigeria, brought up in London, studied at Cambridge, had a university residency in America, and is currently living in Prague, perhaps. I’m looking forward to reading more of her work.

Related Posts

Lonesome Reader blog reviewed What is Not Yours is not Yours when it was first published in April 2016.

As did Stuart Evers in the Independent in March 2016.

What is Not Yours is not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi published in 2016 and available in paperback from Picador. 262pp

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What is Fiction for?

As I continue to worry about the world in which we live, I have been asking the question more and more frequently, what is fiction for? What can fiction do to enhance the chances of improving how we live? In the last couple of months I have written about the need to counter some expressions of xenophobia, narrowness, hatred and racism. Here is something to which fiction can contribute.

Lady with book by Vanessa Bell

I do not want to detract from the purpose of escapism and entertainment for which fiction is well suited and does a grand job. However, when I read fiction I usually want more than this. Escapism, entertainment and a good story are not enough in my reading. I’m with Susan Sontag who said that writers have moral purpose.

So what is fiction for beyond escapism and entertainment?

I go back to some writers to find what they think they are doing, what is their moral purpose. There seem to be at least three related functions:

  1. Experiencing new territories
  2. Building hope
  3. Building empathy

Here is Margaret Drabble in the Paris Review in 1978 in reply to the question, What would you say is the function of the novel?

I don’t think it’s to teach, but I don’t think it’s simply to entertain, either. It’s to explore new territory. To extend one’s knowledge of the world. And to illumine what one sees in it. That’s a fairly moral concept, isn’t it?

And Neil Gaiman, in a lecture for the Reading Agency called Why our Future Depends on Libraries: reading and daydreaming in 2013 also uses a spatial metaphor. Fiction’s first value is to be the gateway to reading for children, he says.

And the second thing fiction does is to build empathy. When you watch TV or see a film, you are looking at things happening to other people. … You get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. You’re being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you’re going to be slightly changed.

Empathy is a tool for building people into groups, for allowing us to function as more than self-obsessed individuals.

Like Rebecca Solnit in Hope in the Dark, Neil Gaiman believes that fiction has an important role in building hope, by showing readers that the world can be different. He goes on:

You’re also finding out something as you read vitally important for making your way in the world. And it’s this:

THE WORLD DOESN’T HAVE TO BE LIKE THIS. THINGS CAN BE DIFFERENT.

Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere you’ve never been. Once you’ve visited other worlds, like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. And discontent is a good thing: people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different, if they’re discontented.

Salley Vickers is a novelist who has also trained as a psychoanalyst. She wrote Miss Garnett’s Angel in 2000. She enlarges on the function of fiction:

Reading is not merely a diversion or distraction from present pain; it is also an enlarging of our universe, our sympathies, wisdom and experience.

President Obama told the NY Times about his reading practices, including reading novels, in January this year.

And so I think that I found myself better able to imagine what’s going on in the lives of people throughout my presidency because of not just a specific novel but the act of reading fiction. It exercises those muscles, and I think that has been helpful.

Some fiction has political purposes. I think of three books about war that changed my perceptions: All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, Catch-22 by Joseph Heller and Dispatches by Michael Herr. Empathy can be an important impetus to political action.

In a post about a collection called A Country of Refuge I suggested that writers should be doing the following:

  • Tell the stories
  • Tell the stories of individuals
  • Keeping imagination alive to help people understand the stories
  • Keeping imagination alive to tell stories of different futures

An in a post about How Bookish people can have Hope in Dark Days I wrote this.

In order to keep hope alive we need to tell the stories of action, alternatives, truth when it is obscured. … We also need to tell stories of how it could be. Hope opens us up to the possibilities that we can work towards. Here bookish people, as well as the press, have a very significant role to play. There are both histories and fictions. History reminds us how far we have come and how. Fiction stretches the imagination, the future possibilities for humans.

Fiction, then, is important to keep in mind the possibilities of other ways in which the world can be, to face us with some unpalatable truths and above all to develop empathy, without which we are surely doomed. But we are not doomed! We have fiction and can write more fiction. Read! Write! Eat the fairy fruit!

Any thoughts?

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Refugee Tales edited by David Herd and Anna Pincus

This collection of stories relates naturally to my challenge: they connect writing, and walking and refugees. The framework is adapted from Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, with a real walk and real stories told each night. The walk took place in June 2015 and took a route from Dover to Crawley via Canterbury. At any time between 80 and 150 people were on the walk.

The purpose of the Refugee Tales project is to change the language used about refugees,

That by the oldest action

Which is listening to tales

That other people tell

Of others

Told by other

We set out to make a language

That opens politics

Establishes belonging

Where a person dwells. (Prologue pv)

And of course, to change the language is to change the meaning of refugees’ lives.

