Monthly Archives: December 2015

Grief is the thing with feathers by Max Porter

It doesn’t happen very often. I opened the book to just get a flavour and I found myself reading the final page about an hour later. It’s a short book at just over 100 pages. There are lots of white spaces, giving the appearance of a poetry book. Grief is the thing with feathers is one of most powerful books I have read this year. I have revisited it several times since that first reading.

222 Grief cover

The Story

A father and twin sons are grieving at the sudden death of the wife/mother. Crow arrives to look after them all and stays until he is no longer needed. The text is presented in the voices of Dad, Crow and Boys. There is no narrative, although the progress of Dad’s book about Ted Hughes marks some changes over time. Grief must be endured. You don’t need time and you don’t move on. You endure. It’s hard, lonely and very, very raw. That is what Grief is the thing with feathers communicates.

The style

Max Porter’s style is a mixture of poetry and prose in stream of consciousness. Poetry runs through the novella, from the appearance, title and epigram. The epigram by Emily Dickinson has been altered by Crow: That love is all there is, … Crow is a great invention.

222 epigram

And the poetic feel runs through the subject matter, Ted Hughes, R S Thomas, Crow’s passages, to the final two sentences. Father and sons are at the sea to scatter the ashes.

And the boys were behind me, a tide-wall of laughter and yelling, hugging my legs, tripping and grabbing, leaping, spinning, stumbling, roaring, shrieking and the boys shouted

I LOVE YOU I LOVE YOU I LOVE YOU

and their voice was the life and song of their mother. Unfinished. Beautiful. Everything. (114)

The novella is in three parts, A Lick of Night, Defence of the Nest and Permission to Leave. And as the whole text is in the voices of those three, the reader is kept very near in the closed world of grief.

Crow

Crow enters, his smell arriving before Dad sees him.

There was a rich smell of decay, a sweet furry stink of just-beyond-edible food, and moss, and leather and yeast. (6)

Crow is amusing, perceptive, arrogant, caring and violent. He tells the father that he wont leave until he is not needed any more.

It could be argued that Crow is Ted Hughes’s creation as the novella acknowledges.

‘Thank you Crow.’

‘All part of the service.’

‘Really. Thank you, Crow.’

‘You’re welcome. But please remember that I am your Ted’s song-legend, Crow of the death-chill, please. The God-eating, trash-licking, word-murdering, carcass-desecrating math-bomb motherfucker, and all that.’

‘He never called you a motherfucker.’

‘Lucky me.’ (70)

Carrion Crow in silhouette: Andreas Plank Dec 2010 adapted from Aomrikuma via WikiCommons

Carrion Crow in silhouette: Andreas Plank Dec 2010 adapted from Aomrikuma via WikiCommons

Crow is a mysterious delight. He writes notes for Dad for his own literary memoir; he puts him straight about ghosts, sets comprehension questions for the reader (a brilliant pastiche of those book club questions you find in the back of novels), and is poetic in his description of the triptych of death (Father, Mother, Twins). Crow, I think I should meet you in Ted Hughes poetry, Crow, also published by Faber & Faber. Ted Hughes knew a thing or two about wives who die.

222 Crow Hughes cover

Dad

The bereaved husband carries the story, but his contributions are labelled Dad and thus his contribution is located in his relationship to his sons. At times he can’t cope and Crow steps in to babysit, but mostly he is there for them.

Dad shows us the full range of his grief: the incompetence of the days following her death, his memories, the continual presence of the absent one, physical missing as well as the practical woman.

The whole city is my missing her.

Eugh, said Crow, you sound like a fridge magnet. (50)

Dad allows the reader to both see and empathise with his grief, while he is also able to reflect upon it.

There is a fascinating constant exchange between Crow’s natural self and his civilised self, between the scavenger and the philosopher, the goddess of complete being and the black stain, between Crow and his birdness. It seems to me to be the self-same exchange between mourning and living, then and now. I could learn a lot from him. (22)

Boys

Sometimes the boys speak independently, but are not differentiated. They are gentle, kind, fun, sad, amusing, interested in death and imaginary crows and all the things young boys should be interested in. They accept the change to their father, miss their mother and occasionally their father.

