Monthly Archives: December 2014

Older women in fiction: the top five posts

I am very proud of the series on older women in fiction on this blog. The reviews are among my most read posts, which means there is an appetite for fiction on this subject. Looking at the whole series it is clear that these novel writers do not want to present the stereotype of the cosy granny. Instead, they show the realities and suggest some feisty alternatives to the stereotype. Here are the five most read posts from the series with summaries and links to the comments. All are highly recommended.

mrspalfrey green1 Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor (1971)

Mrs Palfrey is a widow, with a little money and some class. Not wanted by her daughter she goes to live with other elderly people in the Claremont Hotel near the Cromwell Road in London. She meets an aspiring novelist as a result of a fall and presents him as her nephew. Confusions result. There are sharp observations, gentle humour and an honest look at what it meant to be old and lonely in the 1960s and ‘70s. A lesson for today as well.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor published by Virago Modern Classics.

  1. The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence (1964)

25 Stone AngelThe Stone Angel is by a Canadian and follows the slow loss of capacity by the aging Hagar Shipley as she becomes dependent upon her son and his wife. It is an arrangement that suits them all badly and as she declines further she is institutionalised. She escapes and experiences adventures and insight before she dies. She is a fighter, ‘a holy terror’ according to her son.

Thanks Litlove for the recommendation

The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence published by Virago Modern Classics

  1. All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville West (1931)

117 All passion coverThe widow of a great man steps out of his shadow and away from the controlling impulses of her many children to live her final months on her own terms. As a result 88-year old Lady Slane meets people who have more qualities than her former husband, despite his achievements. And she herself becomes a force for good. It is set in London in the years between the wars.

Thanks Emily Books for the recommendation

All Passion Sent by Vita Sackville-West published by Virago Modern Classics.

  1. Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively (1987)

46 Moon TigerAnother feisty woman this time aged 76, a journalist, who on her death bed is reflecting on her life. We are given further insights as she is visited by people from her past. The novel, as all by Penelope Lively, provides insights into the effects of one’s past on the present, as we see from the extended passage from the diary of Claudia Hampton’s lover who died in the war. As a result we come to see Claudia’s final weeks and her whole life in a different way. This novel won the Booker Prize.

Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively published by Penguin Modern Classics.

5 The Summer Book by Tove Jansson (1972) Translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal

80 Summer Bk coverAn evergreen book that centres on the relationship between a grandmother and her granddaughter as they spend their summers on an island off the coast of Finland. This grandmother is an artist and is tetchy, wise, ailing and independent.

The Summer Book by Tove Jansson published by Sort of Books

 

Some further reflections

All but one of the books explored so far in the series have been written by women. A Passage to India by EM Forster is the exception. Mrs Moore is not one of the main characters in the novel, although the idea of Mrs Moore is more extensive than her presence. You might also notice that several of them are published as classics, and that Virago is responsible for three of the five.

During the last two years I have built up a list of fiction containing older women, including suggestions from readers of the blog and twitter users. You can find it here. Please make suggestions for additions to the list.

Please add your comments to these reviews. I have noticed that people do not tend to comment on reviews of books on Bookword, or not as much as they do on other topics.

The 12th post in this series will appear in February, when I look at Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey.

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A New Genre?

Is there a new genre, the novel in which the middle-aged creative woman flees to a remote place to escape loss and finds herself, true love, redemption or some such. It’s probably a sub-genre. Whatever label we use here are three I have read. Two sent by my sister, which is kind of her. Perhaps she is concerned that I am a creative type, who has fled from all kinds of loss to a remote place. ‘Fled’ is not right and Devon is not that remote. I am not escaping loss, a broken heart or anything much at all, but I like the idea of the restorative power of the natural world.

143 Emot Geol

  1. Emotional Geology by Linda Gillard (2005)

Rose is suffering following the end of a very serious relationship with a climber, and suffers with intense depression. She is also a textiles artist. She seeks refuge from these demons on Uist (oh beautiful Outer Hebrides) and finds lovely neighbours and a damaged but highly desirable young man, also a climber, who challenges her withdrawal and eventually wins her over. It’s told from Rose’s point of view but also steps back to an authorial voice at times. I enjoyed the descriptions of Uist, which evoked the pleasures of the island as I experienced them.

