Monthly Archives: August 2015

Unlimited Books for Prisoners

Do you know that poem called Sometimes by Sheenagh Pugh? It begins

Sometimes things don’t go, after all,

from bad to worse …

Well, this is one of those times. Our best efforts have not gone amiss. Thanks to some good campaigning, a legal challenge and, yes credit is due, Michael Gove (Secretary of State for Justice), all restrictions have been relaxed preventing prisoners from receiving books. The Campaign Books For Prisoners has been successful.

Books for Prisoners

Let’s credit English PEN and The Howard League for Penal Reform for their vigorous and engaging campaign. The Howard League was presented with the Charity Award for its campaign in June 2015.

The judicial review was brought by Barbara Gordon-Jones, a prisoner at HMP Send, and her lawyer, Samuel Genen. As a result in December 2014 the High Court declared unlawful the restrictions introduced by Chris Grayling (previous Secretary of State for Justice). But feet were dragged, information only slowly disseminated and practice took time to change.

And then, following the general Election, the Secretary of State for Justice was replaced. Michael Gove said, when he announced the change in policy,

We have more than 80,000 people in custody. The most important thing we can do once they are in prison is make sure that they are usefully employed and that they get the literacy and numeracy and other skills they need for success in work.

Channings Wood, Boundary Fence, by Roger Cornfoot December 2009 via WikiCommons

Channings Wood, Boundary Fence, by Roger Cornfoot December 2009 via WikiCommons

It is a little sad that the rationale for the new policy is framed in instrumental terms, and all about work. As a good old-fashioned liberal leftie I want books and education to be promoted for their own sakes, not just to improve the work chances of prisoners – or children and young people and students of all ages. But hey-ho, the policy has changed. The statement went on,

One of the big influences on my thinking on social policy is Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute.

He believed that we should see all human beings as assets, not liabilities. I agree. Every individual has something to offer, every one of us can earn respect.

People who are currently languishing in prison are potential assets to society. They could be productive and contribute. If we look at them only as problems to be contained we miss the opportunity to transform their lives and to save ourselves and our society both money and pain.

From 1st September families and friends will be allowed to send books directly to prisoners and no longer be obliged to go through approved retailers. The limited of 12 books in cells has been lifted, but prisoners must not exceed the limits on the volume of personal possessions permitted.

Wood engraving of Elizabeth Gurney Fry reading to prisoners in Newgate Prison, London, from Bodleian Library, Oxford, via WikiCommons

Wood engraving of Elizabeth Gurney Fry reading to prisoners in Newgate Prison, London, from Bodleian Library, Oxford, via WikiCommons

Why are books important in prisons?

Let’s put aside the views of people who think being economically productive is the main duty of an adult human. Let’s ask for other reasons why books are important in prisons.

This is the view of someone who knows. Chandra Bozelko wrote this post for an American blog, Quartz, on her experiences of prison. She argues for more support for literacy training, not only for Obama’s proposed degree courses, in jail.

I was never an avid fiction reader before being incarcerated. But once inside, the last page of every novel I read arrived with an emotional thud, because I knew I would have to re-submerge myself into prison reality. Real life was never as good as the story I had been reading. To finish a book was often so disheartening that sometimes I wondered if I should even start another one, knowing how I would feel when I finished. …

Reading can save an inmate. A novel is a buoy in prison; it keeps you afloat because you can enter someone else’s life without ever leaving the facility. But not everyone in prison can read a whole book. Because I’ve witnessed that struggle first-hand, perhaps that’s why I’m one of the few who know that reforming the US corrections system means focusing on basic adult literacy—and therefore that providing university-level courses to inmates isn’t as helpful as it sounds.

We need to say this again and again – access to books is important for everyone. Books are good for you! A Report to the Reading Agency by BOP Consulting, funded by the Peter Sowerby Foundation, notes that the benefits of reading include:

  • increased empathy,
  • improved relationships,
  • reduced symptoms of depression, and
  • improved wellbeing.

I’d like some of that! That’s why libraries are important. Everyone should be able to access book easily. That’s why literacy activities in prisons are important. That’s why prison libraries are important. That’s why prisoners should have adequate time out of the cells to visit libraries (reduced it appears because of cuts to prison staffing).