Dad has gone. Crow is in the bathroom, where he often is because he likes the acoustics. We are crouched by the closed door listening. He is speaking very slowly, very clearly. He sounds old-fashioned, like Dad’s vinyl recording of Dylan Thomas. He says SUDDEN. He says TRAUMA. He says Induced . . . he coughs and spits and tries again. INDUCES. He says SUDDEN TRAUMA INDUCED ALTERATION OF THE ALERT STATE.

Dad comes back. Crow changes his tune. (23)

The boys add some lightness to the novella, but lightness true to their youthfulness. And they also represent continuing life and change and will live with the death in a way that their father never can. And they will carry their father after Crow has gone as we learn from those final words:

… and their voice was the life and song of their mother. Unfinished. Beautiful. Everything. (114)

Recommended

222 crow rspbIt’s a beautiful book, the design (cover, paper and arrangements of words on the page). I love to have book like this on my shelves, even if I am not sure whether to place it among poetry, philosophy, psychology or fiction.

I was so affected by this book that I was relieved to read that Max Porter lives with his wife and children in London.

Shortlisted for Goldsmiths Prize 2015 and Guardian First Book Award 2015.

Grief is the thing with feathers by Max Porter published in 2015 by Faber & Faber 114pp

Related links:

The review by Kirsty Gunn in The Guardian in September 2015 alerted me to this book.

Max Porter wrote about writing Grief in the Guardian in November 2015. Of Crow he says ‘I didn’t know how badly I wanted to write him until I did.’

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Missing Books

You run your fingers along the spines of your shelf where you book should be and find – the book has gone. It’s a gone book. Somewhere there is a library of lost books, perhaps in the same street as the laundrette for single socks; opposite the museum of lost contact lenses; and the newspaper reporting on people who lost their hearts.

All those books, where are all those books? How have they come to be gone?

Not on the shelves

221 Well of LThe Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall. Writing a post about banned books I went to my shelves of novels, to look for the green spine of my copy of the Virago classic. I read the book I am sure in the ‘70s. But it was missing, although a friend was able to lay her hands on her copy when I mentioned this a few days later. Perhaps I only borrowed it. It’s a book I should have on my shelves, a classic. What else is not on my shelves?

Gone from the library

Virginia Woolf in Manhattan by Maggie Gee. I wanted to read this book because of the title. I like the idea of a novel about a novelist, and especially of one as revolutionary as Virginia Woolf. I reserved it from my local branch of the county library. A week later I received this email.

Dear Ms Lodge,

I’m sorry but the copy of

Gee, M Virginia Woolf in Manhattan

Which you requested is missing. As this is the only copy on the catalogue I have had to delete your request.

Unforgiveable, a library user in Devon has failed to return the service’s only copy of Virginia Woolf in Manhattan. Check your shelves Devon readers!

Not in the shops

24 Sussex, Ottawa

24 Sussex, Ottawa

What are you Reading Mr Harper? by Yann Martel. I posted about this book a couple of weeks ago. I planned the post after reading of the fall of Mr Harper and his Conservative government in the Canadian General Election. But the book was not available from my usual sources. In the end I went to the subsidiaries of a well-known on-line company that sell second hand books. My copy arrived from Switzerland. An international affair. And what has happened to all the books that Yann Martel sent Mr Harper, more than a hundred of them. Have they gone back to Calgary with Mr Harper? Or are they in cardboard boxes in the cellars of 24 Sussex Drive, Ottawa?

Lent but not returned.

And then there is the category of books that go missing because they were lent to a person posing as a friend who never returned them. Is that what happened to The Well of Loneliness? Annecdotalist mused on this topic on her blog in November in a post called Never let me go: the dilemma of lending books. She lent Never Let Me Go and, yes, it has not returned. She writes movingly about the betrayal of trust, the damage to a relationship if the book is not returned. And has a word or two for those people who don’t ever buy books.