143 Call

  1. Call of the Undertow by Linda Cracknell (2013)

Another story of a woman fleeing loss to work on her own in a lonely spot – this yime on the remote north eastern coast of Scotland. She experiences a gradual introduction to the community and reconnection with the world through nature. The sea birds are vivid in this novel.

In this story a boy Trothan is called by the undertow of the title. He is a gifted child, with powers of observation and map skills as well as a keen appreciation of the local folk ales. Maggie, a cartographer herself, encourages him as she works on her atlas of Nigeria. The boy is a keen observer of what goes on in the village but misjudges the community when he reveals the nefarious activities of his neighbours. He goes missing and one is led to believe he chose to join the seals in the sea. Maggie doesn’t find love, but she does find friendship and a place to feel at home, away from her past.

143 Still Life

  1. Still Life with Breadcrumbs by Anna Quindlen (2014)

Rebecca Winter, a photographer, is 60 and broke. He career has declined, her husband left her some time ago having destroyed her confidence, her mother was always a selfish woman. Rebecca moves to a cabin in upstate New York in an attempt to make ends meet and to consider her future. Of course life decides what this will be for her as she is adopted by the local tea shop owner, the roofer and a stray dog. She finds her way.

This is the familiar story of a sophisticated woman finding love with a younger and virile man. They rescue each other; he rescues her from the dissociation from life and she comforts him for life’s pains, including the death of a psychotic sister. It’s cleanly told, with nice strong characters and a story that rattles along.

 

Do you know any novels that take up the themes of these three?

 

A late addition, thanks to Deborah Smith on twitter.

143 Detour4. The Detour (or Ten White Geese in US) by Gerbrand Bakker (2012), translated from the Dutch by David Colmar.

The best of them all and not romantic fiction but a bleak story of a woman’s life falling apart, despite seeking escape in remote Wales. Very absorbing, interesting style and shortlisted for IMPAC prize. (See also The Twin by the same author, different themes.)

There’s something about those celtic remotenesses!

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Amsterdam Stories

142 Amsterdam BridgeAmsterdam, city of canals, bicycles and Anne Frank. I love it. In 2014 I visited twice, seduced by flights from Exeter Airport and by the reopening of the Rijksmusem. On both occasions I spent a whole day in the museum. Before the second visit I found a list of the ten best books set in Amsterdam, compiled by Malcolm Burgess. I chose two to read while I was there.

The book that dominates Amsterdam is The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank. But I’m going to sidestep it. I don’t underestimate its significance, charm and poignancy but Amsterdam is much more than the city where Anne Frank lived, hid, wrote and died.142 Am flowers

 

Rituals by Cees Nooteboom

Translated from the Dutch by Adrienne Dixon.

142 RitualsCees Nooteboom is, according to Malcolm Burgess, the greatest living Dutch novelist and Rituals is his masterpiece. It won the Pegasus Prize in 1981, having been published the previous year. I have to admit that I had not heard of Cees Nooteboom before. I think that this is because I am out of touch with European literature.

I found this a very interesting but troubling book. The Amsterdam setting is without special significance, although it had to be ituated somewhere and I did enjoy recognising some of the places mentioned in the novel.

I found time in the novel was a challenging aspect. There are three episodes related in Rituals, associated with three different people, the narrator, Inni Wintrop, and Arnold and Philip Taads. The Intermezzo is the first movement, set in 1963, the father Arnold Taads in 1953 and then the son leapfrogging ahead to 1973. It is an interesting approach for a novelist and highlighted dimensions of the relationships between the three men in an unsettling way.

The three men have some things in common, all attempt suicide; all try to find answers to the question of how to live by adopting the rituals of the title. Some rituals are formal or recognised: the Roman Catholic Church, Japanese aestheticism and tea rituals, Hari Krishna and nihilism. Others are rituals placed on life by the individuals to give it form: chasing women, selling art, organisation of time, daily rituals and so forth.

