Book Tokens to Change Lives

Every year there are a few people who defy my wide-ranging ideas about Christmas presents. They live abroad so I can’t send them chutney. Or they haven’t finished last year’s jar of chutney. Or they don’t like chutney. And what’s more they are the same people who presented these problems last year. And the year before. And so on. What to do? What to do? [drums fingers]

This year my solution is Reverse Book Tokens.

Book Aid International

Book Aid International supports the distribution of books abroad in places where they are needed. Last year, for example, Book Aid International sent more than 14,000 books to The Occupied Palestinian Territories. More than 8,000 of them were for children. Some of these books went to Alrowwad Centre Library in Aidi Refugee Camp. Some went to Battir Public Library, also in the West Bank, where children who cannot travel have Reading Passports to record the places they visit in books. Children who cannot get to Nablus when the checkpoint is closed depend on books in the Beit Furik public library. More books went to a school library in Ramallah. [Information from Book Aid Newsletter in July 2017]

Books Change Lives

This work is important because books change lives. Here’s the proof. Rahmatu says this:

Before I started going to school and reading books I never had any plans for my future because in my tribe, young girls of my age grow up and just get married. But now that I’m in school I plan to become a lawyer.

If I were to meet the person who helped send books to our school, first of all I would say a big thank you! And plead with them to send many books to our school because children are in need of them. [from the website]

The strap line for Book Aid International is BOOKS CHANGE LIVES. Thinking of reading presents this year? Book Tokens are a great idea to support Book Aid International: you pay the money and someone else gets the books. For only £6 Book Aid International can send out three books. So give a Reverse Book Token to support Book Aid International. You can also join the Reverse Book Club to send a regular donation to the charity. A reader will thank you.

I donated my first new £10 note to Book Aid International

To subscribe and receive email notifications of future posts on Bookword please enter your email address in the box.

2 Comments

Filed under Books, Books for children, Learning, Libraries

Some Tough Reading

I have chosen to read some pretty tough books recently. They all concern the large-scale political events of the 20th and 21st centuries, and all concern wilful and intentional policy of inhumane treatment towards others. Depressing indeed!

The books refer to Russia in the time of Stalin’s great purges, Paris and Auschwitz in the 1940s, China from the 1930s through to Tiananmen Square and the plight of refugees in Europe today. Books take you to places you have never been, but can profoundly depress you while you are there. What follows is a kind of inhumanity Mash-up.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

I put off reading this novel, and then I had to restart it. It was difficult to read. With brilliant story-telling gifts Madeleine Thien retells the history of China through its effects on several generations of one family and their friends. At the centre of her narrative is Sparrow, a Chinese composer, and Lai his friend and a brilliant concert pianist. But the story stretches back from the wanderings of Sparrow’s mother in the 1930s and forward from the starting point of the novel when Sparrow’s daughter meets Kai’s daughter in Toronto. The fathers have both died.

What links them through this terrible period of Chinese history is music and literature in the face of oppression and mob enforce repression.. Music and literature forge family loyalties, even in the face of violent opposition to Western culture, or any artistic expression.

The stories of the family members over time merge, as they wander off, surface again in distant provinces, often in exile or in terrible prison camps. They suffer enforced re-education, the mob mentality of the Cultural Revolution and the Red Guards, the demonstrations and repression of Tiananmen Square. The willingness of the people to try to do as bidden in order to make China better is heartrending in the face of so much brutality. One asks: and today?

It’s a captivating book and one that I have frequently seen read on train journeys.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien (2016) Published by Granta 473pp

Short-listed for the Man Booker Prize 2016 and short-listed for Bailey’s Women’s Fiction prize 2017

Into the Whirlwind by Eugenia Ginzburg

Endpaper for Into The Whirlwind

This book is a memoir, beginning with an account of the author’s arrest in 1937, accused of betraying the Revolution. Sentenced to 10 years in solitary, she endures two in the company of Julia before being sent on to a labour camp in East Russia.

From the moment she is sentenced she has no knowledge of her husband, or of their children (seeing only one of her sons in later life). It’s a grim story, beginning with the Kafka-esque accusations that began the great purge, the cult of personality. The conditions under which the first three years of her sentence are served are so appalling both in isolation and in the work camp, that one wonders anyone survived. At each stage the women support each other, learn how to deal with their warders and those who control their lives. This volume (but not her imprisonment) ends in 1940, and she continued her memoirs in another volume, up to the point of her rehabilitation in the 1950s.

The personal cost of Stalin’s monstrous campaign to ensure his own rule is vividly revealed. Remaining human was a constant struggle, to do with clothes, footwear, keeping warm, eating and acts of generosity towards others.