Not exactly given away

193 Bees coverThe Bees by Laline Paull. This is a new category, discovered when my book group was deciding what to read in 2016. My daughter revealed that she had my copy and overheard to say ‘it’s mine now.’ Not so much given away or lent as adopted, taken over. I need to check her shelves of course.

 

 

About missing

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey. In this book it is people that are missing, a sister and a friend. And Maud is losing some of her marbles as dementia progresses. It’s a very successful debut novel, that treats an older woman with great respect. I reviewed it in the series on older women in fiction on this blog.

Not yet written

In my half century of writing I have imagined so many novels and written so few. I began a few. There was the as-yet-untitled saga of a large family who lived in a lighthouse in Brittany. And there was the adult feminist novel featuring Megan and her struggles in a life of discrimination against women. And not even started, the memoirs of a book obsessed reader.

Not yet finished

And then there is the novel I have drafted, but need to produce a second draft. And while I am not revising the first draft I am writing, with two others, a book on ageing. This book is scheduled to go to the publisher in March and then I can return to the novel.

With all these missing books, it’s fortunate that I have a tbr pile that extends for two feet along my shelves and continues as a file of scraps of paper waiting to be obtained from the shops or the library (or perhaps by underhand methods). On with the reading.

Explore the wonderful website: Library of Lost Books

Any books gone missing in your life?

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My name in books

Here’s an idea that took my fancy which I first saw on A life in Books blog in August this year. Susan got it from someone who got it from someone else. It’s a satisfying idea: an acrostic of my name in books I have read in the last 12 months. The quality and my enjoyment of these books are variable. I reviewed many of the ones I thought were really good and have included the links to the reviews.

The Acrostic

220 Fernet BrC Cooking with Fernet Branca by James Hamilton-Paterson

A All my Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews

R Reader for Hire by Raymond Jean. Translated from the French by Adriana Hunter

O Outline by Rachel Cusk

L Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner

I Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell

N Nora Webster by Colm Toibin

E The Erl-King by Michel Tournier. Translated from the French by Barbara Bray

220 Little Girls

L The Little Girls by Elizabeth Bowen

O In the Orchard, the Swallows by Peter Hobbs

D Do It Like a Woman … and change the world by Caroline Criado-Perez

G Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith

E Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey

 

 

 

 

Excuse the little cheat. It was impossible without. Can you do one with your name books?

Woman Reading by Kuroda Seiki (1866-1924) in Tokyo National Museum via WikiCommons

Woman Reading by Kuroda Seiki (1866-1924) in Tokyo National Museum via WikiCommons

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The Craft of Blogging #11 Titles

Titles do important work on any writing, and especially on a blogpost. For a blog the title has to work very quickly because, as any blog surfer will know, there are always lots of other blogposts to read. Apparently out of 10 people hunting for interesting pieces on the internet 8 will read the title and only 2 out of 10 will read the content. The question is how to choose titles that entice more of those missing 6 title-readers to read on.

Leopard by Peter Thomas, July 2013 via WikiCommons

Leopard by Peter Thomas, July 2013 via WikiCommons

The work of the blogpost title/headline

All titles need to do these things:

  • Catch the readers’ attention among all the possibilities
  • Announce the topic/content
  • Direct readers attention to the writer’s purposes
  • Invite the reader to read on

In the world of blogging first impressions are the only impression. Words need to do a great deal of work. The title of a post is often the only thing that a potential reader sees, not those enticing visuals you have imported, not that amazing first line. I chose what to read are from my twitter feed, full of competing posts, and email alerts from blogs I subscribe to. And like most social media users I make the decision in a second or two. What makes the potential reader open the link?

The title needs to stand out without being too cute (Robin Houghton’s phrase). And certainly without being tricksy. Nothing is more annoying than being misled into finding the post doesn’t follow through.

