Monthly Archives: December 2013

The Soul of Kindness by Elizabeth Taylor

We all know someone like Flora, popular, attractive, without insight or self-awareness, but still everybody’s favourite. Perhaps we even want to be her friend, because some of her lustre rubs off on us. Elizabeth Taylor shows us the damage such a creature can create. The title sounds a warning – the soul of kindness?70 Sof K

As usual the first paragraph reveals much of what Elizabeth Taylor’s ninth novel will explore.

Towards the end of the bridegroom’s speech, the bride turned aside and began to throw crumbs of the wedding cake through an opening in the marquee to the doves outside. She did so with gentle absorption, and more doves came down from their wooden house above the stables. Although she caused a little rustle of amusement among the guests, she did not know it: her husband was embarrassed by her behaviour and thought it early in their married life to be so; but she did not know that either. (p7)

70 my copyThus we meet Flora on her wedding day. In the 1960s (this book was published in 1964) the wedding day would have been the culmination of the story for the heroine of many novels.  But in The Soul of Kindness we follow Flora’s life after this event. She assumed that she would marry and continue to receive the adulation and attention of her friends, her husband and her mother.

And so she does. They are always on call to keep her company, to look after her, to protect her, and ultimately to rescue her from the consequences of her misplaced encouragement and Kit’s failed ambition. It was Flora who had planted and nurtured it in Kit.

Here is the moment when she receives an anonymous letter following Kit’s suicide attempt.

‘Let me read it again!’ She took the letter and stared at it with revulsion. It was scribbled in pencil on a piece of paper torn roughly from a sketching-pad. ‘My interference!’ she said in horrified amazement. ‘Why do they blame me? I’ve tried and tried to do all I could for Kit. There’s no one I’ve tried more over. I’m so fond of him. I love him as if he were my brother not just Meg’s. And I know he wouldn’t do anything like that. Why should he? Why, I saw him only the other day. And who in the world hates me so much as to send me this dreadful …’ She dropped the letter, put her face in her hands and began to weep – with long, shocked gasping sobs. Richard sat on the edge of the bed and put his arms round her. ‘On my birthday, too,’ she wept. (p209)

Her husband comforts her, assures her that no one is kinder than she. But we have noticed that her concern is all for herself, none for Kit (notice the emphases). And we readers are already aware that Flora is as flawed as Angel in Elizabeth Taylor’s seventh novel, but perhaps Flora is the more harmful as she lives more sociably than Angel. There are more people to harm.

The list of people who get hurt is long:

She encourages her father-in-law, Percy, to marry his mistress, despite both being happy living separately. (One of the best scenes in the novel concerns Percy, who, when on his own, conducted very loud music, played on the gramophone. The Ride of the Valkyries and the last movement of Brahms’ First Symphony are two of his favourites. Everyone’s favourites.)

Flora’s mother, finding her life empty after Flora’s marriage, took in a housekeeper, but the women are locked together as neither can admit to the other what she has written or read. It is Flora’s husband Richard who helps her see that her life is not over because her daughter has left home.

Kit is the brother of her school friend Meg. He is taken up by Flora and consistently fails to live up to her ambitions for him. He feels a failure.

In the character of Patrick Elizabeth Taylor was ahead of the time, for she makes it clear that he was gay, and she makes it clear that Flora has no idea, and no understanding of homosexuality. Homosexuality was illegal until 1967.

Richard, her husband, understands that his role is to protect Flora. He is also a force for good in the novel, as it turns out. But her demands mean that he cannot pursue a friendship with a lonely neighbour.

Flora’s school friend Meg is forever in her shadow, and perhaps suffers most from Flora’s actions. It is she who must deal with Kit’s disappointment associated with Flora’s inflated beliefs about his acting talents. Meg is in love with Patrick, and Flora is provoked by her failure to get it together with him, as she would approve the match. Meg blames Flora for Kit’s suicide attempt. When Flora is upset by the anonymous letter and craves reassurance from everyone only Meg withholds it. She sees clearly how Flora operates.