Cees Nooteboom appears to be asking how we make meaning from being alive, and how some attempts to understand life are flawed, meaningless and lead to nothing. He is also examining how time affects our understanding. I find this description of the older Tadd’s routines to be nightmarish.

Time, Inni learned that day, was the father of all things in Arnold Taad’s life. He had divided the empty, dangerous expanse of the day into a number of precisely measured parts, and the boundary posts at the beginning and end of each part determined his day with unrelenting sternness. Had he been older, Inni would have known the fear that dominated Arnold Taads demanded its tithes in hours, half hours, and quarter hours, randomly applied points of fracture in the invisible element through which we must wade as long as we live. It was as if, in an endless desert, someone had singled out a particular grain of sand and decided that only there could he eat and read. Each of these preappointed grains of sand called forth, with compelling force, its own complementary activity. A mere ten millimetres further and fate would strike. Someone arriving ten or fifteen minutes early or late was not welcome. The maniacal second hand turned the first page, played the first note on the piano, or, as now, put a pan of goulash on the stove on the last stroke of seven. (84)

This kind of philosophising seems to me to be a European phenomenon. Think of Meursault in Camus’s L’Etranger, dealing with the nothingness of life by committing a random murder.

 

Rembrandt’s Whore by Sylvie Matton

Translated from the French by Tamsin Black.

142 R's whoreThis novel is a complete contrast to Rituals: it was written in French in 1999, by a woman and is set in the seventeenth century.

The narrator is Hendrickje Stoffels, Rembrandt’s mistress after the death of his wife Saskia. As the title indicates she is condemned by the elders of Amsterdam. Her story begins when she arrives in Rembrandt’s house as an illiterate maid, and takes us through the birth to her daughter to her death. She addresses Rembrandt much of the time. It’s an intimate account of the domestic life of the great master, his business arrangements and financial difficulties, his social relations and daily life in Amsterdam in the mid seventeenth century. Here’s an example taken from her early days in the house.

I always used to look down when I went in to see you. Even when Geertje sent me to your studio in her place with the herrings and the beer. I’d knock gently, three little taps at the door. Come in, you said, and I’d go in. And I’d wait, holding the plate and pitcher, and behind your back I’d watch the picture emerge from your painting. I could see that great greasy crust on the palette of nameless colours, and bladders of paints and pots of oil that smelled of garlic, the hen’s feathers, and lavender. I’d learnt to breathe slowly with my mouth open, and my eyes no longer stung.

Barent Fabritius had given me his hand and brought me right into the pupils’ studio, where the artist who crushes the paint watches the oils heat until they become clear; then he can break up the colour into them. Not too hot, make sure the hen’s feather doesn’t fry in the turpentine. Beside him, an apprentice is stirring the bones and the skin of a rabbit till they melt in a bain-marie – the steam coming off it’s disgusting. If they’re mixed with powdered chalk they’ll turn into skin glue. (19-20)

The research is used to make clear the concreteness of painting and etching, and a visit to the Rembrandtshuis makes clear the physical effort, the smells, textures, shapes and colours with which Rembrandt spent his days. In this way the novel drew me into the life of old Amsterdam and its people. And it was authentic enough to add to the enjoyment of my visit.

The novel’s theme is the importance of art and love over form and narrow-mindedness. But we are reminded that in the end even fate, death, will get you – for some in the form of the plague.

And I will also enjoy the National Gallery exhibition, Rembrandt: The Late Works (until 18th January and later in Amsterdam at the Rijksmuseum).

my desk this morning.

my desk this morning.

I may have started a new series of books and cities. The first two posts were

Tales from the Vienna Streets and

Berlin Stories

I’m planning a trip to Russia (Moscow and St Petersburg) next year. Any suggestions for related reading? Or any other books set in Amsterdam that you would recommend?

 

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Library cuts are pay cuts. Really!

