Bookshops in Books

Today I am blogging about books set in bookshops I am celebrating two things that add great pleasure to my life: books and bookshops. And the occasion is that this is my 400th post on Bookword. Setting a novel in a bookshop allows for an eccentric proprietor and a variety of customers and other visitors. The novels in this post do not disappoint.

Since my blog is bookish I thought I would indulge myself. Here are five books about bookshops to recommend to you. I’m sure you could suggest others. And please enjoy the next 400 posts.

The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald

This novel is set in 1959-60 in Suffolk. Florence Green is a widow with experience of selling books. She decides to set up a bookshop in Hardborough, the small town she inhabits on the coast. By opening the bookshop she offends many people in the neighbourhood because she did not consult them or ask for advice, or because books bring culture and challenge to the town, or simply because it represents change and hope. She achieves some success, for example with Lolita, but in the end is out manoeuvred by the local grande dame, Violet Gamart.

Hardborough is populated by a range of people with odd characteristics and big human failings. The bookshop attracts them. There is indolent Milo, who works at the BBC, reclusive Mr Brundish, Christine the girl who runs the subscription library for Florence, the builder, solicitor, bank manager, the rapper (a poltergeist) and many others. None helps her to save her shop. But she tried, and will go on to other endeavours.

The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald (1978) Harper Collins. 156pp

Shortlisted for the Booker prize

If on a winter’s night a traveller by Italo Calvino

This is the ultimate meta-novel, a novelist’s novel. Calvino addressed the reader in alternate chapters, and creates a novel in the others. Each chapter featuring the novel explores some aspect of novels. Each reader chapter considers other aspects of reading and writing. Ultimately there is a discussion between readers in a library, who all read in different ways and to different purposes. Each discussion deserves to be lingered over and so it can take some time to read.

It is wonderfully playful, playfulness – such a good quality in writing. Playing with the reader, as reader. Philosophical too. It begins as you, the reader, open a newly purchased copy of If on a winter’s night a traveller by Italo Calvino, but there is an error in the pagination …

If on a winter’s night a traveller by Italo Calvino, first published in Italian in 1980 under the title Se una note d’inverno un viaggiatore. I read the edition published by Vintage in 1998. 260pp

Translated by William Weaver

Mrs Sinclair’s Suitcase by Louise Walters

The action of this novel begins with a discovery made in the second hand bookshop in which Roberta works. Her father is dying and has given her some books to dispose of (in the suitcase of the title). She discovers a letter in one book that puzzles her. The book belonged to her grandmother but the letter does not seem to be consistent with what Roberta has been told about her grandmother.

Roberta uncovers her grandmother’s story; death of her baby, husband goes to war and abandons her, she falls for a Polish squadron leader, a land girl gives birth unexpectedly and Roberta’s grandmother finds a solution to all this.

Roberta’s story is also resolved – she has worked for ever for the bookshop owner, looked after him, cleaned up his mess and discovers he too has kept a secret.

Mrs Sinclair’s Suitcase by Louise Walters, published by Hodder & Stoughton in 2014. 294pp

Weird Things Customers say in Bookshops by Jen Campbell

This little volume is well named. Neil Gaiman’s quote on the cover is also apt: ‘So funny, so sad … Read it and sigh’. Here’s a sample so you can see how right he was.

CHILD: Mummy, can we buy this book?
MOTHER: Put that down. We’ve got quite enough books at home.

§

(Local author comes into bookshop, lifts his books from the bookshelf and starts rearranging them on the table in the middle of the room.)

BOOKSELLER: What are you doing?

LOCAL AUTHOR: Well, they’re never going to sell when they’re sitting on a bookshelf, are they?

§

CUSTOMER: Did Beatrix Potter ever write a book about dinosaurs?

§

CUSTOMER: Do you bother to arrange your books at all, or are they just plonked places?

BOOKSELLER: They’re in alphabetical order …

CUSTOMER: Oh.

§

CUSTOMER: Where do you keep Hamlet? You know, ‘to be or not to be’? Is it in philosophy?

Weird Things Customers say in Bookshops by Jen Campbell. Published by Constable in 2012. 119pp

Mr Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

A fun read, a nice mixture of hi-tech, good old-fashioned values and pleasure in reading. It’s a page-turner with some nice interactions between old and new technologies.

Clay takes a job in the bookstore and soon realises that he has stumbled on a cult. The entrance test into the cult seems far-fetched but Clay solves it in a few minutes through the application of computer technology. Together with his friends he solves all the mysteries of the cult, and he finds out how important is friendship.

Mr Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan, (2012), Atlantic.

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Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada

I have read more adventurous and innovative fiction since deciding to read a book a month by a woman in translation. And the topics covered appear to be serious issues for humans. Those in German seem especially concerned with world issues – climate change, refugees etc.

A major prize has been inaugurated since I began the project in September: the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation. This month I look at the first winner:

Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky, published by Portobello Books.

Three Stories

I could have called this post Why write about real bears? (as I did about people some time ago). The novel is formed of three stories each told by a different but related bear with origins in real life. I have included pictures of Knut, the youngest bear, born and brought up in Berlin Zoo.

The first bear, his grandmother, was born in Russia, sent to East Germany and then to Canada. She wrote her own biography after she was unable to perform in a circus.