‘Other people have to live with the truth about themselves… She’ll go on and on until we rally round and build up the image again.’ (p215)

In the end … well you might know, or might guess what happens.

70 soul-of-kindness31

Elizabeth Taylor was at the height of her skill as a novelist when she wrote The Soul of Kindness, creating a central character who is attractive to the reader even as she reveals her flaws. Many of the other characters are studies in loneliness, almost Elizabeth Taylor’s trademark. The idea that she wrote about small, insignificant and cosy lives is unjust given that she is able to conjure up suffering, affection, and, in this novel, human failings.

I’ve picked two other blog reviews you might like to read:

Vulpes Libris in which the reviewer suggests that Flora is like Jane Austen’s Emma without her wisdom.

Heavenali considers the relationships in the novel and finds much to admire.

The next novel Elizabeth Taylor wrote (published in 1968) was The Wedding Group. It was her tenth. I will be rereading it in January.

 

And a blog footnote: bookword is a year old. 70 posts and lots of comments later I thank my subscribers and readers. Here’s to more in 2014!

If you want to receive email notifications of future blogposts please subscribe by entering your email address in the box at the top of the column on the right.

8 Comments

Filed under Books, Elizabeth Taylor's novels, Reading, Reviews

10 things to do when you don’t know what to write.

‘I don’t know how to start.’ How many times have I heard that? When I was working with my students on their written assessments they would often wail (or email) in frustration.

Or, ‘I don’t know where to start,’ they might say.

Or (if they had launched out and begun to work on the essay or dissertation, but ground to a halt) ‘I don’t’ know what to do’. Their writing wasn’t working for them.

I had a range of suggestions I would give them, subsequently brought together in a hand-out for a writing summer school. I am indebted to colleagues for many of these ideas. They were originally intended for academic writers, but they have been adjusted to be relevant to writers of all genres.

69 ten_logo

1. WRITE 2000 WORDS. Write anything. One advantage of word processing is that you can discard any rubbish, even 2000 words of rubbish. But this tactic gets you writing. (Thank you, Professor Dennis Lawton, former director of the Institute of Education, in the University of London).

2. BRAINSTORM to gather as many good and bad ideas, suggestions, examples, sentences, false starts etc, as you can. Include material you are sure you will throw out.

3. FIND A FRESH METAPHOR OR ANALOGY for your main theme in order to open up a fresh set of ideas, using the word LIKE: for example, if you are writing about violence on TV you might develop the idea that it is like clowns fighting in a circus act (that is, we know that no one is really getting hurt).

4. TELL someone (even the cat) in three or four sentences what you are writing about. Then write it.

5. Write a 200 word (MAX) SUMMARY or description of your story, poem, book, blog … Try including why it’s important to you and why it should be important to anyone else.

6. DO A WIRMI if you can’t find the right word or you are getting lost in what you are writing. A WIRMI is when you look away from the text and keyboard and say (out loud if it helps) What I Really Mean Is … (Thanks Chris Watkins! See CARNELL, E., MACDONALD, J., MCCALLUM, B. & SCOTT, M. (2008) Passion and Politics: academics reflect on writing for publication, London, Institute of Education, University of London).

7. READ ALOUD – to the cat again if necessary – to see where you need to improve a draft. It is better if there is an audience who will respond, but not essential. I know of people who have read to their dog, their new-born baby, their teddy bear, a mirror, a tape recorder. They all helped!

8. USE A CRITICAL FRIEND. Show a draft to a friend and hear their responses and questions. It is probably not a good idea to give a raw first draft to comment on. Use your friend when you have got as far as you can and your writing might first benefit from a pause.

9. REMEMBER that just about everyone finds writing hard, including published and experienced writers. It usually involves head scratching, deleting, false starts, lightbulb moments, redrafting, polishing, checking … Who said ‘writing is rewriting’?