Title: How I found a WW2 spitfire in my garden. First line: Haha got your attention. Now read my post about the lambs outside my window.

Shreeja Jamdar suggest that some professional bloggers spend up to 50% of their time on a post contemplating the title. That’s over the top, but indicates how important they consider it. I don’t expect you have the time to do this. I certainly don’t.

Finding a few powerful words that work for you can also bring in readers. I found one recently, which I’ll share later.

What the gurus recommend

Guidance for bloggers abounds. Here’s a list I have compiled from various sources, including those mentioned below.

94 hook

Saying what it is

Being descriptive can work well. Here are two examples. How to write a click-worthy blog title from the blog Molly Greene: Writer, and 10 Blog title Formulae that actually work by Shreeja Jamdar on Crowdfire. Both got my attention. The titles did their job. This approach show how a descriptive approach links to the form of the post announced: a list, a how to …, my take on …, interview, review, round-up, prediction.

For book reviews the title and author seems to be adequate, Whispering Gums said in the comments on the general post on titles: On the tricky topic of titles. I agree.

The number

A very popular approach to titles relies on the attraction of numbers. It needs to have more of course: 10 ways to do something; 5 things I’ve learned about something; 4 good reads. Women’s magazines use this hook a lot. They always have numbers on their covers. According to Molly Greene, the number 10 gets the most hits. I noticed that Shreeja Jamdar’s post on 10 blog formulae misses the 8th formula.

The Question

Inviting a response is an obvious way to hook a reader. Has this happened to you? Would you do this to your best friend?

The How To [solve a problem]

This title says it’s just what the reader needs or may not have known they needed: How to deal with pesky spam on your blog; How to write a click-worthy blog title; How to find great images for your blog. We all need a little guidance now and again.

The How To avoid [a problem]

As above, you may not know that this is your problem, but read on and you will find out it is and how to fix it! How to avoid losing readers; How to avoid six of the most common blogging errors.

The Secrets

The approach appeals to curiosity, although secrets often means ‘How to…’. The secret of my writing success; The secret of good reviews. A little disingenuous really, this word secret, as nothing is secret on social media for long.

The Never titles

Not an approach I use because it is both negative and often at the expense of someone else, who did. But you can see the hook here. 5 things you should never do on your blog. Never run out of ideas for Christmas presents; Never give a dog a bad name.

The directed titles

Reference a group of people to appeal to them: For bloggers who want good titles for their posts; Ten best Victorian mysteries for readers of crime fiction; For fans of Elena Ferrante who want to know the truth.

Using power words.

You can use strong eye-catching words: awesome, mind-numbing, perfect, maximise, incredible, proven. The one that has worked for me is ‘a little rant about …’

And you could, especially if you are commercially minded, investigate SEO. After all, if titles play a major part in getting readers to your blog posts, then those search engines will pick up on the higher hit rate and push your keywords up their list. Success breeds success.

So, over to you …

Be creative, spend a little time and care on the titles and see what works for you. And please share any recommendations for blog titles. And any great examples of the skill

77 Blogging-coverRecommended and related

A recent post on Bookword: On the tricky topic of titles in November 2015

And the two previous posts in the Craft of Blogging series:

#10 Reuse Recycle Reduce

#9 Problems and more problems

Blogging for Creatives by Robin Houghton, published in 2012 by ILEX: Lewes Sussex. 192pp

 

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What is the Prime Minister reading?

In the spring of 2007 on study leave in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan in Canada I attended a large international social sciences conference hosted by the University. One morning I found myself at a talk by Yann Martel the prize winning author of The Life of Pi (not yet a major motion picture but still prize winning and much discussed.) What, I wondered, would the author of this rather quirky novel have to say.

218 Life of Pi coverYann Martel blew me away, not by talking about tigers in boats and shipwrecks or the meaning of life, but instead he told us about a recent incident, which had left him very offended and not a little steamed up. And he was doing something about it.