Check out the list of benefits again. Not only should prisoners enjoy books for their own sake, but their life chances can be enhanced by reading. Books for prisoners!

Turning pages of a book by Mummelgrummel, February 2013 via WikiCommons

Turning pages of a book by Mummelgrummel, February 2013 via WikiCommons

Two notes

Note 1: American Enterprise Institute is an American conservative think tank. Arthur Brooks might be described as a compassionate conservative. According to Wikipedia, in 2006 he wrote Who Really Cares: the surprising truth about Compassionate Conservatism. And he earned his living for a while as a French Horn player. Hmm …

Note 2: The decision by Gove means that books are no longer part of the Incentives and Earned Privileges Scheme, or to put it another way they become an entitlement rather than a reward.

Related posts

Books for Prisoners November 2014

Books in Prison March 2014

Follow the hashtags on twitter #BooksForPrisoners and #noreadingingaol.

 

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Nora Webster by Colm Toibin

I love to read a book that isn’t brash and that has something quiet to say. Nora Webster is such a read. The story moves steadily but without dramatic events, at the tempo of ordinary lives. The significant events are the daily interactions with neighbours and family, someone’s choice of words, the purchase of a recording, a short drive to the coast. This is the work of a writer who knows and understands the warp and weft of life.

195 Nora W coverThe story

The novel opens when Nora Webster has just been widowed and we follow her life over the next 3 years in Wexford, Ireland in the late 1960s as she moves through her grief.

Nora has four children: two young boys who live with her and two girls who are older and making their lives elsewhere. The death of Nora’s husband Maurice means she has to has to help her children with their grief as well as her own. She struggles to find what she wants from her life without her husband, and eventually without her four children as they grow up.

The novel shows us the important of small things as we see Nora almost knocked sideways by grief and the difficulties of raising the boys on her own. We enjoy her steely independence of spirit as well as the consistent if quiet support of her family. Her progress is gradual and there are set-backs. She is unable to prevent damage to her young boys and in some ways contributes to it for she does not invite conversation with those around her about the difficult things in life.

Driven by her circumstances to reconstruct her life she reluctantly embraces a return to work, new friendships, new projects, and repairs her connections with her family. She stands up for her sons in a manner that demonstrates her determination and her ability to take on the educational establishment in 1970s Wexford. By the quiet close of the novel you have come to realise that Nora was diminished in some respects by her marriage. Her spirit along with the passage of time and the needs of her sons has brought her to a new way of being Nora.

Nora

In Nora Colm Toibin has succeeded in creating an engaging character. She goes a long way not to offend her community, but increasingly undertakes small acts of resistance. We are introduced to her in this way.

‘You must be fed up of them. Will they never stop coming?’ Tom O’Connor, her neighbour, stood at his front door and looked at her waiting for a response.

‘I know,’ she said.

‘Just don’t answer the door. That’s what I’d do.’

Nora closed the garden gate.

‘They mean well. People mean well,’ she said.

‘Night after night,’ he said. ‘I don’t know how you put up with it.’

She wondered if she could go back into the house without having to answer him again. He was using a new tone with her, a tone he would never have tried before. He was speaking as though he had some authority over her.

‘People mean well,’ she said again, but saying it this time made her feel sad, made her bite her lip to keep the tears back. When she caught Tom O’Connor’s eye, she knew that she must have appeared put down, defeated. She went into the house. (1)

From this opening paragraph we already understand a great deal about Nora’s character and that something has changed in her life that allows a man to shift his behaviour towards her. It establishes that the novel will deal with the changes she faces and how she navigates them and how she responds to people around her. Acutely conscious of her own discomfort, but also intensely private about her reactions, she is neither put down nor defeated.

In addition we can catch the Irish lilt, the intrusiveness of Tom O’Connor, and Nora’s apparent passivity. And the simple sentence ‘Nora closed the garden gate’ adds a small beat as we contemplate the scene, an everyday exchange between neighbours. The resistance to Tom O’Connor is slight, but such acts grow to include a misguided haircut and taking up singing.