10. READ A LOT AND WRITE A LOT. “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 around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.” ( KING, S. (2000) On Writing, London, Hodder & Stoughton.) p164

 69 ten more

This suggestion might also work for you: How to battle the blank page, defeat distraction and get started writing. It’s from from Kathryn Heyman, of the Faber Academy, and author of the delightful Captain Starlight’s Apprentice.

 Do you have any techniques to suggest. Please add them in the comment box.

If you want to receive email notifications of future blogposts please subscribe by entering your email address in the box at the top of the column on the right.

6 Comments

Filed under Writing

A Reckoning by May Sarton

The story of this novel about an older woman who is dying of cancer may have put you off. The situation is not a comfortable one: Laura Spelman has been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and told she has a year or two to live. She wants to make the best of the final stage of life, to choose whether to have treatment or not, how she lives, with whom she keeps company and to make some kind of reckoning of her life.

Safely inside [her car] she sat there for a few moments sorting out the jumble of feelings her interview with Dr. Goodwin had set whirling. The overwhelming one was a strange excitement, as though she was more than usually alive, awake, and in command: I am to have my own death. I can play it my own way. … I’ve got to do it well. (p7)

68 M SartonWe follow her through her final months and learn about the compromises she had to make. It turns out not to be possible ‘to have my own death’. Nor can she manage to play it her ‘own way’. But she starts out well. Laura tells people in her own time. And at first she rejects dependency upon others, but soon has to allow others to help her, especially her housekeeper and her doctor, and comes to appreciate their professional care. She also finds that other people have demands to make of her: her children and sisters in particular.

Reckoning can means several allied but distinct things:

  • A computation
  • A statement of an amount due, a bill
  • An account for things due or received
  • An appraisal or judgement
  • Retribution (as in Day of …)
  • And in nautical use ‘dead reckoning’ means finding your position through a calculation on direction and distance (rather than on astrological computation).

Any focus on older women in fiction is going to explore living in the shadow of death, ask questions about what it is to be an older woman. In everyday use ‘reckoning’ refers to both accounting and a sense of some payment being due. Is this, then, what the final stage of life should be: a computation about how much one owes and is owed? Laura Spellman offers us an approach that is admirable. As her doctor says, she is not dying while still alive, rather living until she dies.

68 M Sarton 1I chose this book as the 4th in the series exploring older women in fiction. But it barely qualifies as Laura Spelman is only 60. The novel was first published in 1978, and things have changed in thirty-five years. People live longer and  few would accept that they have lived their full term at 60 as Laura appears to. This novel is also of its time in the way she writes about lesbian and gay love as forbidden and dangerous, and in the way she needs to explain feminism. If I had read it then I would probably have been more impressed by it.

68 datesCredit is due to May Sarton, who wrote a great number of books: fiction (20), non-fiction (12 including her journals), poetry (17) about women’s lives. She had a 13-year relationship with a woman, but refused to allow her writing to be described as lesbian. She preferred to be known as a lesbian woman who wrote. In A Reckoning I think Sarton draws on the nautical meaning for Laura’s analysis of her life, she is considering her position, based on direction and distance travelled. May Sarton’s own life is less celebrated these days, but she made a huge contribution to feminism.

This is not literary writing, not polished, not every word counts. I have read so much Elizabeth Taylor recently that I notice when writers spell everything out, as May Sarton does. In A Reckoning I found too much eggnog, sleeping and dozing, listening to Haydn, reading Herbert’s poems, and not enough about her thoughts and responses to her physical decline.

There is an episode in the hospital that seems to serve the author by showing us how infantalising hospitals can be for the sick and dying. But medically it appeared to offer nothing to Laura; the doctor said he wanted x-rays to check on progress of cancer. She died more or less on her return home.

The strength of this book is in the reckoning of Laura’s relationships, with her husband, her mother and sisters, her adult children, friends and the strangers who provide necessary services for her as her health disintegrates. But in the end, the most significant reckoning is with being a woman, and having loved a young woman very intensely. This collection of explorations both works and doesn’t. The reunion with her friend of her youth seems too late and to add nothing to her life, only allows her to die.