The inciting incident

The incident concerned casual, even impolite behaviour by the Conservative Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, in the House of Commons in Ottawa. 50 Canadian artists from all disciplines had been invited to celebrate the 50th birthday of the Canada Council for the Arts in March 2007. In the visitors gallery the 50 artists stood up, were acknowledged by the relevant minister and in 5 minutes the celebrations of Canadian arts was finished and the MPs turned to other business.

From the shadow into which I had been cast, I focused on one man. The Prime Minister did not speak during our brief tribute. He didn’t even look up. By all appearances, he didn’t even know we were there. (5)

The Prime Minister, Yann Martel told us, was shuffling through his papers preparing for the next business.

The action

Yann Martel, relating this story (it’s retold with slightly less vehemence in the book, which I’ll come to), revealed his complete commitment to reading and books. He began a project that lasted nearly four years, writing to Stephen Harper and enclosing a short book to illustrate why reading is so important. The first book was The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy.

In reading about fictional others we end up reading about ourselves. Sometimes this unwitting self-examination provokes smiles of recognition, while other times, as in the case of this book, it provokes shudders of worry and denial. Either way we are the wiser, we are existentially thicker. (16)

He received a short letter of acknowledgement in reply from the Prime Minister’s office.

He continued to send a book every two weeks, with a covering letter. It was usually shorter than 200 pages, and where possible in a paperback edition, sometimes second hand. He also set up a website so other people could see his choices, the letters that explained them and the responses of Mr Harper. People would be able to make recommendations. And they did.

The outcomes

In the event the Prime Minister’s office only acknowledged two of the 55 books that were sent between April 2007 and February 2011.

For a while Yann Martel’s small-scale pro-book campaign gathered momentum and followers. He compiled a book, What is Stephen Harper Reading? explaining the project, his book club of two people, and including the letters he sent with the books. Later he included the original in 101 Letters to a Prime Minister. Both books are currently out of print.

218 St Harper

In October 2015 Stephen Harper’s Conservative government was defeated by the Canadian Liberals, led by Justin Trudeau. I was reminded, by news of his defeat, of Yann Martel’s project and got hold of a copy of What is Stephen Harper Reading? The book club had finished by then.

Yann Martel said as he ended his project,

I’m tired of using books as political bullets and grenades. Books are too wonderful to be used long for such a function. (Toronto Star 2.2.11)

What is Stephen Harper Reading?

218 What you reading? coverIt’s a book about books, and it’s a book about why reading is so important for individuals, including politicians. He describes it as a small book club but it’s actually a course in reading. He goes through 55 books, which he sent Stephen Harper April 2007 and May 2009. Answering the question why it’s his or anyone’s business what Stephen Harper is reading he writes this.

But once someone has power over me, then, yes, their reading does matter to me, because in what they choose to read will be found what they think and what they will do. As I wrote in one of my letters to the man, if Stephen Harper hasn’t read The Death of Ivan Ilych or any other Russian novel, if he hasn’t read Miss Julia or any other Scandinavian play, if he hasn’t read Metamorphosis or any other German-language novel, or if he hasn’t read Waiting for Godot or To the Lighthouse or any other experimental play or novel, if he hasn’t read the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius or The Educated Imagination or any other philosophical inquiry, if he hasn’t read … then what is his mind made of? (10)

218 obama2-large

The choice of books is wide ranging: novels, plays, poems, meditations, short story collections, children’s books, graphic novels, crime novels, in English and French, in translation and from the last 400 years.