The story of the second bear, her daughter Tosca, is told by her trainer as she tried to design an original and creative act for the bear in the circus. Tosca rejected her cub at birth so he is raised by a human, with whom he formed a close connection. Knut tells his own story as he grows up in Berlin zoo, the poster cub for conservation.

Knut with Thomas Dorflein, in Berlin Zoo April 2007

Each section opens with a physical sensation of bear-ness, and one we can relate to in our human-ness: curling in a foetal position, stretching, suckling. The stories are strange, dreamlike, prone to sudden shifts in the telling. It seems that the bears can communicate with humans, write and even, in the case of the first bear, move around in human society without arousing curiosity.

As with any story told from the point of view of an animal, it points to aspects of humans, especially about their relationships with the natural world. As a result this is also an unsettling book. What are the boundaries between humans and other animals, we find ourselves asking. Are we so different? What can we say about the way we care for animals, even, as in the case of Knut, for good motives. (In his case he was used to promote awareness of climate change.) And what about our care of the natural world? (Knut never saw the Arctic. What does it mean to keep a polar bear in temperate conditions?) Polar Bears are being made highly vulnerable by the shrinking of the ice caps in the Arctic.

Much of the subtext is concerned with communication and language, and raises questions about humans and language, especially as so many humans today need to use something that is not their native/mother tongue.

The first bear is told by her publisher’s representative that she should write in her mother tongue:

“What’s my mother tongue?”

“The language your mother speaks.”

“I’ve never spoken with my mother.”

“A mother is a mother even if you never speak with her.” (51)

And later her reminds her to write in her own language.

“My own language? I don’t know which language that is. Probably one of the North Pole languages.”

“I see, a joke. Russian is the most magnificent literary language in the world.”

“Somehow I don’t seem to know Russian any more.”

”That’s impossible! Write whatever you want, but in your own language please.” (57)

And to make a point, and to further her campaign to be relocated to Canada because it is colder than Berlin, she writes this for the publisher, in Russian.

“All penguin marriages are alike, while every polar bear marriage is different.” (58)

Confusions of language and communication abound in the three novellas, much as they must do for any migrant. And we must assume that Yoko Tawada has some insight into this, having moved to Berlin from Tokyo in her 20s.

Warwick Prize for Women in Translation

The prize was introduced in 2017. Here is the announcement of The Memoirs of a Polar Bear on the website. I welcome this award as it will raise people’s awareness of women in fiction (woefully small numbers of novels published by women and tiny proportion of those chosen for translation). And I’m pleased that it is my alma mater hosting it. I did a history degree there about half a century ago, which required the study of foreign languages. The tradition of promoting foreign language use continues.

Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada, first published in German in 2014, Etuden im Schnee. Published in English in 2016 by Portobello. 252pp

Translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky

Winner of the Warwick Inaugural Women in Translation Prize (2017)

Yoko Tawada May 2016

Related Links

An interview with the translator, Susan Bernofsky, about her work in the LARB.

Previous posts in this series include

Dance by the Canal by Kerstin Hensel, translated from the German by Jen Calleja.

Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky.

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.

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Photo credits: Knut with Thomas Dorflein, in Berlin Zoo April 2007. Photo by Christopher Pratt via WikiCommons

Author picture by G.Garitan from May 2016 at a conference in the library Falada at Reims.via WikiCommons

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Ms Jekyll and her Garden

I decided that in 2018 my decades project will explore non-fiction by women and immediately landed myself with a problem. Women’s non-fiction writing in the first decade of the 20th century has left very little impression on our available electronic databases. One can explain this: the world of non-fiction was the exclusive world of men; women by and large were still excluded from higher education, and their knowledge and experiences were not valued. If women wanted to write they were expected to produce fiction.

There is an exception. Gertrude Jekyll began to publish her influential gardening books when she had reached the age of 55. By the turn of the century she had an unrivalled reputation as a garden designer, developed over many years of experience and commercial success. And once started she published 13 books, no less than 7 in the decade 1900-1910.

Home and Garden

From all the possibilities I chose Home and Garden. Its subtitle is: Notes and thoughts, practical and critical of a worker in both. I found a second hand copy of a Macmillan edition published in 1984. The original was published in 1900 with 53 photographs by the author. 16 colour photographs were added to the later edition.

Gertrude Jekyll uses the style of writing based on the belief that there is no need to use just one word when a whole paragraph will do much better to convey the full nuanced meaning intended. The subtitle suggests a certain lack of structure and rigour in the writing. This is a miscellany.

The chapters cover a wide range of topics, in no sequence that I could divine. Roses and Lilies, Large and Small Rock Gardens, these are to be expected and instructive. But we also have Gertrude Jekyll’s thoughts on a medley of other topics: the Workshop, the Kinship of Common Tools, the Making of Pot-Pourri, the Home Pussies, Things Worth Doing. The opening chapter is long and is called How the House was Built.