I don’t think this is an especially good read. But it certainly adds to the canon of strong older women in fiction. Thanks to whoever recommended that we added it to our list.

 

The next Readalong in the Strong Older Women in Fiction group will be The Summer Book by Tove Jansson. I will post in February. Yes, Tove Jansson is the Finnish author of the Moomin books. But this novel for adults contains a life-affirming character in the grandmother. You should read it if you haven’t.

 

If you want to receive email notifications of future blogposts please subscribe by entering your email address in the box at the top of the column on the right.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Books, Older women in fiction

Who or what are literary prizes for?

What purposes do literary prizes serve for readers? It’s clear that they provide writers with recognition and publicity that leads to sales. And for publishers it provides publicity that leads to sales. And for sponsors I guess it adds to their good image (which I assume is designed to boost sales somewhere along the line). So there is a pattern here.

67 MBP dated large

There are prizes for first novels, for biographies, a Samuel Johnson award for non-fiction, American prizes such as the National Book Award, and international prizes such as the Nobel Prize for Literature (for a body of work), the Man Booker Prize, the International Man Booker Prize and several awards for different genres (such as crime, sci-fi, children’s literature etc). For all I know there is a prize for last novels.

Zadie Smith is sure that winning a prize is essential for new writers to get noticed. Not everyone is convinced of their value. In the New York Times last month, Daniel Mendelsohn asked

What purposes do these prizes serve? Are the values they promote aesthetic or commercial? And how on earth do the judges arrive at their decisions?

Jennifer Szalai recalled what is said when things go wrong:

The complaints are as common as they are contradictory: Prizes are awarded to tepid, undemanding best sellers everyone reads; prizes are awarded to obscure, abstruse books no one reads. They are awarded to the right authors, but for the wrong work (Hemingway for “The Old Man and the Sea,” Faulkner for “A Fable”). They are awarded to the wrong authors for the wrong work (Margaret Mitchell for “Gone With the Wind”). They are withheld from the right authors for the right work (“Gravity’s Rainbow,” by Thomas Pynchon, won jury approval for the Pulitzer in 1974 but was overruled by a board that deemed the novel “turgid” and “obscene”). Sometimes the grousing has the whiff of sour grapes. “Prize X has never been awarded to Philip Roth,” “Prize Y has never ben awarded to me.”

She concludes that literary prizes should honour good books. Mendelsohn claims that prizes show what is prized and that as a result the real winner is culture itself.

But what about the reader? What do we get from these awards? I used to think that prizes were normative, restricting readers’ choices, operating a bit like the 2for1 tables at Waterstone’s, or reality tv competitions (the Great British Write Off?) or the bestseller lists in the weekend papers. And it is true that plenty of good books miss the awards: the slow burners, books that are idiosyncratic, specialist, appeal to small scale interests, and especially non-fiction and translated books. But we shouldn’t expect the awards to do everything for the book trade.

Awards do draw attention to some books, especially through their long- and shortlists. I admit to being very interested in long- and shortlists, and not much interested in which book or author wins (especially when the press starts speculating about muggin’s turn, as they did Jim Crace for the MBP this year and Julian Barnes in the past).

Here are some awards that have added to my reading pleasure:

IMPAC prize, especially for its longlist, because it is the outcome of nominations for high literary merit by public libraries across the world. Consequently some less prestigious, less artsfartsy books get identified, and frequently the shortlist (and winner) includes novels in translation. Per Petterson, Out Stealing Horses (2007) and Gerbrand Bakker, The Twin (2010) are two examples. The list this year is very long – 152 titles. Great! Lots to discover.

67 Out Stealing

67 WPFF logo

Women’s Prize for Fiction because it promotes women writers and women are still less published, less reviewed and the literary scene benefits from positive discrimination. See the blogpost in praise of the Women’s Prize for Fiction for a fuller discussion. This year I read and enjoyed all six of the shortlisted titles.