It does the work of good fiction: it transports you to a situation that might be alien to you, makes it familiar, and so brings understanding. (From the letter on The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway.) (95)

The making of art, as I may have mentioned to you before, involves a lot of work. Because of that it is implicitly constructive. One doesn’t work so hard merely to destroy. No matter how much cruelty and sadness a story may hold, its effect is always the opposite. … Art then is implicitly liberal; it encourages us towards openness and generosity, it seeks to unlock doors. (From the letter on The Bluest Eyes by Toni Morrison.) (145)

Of course, it is a little disingenuous of Yann Martel to reproach Mr Harper in this way for he cannot respond. But then he should have paid attention when Canadian arts were being honoured and acknowledged the gifts he was sent. Martel is occasionally preachy and portentous. But I can forgive him that for the intent at the heart of his action (connecting books and politics), and by providing such an interesting book about books and their importance. And I’d love to be existentially thicker.

A few notes on Saskatoon

People were very rude about Saskatoon, not a large city right in the middle of Canada. They told me it’s so flat you can sit on your porch and watch your dog run away for two days.

While I was in the University Bookshop the assistant said, ‘Gee I love your accent. Are you from London?’ At that time I was. ‘Have you ever met Madonna?’ I laughed. ‘That would be like me asking you if you have ever met Joni Mitchell.’ ‘But I have. She used to visit her grandmother in the old people’s home where my aunt was.’ That’s Saskatoon for you.

It turns out that Yann Martel and Alice Knipers live in Saskatoon. Joni Mitchell (get well soon) also claims it as her home town. Not bad for Saskatoon. Not bad for Canada.

What is Stephen Harper Reading? By Yann Martel, published in 2009 by Vintage Canada. 230pp

Over to you

You can find the complete list of books recommended by Yann Martell on the University of Montana Library site.

Characters from a famous soap opera?

Characters from a famous soap opera?

What is David Cameron reading? Do we know? Do we care? Is he conscious of British writers and artists and their achievements? What would you recommend to him if you had the chance, or to any other politician?

 

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Decluttering my books

I moved house two years ago. Preparations for the move, my first in 29 years, led me to write this post about decluttering my books. Here are some updates: I had lots of shelving installed in my new house; the house has no cellar; I bought a car and acquired a cat; I now belong to two reading groups and buy more books as a result; I bought and reviewed A Passage to India in the older women in fiction series; my criteria for chucking out books has narrowed; I still do not own a Kindle. I am considering releasing books into the wild again.

Here’s the original post (slightly edited)

Moving house with books

217 vanBooks and declutter; I am not sure whether those two words can belong in the same sentence. But I am hearing other people combine them because I am moving. Moving house that is. Moving house means moving everything inside the house that isn’t nailed to the floor: my furniture, my clothes, the lamps, the food in my fridge and my books. As soon as I told them I was moving, kind friends began asking how I am getting on with decluttering and something they call ‘sorting out my books’. I consider my response: I’m not – getting on with it, that is; books aren’t clutter; my books don’t need sorting. In that pause my friends think I am considering the size of this task. Sometimes they add – ‘books are so dusty’ or ‘aren’t books heavy’. Both statements are true but obvious, like saying milk goes off or someone’s hidden my Allen keys.

Precious about books?

Now I am not being precious about books. I write in them, their corners get manked because I carry them in my rucksack, I stick post-it notes and those lovely plastic coloured page markers in them, give them away, and even throw them away sometimes. I just assume I’m going to have books around me, like mugs, spiders and socks with holes in the toes.

My Inner Critic pops up to remind me that I have not solved the problem of where I am going to keep my books in my new house. I anticipate hours of moving books around, organising shelves, changing my mind, sitting and reading a rediscovered volume, or searching for the companion to (say) Gilead by Marilynne Robinson: ie Housekeeping and wondering if I can buy the recently released paperback version of her essays When I was a child I read books yet. Or wondering why I have three German-English-Deutsch dictionaries. I do, I do. Oh bliss!