Other things I liked

The quiet style of the writing matches Nora’s character. It means that the novel is compelling without it being a page-turner. Here is an example: Nora’s reflections on the different pace at which she and her sons are coming to terms with Maurice’s death.

She pictured the house, how strangely filled with absence it must be. She was aware now that the changes in their lives had come to seem normal to them. They did not have her sense of watching every scene, every moment for signs of what was missing, or what might have been. The death of their father had entered into a part of them that, as far as she could see, they were not aware of. They could not see how uneasy they were, and maybe no one but she could see it, yet it was something that would not leave them now, she thought, would not leave them for years. (116)

While I wished that Nora would accept the support and help offered, her struggle with grief, with the enforced changes to her life, with making her own way is a very affirming story.

I enjoyed the themes of music in Nora’s life and photography in her son’s. Both come to these arts knowing little about them and with some perseverance both find their feet and new connections with others through their interest.

The novel has been well received: Nora Webster won the 2015 Hawthornden Prize and was shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award in 2014 and the 2015 Folio Prize.

There was an excellent review by Jennifer Egan in the New York Times in October 2014.

Nora Webster by Colm Toibin (2014), published by Penguin 311pp

 

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The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke

August is Women in Translation month. The focus has provided some interesting lists and reviews on blogs and Twitter #WITmonth and it has been good to see the Peirene Press getting so many mentions. Here is my very slightly tweeked review of one of Peirene Press’s many successes. It was first published in January 2013, but still seems to say what I want to say.

The Mussel Feast

I didn’t choose The Mussel Feast. In a manner of speaking it chose me. It came to me as the first book since I subscribed to the Peirene Press.

The Mussel Feast was first published in 1990 in German. Birgit Vanderbeke says, ‘I wrote this book in August 1989, just before the fall of the Berlin Wall. I wanted to understand how revolutions start. It seemed logical to use the figure of a tyrannical father and turn the story into a German family saga.’ Birgit Vanderbeke won the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize, the most prestigious German-language literature award. It was well deserved.

musselfeast_web_0_220_330

The Story

The book is written as a monologue by the daughter, who is waiting with her mother and brother for the father to return from a business trip, with a promotion in the bag. The story starts as they prepare the mussels for the 6pm arrival of the father, and ends at quarter to ten, when the father has still not arrived and the telephone is ringing. In just over 100 pages the fractured relationships and the abusive behaviour of the father are gradually revealed through the monologue.

The writing

The distinctive tone of the writing is illustrated by the opening lines.

It was neither a sign nor a coincidence that we were going to have mussels that evening. Yes, it was slightly unusual, and afterwards we sometimes speak of the mussels as a sign, but they definitely weren’t; we also said they were a bad omen – that’s nonsense too. Nor were the mussels a coincidence. This evening of all evenings, we’d say, we decided to eat mussels. But it really wasn’t like that; you couldn’t call it a coincidence. After the event, of course, we tried to interpret our decision as a sign or coincidence, because what came in the wake of our abortive feast was so monumental that none of us have got over it yet. We would always have mussels to celebrate a special occasion, and this was a special occasion although in a very different way from what we had in mind. (7)

These lines also form a near perfect opening. Something is going to happen (we never discover exactly what), and they didn’t know it was going to. The reader must ask, who ‘we’ are, and what was the event that the mussel feast did not prefigure, why was the feast abortive, what was so monumental that they have not yet got over it … So many issues and questions, so much drama and change but the tone is even, un-dramatic, determinedly calm, careful, accurate. The writer has been described as playful and arch (on the website of the Institute of Germanic and Romance Studies).

The style is curiously hypnotic, inviting the reader almost to take it or leave it. The daughter shows us the ways in which the father has controlled each member of the family, where the slightest mishap – like forgetting the salt on holiday – endangered family unity. We come to see why she writes in this way as the girl unpacks the awful dynamics of the family.

Another idiosyncratic aspect of this writing is there no direct speech. Writing classes are taught that dialogue moves the action on, and too much exposition turns the reader off. Teachers who say this should read The Mussel Feast. There are other stylistic challenges for the reader: such as very long paragraphs (one paragraph extends, for example, from p40 – p66) and the characters are never named.