Into the Whirlwind by Eugenia Ginzburg (1967) Published by Persephone Books 344pp

Translated from the Russian by Paul Stevenson and Manya Harari

A Train in Winter: A story of Resistance, Friendship and Survival in Auschwitz by Caroline Moorehead

While this book is a story of courage generosity and hope (cover blurb) it is also a depressing account of barbarity, inhumanity and the infliction of suffering. It focuses on the 230 French women sent to Auschwitz in January 1943, arrested for anti-German activities. It leaves us to imagine what happened to their menfolk, friends, children and the others who died in huge numbers even before the women arrived in Auschwitz.

The culpability of the Vichy government, the French police, the German occupiers of France, the many who betrayed the communists and members of the Resistance, the guards and commanders of the camps, the medical staff, the Kapos is overwhelming. And so is the disappointment of the women who were largely ignored on their return to France.

What kept the 49 women who survived alive? Friendship, care for each other, courage, hope and a determination to tell the story of what they had experienced and seen.

I included my reflections on this book in a post about visiting Auschwitz, Bookword in Poland.

A Train in Winter: A story of Resistance, Friendship and Survival in Auschwitz by Caroline Moorehead (2011) Published by Vintage 374pp

And just in case you think that this kind of inhumanity doesn’t happen any more in Europe, I refer you to the recent post reviewing a novel about refugees in Germany: Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck.

To subscribe and receive email notifications of future posts on Bookword please enter your email address in the box.

2 Comments

Filed under Books, Reading, Women in Translation

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

We have reached the 2000s and my choice for this decade is Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi. In the previous 10 posts I have reviewed a variety of novels. This choice is a memoir in graphic form. The graphic form was new to me in the 2000s. And the book came out of Iran, which had seemed very mysterious since the revolution in 1979. Persepolis reminds the reader/viewer that real people live through such historical events and their lives can be shaped by them.

Persepolis: the story of a childhood

Marji’s family are connected to a former ruler of what had been called Persia and her parents are Marxists with a liberal attitude towards their only child. The memoir follows her life through the time of the revolt against the Shah when she was 10 years old, the Islamic revolution and the long war with Iraq. What did it mean to live in Tehran in those days? For some of the time the borders were closed, and for much of the time Iran was besieged by Iraq. There were extreme dangers for those who supported the old regime, for those who did not embrace the Islamic revolution and for anyone who broke the rules on the streets.

Even as a child Marji is not sheltered from the tumultuous events. Her family are implicated in the early struggles of the 20th century. She is on the streets when many are killed in a demonstration against the Shah: Black Friday. And she hears all the stories about the friends and relatives of the family as the Islamic Revolution takes hold. Always there is talk, especially after the clamp down, borders are shut and the long war with Iraq is on.

We Iranians are Olympic champions when it comes to gossip, says Marji (135) as the family discuss Iraq’s military range.

We follow Marji growing up challenging and defiant, wanting jeans, posters of western pop idols, and willing to take risks. Finally her parents decide she must leave in order to continue her education in Europe.

Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi was published at the same time and also revealed the horrors of being a young woman, a reader of western literature, during the Islamic revolution. The young women readers come to understand their situation through the books they choose.

Reading Persepolis

The black and white graphics, the simple drawings of Persepolis are distinctive and effective. They allow us to see through the eyes and assumptions of a child, and to cut through much of the posturing to identify hypocrisy, weak arguments, the use of force and so forth. For example, when very young she is convinced that she will grow up to become a prophet and so has a relationship with God, whom she realises resembles Karl Marx.

The simple drawings, the avoidance of colour suggest that Marjane Satrapi is reproducing the regime’s desire for conformity. In fact it also emphasises the individuality of her characters. Marji, at the beginning, has the features of a young child but she matures over the course of her memoir. I am impressed by how the artist manages to convey so many different faces and emotions in a space the size of a 5p coin.

For many western readers, especially in the UK, Persepolis was our introduction to the graphic form. It is still not as embedded in our reading culture as, say, in France where bandes dessinees have been popular for decades and have acquired accepted cultural status. In the UK they are regarded as ‘comics’ and therefore an inferior cultural form. Perhaps graphic fiction is gaining ground. The graphic short story has had its own prize in the UK for ten years, as was reported recently in this Guardian article: ‘I was in shock!’.

Marji lives on

Marji’s further adventures were recorded in Persepolis 2. Marjane Satrapi also made a movie from the original. She now lives in Paris.

Persepolis: the story of a childhood by Marjane Satrapi Published in 2003 by Pantheon 153pp

Translated from the French by Mattias Ripa and Blake Ferris.

  • ALA Alex Award WINNER 2004
  • Booklist Editor’s Choice for Young Adults WINNER
  • New York Public Library Books for the Teen Age WINNER
  • School Library Journal Adult Books for Young Adults WINNER
  • YALSA Best Books for Young Adults WINNER

The Decades Project

For the Decades Project I selected a book from each decade from 1900 onwards, reading one a month, and reviewing it here. The idea came from my library’s Reading Passport scheme.