Some heavy oak timber-work forms the structural part of the inner main framing of the house. Posts, beams, braces, as well as doors and their frames, window-frames and mullions, stairs and some floors, are of good English oak, grown in the neighbourhood. I suppose a great London builder could not produce such work. He does not go into the woods and buy the standing timber, and season it slowly in a roomy yard for so many years, and then go round with the architect’s drawing and choose the piece that exactly suits the purpose. The old country builder, when he has to get out a cambered beam or a curved brace, goes round his yard and looks out the log that grew in the actual shape, and taking off two outer slabs by handwork in the saw pit, chops it roughly to shape with his side-axe and works it to the finished face with the adze, so that the completed work shall ever bear the evidence of his skill in the use of these grand old tools, and show a treatment absolutely in sympathy with the nature and quality of the material. (15)

This is not so much about gardening as about building a house to her own specification in a beautiful setting, with an award-winning friend who happened to be the architect Edwin Lutyens. The extract illustrates her style, but also the influence of the Arts and Crafts movement.

There is plenty in the book of what one might call gardening advice. In the chapter on Midsummer, having listed the advantages of many types of Iris Gertrude Jekyll then broadens her comments to include other flowers and combinations.

One of the happiest mixtures of plants it has ever been my good fortune to hit on is that of St Bruno’s Lily and London Pride, both at their best about the second weeks of June. The lovely little Mountain Lily – fit emblem of a pure-souled saint – stands upright with royal grace and dignity, and bears with an air of modest pride its lovely milk-white bloom and abundant sheaves of narrow blue-green leaves. …

The well-grown clumps of this beautiful plant (it is the large kind and nearly two feet high) are on the narrow west-facing bank that slopes down to the lawn. The place would be in the full blaze of the late afternoon sun, but that it is kept shaded and cool by a large Spanish Chestnut whose bole is some ten yards away. Between and among the little Lilies is a wide planting of London Pride, the best for beauty of bloom of its branch of the large family of Saxifrage. Its healthy-looking rosettes of bright pale leaves and delicate clouds of faint pink bloom seem to me to set off the quite different way of growth of the Anthericum so as to display the very best that both can do, making me think of any two people whose minds are in such a happy state of mutual intelligence, that when talking together bright sparks of wit or wisdom flash from both, to the delight of the appreciative listener. (112-114)

You will notice that only lengthy quotations do justice to Gertrude Jekyll’s style, her mixture of knowledge about plants and observations of humans. Her painterly approach to gardening, to the pleasure of being in the garden (rather than the show gardener might put on) is evident here. This was the essence of her skill as a garden designer. And she has included a photograph of the St Bruno Lily planted with London Pride to add to her case.

But I am wondering for whom this book was written. The style suggests that the reader needed leisure. And they needed disposable income for they were expected to have gardeners to do the heavy and dirty work.

Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932)

Miss Jekyll’s Boots by William Nicholson, 1920

Gertrude Jekyll is credited with a new form of gardening, one that combined the experience of being in a garden with knowledge about the soil, aspect and combinations of plants. She brought a painterly approach, appreciation of texture and structure that have influenced so much in modern gardening. While she did not invent the herbaceous border she brought her own knowledge and eye to her guidance on this most English garden feature.

Her first ambitions were in painting, and she went to Art School before developing her career in garden design. During her long career she designed 400 gardens, mostly in Britain, but a few in the USA and Europe. Sadly most of her gardens have disappeared, although her own garden at Munstead Wood in Surrey, where she lived, has been reconstructed and is open to visitors. She advised on the planting of the gardens at Castle Drago in Devon a National Trust property, which is currently undergoing restoration.

She was a prolific writer, contributing more than 1000 articles to Country Life, besides her 13 books.

Gertrude Jekyll Rose

Her influence on gardens and gardeners has been recognised in two notable ways:

  • A rose has been named after her, which has twice been voted the nation’s favourite rose.
  • The googledoodle for 29th November 2017 celebrated her achievements.

She never married and had no children. You can find more about Gertrude Jekyll and her gardens at the official website.

The Decade Project in 2018

This year I plan each month to choose a non-fiction book written by a woman and review it here. Next month, February, I plan to read and review My Story by Emmeline Pankhurst, published in 1914. Suggestions for further decades are welcome, especially for the 1930s.

To read more about the Decade Project in 2017 please follow the link to the final post here The Decades Project one year on. This post listed all 11 choices of novels.

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All for Nothing by Walter Kempowski

This is a novel of accumulating tension, yet the tension is set alongside the everyday concerns of people, even when they are afraid, or needing to flee.

The Georgenhof estate was not far from Mitkau, a small town in East Prussia, and now, in winter, the Georgenhof, surrounded by old oaks, lay in the landscape like a black island in a white sea. (Opening paragraph 1)

From the outset, the reader sees a bigger picture: this estate is quiet and sheltered, largely passed by, muffled in winter. But it is January 1945 and history is about to intrude. Europe is in the final stages of war. The Russians are coming. The Red Army will soon arrive.

The Story

The residents of the Georgenhof estate have not been much troubled by the war. The family had already disposed of most of the land they once owned, relying on foreign investments to support them.

Eberhard von Globig, the estate’s owner, is away at an army desk job in Italy. His wife Katherina remains on the estate, with their son Peter, an old retainer called Auntie and several foreign workers who manage the farm and the kitchen. Katherina has several admirers, and many family members come to Georgenhof for supplies. Dr Wagner comes to tutor Peter from the nearby town. Across the road there is a new estate of houses, controlled by the local Nazi puffed up self-important Drygalski.