I liked all of this about the book. I thought it was brilliant.

The translation from the German by Jamie Bulloch is excellent, as the extract illustrates.

Related Posts

Word by Word blog Women in Translation #WITmonth introduces some titles and informs us of some figures: 5% of published books in UK are in translation (compared to 50% in France) and of those 30% are by women.

Do you have any recommendations for Women in Translation Month?

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Four Good Reads

Here are some recommended reads from the last six months. There are so many books around at the moment that deserve to be read I’ve put together four for today’s post (and will recommend another four very soon).

  1. All my Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews

193 ALl my puny cover This is a novel that holds you tight, makes sure you don’t escape. Look, it says, look! What do you do when someone you love really, really wants to end her life? Someone like your sister? Do you help her?

Elfreda is a famous pianist and the sister of Yolande, the narrator. She tells us how Elfreda wants to commit suicide, and the novel begins as she is hospitalised after her most recent attempt. We find out that their father also found death in front of a train. The novel concerns the attempts by Yolande and other close to Elf, to keep her alive. But then Yolande has to consider the request ‘to take me to Switzerland’, to Dignitas, because she sees her sister’s unhappiness.

Miriam Toews is a Canadian novelist, who draws from her Menonite background. She knows how to create sparky characters, with lives full of the stuff of living. And she knows how to portray sisters and adult relationships. Yolande is sparky and flawed. The emotional content of the novel is crafted so that the reader cares what happens to both sisters, and yet the material never becomes mawkish. It’s very moving and very challenging.

The novel explores a person’s right to die; whether another person should help them; the pain of knowing your loved one wants to die; the pain when loved ones do die; and how families support each other. I couldn’t help comparing this book to Me Before You by Jojo Moyes in which Will’s disability made the questions less tricky than for Efl, the successful concert pianist and in which the theme of assisted suicide notched up the tension rather than encouraging reflection on the dilemmas of assisted suicide.

Miriam Toews (2014) All my Puny Sorrows, published by faber 321 pp

  1. The Bees by Laline Paull

193 Bees coverThis novel was short-listed for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2015. It is certainly a sustained tour de force. The main character, Flora 717, is a bee and the action of this novel takes place in a hive.

Laline Paull has done her research, and the mysterious and rather alien functions of the hive, in particular its hierarchies and the brutal way in which these hierarchies are enforced, is reimagined in a story of the triumph of the humble bee. It is the author’s challenge to present a great deal of close observation of bee behaviour in a convincing way: how bees communicate, the function of smell in their lives, group communication through humming, dancing and chemical means. The world of bees is sustained to the end.

Flora attracts attention by being a little different at birth. She is taken to the nursery, and later to the Queen. Fiercely loyal to the Queen – as are all bees – she learns the geography and culture of the hive as she takes on the roles of nurse, sanitation worker, forager and finally a definitive role in the hives future after it disintegrates through internal conflict.

The Bees by Laline Paull (2014), published by 4th Estate 344 pp

  1. The Dig by Cynan Jones

193 Dig coverThis novel featured as a book of the year for several people in Guardian Review of 2014. I mentioned it in brief post because one character, an older woman, seemed to me to be so beautifully portrayed, albeit very briefly. You can find my comments about her here. There is more to this novel than that one character, of course.

The dig refers to digging badgers out of their setts, and so the novel is about cruelty and loss. The big man is a loner, who hunts badgers for sport, but must evade the law to do so. The practice seems rooted in the traditions of the countryside, in this case in Wales. It may be traditional but the badger dig is gruesome, and the baiting that follows worse. Dennis is also a loner, a sheep farmer grieving for his wife, recently killed by the kick of a horse. The paths of the two men cross with tragic consequences.

The story unfolds in the Welsh countryside, and Cynan Jones has a great feel for place, evoked especially through sound, but also through the taciturn communications of the people in the rural communities, and of the skill and knowledge that both men develop of their crafts. The two main characters, and the others, such as the boy who goes on a dig, and Dennis’s mother, all are evoked through a sparse but powerful style. It’s short, brutal and difficult to read.