Previous posts in the Project

The Shipping News by E Annie Proulx, 1993

Hotel Du Lac by Anita Brookner, from 1984

Woman at Point Zero by Nawal el Saadawi, published in 1975

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin, published in 1969

The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing, published in 1950

They were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple, published in 1943

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, published in 1938

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie, published in 1926

O Pioneers by Willa Cather, published in 1913

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, published in 1905

And now …?

In December, at the end of my first year of The Decades Project, I will reflect on the experience of blogging on this topic and reveal the theme for next year’s Decade Project.

To subscribe and receive email notifications of future posts on Bookword please enter your email address in the box.

4 Comments

Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews, short stories, The Decade project

Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck

What is the most pressing and intractable problem facing humans today? My answer would be the responses to migration, to the movements of peoples. I mean racism and the other abuses practised on vulnerable peoples. And I mean the responses of governments and especially of the EU to the people who arrive seeking asylum. Go, Went, Gone confronts these issues.

The story of Go, Went, Gone

Richard lives in Berlin, in what used to be called East Berlin, but in his lifetime it has been reunited with the rest of the city. He has just retired from his post as Professor of Classical Philology, and now faces decisions about how he will spend his time, his life. The description of his dilemmas about confronting retirement is excellent in itself.

Memorial to the Berlin Wall, May 2014

Richard’s attention is drawn to a group of refugees who are causing the authorities some worries as they are on hunger strike and then by camping out in Orienplatz. He visits their camp and notices that they have created a community. He decides to investigate, as he might have approached an intellectual question in his professional academic life. He reads up about migration and draws up questions for the migrants and goes to interview them. Here he reflects on what he reads after he has heard some of the men’;s stories.

Much of what Richard reads on this November day several weeks after his retirement are things he’s known most of his life, but today, thanks to this bit of additional information he’s acquired, it all seems to come together in new, different ways. (142)

And when he combines his reading with his previous studies he notices something about the world.

When he considers the path the Berbers may have taken: from the Caucasus by way of Anatolia and the Levant all the way to Egypt and ancient Libya, then later into modern day Niger (and then back from Niger to modern-day Libya and across the sea to Rome and Berlin), it’s nearly a perfect three-quarter circle. This movement of people across the continents has already been going on for thousands of years, and never once has this movement halted. There were commerce, and wars, and expulsions; people often followed the animals they owned in search of water and food, they fled from droughts and plagues, went in search of gold, salt, or iron, or else their faith in their own god could be pursued only in the diaspora. There was ruin and then transformation and reconstruction. There were better roads and worse ones, but never did the movement cease. (142-3)

Never once has this movement halted, never did the movement cease.

As soon as Richard hears the stories of one man after another, the intellectual becomes the personal. He becomes absorbed in their lives, begins to make a difference through language teaching and donations, and becomes a somewhat naïve witness to the treatment of the refugees by the authorities.

My reactions

I was quickly absorbed by this book. The stories of the refugees are full of impact, not least because surviving the fearsome passage across the Mediterranean leads only to yet more suffering. Many of the men who have landed, usually in Italy, find themselves a great deal worse off than before they made their decision to leave, and with little prospect for improving their lives. Everything is a problem: shelter, clothing, work, communications with authorities, language, transport, neighbours, money …

As he learns more, Richard reaches back into what he knew best, classical studies, and makes connections with this knowledge. The centrality of the Mediterranean emerges in all stories. Richard reflects too on parallels with the reunification of Germany and the changes that came with this, especially for those who had lived in the former GDR. German history, however, has little significance for the migrants and they know nothing of Hitler and the atrocities of the 1940s or the division of Germany that followed the Nazis.

Brandenburg Gate, Berlin, May 2014

The meanings of boundaries of all kinds surface again and again. Humans seem to separate themselves from others to create enclaves; they identify and differentiate themselves from others in ways that cause huge problems. Above all, the accident of birth determines a human’s legal rights, and those who were born in the wrong places suffer over and over. The project of the EU does not help those who are born outside it.

The movement of peoples, and the dividing of peoples, the creation of boundaries to try to halt them have been going on for thousands of years. What arrogance it is that the EU, and German citizens (or any citizens) believe they can stop it. It seems to me that attempts to breach those boundaries are what it is to be human. Towards the end of the book Richard reflects on the new boundaries as he watches a standoff between the refugees and the police in Spandau.

So a border, Richard thinks, can suddenly become visible, it can suddenly appear where a border never used to be; battles fought in recent years on the borders of Libya, or of Morocco or Niger, are now taking place in the middle of Berlin-Spandau. Where before there was only a building, a sidewalk, and everyday Berlin life, a border has suddenly sprouted, growing up quickly and going to seed, unforeseen as illness.