141 warning road signRegular libraries users are facing a virtual pay cut as libraries are threatened. A report with the catchy title of Quantifying and Valuing the Wellbeing Impacts of Culture and Sport, issued by the Department for Culture and Sport, reported that library users enjoy a sense of well-being equivalent to a pay rise of £1,395 a year. Engagement with the arts adds another £1,084 a year. Every woman, man and child is threated by further public sector cuts with reductions equivalent to almost £2,500 a year. (Thanks to The Author, Summer 2014 edition for this information.)

141 G OsbWe have been told that the price of austerity is worth paying. That was the Chancellor George Osborne. He and his party are not necessarily the best judges of that and some of us doubt that they are paying any price. Economic analysts suggest that the burden of the Coalition cuts falls most heavily on the poor (and women, but that’s not my focus today).

What is more risible? The notion that culture and sport have wellbeing impacts? The attempt to quantify and value these so-called impacts? Or the knowledge that this ‘salary’, which you probably didn’t know you had from libraries and the arts will be cut by people who wouldn’t notice a rise or a cut of £2500? It is certainly not amusing that 49 branches have closed in the last 12 months.

141 warning tapesWe have been warned that there will be more cuts to public services and we know that libraries are an easier target than care for older people, holes in the roads and so forth. So Beware! Let’s remind ourselves and others of the value of libraries, and not in the language of impacts or equivalent salaries.

Access to books is a cornerstone of our cultural development and enrichment. Libraries open the door to so much. So many writers acknowledge their debt to libraries. (See my previous post.) Children especially need access to the world opened by books and other library services. Share what Neil Gaiman said about this and so well.

141 BooksforprAnd prisoners in our stuffed and under-staffed jails also need access to libraries. Much of the recent campaign for Books for Prisoners by the Howard League and English Pen related to access to books and the importance of these in prisoners’ lives. One account about the value to prisoners that moved me is by Russ Litten: What better way to rehabilitate than to read?

But library usage is declining according to the report from the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountability(CIPFA) published 11.12.14. Is this a function of restricted access, or other restrict ions imposed by austerity (less money, fewer trips to town, fewer visitis to libraries) or a sign of a nation in cultural decline? Look at the graphics on this Guardian article dated 10.12.14.

Take action. Use libraries, celebrate them, support them and if necessary protect them!

141 warning!

How I earned my £1,395 or My library use in the last 12 month.

  • 12% of the books I have read have come from the library.
  • I frequently use the very valuable and efficient on-line reservation service.
  • I have ordered hardback books when I can’t wait for the paperback version.
  • I have borrowed books that I didn’t think I wanted to own, for example for the book group I belong to.
  • And I have reserved books on spec, perhaps they were recommended on another blog, or in the review pages of literary publications, or were short/long-listed for literary prizes, or recommended in one of those innumerable book conversations.
  • The best library book (and I’m still waiting for it to come out in paperback, when I will buy it) is Helen MacDonald’s H is for Hawk. It won the Samuel Johnson non-fiction prize, and I reviewed it here.
  • One or two books went back unread. My TBR pile clashed with other readers’ requests, or I lost interest in the book.
  • One of my writing groups was started by the librarian just over a year ago and now runs smoothly, encouraged and facilitated every two weeks in library premises.
  • The poetry group I attend is also supported by the library.

Library shelvesDSC00248

Nice work if you can get it! I earn my £1,395 a year at the library!

Any thoughts to add about libraries and access to books?

 

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Prepare for World Book Night 2015!

140 WBN 2015World Book Night 2015 is on Thursday 23rd April. There are too many lists in the world of book blogs, but I don’t hesitate to add the World Book Night list for 2015. World Book Night seems to be fading in other countries, but in the UK we have the Reading Agency to keep it strong.

140 Reading AThe purpose of World Book Night is to celebrate and promote books and reading. Apparently about 35% people do not read regularly. To reduce this proportion thousands of books from the list are given away on the night. The list is therefore intended to include lots of different kinds of books so there is something that will appeal everyone.