Into the cellar

Back to disposing of books. In preparation for my move I have been forced to look in my cellar, where I find that there are boxes of books (and it has to be admitted other things, such as a roof rack, paint tins, suitcases of different sizes, cat basket, empty jam jars, a box of tile spacers and other potentially useful stuff). I have neither cat nor car, by the way. The thing about the boxes of books (but not those other things) is that they have been there since I moved in 29 years ago. I try to apply a general principle that if I have not looked at them in 29 years I am unlikely to want to look at them in the next 29, so I can move them out and on. But of course this breaks down as soon as I come across War and Peace in two volumes, or Julian Barnes’ early works, or The Tin Drum. Rather than a decluttering fest I have a delightful and time-consuming reunion with many of my books.

35bkbox

Keeping book buying under control

In the past I have tried throwing out a book every time I buy a new one. I have cut down hugely on book buying in the last few years by the simple expedient of using several libraries. But I do still buy books. For example, this week I had to get EM Forster’s A Passage to India. I went to the shelf where I keep his novels and I was rather horrified to find it was not there. I wanted to check the name of the older woman who hears the sound in the Malabar Caves – it’s Mrs Moore. Not having a copy made me want to read it. And I seem to have given myself another problem: what should I throw out to make way for this new book?

Here are some of my criteria for ejection. I usually need at least six of these to apply before I dispose of a book:

  • I’m unlikely to read it again.
  • It was not especially remarkable in the first place.
  • It’s a duplicate because I forgot I already had a copy.
  • It’s on a topic I am unlikely to read about in the future (eg most of my university history books).
  • It was given to me by someone I hate.
  • No-one wants this book because it’s an out of date text book.

Disposal

And what do I do with them if the decision is OUT? Usually I take them to the local charity shop. Sometimes I give them away. Occasionally I put a book that no one will ever want in the recycling bag.

For a couple of years I passed on books through something called BookCrossing. You register the book on the website and if the person who finds it reports its location you can track its journey. One book I left in Gordon Square ended up in New York. Who knows where it has gone now. But not enough people reported finding them to hold my interest (21 books caught out of 143 released), so I stopped doing it. I still like the idea of people finding books on buses, in cafes, in cinema foyers.

217 Bookcr logoAre you one of those people who can’t throw any books away? Or do you have a system for keeping your collection under control? Go on, say it, you have a Kindle. But a Kindle would not help me in the onerous task of moving house, would it?

Related posts

I agree with this article. I do not intend to move for another 30 years and never intend to ‘declutter’ my books again. Decluttering is the enemy of human kind by Emma Brockes in the Guardian, critical of the moral judgements the decluttering movement hands out.

Here’s another reader’s approach: How to weed your bookshelves by Jessica Pryde on BookRiot blog in November 2015

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The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey

The Franchise Affair, a classic mystery, was published in 1949. Its mystery is not in identifying the criminal, but in uncovering the lies and flaws in young Betty Kane’s story to exonerate the two women she has accused. The task falls to Robert Blair, an established country solicitor.

216 Fr Aff coverThis is the 18th review in the Bookword series about older women in fiction. Thank you to the reader who suggested the character of Mrs Sharpe from The Franchise Affair.

The story

Marion and her mother, Mrs Sharpe, are accused by Betty Kane of abduction and ill treatment. 15-year old Betty claims that they imprisoned her in the attic of their house, The Franchise, which stands outside the small country town of Milford.

Robert Blair is living a very comfortable bachelor life in Milford, cared for by his aunt. The narrative follows his search for the truth, but we do not find much out about his previous life: not married although he had opportunities, his wartime occupation not indicated. His comfortable life is not usually disturbed by criminal cases, but he is attracted to Marion Sharpe and her gypsy-like looks, and motivated to put right the injustice done to her and her mother. The narrative pull of the novel comes from his dogged pursuit of the truth about Betty Kane’s missing month.

Mrs Sharpe

Mrs Sharpe is introduced to the reader though Robert Blair’s eyes.