At the New Year’s Eve party, standing with his friend Peter on his girlfriend’s balcony gazing out into the darkness, Peter told him that for the Incas the centre of the universe wasn’t a point but a line where two halves of the universe met. Is this scene unfolding before Richard’s eyes at the entrance to the asylum seekers’ residence? And are the two groups of people facing off here something like the two halves of a universe that actually belong together, but whose separation is nonetheless irrevocable? (209)

Richard’s experiences remind us that people can learn and change. His interest in and generosity to the men he meets reminds us of our individual responsibilities and possibilities. He draws in many of his friends into his activities. I also liked this book because it ended in a picnic, or rather a joyous barbeque.

Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck, first published in English translation in 2017 by Portobello Books. 283 pp

Translated from the German by Susan Berofsky

Go, Went, Gone was the Winner of the English Pen translate awards, which, by the way, included 50% of women writers and translated. You can find the complete list here.

On Bookword

I am reading and reviewing at least one book by a woman in translation every month: here are a couple of recommendations from those I have already included.

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors, translated from the Danish by Misha Hoekstra.

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell.

To subscribe and receive email notifications of future posts on Bookword please enter your email address in the box.

2 Comments

Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews, Women in Translation

The Clocks in this House all tell Different Times by Xan Brooks

The long title is not the most unusual thing about this book. The Clocks in this House all tell Different Times indicates that things are awry in 1923 England. The First World War has done untold damage. It has ruined bodies, mental dispositions, families, and the economic and social relationships. This is a world that ignores child prostitution and trafficking, and where the upper classes still hold power. England, in this book, is full of oddities.

The story of The Clocks in this House all tell Different Times

Lucy Marsh is a teenage orphan, living with her grandparents in a declining pub in northeast London. Her grandfather rents her to a client, who takes her every week to meet ‘the funny men’ in Epping Forest. There she finds other children who are also required to be nice to the gentlemen. Winifred becomes Lucy’s unreliable ally until the climax of the story.

We are introduced to a number of other characters: Arthur Ellis, the fat boy who has the ability to produce fire from his fingers, The Long Boys who form a black jazz band, the funny men themselves and the indolent upper class inhabitants and guests at the Big House.

The funny men are named after Dorothy’s companions in The Wizard of Oz and are disfigured and disabled victims of the war, mistakenly recorded as dead but in fact given accommodation by the Earl of Hertford in the grounds of Grantwood House. He is paid for this service. And the men who bring the children to the forest are also paid, and they pay the parents and grandparents of the children.

Many of these characters end up on the Grantwood Estate, where the heir, Rupert Fortnum-Hyde, amuses himself with his pet projects, of which he quickly tires. There is the camel in the garden; some very modern art works including a Pick-Arsehole [say it]; the jazz band, the fat boy and the funny men. Rupert Fortnum-Hyde is a great obnoxious creation. The damage he does, while claiming forward looking ideas is revealed at the novel’s climax.

Winifred and Lucy become demanding and want to cut out the middlemen. They try some enterprise of their own and set up with the funny men. This is not a long-term option for Lucy, although we are led to believe that such activities might be for Fred. Lucy escapes with more maturity than her bland kindness demonstrated in the opening scenes. She helps Scarecrow to escape as well, although both have to learn to look beyond the world of Grantwood House.

Epping Forest

Reflections on reading The Clocks in this House all tell Different Times

The story is savage and sordid, strange, fast paced and populated by many oddities. A chaotic time is explored. It reminded me of The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov (written in the 1930s). There is less magic than in the Russian novel, but the unexpected and sometimes unexplained often happens.

The trials of war-damaged Arthur Ellis reminded me of Septimus Warren Smith from Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Wolf. Both men are utterly changed and eventually destroyed by their experiences. Ellis has become amoral, thinking only of himself and how to find enough money to survive.

In the house, among the guests and their hosts, there is much talk of the future. And it is true that the war has changed so much. The Earl has had to close one wing of the house, to his chagrin. But the future must grow out of the past and the present, and it is clear that despite the Earl and his son’s reputation for being pink and liberal, they intend that their class will retain power.

‘My feeling is this,’ explains the Earl kindly. ‘Mobility and equality – these are things I will always support. And yet it follows that mobility is most effective and lasting when it is properly regulated. That is why we look to sensible, progressive members of the ruling class. To ensure that there is free movement and proper fairness for all.’ (277)

Despite some high-minded talk, the revolting houseguests are guilty of some sordid and savage behaviour. I found myself shocked by their Monster Hunt. They claimed to be chasing monsters, but the term better describes their casual cruelty and their indifference to the suffering of others.

Eventually the entrepreneurial adolescents, the disabled surviving funny men and the favoured ruling class meet, collide and are ignited. The reader is implicitly invited to consider how the present day compares with this anarchic time.

Related Links

One of the reasons I chose to read this book was the review by Anne Goodwin on her blog Annecdotal. She notes that it is like nothing she has read before and hopes that prize judges will not ignore it.