The collection was produced by the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group with stories and other contributions from writers such as Ali Smith, Chris Cleave, Marina Lewycka, Jade Amoli-Jackson, Patience Agbabi.

Refugee Tales

So we have a prologue and a series of stories, modelled on Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. The Migrant’s Tale, The Lorry Driver’s Tale, The Arriver’s Tale, The Detainee’s Tale and so on. So many different stories, underlining the fact that we are all implicated in the experiences of refugees in this country.

The writers are retelling stories, experiences of people who often are unable to retell such stories in public places.

And the tone is welcoming

And the tone is celebratory

And the tone is courteous

And the tone is real

And every step sets out a demand

And every demand is urgent

And what we call for

Is an end

To this inhuman discourse. (x)

Chaucer’s Canterbury Pilgrims. Copper engraving by William Blake, with additions in watercolour by the artist 1810–20. In the collection of the Morgan Library via WkiCommons

I am going to pick out two of the fourteen Tales.

The Lorry Driver’s Tale by Chris Cleave.

This tale made deepest impression on me. Chris Cleave’s capacity to surprise as a story teller is evident in his novels: I was shocked by The Other Hand, and surprised by aspects of the less convincing Gold. This tale begins when a leftie journalist joins the narrator in his cab a hundred kilometres away from Calais. The opening paragraphs set the scene, the cab driver as common man, sporting a UKIP decal on his rig.

We learn about the practicalities of dodging the illegal migrants.

If immigration is a horror film then Calais is the scene where the zombies are massing. (26)

The leftie journalist is doing an article on the burning social issue of immigration, although he is mostly a restaurant reviewer. He serves to show us how ignorant we liberal lefties are, ignorant of what happens in the ports and the areas around them, what it means to try to drive to the UK with no illegal passengers.

All is not quite as it seems, however. Our lorry driver has a lyrical streak.

At the end of the Customs queue I stopped the lorry and it made those hissing sighing noises – as though it was powered by sadness under unbelievable pressure. (32)

The tale manages to tell us a great deal about what it means for some humans to risk everything to stowaway, and what it does to others who are required to stop them. It is a profoundly moral tale.

The Appellant’s Tale

Portrait of Chaucer as a Canterbury pilgrim, Ellesmere manuscript of The Canterbury Tales. The Tale of Melibee. Early 15th Century via WkiCommons

The Appellant’s Tale was told to David Herd near Crawley. It tells of the appalling experiences of a man from Nigeria, who had been living and working legally in the UK for 30 years. But incompetence and lying in the UK Border Agency resulted in the most appalling sequence of events, a nightmare when he was detained as an illegal immigrant. He was only saved from deportation by someone’s accidental failure to dispose of a black plastic sack containing his essential papers.

This Tale is long, and slow, and reflects both what happened to the man and the way in which he speaks. It is narrated in the present tense and the second person. The reader feels appalled that someone can suffer so many awful injustices in this country, that immigration practices do not have the legal safeguards, for example to defend against lies. The UK Border Agency come out badly from this tale. So does detention and deportation.

… the question of indefinite detention, a cornerstone of UK immigration policy, has remained almost entirely absent from the debate. The principal intention of Refugee Tales was to help communicate the scandalous reality of detention and post-detention existence to a wider audience and in the process to demand that such indefinite detention ends. (From the Afterword p143)

The purpose of the collection is to alter the discourse around refugees, to make English ‘sweet again’, as in Chaucer’s time, sweet so that we can listen, write it down, make stories, so that people cannot say, we didn’t know.

My blog/walk challenge has similar purposes, to draw attention to the responses to the immigration crisis, and to tell human stories.

Refugee Tales, edited by David Herd and Anna Pincus. Published by Comma Press in 2016. 150pp Profits go to Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group and Kent Refugee Help

My walk and challenge.

I am raising money for Freedom from Torture, through sponsorship of a monthly walk and blogpost. This is the seventh post in the series. You can read more about this on the page called My Challenge (click on the page title below the masthead).

At the time of writing I have achieved 60% of my target. Please help me reach my full target which is £1800 by making a donation.

February walk

The Good Name Walk, February 2017

February’s walk could be called the ‘good name walk’. It was a beautiful but muddy day in the second half of February, for a circular walk that started at my front door, took in Coombe Fishacres, Tanyard Lane, Trigwell Lane, Ipplepen Road, Aptor Lane, Butterball Copse and Berry Pomeroy Castle. Round here, lane means very muddy track! The walk was about 12.5km (7.5 miles).

You can sponsor my walk/blog here, by clicking onto my Just Giving Page.

Related posts and websites

The Challenge page on this website

A Country of Refuge Ed by Lucy Popescu, walk number 5 in January 2017.

Dartmoor, Hay Tor and Freedom from Torture, an extra walk in December, supported by about 20 walkers.