Despite being somewhat cut off more and more people come to the Georgenhof, for a night or two or because they are billeted there. Gradually it becomes obvious that everyone is leaving, a great westward trek is in progress. Katherina is persuaded to hide a man on the run, at the request of the local pastor. She is imprisoned. Everyone leaves and she joins the trek under guard. The second half of the novel recounts Auntie and Peter’s trek West and the gradual disintegration of their group, Auntie’s death by an enemy bomber and Peter’s transformation into a near-feral child. We see what happens to the visitors to Georgenhof. Each person in turn abandons something very precious that they brought with them.

There is a tension between the large and growing trek west with the casual deaths, abandonment, dead ends, thefts and so forth and the occasional highly organised rest centres.

Some reflections

I have never read anything by Walter Kempowski before, there is not a great deal that has been published in English. What struck me immediately was the number of characters he introduces very quickly, and how more and more people arrive on the page, gathered in to this great exodus. The details of their lives remind the reader that people have to be concerned with their own safety, hunger and chances before everything. And that humans may in retrospect think that the wrong priorities were chosen. The von Globig family, for example, take forever to decide to leave, wondering about their silver plate and crockery, and which pictures and what else will be left behind.

Peter’s journey is an example of how humans can be neglected: his mother is a prisoner, the Polish man who has been helping them abandoned Peter and Auntie, when Auntie is killed a pastor takes Peter in, but is himself about to leave. The child is alone. It seems as if there is no future for him but it is Drygalski, the local Nazi, who in an act of self-sacrifice gives up his place on the last crowded boat to leave.

Each person is a rounded character. Their motives are often nugatory, venal, self-serving, but they come across as human. The people who visit or who are billeted at Georgenhof are passing through, but one has a sense of their experiences up to this point, and that their lives will continue elsewhere. This accords with Kempowski’s work, chronicling the experiences of people during the war. He was a major figure in German literature after the war.

The novel considers what happens when a very controlled society begins to act in an anarchic way, but not all at the same time. The question implicit in the title remains over the entire story. With its insistence upon the significance of each individual the novel asserts the importance of humanity over ideology.

Walter Kempowski

Walter Kempowski’s work (1929-2007) is not well known in English. Born in Rostock, in the war he was unhappily enrolled into the Hitler Youth and then the Flakhelfer, the youth auxiliary of the Luftwaffe. His father was killed in the last months of the war. Walter Kempowski was imprisoned in East Germany for 8 years. He was accused of spying for the US.

He was a prolific writer. His work included 10 volumes of Das Escholot, a collage of German voices and their experiences of the Second World War. He was a writer who helped Germany come to terms with its Nazi past. This was his last book.

All for Nothing by Walter Kempowski, published in English by Granta in 2015, first appeared in 2006 with the title Alles Umsont. 343pp

Translated from the German by Anthea Bell

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Is Literary Fiction in decline?

Is literary fiction in decline? And if so, is the decline terminal? In the market place, where literary fiction meets commercialism, literary fiction is coming off very badly, at least in England. Don’t take my word for it. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence, and now The Arts Council has published a research report it commissioned called Literature in the Twenty-first Century: understanding models of support for literary fiction. Notice, in the subtitle, the emphasis on action to support literary fiction. The Arts Council has developed a series of supportive actions. The situation is largely bad with a few bright spots.

The state of literary fiction is a sad reflection on our cultural situation. It also means the unique social value of literary fiction is lost: increasing empathy levels in readers. The same social gain is not found in popular genre fiction. (See Claire Armitstead, link below).

Literary Fiction vs Commercialism: What’s the problem?

Old Bookcase by Friedrich Frotzel, 1929

In the long-term the following have all contributed to the depressed sales of literary fiction: the end of the Net Book Agreement, the arrival of the internet, on-line book-selling, proliferation of competing media, the attack on libraries. Since the bankers’ crash of 2008 literary fiction sales have not recovered. Authors receive less income. This is what the Arts Council report found:

  • That print sales of literary fiction have fallen over the last decade, particularly after the recession. Today, despite some recent positive indicators, they remain significantly below where they stood in the mid-noughties

  • There is only a small ‘long tail’ of novels that sell in sufficient quantities to support an author; all bar the top 1,000 writers (at a push) in the country sell too few books to make a career from sales alone

  • The price of a literary fiction book has fallen in real terms over the last 15 years. Not only are book sales down by both volume, but, crucially, publishers are receiving less money for every copy sold

  • While ebook sales have made up much of the fall in print sales elsewhere in the book market, this does not appear to be the case for literary fiction. Genre and commercial fiction predominate in ebook format

  • Large prizes have become even more important to literary fiction

  • Advances are very likely to have fallen for most writers

  • Literary fiction is dominated by ‘insider networks’; breaking into these still proves tough for many

  • Not-for-profit support for literary writing is unable to fill the gaps created by the above [from the Executive Summary, my emphasis]

What are the outcomes for literary fiction?

Fewer authors are able to make a living from their writing. (40% made their living from writing in 2005, but by 2013 it was down to 11.6%.) Only the top 1000 books are commercially strong, the rest see low sales and low prices.