The review in the Guardian by M John Harrison in April was also very complementary.

This is the second book published by the Independent Publisher Salt that I have reviewed recently. The other was My Shitty Twenties by Emma Morris.

The Clocks in this House all Tell Different Times by Xan Brooks (2017) Salt 388 pp

To subscribe and receive email notifications of future posts on Bookword please enter your email address in the box.

Photo credit: Epping forest Julian Stallabrass via Visual Hunt / CC BY

3 Comments

Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews

A Writer trains her Imagination

There are many reasons to admire Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, not least her novels, such as Americanah, but also her stance on feminism, We Should All Be Feminists. Recently I read this from her:

Imagination doesn’t fall from the sky. You have to work with something.

[quoted in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie On How to Read and How to Write, in Lit Hub 15th Sept 2017, from interview with Salon]

And as I have been thinking about imagination and writing since I wrote about it earlier this year I began to think about the ways in which I find those ‘somethings’. These might be ideas for this blog, or for my creative writing activities, or for non-fiction work.

And I love the idea that the word inspiration is linked to breathe, we should breath as naturally as we take in air to our lungs. And that the word imagination links with the visual stimuli, having the same root as images.

The central question is What if …?

Imagine memorial to John Lennon. Designed by Bruce Kelly.

Writers need to ask ‘what if …?’ again and again. Most frequently it is what if I lived in a world that was different from mine in some significant way?

  • What if dragons were real and living close by?
  • What if Mr Rochester already had a wife?
  • What if Mr Darcy had no money and a modest nature?
  • What if the ugly duckling were just an ugly duckling?
  • What if women had all the power?
  • What if I wrote the story backwards?
  • What if I made the characters into animals?
  • Imagine …

There are so many ways of asking this question. Pantsers are especially good at creating wild and elaborate plots. I have just read Swing Time by Zadie Smith, and the world she conjures seems to want to escape the 450 pages of the novel.

Ursula le Guin is justly renown for creating worlds that contrast with ours but also reflect aspects of our own. In The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin, she asks what if gender difference was periodic and inconstant? Writers can suspend normal rules and see what happens, as in Orlando by Virginia Woolf, in which the protagonist lives for centuries and changes gender. Or writers can create a book to be read in one order or another depending on which copy is bought, as in Ali Smith’s How to be Both.

That’s the beauty of writing and reading fiction. It takes you to places you might not have yet imagined. And so it can be very subversive.

Finding sources for imagination

Murmuration

It is apparently one of the most common questions that published writers get asked – where do you get your ideas? Some writing groups I have tried focused exclusively on prompts. But having had an active imagination since I could speak, I am practised in using my imgaination. Here’s what I do:

  • read
  • notice
  • listen
  • respond
  • use prompts
  • walk
  • travel
  • write

In each of these ways there are a myriad of sources in which imagination can be piqued. Writing in the style of, or paraphrasing a noted writer’s text are ways in which imagination can become unblocked. Noticing, noting the world around us: on the bus, in the news. I wrote a story called The Welcoming Committee after a prompt from a writers’ groups and found I was asking what would have happen if a group of English people had met American soldiers in the Second World War. The prompt was too many cooks.

Writer’s Treats are a great way to help see the world anew or even differently. I favour art galleries and opera. It helps me think about how other people see the world. Some time ago I described how I Write One Picture – a strategy to practise writing. The source of this idea was a project for primary schools. I wrote a short story, called Paintpot, about a war artist who witnessed the liberation of Bergen-Belsen, inspired by a drawing I saw in an exhibition. What if I had been present at that dreadful scene?

I have been lucky to travel for professional as well as personal reasons, and in 2009 I wrote a story about Roaring Billy Falls in New Zealand. It was about the restorative power of landscape, but I think the title was its best feature.

Recently I have been working on a short story about a Conscientious Objector in the first world war. Here are the gates to his work camp.

Dartmoor Prison Gates

Training the Imagination

Ursula Le Guin’s suggestion in The Operating Instructions that we need to help people learn to use imagination bears repeating.

We need to learn to use it [imagination], and how to use it, like any other tool. … Young human beings need exercises in the imagination as they need exercise in all the basic skills of life, bodily and mental: for growth, for health, for competence, for joy. This need continues as long as the mind is alive. (4)

To learn to use imagination well there are many things I do:

  • Practice using it – all the above activities
  • Review the effects of these activities and their outcomes
  • Learn from the exercises
  • Consider how to put the learning into effect in my own writing, or not.
  • Collaborate with others in imaginative activities.

And in writing as in other art forms there is no limit. No limit. We can use our imaginations to take us anywhere, everywhere.

Over to you

And what do you do to keep your imagination topped up? To find those somethings?

I wrote on the topic of imagination three months ago: inspired by Ursula Le Guin’s essay The Operating Instructions, which you can find in Words are my Matter.