She [Marion] drove a battered old car, from which she shopped in the mornings while her white-haired old mother sat in the back, upright and delicate and incongruous and somehow silently protesting. In profile old Mrs Sharpe looked like Whistler’s mother; when she turned full-face and you got the impact of her bright, pale, cold, seagull’s eye, she looked like a sibyl. An uncomfortable old person. (6)

Marjorie Fielding played Mrs Sharpe in the 1951 film The Franchise Affair

Marjorie Fielding played Mrs Sharpe in the 1951 film The Franchise Affair

Mrs Sharpe is a gentlewoman, enduring less good times in The Franchise. She knows about good furniture and architecture, and she comes from horse-breeding stock. She inherited The Franchise from a relative, which allowed her to move out of London where she had lived in a boarding house with her daughter. Neither woman has entered the social life of Milford. They enjoy peace and isolation, although it works against them when Betty Kane’s story is published by the mud-raking, strangely-named tabloid – Ack-Emma.

Mrs Sharpe is rather a forbidding woman, and she also has an intelligence which sees to the heart of matters as we find out early on when Mrs Sharpe demands to know if Betty is a virgin. She earns respect from Blair by her refusal to be unsettled by the accusations. He observes to the reader that ‘it was no small achievement to steal the interest from an outraged heroine.’ (29)

She is from the time and class that requires older women to keep their composure in the face of life’s difficulties. We discover that her husband was always speculating and that his suicide left her with a very young child and no money. Even when the Sharpes are arrested and brought to trial Mrs Sharpe remains steady.

The relationship between mother and daughter is easy, based on observing strict boundaries. Marion explains this to Robert late in the novel.

Mother and I suit each other perfectly because we make no demands on each other. If one of us has a cold in the head she retires to her room without fuss and doses her disgusting self until she is fit for human society again. (274)

Her role in the novel is to make it clear that Betty Kane’s story is unfounded from the outset. She represents common sense. Such a strong and intimidating woman would not treat a young girl in the brutal manner of which she is accused. Mrs Sharpe’s steadfast dignity and denial provides the reader – and Robert Blair – with the certainty that Betty Kane is lying. This is older woman as moral authority.

A few other things about The Franchise Affair

An interesting feature of The Franchise Affair is the discussion reading a person’s character in their appearances. Their appearance and especially the eyes are claimed to indicate criminality. Marion tells Blair that Betty Kane’s eye colour indicates that the girl is over-sexed, a post war notion.

‘I have never known anyone – man or woman – with that colour of eye who wasn’t. That opaque dark blue, like a very faded navy – it’s infallible.’(36)

And appearance means Josephine Tey can link criminality to genetic inheritance, another background theme in the novel.

But Josephine Tey’s novel relies on this emphasis to mislead the reader. Much of the power of Betty Kane comes from her innocent appearance. The forbidding appearance, on the other hand, of Mrs Sharpe hides a sharp intelligence, a warm heart and resilience.

216 J TeyThe novel also reflects the dominant social attitudes of the time, not just towards an older woman. Although the Sharpe women are independent they are not capable of resolving their own difficulties and a succession of men have to do this for them. It is the men, the solicitor, the barrister, the garage owner (and former army sergeant), the private detective who must help the women out. And they do. Even the man in the case doesn’t lie.

It is set post-war with some references to the war (air raids, experience in the armed forces for example) and is quintessentially English in a warm beer kind of way, despite Josephine Tey being from Scotland. She used a historical event, the deceptions of Elizabeth Canning from the 18th Century, as a basis for the story.

216 Fr Aff gr coverThe Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey first published in 1949. The copy used in this post was published by Arrow Books in 2009. 278pp

Related posts and book

The previous posts in the older women in fiction series can be found by clicking on the category or by going to the page called about the older women in fiction series.

Sarah Waters says that The Franchise Affair provided some inspiration for Little Stranger, which is also set in a dilapidated large country house in the post war period.

Josephine Tey has her own website: www.josephinetey.net

Josephine Tey: A Life by Jennifer Morag Henderson was published in November 2015 by Sandstone Press. Jenny Morrison writes about her reclusive life in the Daily Record in October 2015.

 

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Filed under Books, Older women in fiction, Reviews