Here are the books for World Book Night 2015:

  1. After the Fall by Charity Norman (Allen and Unwin)
  2. Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death by M. C. Beaton (Constable, Little, Brown)
  3. Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb (HarperCollins)
  4. Chickenfeed by Minette Walters (Quick Read) (Pan Macmillan)
  5. Custard Tarts and Broken Hearts by Mary Gibson (Head of Zeus)
  6. Dead Man Talking by Roddy Doyle (Quick Read) (Vintage, Penguin Random House)
  7. Escape from Camp 14 by Blaine Harden (Pan Macmillan)
  8. Essential Poems from the Staying Alive Trilogy, Neil Astley (ed.) (Bloodaxe)
  9. Honour by Elif Shafak (Penguin General, Penguin Random House)
  10. My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece by Annabel Pitcher (Orion / Hachette Children’s)
  11. Prime Suspect by Lynda La Plante (Simon & Schuster)
  12. Queen’s Gambit by Elizabeth Fremantle (Michael Joseph, Penguin Random House)
  13. Skellig by David Almond (Hachette Children’s)
  14. Spring Tide by Cilla and Rolf Börjlind (Hesperus)
  15. Street Cat Bob by James Bowen(Quick Read) (Hodder)
  16. The Martian by Andy Weir (Ebury, Penguin Random House)
  17. The Moaning of Life by Karl Pilkington (Canongate)
  18. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce (Transworld, Penguin Random House)
  19. Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen (Two Roads, John Murray)
  20. When God Was A Rabbit by Sarah Winman (Headline)

140 WBN_CoverGrid-thumb-300x360-12979And here’s another list.

What to do for World Book Night?

  • Visit the World Book Night 2015 web page.
  • Read a book from the list.
  • Give a friend a book from the list.
  • Give two friends two books from the list.
  • Become a volunteer for World Book Night and help give away the books.
  • Join one of the listed community activities from the web page to celebrate and promote books and reading.
  • Buy all the listed books that you don’t already own.
  • Plan to read a book from the list in your reading group around that date.
  • Make a donation to support World Book Night.
  • Leave a book from the list on a train, in a café or in some other public place to be found by a stranger.
  • Read a book from the list that you wouldn’t have read if it wasn’t included.
  • Send the link to this post by Twitter to all your followers.
  • Read all the books on the list by women (the proportion has increased from previous years, according to #readwomen2014).
  • Make/ask for a special display in your local independent bookshop.
  • Make/ask for a special display in your local library.
  • Aim to read the whole list before World Book Night 2016.

You have until 23rd April 2015 to do something! Can you add suggestions of activities to support World Book Day?

 

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Victory for Books for Prisoners

Just announced today (5th December 2014):  the High Court today ruled that the ban on books for prisoners is unlawful. In addition, Mr Justice Collins said that access to libraries in prisons is inadequate. He commented that it was ‘strange’ to refer to books as a privilege

Some days there is good news. Some days justice and good sense prevail.

For more on this see the Howard League’s website.

EnglishPEN and many writers have also been involved in this campaign.

See previous post on Bookword on November 8th for more on this.

 

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A Passage to India by EM Forster

 Esmiss Esmoor, Esmiss Esmoor, Esmiss Esmoor

The chant, ‘Esmiss Esmoor, Esmiss Esmoor’, is a mangled version of Mrs Moore’s name, an invocation as if for a Hindu goddess. Mrs Moore is a character in A Passage to India by EM Forster, an older woman in this post in the series about older women in fiction.

The chant was taken up by the Indian spectators at a crucial moment during Aziz’s trial. Mrs Moore was not present. She had more impact on the events in Chandrapore in her absence than during her brief stay. In her absence she was venerated, assumed to know a truth not available to others about what happened in the Marabar Caves, a solution to the mess of Aziz’s trial, to the rift between Indians and the British. Mrs Moore had gone. In fact she had died at sea, before reaching Aden, on her journey ‘home’.

139 P to I coverA Passage to India was published in 1924. It is a story of the relationship between Indians and the British rulers. (India in 1924 included present day Pakistan and Bangladesh.) Mrs Moore visits Chandrapore, bringing Adela Quested from home to her son, Ronny as a potential wife.