Diversity in literary fiction has not improved.

Publishers have increased their reliance on film tie-ins and books series (proven sellers), the ‘continuity imperative’ identified by Claire Armitstead (see link below).

Self-publishing is an area of growth and, according to the report, is ‘increasingly upending the entire publishing industry.’ (p49) But self-publishing (especially electronically) means books are priced lower than ‘real’ books and as a consequence writers earn less. Moreover attitudes to self-publishing are largely hostile, including for the main ways in which literary fiction receives endorsement and sales: through broadsheet reviews and literary prizes and festivals.

The reader finds more homogeneity and less experimental fiction promoted by the dominant publishers. Their profits have increased, by the way, but this has not been passed on to authors.

Any other hopeful signs?

The report noted some positive aspects

This, then, is not an easy time for literary fiction. Nevertheless, there are a few bright spots:

  • New independent publishers continue to emerge
  • There is no conclusive evidence that publishers are reducing their marketing, even if this is a common feeling among writers
  • Film rights, translation rights, audiobooks and new crowd-sourcing models are all on the rise as ways of supporting literary fiction
  • The growth in creative writing courses offers teaching opportunities for writers, but also creates a more competitive landscape for authors

… As the above suggests, though, our research indicates this is emphatically not an easy time, and that models to support literary fiction are stretched thin, more than at any point in recent decades. [Executive Summary]

via visual hunt

And what can readers do?

Buy more books. Preferably at full price.

Buy and read more adventurously.

Support Indie Publishers: subscribe, promote, buy their books, remind others about this vibrant and growing sector.

Encourage initiatives to support BAME writers, as diversity in literary fiction is not improving. This means buying books by BAME writers, and supporting events and other promotions, such as prizes, workshops and so forth.

Support libraries. Support libraries. Read more books.

Links

You can find the full text of the report and the Arts Council’s response on the Arts Council Website.

A New Chapter must begin for Literary Fiction by Claire Armitstead in the Guardian 15.12.17.

I wrote about the premature announcement of the death of real (print) books in a post in August. Here’s the link.

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The Return by Hisham Matar

What are the effects of disappearance, long imprisonment and brutal dictatorship on people, individuals and their families, their communities, their countries? And how is it to live in exile, from a country you loved and from the knowledge of what happened to your father? Hisham Matar has campaigned for more information about the brutal years of the Gaddafi regime in Libya, and specifically for in information about what happened to his father. And when relations with Libya were normalised by the Blair government he campaigned for the human rights of political prisoners. And finally, when Gaddafi was toppled, in that brief period of hope for Libya, he returned to his home country. This is his account of these events.

What is known

Jaballa Matar was a leading dissident who opposed Gaddafi and like many others took his family into exile to continue the struggle from abroad. But he was kidnapped in Cairo and delivered to the Libyan regime. He emerged in a notorious prison in Libya. Jaballa Matar was kept separately but other prisoners heard him recite poetry during the dark nights of captivity. His fate is ultimately unknown, although it seems likely that he was murdered in a massacre in the Abu Salim prison in 1994. His family received some letters but when these ceased, and when reports of sightings dried up the family was unable to discover confirmation of his fate. It is believed that at least 1270 men were killed in the prison massacre. An account by a witness is included in the book.

Documentary evidence is scant. And witnesses have also disappeared or may be unreliable. Researching his grandfather’s activities brought him to the absence of an archive of the period of Italian occupation and to the same frustrations he experienced in his search for the truth about his father.

I was back in that familiar place, a place of shadows where the only way to engage with what happened is through the imagination, an activity that serves only to excite the past, multiplying the possibilities, like a house with endless rooms, inescapable and haunted. (161)

What it means

This is a beautifully written memoir. In part it provides Jaballa with a legacy. He was an opponent of Gaddafi, and for that it is likely that he paid with his life. But he was also a father, husband, brother, cousin, uncle and son, a patron of many as well as an inspiration to young men. They also pay the price.

Those in exile also suffer.

Guilt is the exile’s eternal companion. It stains every departure. (105)

And family relationships are damaged.

We tiptoed around each other, trying our best to avoid confronting the ways in which political reality manages to infiltrate intimacies, corrupting them with unuttered longings and accusations. (110)

Family relationships are central to this account, and although Hisham Matar’s family are strong and supportive, they’re also stretched by long periods of separation, and by conflicting family loyalties and beliefs. When fathers have been in prison for more than 20 years their sons have grown into young men, strangers.

The history of the family becomes more and more significant as tiny fragments of information are gathered to add to the incomplete picture. We learn of the heroic stances of other members of the family: the grandfather who resisted the colonisation and destruction of the Italians; the young fighter Izzo a cousin who killed in the last battles of the revolution to unseat Gaddafi. His story was relayed on Facebook. Or the cousin, a judge, who leads a strike to demand judicial independence in the new Libya. And Hisham Matar’s own campaign to find the truth about his father.

The writing

Hisham Matar is also a novelist. I heard him talk about his novel In the Country of Men and was profoundly impressed by the way he spoke about his novel and its relationship to his own situation. This was at Ways with Words in the summer of 2012 and I was struck by the sparse attendance at his talk, which was so good, in contrast to the Radio 4 celebrity event that attracted a much larger crowd to the main hall at Dartington.