The title of this next one deserves a prize of its own: Not the Man Booker Prize, a list nominated by readers of the Guardian and although readers vote in an arcane system that can only be likened to the rules of Mornington Crescent (see BBC Radio4 show I’m Sorry I haven’t a Clue) the panel make a final judgement. I was pleased to see that Magda by Meike Ziervogel lead the readers’ voting, even if Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life actually won.

The Samuel Johnson award for non-fiction, because there is some excellent writing and subject matter being written about every year and it’s not all fiction. There is always biography in the list, and history and other books that might slip by. This year I have been interested to read reviews of David Crane’s Empires of the Dead: How One Man’s Vision Led to the Creation of WW1’s War Graves. And Under Another Sky: Journeys in Roman Britain by Charlotte Higgins also looks very interesting.

And I will continue to rely on several other ways of finding good reading: reviews, end of year and holiday recommendations, word of mouth, gifts, browsing in bookshops, Twitter and my local library.

67 MBP2013

Meanwhile I have one and a half books left to read from the Man Booker Prize shortlist for 2013. So far I have read 19cms and still have 8cms to go, including the winner – Eleanor Caton’s The Luminaries.

 

What do you think of Literary Prizes? Have you come across any good reads from a prize? What have literary prizes ever done for you?

 

If you want to receive email notifications of future blogposts please subscribe by entering your email address in the box at the top of the column on the right.

2 Comments

Filed under Books, Reading

Books change lives.

Want a good idea to solve your Christmas present problems? Reverse Book Tokens may be the answer. What are they? Read on.

Reading and books connect people in important ways. Reading and writing are two important activities that enable underprivileged people to counter the odds stacked against them: refugees, prisoners, the oppressed, children … A recent blog on reading with children referred to Neil Gaiman’s October 2013 lecture in which he outlined our collective responsibility to help young people read. Here is the link again to the full text of his lecture on the Reading Agency site. In a spirited defence of all reading and of libraries he argued that individuals need literacy, but so does society.

The bigger picture of the importance of books and reading came vividly to me when I worked briefly in Africa, with teachers in Maputo, Mozambique. I have also visited schools in Zimbabwe and in Ethiopia. One thing I know is that resources we take for granted in our schools are in very short supply in some schools, especially in rural areas in sub-Saharan Africa. In particular – books. Not all schools can afford to provide books, and yet …

66 Bookaid logoMy mother put me in touch with Book Aid International and I have supported them ever since. Last year they provided more than half a million books to 3,300 libraries, mainly in sub-Saharan Africa. Their work is so important. It changes lives.

Rahmatu is a 13-year-old-girl from Cameroon who is at secondary school , a country where only one in 5 girls achieve this. Her family cannot afford to buy books. But thanks to Book Aid International her school library is full of books and she takes a book home every day, and reads to her siblings. Her favourite book is Gulliver’s Travels. You can see her speaking on the website.

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.

Book are changing the aspirations of this young girl, at the same time as allowing her siblings access to books as well. The video shows Rahmatu reading aloud to children in her village. The essence of this story is repeated in Uganda, Zambia, Tanzania, DRC, for libraries in prison, in hospital, and in primary and secondary schools. The strap line for Book Aid International is BOOKS CHANGE LIVES.

66 Bookaid classroom

Book Tokens are a great idea; you pay the money and someone else gets the books. Reverse 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. Money for this charity is also raised through donations, festive cards and World Book Day events. The next one will be on Thursday 6th March 2014. The charity is hoping to raise money through celebrating its 60th birthday in 2014.

66 bookaid lorry

Thinking of presents for readers this year? Give a Reverse Book Token and support Book Aid International. A reader will thank you.

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, says Rahmatu.

 

If you want to receive email notifications of future blogposts please subscribe by entering your email address in the box at the top of the column on the right.

3 Comments

Filed under Books, Libraries, Reading