Words are my Matter: writings about life and books 2000-2016 by Ursula Le Guin, published by Small Beer Press in 2016.

To subscribe and receive email notifications of future posts on Bookword please enter your email address in the box.

Photo crredits:

Murmuration: biggles621 via Visualhunt / CC BY-NC-SA

Imagine: Chris Parker2012 via Visualhunt.com / CC BY-ND

Leave a Comment

Filed under Books, Writing

The Shipping News by E Annie Proulx

There have been ten novels in the Decades Project so far. We have reached the 1990s and my choice is The Shipping News by E Annie Proulx. I was so pleased to reread it. It’s an excellent novel that celebrates the power of stories to build communities.

The story

Here is an account of a few years in the life of Quoyle, born in Brooklyn and raised in a shuffle of dreary upstate towns. (1)

Quoyle is hapless. A good word that, which in its original meaning speaks of the lack of hap, ie luck. Today it also implies incompetence. This novel is about how Quoyle found his hap.

Hive-spangled, gut roaring with gas and cramp, he survived childhood; at the state university, hand clasped over his chin, he camouflaged torment with smiles and silence. Stumbled through his twenties and into his thirties learning to separate his feelings from his life, counting on nothing. He ate prodigiously, liked a ham knuckle, buttered spuds. (1)

At the start of The Shipping News Quoyle is a journalist in New York, but not competent enough to stay in employment. He is married to Petal, but she prefers to sleep with anyone else. She runs off with one of her lovers taking their two children. In one terrible week Quoyle’s parents commit suicide together, Petal is killed in a car crash having sold their children. The children are rescued and Quoyle’s aunt agrees to help him, suggesting that they move back to her childhood home in Newfoundland.

Her house there turns out to be isolated, very old, and held down by ties into the rocks. It needs a great deal of work to make it habitable. Aunt sets about getting things organised and Quoyle takes up his job with the local newspaper, the Gammy Bird. He starts out with responsibility for the shipping news, a record of which ships enter and leave the port of Killick-Claw.

He turns out to be rather good at telling stories about the boats, and just about everyone they meet has a story to tell, often connected to boats, fishing and the sea. Quoyle, Aunt and the two girls gradually connect to their new community, through work, supporting each other, making friendships and love affairs, and telling their own stories.

By the last page Quoyle has learned a good lesson.

And it may be that love sometimes occurs without pain or misery. (337)

Some reflections

The theme of knots and knitting runs through this novel. (I could have said threads). Quoyle’s name is a variant of coil. We are told that ‘it may be walked on if necessary’ (1). He needs straightening out. The woman who will do it is called Wavey. Many of the characters knit. Knots appear in the headings of the chapters, often with line drawings taken from The Ashley Book of Knots. One character uses knots to conjure magic spells. Knots, of course bind, and are essential to those who live with boats.

Another theme is of sexual abuse, especially within families. The Gammy Bird runs a column on SA stories in every edition. For one character, only when her story of abuse is revealed can she live in peace in Killick-Claw.

I love the writing of this novel. Frequently sentences appear abrupt, often because pronouns have been omitted, or phrases such as ‘there were’, or verbs. It has the effect of putting the reader alongside a character.

We have weather, the changing seas, the mysteries of the local small islands, the seafood diets, creative and handy people, and above all the stories. By the final page Quoyle has found his hap for he is now the editor of the Gammy Bird and takes part in telling the story of his community.

Annie Proulx

This year Annie Proulx won the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, noting especially her ‘deep reverence for the beauty and complexities of rural America’. Now known simply as Annie Proulx, she has written other novels, short stories and memoirs. The Shipping News won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize in 1994. Kevin Spacey and Judi Dench starred in the 2001 film adaptation of the novel. While it does not capture the full subtlety of the novel – how could it? – it was good, not least for the grainy appearance of the Newfoundland setting. Brokeback Mountain in the collection called Close Range was also made into a film. I enjoyed Postcards (1992), but have to admit that I didn’t get far with Barkskins (2016).

(Photo Annie Proulx in 2009 US Embassy in Argentina, via wikicommons)

The Shipping News by E Annie Proulx (1993) 4th Estate. 337pp

The Decades Project

For the Decades Project I have selected a book from each decade from 1900 onwards, reading one a month, and reviewing it here. The idea is from my library’s Reading Passport scheme.

Previous posts in the Project

Hotel Du Lac by Anita Brookner, from 1984

Woman at Point Zero by Nawal el Saadawi, published in 1975

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin, published in 1969

The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing, published in 1950

They were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple, published in 1943

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, published in 1938

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie, published in 1926

O Pioneers by Willa Cather, published in 1913

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, published in 1905

The next decade: 2000s

I have not yet decided what to read for the final two decades – 2000s and 2010s. Suggestions are always welcome.

To subscribe and receive email notifications of future posts on Bookword please enter your email address in the box.