What struck me was his use and control of language.

There are times when my father’s absence is as heavy as a child sitting on my chest.

This is the opening sentence of Anatomy of a Disappearance, which he told us came to him after a couple of years being blocked and allowed him to write. Here is another example of his control, describing how people used their houses differently since Gaddafi took power:

Light is no longer welcome in the houses. It is shut out, like other things that come from outdoors: dust, heat and bad news. (51)

There is control too in the account of Hisham Matar’s many conversations with Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, son of the dictator. The grotesque nature of his promises, sympathy and bargaining in these transactions is evident. But there is no rancour in the text. We can be happy that Saif is currently in prison and Hisham Matar is free to write.

And this is the description of Libya in 2012, in that brief period of hope called the Arab Spring. Hisham Matar is writing about Benghazi.

I had never been anywhere so burdened with memories yet so charged with possibilities for the future, positive and negative, and each just as potent and probable as the other. (140)

I read this with the avidity of a novel reader. Reading is important to understand the varieties of damage caused by oppression and violation of human rights. In his fiction as well as in this memoir Hisham Matar brings us face to face with our responsibilities to resist.

The Return: Fathers, sons and the land in between by Hisham Matar (2016) Penguin 280pp

The Return attracted several prizes including 2017 Pulitzer Prize for biography and memoir, Pen American Award, Slightly Fixed best first biography award and reaching the shortlist of several more prestigious awards.

Fiction by Hisham Matar

In the Country of Men by Hisham Matar (2006) Viking Penguin

Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2006.

Anatomy of a Disappearance by Hisham Matar (2011) Viking Penguin

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Some Recommended Books for Writers

So what books about writing do you recommend to other writers? Our writing group recently pooled titles they found useful. A book that was mentioned by more than one writer was The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. Many beginner writers follow her recommendations to get started.

Establishing a Writerly Routine

I must admit that the advice to establish a routine, to find your best time and always write in it, to always write 500 words a day and so forth does not fit the life of an ordinary mortal. Nor is it necessarily good advice. Sometimes routine is just what you don’t want. However, I have adapted Morning Pages, but it’s the only bit of routine I have. I wrote about it here.

Virginia Woolf noted that she used her writing diary to loosen the ligaments.

‘… the habit of writing thus for my own eye only is good practice. It loosens the ligaments. Never mind the misses and stumbles … I believe that during the past year I can trace some increase of ease in my professional writing which I attribute to my causal half hours after tea.’ (A Writer’s Diary, April 20th 1919)

More After Tea Pages than Morning Pages. Many writers benefit from writing to get into the zone and to work out their glitches and never show it to anyone.

Reading for Writers

The most succinct advice to writers of all levels of experience, and perhaps most frequently quoted advice too, comes from Stephen King:

If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way round these two things that I am aware of, no short cut. (On Writing)

Specific advice on how to read productively for writers comes in Reading for Writers by Francine Prose. Putting the advice into practice was the subject of an earlier post on this blog called Reading for Writers.

Some specific recommendations

For help with story structure I was advised (by a published author) to read Into the Woods by John Yorke. It was excellent advice, and Yorke’s book has helped me with the revision of the first draft of my novel.

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott is an excellent and realistic book for many aspects of writing, especially about going on going on. The title refers to her father’s advice about completing some homework. You just tackle it bird by bird.

A few months ago I recommended Ursula Le Guin’s collection of essays Words are my Matter: writings about life and books 2000-2016. We have much to learn from our most experienced writers. I especially warmed to her thoughts on imagination and how you must learn to develop it.

Currently I am dipping into Philip Pullman’s Daemon Voices: Essays on Storytelling, full of interesting observations from a craftsman.

Resources for publishing

The Writers & Artists Year Book.

And Mslexia’s Indie Press Guide, now out in a second edition.

The poets amongst in our writing group recommended these:

Writing Poetry by Peter Samson

An Ode Less Travelled by Stephen Fry

Of course you could just follow this:

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Two Old Women by Velma Wallis

Two Old Women retells the Alaskan legend celebrating the fortitude and wisdom of the two old women of the title. As their tribe approaches a difficult winter with few resources, the chief and council decide that The People must move on, but leave behind the two old women who are draining their resources.

Two Old Women by Velma Willis is the 30th in the older women in fiction series on Bookword. You can find others through the various links on the blog.

The Story of Two Old Women

It is the time before Westerners arrived in the Yukon. The People must live off what the land provides. Some years the land is more bountiful than others. The People are moving to their winter quarters but finding it impossible to support themselves. The chief’s decision is a difficult one, but it is argued that these two old women contribute very little, are a burden on the younger folk and moreover they complain all the time. To leave them behind might save the Qwich’in People.

Of course they survive or this would not be a legend. But at first the women are stunned and shocked. It is hard to be abandoned, especially by your daughter and grandson.

The large band of famished people slowly moved away, leaving the two women sitting in the same stunned position on their piled spruce boughs. Their small fire cast a soft orange glow onto their weathered faces. A long time passed before the cold brought Ch’idzigyaak out of her stupor. (12)

Ch’idzigyaak is 80 years old. Her younger companion is 75. In the beginning Sa’ is the stronger in spirit and body.