The Dig by Cynan Jones (2014), published by Granta 156 pp

  1. This Boy by Alan Johnson

193 This Boy coverOur book group decided to read this autobiography. We enjoyed it, partly because Johnson has such respect for women, and especially for his mother and sister. He was brought up by them in post-war London slums, where poverty was shockingly present. Deserted by his father, much of his story details the family’s struggle with money, ill-health and the expectations of their neighbours. Told with humour as well as shocking detail, we read because we know our boy came good.

It’s as much a social history, including a reminder of the role of popular music in a boy’s life in the late 50s and early 60s. (This Boy is the title of a Beatles song). It is written with passion, humour and generosity.

This Boy by Alan Johnson (2013), published by Corgi Books 284pp

 

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The Twilight Hour by Nicci Gerrard

The Twilight Hour by Nicci Gerrard is something different in the series of older women in fiction. The 16th post in the series considers a popular, contemporary novel. What picture of an old woman emerges in this novel?

192 Twlight H coverThe Story

Eleanor Lee is causing concern to her family because she is old and has accidentally set fire to her house. They want her to go into a care home. She is an intelligent and considerate woman, so after resisting she agrees. First, she insists, she needs help in sorting the stuff in the house, especially books, photographs and letters. Peter arrives to do the job, a young man with a broken heart.

Peter and Eleanor spend their evenings together and she gradually reveals her secret. He finds the evidence that would reveal the truth to Eleanor’s family. It concerns a love affair in her youth (seventy years before), at a time when such things were not publicly acknowledged. The events had destructive repercussions in Eleanor’s own family and changed the course of her life.

The story of the younger woman dominates. This novel is not about old age, for the central story is the young Eleanor’s. Nothing is changed for the old woman by telling her secret to Peter. Eleanor achieves no resolution of her doubts about what happened, no accommodation or relief, no desire to reveal her past to her own children. Nothing in the life of old Eleanor changes by revisiting her past.

The Old Woman

Eleanor Lee is 94, nearly blind, but independent minded. She is feisty but foresees decline. This portrayal of an old woman draws heavily on the idea of ageing as decline. It is a prevalent view, almost unquestioned, in our society. Here is Eleanor describing to Peter how she sees her future:

‘You do not understand – indeed, why should you and how could you? – the gross indignities of old age.’

‘Indignities?’

‘Yes. Soon, I will very probably need someone to cut up my food. To wash me. To cut my toenails. To pluck the little coarse hairs from my chin. To wash my dirty clothes. To take me to the toilet. To wipe my bottom. I can’t see if you are blushing but you probably are.’

‘No, I’m not.’ Indeed, Peter did not feel embarrassed by the old woman’s words; he almost felt uplifted by them.

‘Then I’ll become incontinent. I’ll dribble. People will spoon mush into my mouth.’

‘This all sounds rather drastic, when you seem so strong, so self-reliant.’

‘Ageing is drastic. It is very bodily. Maybe I’ll start to lose my memory; very probably I will. We can’t escape these things, you know. Bit by bit I’ll go into the darkness. I won’t be their mother any more, or their grandmother, their great-granny. I’ll be like an ancient leaking baby.’ (49)

The intended effect on Peter, and the reader, is of shock at the horrors of old age – decline into ‘an ancient leaking baby’. It is not clear to me why Peter ‘almost felt uplifted’ by what she says. The use of the word ‘almost’ is ambiguous, and what is uplifting about her words? The revolting picture she paints is in contrast to her actual situation, for she manages a household with support, and is not dependent for everything, every personal thing, on other people. Perhaps this image, put into Eleanor’s own mouth, of decay and dependence is intended to draw attention to the contrast between the old and the young woman.

There is a second depiction of fearful oldness in the character Meredith, Eleanor’s vindictive step-sister. Meredith suffers from dementia, and Peter and Eleanor pay her a visit, which is another vision of hell. Is the reader meant to be frightened or disgusted by the decay of old age?