8 Comments

Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews, The Decade project

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

The underground railroad was a means by which slaves from the American Southern States were helped to escape and find freedom in the North. Making the railroad a concrete thing, with stations, tracks, engines, engineers and boxcars, is a daring move by Colson Whitehead. It has the effect of emphasising the hard work of building the network, maintaining it and it also exposes the vulnerability of the routes to freedom and the many ways to disrupt it.

The story of The Underground Railroad

This novel is Cora’s story. It tells of her life on the Randall’s cotton plantation in Georgia from which she is determined to escape. The difficulties in realising an escape encountered by Cora in each state she passes through form the bulk of this novel, with occasional short sections to reveal what happened to those who played a part in her journey. Spurring her on are the experiences of her grandmother, captured in Africa and a survivor of the fearsome middle passage. Cora’s own mother achieved notoriety, or a reputation, by being the only escapee not have been returned to the Randall’s place. There are men who make a living out of catching and returning slaves to their owners. And the owners themselves are without qualms when they punish returned slaves. They aim to deter others. Cora makes her bid for freedom, partly encouraged by her mother’s example and partly because another slave, Caesar, provides the opportunity and the moment.

It is quickly established that Cora cannot do this on her own, but nearly every one who meets and helps her is killed, often brutally and others become damaged as she makes her slow journey to freedom. This is a story of violence and inhumanity.

She comes across many different ways in which black women are enslaved. It begins with the backbreaking work on the plantation, and the law that casts the slave as the property of her owner. Her owner can dispose of her as he wishes. Randall sets the slave catcher, Ridgeway on Cora’s trail. Already eluded by her mother’s escape, Ridgeway develops a terrifying obsession with tracking down Cora. Their paths cross, she escapes, and again, until …

Cora finds sanctuary with sympathisers as she eludes Ridgeway. In South Carolina they are treating the black folks well, educating them, providing employment and offering healthcare. The healthcare is compromised, however, designed to sterilise slaves, so Cora moves on.

In North Carolina they have a policy of violent eradication of all black residents. Hidden in an attic Cora witnesses brutal executions of those who harbour escapees, and of the escapees themselves. Another escape, to a farm colony in Indiana, but the local people find it too threatening and a massacre takes place. Cora escapes the massacre because Ridgeway captures her.

At each moment of escape Cora must find the railroad platform, wait for a train, and travel with it to the next unknown destination. Ultimately it is the railroad that saves her from Ridgeway’s final attempt to recapture her.

Some reflections

This is an exciting story exposing the effects of an immoral set of beliefs. The story moves along briskly, but at times I did not want to read on because of what I feared would come next.

The questions posed by The Underground Railroad are important– for example, what forms of slavery are there beyond the plantation? What do white supremacist beliefs mean today? How can the world atone for such uprooting, such brutal treatment, such unspeakable acts? How is it that we continue to value humans differently, separating out people by the accident of birth, or differentiating between economic migrants and asylum seekers? What forms of slavery exist today? Is the work of a few dedicated railroad maintenance workers enough to keep people from being subjugated by others?

This is a powerful novel, which deserves the success it has been enjoying. In itself it is a strong argument for the importance of fiction to show us other worlds and experiences. Thanks to Ed for the recommendation and for lending me his copy.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (2016). Paperback version published by Fleet. 366pp

Winner of Pulitzer Prize for fiction 2017.

To subscribe and receive email notifications of future posts on Bookword please enter your email address in the box.

 

4 Comments

Filed under Books, Reading

The Quest for Christa T by Christa Wolf

I failed. I got to page 93 out of 185 and I stopped reading. I have tried. For several weeks I have picked up this book and read the first chapter. Then put it down and later tried again. Now at the half-way point, ten chapters out of 20 have been read, but I can’t go on. I’ve weighed up the time it was taking to read this novel against what I felt I got out of it. I’ve decided to move on to other books.

The title of this post should really read: The Quest for Christa T by Christa Wolf

The Quest for Christa T

Christa T is not an especially remarkable woman. Like the narrator, she grew up in eastern Germany during the war, and like many in that area, fled before the advancing Red Army. Living in East Germany (the DDR), as normality is resumed, the girls meet again in university and form a loose friendship. The narrator reconstructs Christa T’s life from the documents she left when she died young of Leukaemia.

Part of the novel seems to be about the impossibility of recreating anyone’s life, fictional or real. She opens the novel with doubts about memories.

The quest for her: in the thought of her. And of the attempt to be oneself. She speaks of this in her diaries, which we have, on the loose manuscript pages that have been found, and between the lines of those letters of hers that are known to me. I must forget my memory of Christa T.- that is what these documents have taught me. Memory puts a deceptive color on things.