At that moment, Sa’ lifted her head in time to see her friend’s tears. A rush of anger surged within her. How dare they! Her cheeks burned with the humiliation. She and the other old woman were not close to dying! Had they not sewed and tanned for what the people gave them? They did not have to be carried from camp to camp. They were neither helpless nor hopeless. Yet they had been condemned to die. (12-13)

It is Sa’ who encourages her friend to hope and then to take action.

“Yes in their own way they have condemned us to die! They think we are too old and useless. They forget that we, too, have earned the right to live! So I say if we are going to die, my friend, let us die trying, not sitting.” (14)

The imminent death would be dreadful, either from the cold or from hungry wild animals. Predation, as we have learned to call it. The chief’s decision to leave them behind reflects his perception of the old women‘s position as the least useful members of the band.

As winter approaches they set off to find a safe place to shelter, to find food and wood for warmth. As they go they tell each other a little about their pasts, and find that both have been resourceful and have learned survival skills. They meet and overcome difficulties. They support each other through their struggles.

Their survival teaches the rest of the band, when they are reunited, important lessons about perseverance but also about the value of old folk.

The Old Women

Legends are handed down for a reason. They pass on important lessons from the older generation to the younger. This legend of the old women is full of the importance of not giving up: “let us die trying.” And of the mutual value of different people within a community. It reminds us that old women, even if they are whiners, are not ‘old and useless’. The legend tells us that even age does not limit the ability to accomplish what is necessary.

The legend counters the strong story of dependence and decline that old people, especially older women, have told about them even today. As Sa’ says, older people are neither helpless nor hopeless. Much current social debate assumes that older people have nothing to offer as they become increasingly dependent, and that the world and life belongs to the young.

It is no coincidence that this story is introduced as a mother retelling it to her daughter as they collect the wood for winter. It reminds the reader of the harsh conditions that face many people even today. In this short novel these hardships and challenges are made vivid through the author’s personal knowledge of living near the Yukon. The author is from the tribe of the Qwich’in People.

Two Old Women: an Alaskan legend of betrayal, courage and survival by Velma Wallis (1993) Harper Collins 130pp

Illustrated by Jim Grant.

Recent posts in the older women in fiction series:

Tillie Olsen Tell me a Riddle

Kent Haruf Our Souls at Night

Elizabeth Von Arnim The Enchanted April

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Photo credit: The Silmarillion via Visual hunt / CC BY-NC-ND

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How to Get Published

Such a seductive title that, how to get published. It was the catchy headline for a conference organised by Writers & Artists in Plymouth in December 2017. Was it possible that the answer, the key, the secret to getting published was on my doorstep? Always positive, always hopeful, I paid my money and I travelled to Plymouth University.

My main purpose was to find something helpful so I can make a decision about publishing my novel. Yes that novel, the one that has been going in and out of drawers for several years, and which I am currently engaged in moving from a first draft into a much improved second draft. All that editing is very absorbing, and I have hardly looked up to consider what will happen after this stage. Should I publish or not? I found an answer – see below.

How to Get Published Conference

The day was largely a series of talking heads, people who knew about the business of getting published. We heard about editing and plotting from two novelists (Wyl Menmuir and CL Taylor). We were given guidance on openings from another prolific writer (Joanna Nadin). Two literary agents helped us think about submitting our work to an agent (Kate Johnson and Juliet Pickering). Alysoun Owen, editor of Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook, provided information about the current state of publishing and real books. And the CEO of Literature Works, Helen Chaloner, brought us up to date about bookish activities in the South West.

It’s hard listening to seven different speakers, not a great model for learning. The best sessions were those which included activities, the ones in which we worked on opening sentences, writing elevator pitches, evaluating successful and unsuccessful pitches. There were plenty of helpful hints and tips and Q&A opportunities.

Some guidance was not quite so helpful. ‘Always finish everything you start,’ Wyl Menmuir quoted Neil Gaiman. People nod as if the advice is obvious, like proofreading your pitches. It seems crazy advice to me: if I followed this guidance I would still be working on all those teenage novels, formless, angsty, the tone breathless, and still trying to get them into shape. It seems to me that knowing when to leave some writing behind is a skill worth cultivating.

A conference is also about meeting other people, and it is always enjoyable to hear about their projects. Some of the elevator pitches were most impressive, and intriguing, as they should be.

Where next?

Over the years I have come to see that writers need to pay attention to guidance from the professionals to get published. It’s all about the book, we were told more than once. And we saw how despite the solitary nature of most writing, the publication of a book is about the cooperation and complementary work of many different people. The word trust, especially in relation to the agent-author relationship, was frequently emphasised.

Impostor Syndrome

Confronted by those successful writers and agents, and sitting among ambitious writers displaying loads of confidence, it’s hard not to feel that it all applies to everyone else. My work doesn’t follow the three act structure, the MC doesn’t have a clear and thwarted want. My pitch is currently rather tame. In short, impostor syndrome is alive and well even if my inner critic is uncharacteristically quiet. [IC: I don’t need to say anything – IS is doing it all for me.]

TLC have recently been circulating the following rejection letter,

10/4/28

Mr F. C. Meyer,
Wells Street,
KATOOMBA.