The novel is narrated as if, since the grande passion that is at the heart of the novel, there has been very little of importance in life for this old woman. It seems unlikely to me that after seventy years, the love affair would still have been the main story that Eleanor told about herself at 92, especially as Nicci Gerrard suggests that she had an important career in teacher education, brought up children, was independent from an early age. Are women defined by their relationships to men, or is that only in popular fiction?

I was not convinced that Eleanor would so strongly have wanted to keep her secret from the younger generation. And that she is capable of telling it to a stranger. Did the secret matter so much? Is the framing of the main story, as the reminiscences of the old woman, a plot device?

What we learn

We are invited to agree that the preoccupations of the younger Eleanor Lee would remain into old age – the necessity of keeping her secrets hidden. To this end, Eleanor sets fire to the filing cabinet, and unwittingly to the house, and then employs the troubled young man to find and destroy the evidence and to listen to the story.

The Twilight Hour is at heart a historical romantic novel about a love affair at the moment when Britain was entering the Second World War. The old woman is attractively drawn, but nothing is changed by her revelations, and we have to believe that all that matters in one woman’s long life was a brief passion, experienced seventy years before.

The Twilight Hour by Nicci Gerrard (2014), published by Penguin pp407

 

To view all posts in the Older Women in Fiction series, please click on the relevant category or see the list on the page Older Women in Fiction.

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On-line Writing Course #5 Deadline approaching!

OK! So I said I was going to finish the second draft of my novel by the end of August. To put it another way I planned to complete revisions to the first draft by then. Here we are the beginning of August and – guess what – I’m not going to make it. And – guess what again – I don’t feel guilty.

Here are my reasons (others might call them excuses) for falling behind:

The Builders Were In:

The most compelling reason is one that anyone who has ever had building works done in their house will understand: my kitchen floor needed to be relaid and an external wall of my cottage waterproofed. Remember the great storms of December 2013? Yes, when the railway line between me and Exeter was washed away at Dawlish? Those storms? Well on 23rd December 2013 water came flowing through my kitchen and since that time I have been trying to get the damage fixed, and in June and for three weeks there was MAJOR DISRUPTION. In a good way. It’s all done.

153 tick

And I have been doing other things. Three of them are writing things:

  1. I’m co-authoring a new book on ageing. I had an outline plan for my sections, which I have revised in the light of not quite getting the writing done quickly enough. I do love the research, tracking down the right figures, looking through our interview material, thinking about how the issues of the topic fit our overall themes. Currently I’m working on a chapter about older workers. Should be a doddle. I’ve written about this before in Retiring with Attitude. Somehow re-writing material can take longer than starting from scratch. I don’t understand why, but I know this is true.
  2. I’m writing my blog. Yes I know. That’s what I am dong, now this minute. About every five or six days I write something about books: a review, some thoughts about writing, something else related. I love it. It’s not a burden, but it does take head space and writing time. 145 writing keyboard
  3. I’m writing a new short story to submit to an anthology that our writing group is getting together. I’ve done the first draft, but it needs close revision (not revising again!) to get it in shape and to meet the deadline.

And then there are more other things

Grandmother duties, picnics, trips to country parks, and summer in Devon; visits to London; a wet weekend in Cornwall attending a nephew’s camping wedding (of course it rained. It poured and blew a gale, except during the Saturday afternoon when we all put on our glad rags and waterproof footwear and enjoyed wedding things: champagne, cake, bunting, speeches, relatives, and weather reports); completing the visa form in preparation for a visit to Russia (people – it’s more complicated than doing income tax on line – although I haven’t done that yet, because of the visa thing).

So I am behind. And since I have been having such a good time there is no point in beating myself up. Some deadlines can be moved. One should never plan oneself into a corner with a deadlines if you can help it. Planning should not produce guilt.

86 Mind the Gap

I still love revising. I shall do it by Christmas, I hope. But finishing the manuscript of the non-fiction book and getting it to the publisher by/in March 2016 is an immovable deadline.

Watch this space if you want. Updates will appear.

Related posts

On-line writing course #3 Finished? in which I revealed my plan to complete the revisions by the end of August

On-Line Writing Course #4 Revising Structure and Plot in which I reported that the schedule was beginning to slip …

What keeps you from getting a writing task done? I hope it’s good things.

 

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