But must we give her up for lost? (1)

It’s this kind of elliptical yet lyrical prose that made reading it so hard. And the novel continues by exploring witness evidence, documents, and conjecturing what happened in the gaps. There is very little narrative, more a series of events alongside the narrator’s suggestions of what might have been happening in Christa T’s mind and explanations of her responses.

What are we to make of the author’s name being shared with the main character? Why has Christa Wolf embarked on this search, the quest for her namesake, at all? I guess I’ll never know because I am moving on to other reading.

Christa Wolf

Christa Wolf lived 1929 to 2011, mostly former East Germany. The area in which she was born is now in Poland, and when her family fled the advancing Red Army at the end of the war they ended up inside the Russian Zone.

She worked as a literary critic and journal editor and although critical of the DDR leadership during the Cold War period she remained a socialist. She won many awards for her writing. From reading her obituaries and about The Quest for Christa T it seems that Christa Wolf was interested in individuals who make their own way rather than following the crowd. This had obvious implications for the East German state. Her book was not banned when it appeared in 1968, but only a limited number of copies were printed.

A Novel in translation

Well, I am sorry for my failure to get beyond half way. The Quest for Christa T was my October choice for the Women in Translation project. I chose it because it appeared in several lists of recommended reads for #WIT and others had responded positively. For example, on Heavenali’s blog and Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings. I plan to read another, but more recent, text by a German writer: Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck (2017) in November.

I would like to hear from people who got further with Christa T than I did, and who got more out of it.

The Quest for Christa T by Christa Wolf, first published in English in 1970 by Hutchinson & Co. The translation from the German is by Christopher Middleton. I read a library copy from Exeter Library stacks. Virago also published a version.

To subscribe and receive email notifications of future posts on Bookword please enter your email address in the box.

8 Comments

Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews, Women in Translation

My Shitty Twenties by Emily Morris

In my case it was my shitty thirties. To be honest only certain aspects of my thirties were shitty. I became a single mother and tried to continue to make a life for myself. It was hard, very hard, and it came back to me when I read Emily Morris’s memoir about becoming a single mother in her twenties. It’s a memoir of a much more recent past than my struggles as a single mother.

The pregnant student

Emily was enjoying the life of a student in Manchester at the turn of the century. She had a job she loved, was just begun to find the focus for her studies as well as appreciating the contrast between her social life in the city and her hometown of Southport.

Then she discovered she was pregnant. And there she is: 22 years old, pregnant, studying, working, and in Manchester. She decided to keep the baby.

It has to be said that the father of her child comes out of this memoir very badly indeed. In the first place he lied to her suggesting he was not able to make her pregnant. In the second place, his response to her decision to continue the pregnancy was

Enjoy your impending shitty, snotty, vomitty twenties. Goodbye. (16)

In the third place, he offers no support and no interest once the baby was born. In the fourth place … you get the picture. I suppose he did give her a great title, and contributed a tiny something towards her son.

The heroine, not including Emily herself, is Emily’s mother who supports her as a model mother would. She backs her decision, is interested in how Emily will manage, offers her a home, provides her with a home, goes with her to hospital, including on the night Tom is born and then continues to support her for another 18 months or so. Every single mother should have a mother like her.

Emily herself shows considerable perseverance and determination. Just having a baby is physically hard work. It’s true what people say. They don’t call it labour for nothing. And then, this small dependant being takes over everything, and if you are the sole parent you have to make all the decisions, shoulder all the worry, make all the arrangements, and try to remember your own life in the midst of the focus on the shitty, snotty, vomitty baby.

A Memoir

I found My Shitty Twenties surprisingly readable. There is no self-pity, no mawkishness, no self-indulgence, no lingering over how hard it all is. And it all is. Rather, Emily’s courage and determination to bring up the child, to continue her studies and to earn her living are reported in a straightforward tone and with a combination of good humour and insight.

I was not surprised to read that this memoir began as a blog. The chapters are short, and often end with the reversal of some belief, or a person being proved wrong, or a new insight into life. She presents her struggles with breastfeeding, the mothers’ web site, the consoling parrot, and we understand them all. She writes with the immediacy of the best bloggers, and doesn’t go on too long.

This I know

It’s hard and unrelenting work being a single mother. The rewards are huge. Managing work, the expectation and assumptions of strangers and friends and family is tiring, although often amusing afterwards. There are bad days, abuse by strangers, misrepresentations. There is also unexpected kindness and luck. And in writing My Shitty Twenties she has built a history to share with her son.

I hope that we can expect more from Emily Morris now she has reached her ******y thirties.

My Shitty Twenties by Emily Morris (2017) Published by Salt. 310pp

To subscribe and receive email notifications of future posts on Bookword please enter your email address in the box.

 

Picture credits:

Baby crying Photo credit: liewcf via Visual Hunt / CC BY-SA

Smiling baby Photo credit: Vato Bob via VisualHunt.com / CC BY

Leave a Comment

Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews, The Craft of Blogging