The Optician of Lampedusa by Emma Jane Kirby. My fourth walk in December

Do Refugees need holidays? My third walk in November

Breach by Olumide Popoola & Annie Holmes, the second walk in October

Lost and Found, the first walk in September

Write to Life at Freedom from Torture

The next post about the challenge will appear on this blog …

… in March

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O Pioneers! by Willa Cather

O Pioneers! is a wholesome version of the American Dream: set in Nebraska, and showing that hard work and order can produce food from the ground and money in your pocket. The distinctive feature of O Pioneers! is that the creator of this wealth is a woman, Alexandra Bergson. She is such a contrast to Lily Bart in The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, published in the previous decade!

This is my second review in the Decades Project. More details below.

What a difference!

It wasn’t a deliberate choice to consider the contrasts between Lily Bart and The House of Mirth and Alexandra Bergson in O Pioneers! but they are telling. The earlier novel was set in New York and Europe, an eastward-looking novel. O Pioneers! takes place in Nebraska, part of the westward settlement of the North American interior. Willa Cather’s family had travelled from Virginia to Nebraska to build their lives there, beginning as farmers.

In O Pioneers! the Bergsons do not have money. They have come from Sweden to Nebraska and the land they cultivate has never been worked before. Alexandra is a capable young woman, and her father recognises her ability to manage the farm before his early death. She continues his work, caring for her three brothers, and developing the farm. After an initial struggle she does very well, through a combinations of research, investment and experimentation. She is able to provide the two oldest boys with their own farms, a university education to the youngest boy and a home and employment to an assortment of other people. She is well regarded in their community.

Unlike Lily, Alexandra hardly considers marriage, and certainly does not see it as a necessity or as her destiny.

She had never been in love, she had never indulged in sentimental reveries. Even as a girl she had looked upon men as work-fellows. She had grown up in serious times. (112)

One of the most poignant scenes involves the two older brothers, Oscar and Lou, who warn Alexandra against marrying Carl, a childhood friend who has returned to stay with her. By this time Alexandra has built up a large and thriving ranch, employing several people. Oscar says, ‘people have begun to talk’. Lou tells her,

‘You ought to think a little about your family. You’re making us all ridiculous.’

‘How am I?’

‘People are beginning to say you want to marry the fellow.’ …

Oscar rose. ‘Yes’, he broke in, ‘everybody’s laughing to see you get took in; at your age, too. Everybody knows he’s nearly five years younger than you, and is after your money. Why, Alexandra, you are forty years old!’ (91-2)

Alexandra has nothing more to do with these brothers after this. It’s refreshing to read a novel from 100 years ago suggesting that a women’s marriage is not the business of the male members of her family. She does eventually marry Carl, on her own terms.

Other features of O Pioneers!

The novel includes a double murder of a pair of lovers. A strange aspect of the plot is that Alexandra visits the murderer in prison, and vows to use her influence to get him pardoned. The introduction to my edition suggests that Alexandra has a ‘rage for order’ and the lovers had disrupted the order of the community. The text suggests an additional reason for her response: she likes to do things, make things better. She loved both the victims, but she cannot do anything for them, but she pities the wronged husband and believes she can do something for him.

The characters in the novel are sharply drawn. Alexandra herself comes across as a vivid and energetic pioneer. She is in sharp contrast to Marie, the Bohemian (that is she came from Bohemia – provenance is important to pioneers) who is attractive, lively and always cheerful. Alexandra’s brothers are cautious, resentful, not models of pioneer spirit.

One character, Ivar, suffers fits of some kind, and keeps himself away from the community, living in an adapted cave, and reading the Bible. He has a particular ability with horses. Ivar comes to live with Alexandra when he gets too old to look after himself, an indication of her generous and tolerant spirit.

Willa Cather

Willa Cather in 1912 via WikiCommons

I have indicated that this novel draws on Willa Cather’s own experience. She described the writing of this, her second novel, in 1931, using a rural analogy.

I began to write a book entirely for myself, a story about some Scandinavians and Bohemians who had been neighbours of ours when I lived on a ranch in Nebraska, when I was eight or nine years old. … Here there was no arranging or ‘inventing’; everything was spontaneous and took its own place, right or wrong. This was like taking a ride through a familiar country on a horse that knew the way, on a fine morning when you felt like riding. (170: from My First Novels)

Born in 1873, Willa Cather adopted her first name from an uncle who died in the Civil War. Her most significant relationships were with women, living with Edith Lewis from 1907 until her death in 1947. She had an active life as a journalist, writing novels, including My Antonia, editing magazines, and traveling in Europe, Canada and the US. Her talents were acknowledged in her lifetime. She received the Pulitzer Prize in 1923, for example.

O Pioneers! By Willa Cather. First published in 1913. Edition used in this review is by Oxford World Classics. 179 pp

The Decade Project

My library encourages reading with a Reading Passport. It is stamped each time you complete a book from a different decade. I like the idea of selecting a book from every decade from 1900 onwards. I will read one a month, from 1900s in January, from 1910s in February and so on and to review them here.