There are two Mrs Moores in this novel, before and after the visit to the Marabar Caves. We first meet Mrs Moore at the Temple one evening. She has recently arrived from England and escaped from the club. She impresses Aziz, the young Muslim doctor, with her respect for the native cultures and religious practices. Both Adela and Mrs Moore express a wish to see what they call ‘the real India’. He responds to her with unconstrained enthusiasm. They establish a rapport. Partly to honour her, Aziz plans the ill-fated picnic to the Marabar Caves. These attempts cause difficulties.

Barabar Caves, by Klaus-Norbert (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons

Barabar Caves, by Klaus-Norbert (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons

The excursion to the Marabar Caves reveals more about Mrs Moore. Here, like Adela, she suffers some kind of disturbance in the cave. Twenty years ago we might have called it a nervous breakdown. Today we might call it a panic attack.

A Marabar cave had been horrid as far as Mrs Moore was concerned, for she had nearly fainted in it, and had some difficulty in preventing herself from saying so as soon as she got into the air again. It was natural enough: she had always suffered from faintness, and the cave had become too full, because all their retinue had followed them. Crammed with villagers and servants, the circular chamber began to smell. She lost Aziz and Adela in the dark, didn’t know who touched her, and some vile naked thing struck her face and settled on her mouth like a pad. She tried to regain the entrance tunnel, but an influx of villagers swept her back. She hit her head. For an instant she went mad, hitting and grasping like a fanatic. For not only did the crush and stench alarm her; there was also a terrifying echo. (136-7)

At the end of the tiring day Aziz is arrested and later charged with attempted rape of Adele Quested in a second cave. Mrs Moore returns from the expedition quite changed. She withdraws from the colonial society, but never doubts Aziz’s innocence.

As an old lady of the 1920s she described her own function to herself as follows

She was past marrying herself, even unhappily; her function was to help others, her reward to be informed that she was sympathetic. Elderly ladies must not expect more than this. (87)

Impatient with the young people, and the fuss caused by the expedition to the Caves, she becomes bitter about what she can expect from her future. She is pressed by Adela, who dreads being the chief witness at Aziz’s trial, to say what the echo at the caves was.

‘If you don’t know, you don’t know; I can’t tell you.’

‘I think you are rather unkind not to say.’

‘Say, say, say,’ said the old lady bitterly. ‘As if anything can be said! I have spent my life in saying or in listening to sayings; I have listened too much. It is time I was left in peace. Not to die,’ she added sourly. ‘No doubt you expect me to die, but when I have seen you and Ronny married, and seen the other two and whether they want to be married – I’ll retire then into a cave of my own.’ She smiled, to bring down her remark into ordinary life and thus add to its bitterness. ‘Somewhere where no young people will come asking questions and expecting answers. Some shelf.’ (188)

She is tired, tired of a life serving her children, answering their questions, frustrated with the increasing physical limitations she experiences. This older woman does not want to be venerated, to be seen as the respected voice of experience. Ronny reflects towards the end of this conversation, ‘she was by no means the dear old lady outsiders supposed’.

Forster describes Mrs Moore as she departs for England.

She had come to that state where the horror of the universe and its smallness are both visible at the same time – the twilight of the double vision in which so many elderly people are involved. (195)

139 P to I cover 2So what are we to make of Mrs Moore? Her function early in the novel is to offer, along with Fielding, an alternative to the intolerance of the British Colony in Chandrapore. Mrs Moore is a calm influence, a voice of reason and tolerance. Like Mrs Wilcox in Howards End, she is an insider but one who represents a different viewpoint, a different set of values. When her function is fulfilled in the novel she is dispensed with and Fielding takes over the role of the insider. Her rejection of the ‘dear old lady’ role is refreshing. And to the Indians Esmiss Esmoor has left an interesting echo.

 

A Passage to India by EM Forster: first published 1924. Page references are to the Penguin Classic edition published in 2005.

EM Forster by Dora Carrington, 1924

EM Forster by Dora Carrington, 1924

 

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