Dear Sir,

No, you may not send us your verses, and we will not give you the name of another publisher. We hate no rival publisher sufficiently to ask you to inflict them on him. The specimen poem is simply awful. In fact, we have never seen worse.

Yours faithfully,

ANGUS & ROBERTSON LTD.

TLC is suggesting that such brutal honesty should be accompanied by helpful advice. There now exist many helpful strategies for writers to seek out, including mentoring (see TLC, W&A, Gold Dust and many more).

And if you took a sharp breath on behalf of Mr Meyer, let me remind you (and me) that it is all about the book. The best antidote to impostor syndrome is to repeat: the book is not me, the book is not me.

For my own part, it was a coffee-time conversation that led me to move my decision forward. I shall take the next steps, finish this edit and seek further professional guidance about my novel. I have nothing to lose, and lots to learn.

Go to Artists & Writers website for details of more dates for similar events, mentoring services and so on.

photo credits  Writing by Caitlinator on Visualhunt / CC BY

Pencils Photo by smoorenburg on Visual Hunt / CC BY

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The Decades Project one year on

At the start I didn’t mean it to work out like this, I just wanted to introduce a little discipline to my reading for the blog. I decided to select a novel from each decade from 1900 onwards, reading one a month, and reviewing it here on the blog. What happened was that for the first two decades my choices were both by women and before long I had decided to stay with novels by women. It’s my blog so I do what I want to.

by Henri Lebasque

The decade’s list

Once a month I picked a novel and reviewed it. Here’s the full list with links to my posts:

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, (1905)

O Pioneers by Willa Cather, (1913)

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie, (1926)

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, (1938)

They were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple, (1943)

The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing, (1950)

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin, (1969)

Woman at Point Zero by Nawal el Saadawi, (1975)

Hotel Du Lac by Anita Brookner, (1984)

The Shipping News by E Annie Proulx, (1993)

Persepolis by Marjane Satrap, (2003)

The variety

I am very pleased to have included such variety here: from different countries and continents, two translated into English, some sci fi, a classic or two, one was a graphic memoir and there were several prize winners.

The book I most enjoyed rereading …

… was undoubtedly The Shipping News by E Annie Proulx (1993). I was already an enthusiastic reader of her books when I first read it, and on rereading I found that this one combined the best of her humorous and humane writing. Set largely in Newfoundland it took me somewhere I had only been in the film of the novel.

It was serendipitous that as I was making my choice for the 1990s Annie Proulx was awarded the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. The judges noted especially her ‘deep reverence for the beauty and complexities of rural America’. You can find her acceptance speech here. In it she reveals that she did not begin writing until she was 58. She laments

the accelerating destruction of the natural world and the dreadful belief that only the human species has the inalienable right to life and God-given permission to take anything it wants from nature, whether mountaintops, wetlands or oil.

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

The book I reacted badly to …

… was Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. It’s a classic. For many people it is their favourite book. But I hated the manipulation of the reader into wanting the narrator and Max to get away with what they thought was murder.

But it has many qualities, not least in the way the tension mounts, and in the creation of Mrs Danvers. And it has a terrible grande dame, Mrs Van Hopper, in the opening scenes. I don’t suppose my criticisms matter a bit to readers who love this book and enjoy the nostalgic thrill of the opening sentence as they begin another reading.

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. (1)

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (1938) Virago Modern Classics (2003). 441pp

The book I was most pleased to read …

… was O Pioneers by Willa Cather. I have wanted to read it for years, and was pleased to have made the acquaintance of this writer. I expect to read more by her soon.

O Pioneers! By Willa Cather. First published in 1913. I used the edition by Oxford World Classics. 179pp

A theme that emerged …

… was of the position of women in relation to marriage. Beginning with the tragedy of Lily Bart in The House of Mirth, readers of these books find themselves confronted with variations on the theme of independent women. In complete contrast, but still in the United States, Alexandra Bergson is revealed as a pioneer, with no need of a husband, indeed as more capable than all the men in her corner of Nebraska. Rebecca emerges from a frightened mouse to become a fierce lioness, protecting her man. In They were Sisters Dorothy Whipple compares the lives of three women, and shows how their marriages affected their fortunes, and their children’s. And who could read Doris Lessing’s novel The Grass is Singing without seeing the worst kind of marriage, oppressing both partners, this one set against the racist backdrop of Southern Rhodesian white society. And how terrible are the trials of Firdaus in Egypt in Woman at Point Zero. Anita Brookner has, with class and style, written many times about the challenges for single intelligent women. Hotel du Lac was a prize winner.

The theme was magnificently emphasised in Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, which is set on a planet where near-humans have no gender for most of the time, but when they go into oestrus they may emphasise either their male or their female characteristics. So what does gender do when it’s not for reproduction, she asks.

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

The Decades Project in 2018:

I enjoyed seeking out and rereading novels for 2017. The project introduced a wildcard element to my reading and blog. Next year I plan to follow the same pattern, but to read non-fiction by women from each decade. I have already found that the choices for some decades are easier than others. It may be that in the first decade of the 1900s women only published gardening books. Watch this space.

Suggestions for this new series are always welcome.

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