Previous posts in the Project

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, published in 1905.

The next decade: 1920s

I plan to read The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie for March’s choice. Please make suggestions for subsequent decades.

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Bookword in Iceland

Reading and travelling are both experiences of visiting new worlds. I like combining them and set about finding bookish connections when I’m on the move. I went to Iceland in February. Not my idea, but my brother is celebrating what people call a ‘big birthday’ and I said I would go with him. He hoped to see the Northern Lights. I’m up for such things, especially when I get to visit a new place. Here are some bookish reflections on my brief time in Iceland.

Strangers in Iceland

In 2009 Sarah Moss went to live in Iceland with her partner and children. She had a contract for a year with the University of Reykjavik. 2009 was the year following Kreppa, the Icelandic term for the financial crash. Kreppa ended the years of silly and false money-making in Iceland. People were suffering.

Sarah Moss is a novelist, author of Night Waking (2011) and The Tidal Zone (2016), both excellent novels published by Granta. The book she wrote about her time in Iceland is categorized as ‘travel’. It is not like any travel book I have read. It is more of a what-I-noticed-when-we-lived-in-Iceland-for-a-year kind of book. It is called Names for the Sea: strangers in Iceland. I recommend it even if you are not planning a visit.

From Names for the Sea I got the impression that Icelandic people may look and behave like other Western people, but actually they are very different. Icelandic people have sense of themselves as distinct, and what it means to be Icelandic, and a pride in their country and culture. They like the perception that theirs is the safest country in the world (1.1 murders a year are committed on average. Sadly, the week before we visited, Birna, a young girl was murdered. There were searches and a vigil and a man from Greenland has been arrested.)

Our sense of Iceland, as tourists, was that we should not be stressed. They had everything covered. Coaches and minibuses crisscrossed Reykjavik, fetching tourists from hotels and taking them on tours, information always provided about the arrangements. Even when our minibus broke down on the way back to the airport, a substitute was quickly fetched, and we proceeded with very little problem, delay or stress.

During her residence Sarah Moss found food banks, half finished blocks of flats and a poor exchange rate. We did not see the first two, but it was not cheap if you kept calculating the cost of things in £££s.

‘Icelanders knit everywhere,’ said Sarah Moss (281). The only person I saw knitting was a woman in the wool shop I visited, who demonstrated the way in which they hold their needles and wool. Icelandic sweaters and other necessary warm garments are widely available. I bought some yarn – how could I not?

I also learned from Sarah Moss that Icelanders take a coat with them all year round. In February this was not really in doubt. But in Reykjavik, we had rain and wind and the worst combination of these I have experienced this winter. But the temperature during the day never dropped below freezing. Out of the city it was another story.

Independent People

And now I am wading through Halldor Laxness’s novel Independent People. It’s a long story (more than 500 pages), an epic, about Bjartur a farmer in the desolate countryside, who is determined to become independent, who sees independence as the ultimate goal of all his labours. And labour he does, against the elements, bad fortune, hapless neighbours, the death of his first wife and a determined child. And Bjartur pays the price for his stubbornness.

Set in the early twentieth century, but describing life as it had been lived for many centuries, Laxness spares no detail of the crofters’ lives. Meetings of the men, coffee, rounding up sheep, falling into the Glacier River, the governance, relationships with neighbours … it’s all here. Especially the snow and the coffee.

Pingvellar National Park

What, I wondered, is the value of independence in an environment where cooperation and collaboration are clearly more likely to achieve desired outcomes?

Halldor Laxness, 1906 – 1998, published his novel in 1934-5. He produced other novels and translations, and wrote for the theatre. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955.

Halldor Laxness 1955

Other bookish things

I need to reconnect with the Icelandic Sagas. The shops offered a hefty and attractive Penguin edition, but it seemed crazy to add such an object to our suitcase and to pay the Icelandic price. Iceland was only settled from 870. People had lived there before, but not successfully. The inhospitable landscape and climate would put off most folks. This is the stuff of good stories.

One of the many, many tours offered to tourists was The Game of Thrones Tour. We swam in the Blue Lagoon instead.

Our hotel had a bookshelf for guests. Prominent in the collection was H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald, one of President Obama’s recommendations, and one of mine.

I’m not a fan of Nordic-noir, or whatever genre in which you would include Icelandic thrillers. There are plenty.

Go to Iceland! It’s another country; they do things differently there.

Book details

Names for the Sea: strangers in Iceland by Sarah Moss (2012) Granta 358pp

Independent People by Halldor Laxness (1934-5). Translated from the Icelandic by James Anderson Thompson and first published in 1946, in translation. Available in the Vintage edition. 544pp

And go to TripFiction’s website to find other location-based fiction.

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