Monthly Archives: May 2017

Reading Death and Looking it in the Eye

Talking about death, thinking about death, reading about death, these are not morbid activities. Indeed, since the only certainties in life are death and taxes, (Benjamin Franklin, 1817) we may as well find out what we can about it. Perhaps we might find it easier to approach our own end if we consider what others say. As reading is my way into understanding the world and my life, it’s books I have gone to.

I belong to a group of wonderful women, originally eight of us, but Diana died a few years ago. Our group has been meeting for more than 12 years, exploring choices and possibilities in our lives, originally for retirement, but more recently about ageing and death. Some months ago we met to discuss our ideal death. Many of us referred to books in our contributions. I report on these before adding the results of further investigations.

The group’s recommendations

These books prompted us to think about death, good deaths, ideal deaths, and guided us in thinking about what we still needed to think about in relation to death. It was a session that contained as much laughter, as much encouragement and support, and as much help to look at our personal challenges as we always find from our group.

Salley Vickers Miss Garnett’s Angel

Ann Cleves Cold Earth

We know that we cannot easily choose how we die, but these two novels described the quiet and unexpected deaths of characters who were unaware that they were going to die. One of our members hoped for this kind of death. Having one’s things is order was considered part of this ideal death.

Max Porter Grief is the thing with feathers

This is a remarkable book, recommended by one group member who was asking the question ‘ideal for whom?’ reminding us that death affects more than the person who dies.

Another member frequently recommends poetry and she proposed the following:

Neil Astley Soul Food

Mary Oliver Wild Geese

Ruth Padel 52 ways of looking at a poem

In addition she recommended a book by Mark Doty, Dog Years, written by an American poet and telling of his experiences of deaths of partner and dogs.

We talked about people who choose suicide or assisted dying. Another reader mentioned Sweet Caress by William Boyd as it depicts the main character planning suicide but called back to life by suddenly realising she is thinking about what to have for breakfast next morning.

My own contribution was to read Canon Henry Scott-Holland’s Death is Nothing at All, frequently read at funerals.

Death is nothing at all.

It does not count.

I have only slipped away into the next room.

Nothing has happened. …

I told the group that it irritates me because it promotes the idea that separation at death is not permanent. But on rereading I had also found that it captures the idea that the dead remain with us, having influenced our lives and we can hear their voices and still think about them.

We also mentioned in our discussion these three writers and their books.

Diana Athill Somewhere towards the End and Alive Alive Oh

Terry Pratchett Shaking Hands with Death. Lecture on You Tube here.

Jenny Diski In Gratitude.

Books to read

Since then, and because I promised the group a list of books on the topic of death, I have noted these.

Before I say Goodbye by Ruth Picardie was published by Penguin Books in 1998. After she was diagnosed with breast cancer, Ruth Picardie described the progress of her illness in a series of articles in the Observer. They are collected here together with emails to and from friends, and a foreword and afterword by her sister and husband.

Dying: a Memoir by Cory Taylor. Her memoir on dying is ‘a remarkable gift’ according to three of her friends, writing in the Guardian.

Margaret Drabble wrote The Dark Flood Rises. It is a novel about several older people who are trying to live well in their final years. She spoke about death in October 2016, in an article entitled I am not afraid of death. I worry about living.

Katie Roiphe has written The Violet Hour: great writers at the end, published in 2016 by Virago. She writes a piece in the Guardian about her own experiences, and those of great writers. It is moving.

A Reckoning is a novel by May Sarton. Laura is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and on learning this decides to make a good death on her own terms. This intention is thwarted by her increasing dependency upon others, but she finds much to be pleased with in her final weeks.

The novelist Helen Dunmore has recently been diagnosed with cancer and wrote about mortality and legacy in the Guardian in March 2017: Facing Mortality and What we leave behind.

Another resource

Dying Matters website, strapline ‘Let’s talk about it’. This is an organisation that aims to help people talk more openly about dying, death and bereavement and to make plans for the end of life. Their site is a gateway to information and sources of support.

So let’s read about it, talk about it, plan for it. What do you think?

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Crossing the Sea with Syrians on the Exodus to Europe by Wolfgang Bauer

The reality of crossing the Mediterranean in a small boat, putting your life in the hands of the smugglers, evading the barriers that Europe has set up to keep you out, the cost to your spirit as well as your savings, the anxiety of your family as they wait for news – these things are exposed in an important piece of journalism undertaken by a German reporter.

Crossing the Sea by Wolfgang Bauer is a story of anticipation, fear, boredom, trust, doubt, more fear and possible death. The journey is so terrible it can only be undertaken because of the even worse situation from which people are fleeing. This is the truth of the movement of peoples, and especially those who have been displaced by Syria’s on-going civil war.

The journey

Wolfgang Bauer is a reporter with the German periodical Die Zeit, and together with photographer Stanislav Krupar, they arranged to travel with Syrian refugees from Cairo to Europe, to gain entry through Italy. They disguised themselves as Syrians, and travelled with Amar who acted as interpreter for them as well as being the subject of the story they wanted to tell. The account in Die Zeit won the Prix Bayeux-Calvados for War Correspondents for Wolfgang Bauer, the second time he has won that award.

The two men experienced all the delays, scams, being held hostage, extortion, cruelty, days of inactivity and so forth that is the life of the refugee trying to cross the Mediterranean. Writing about the situation in April 2014, Bauer explains the business of smuggling.

In Egypt, people smuggling has a structure not dissimilar to the tourism industry. Sales points with ‘agents’ are spread throughout the country. These agents assure their customers that they work with only the best smugglers, when in reality they have contracts with just a few. The crossing costs around three thousand dollars. Cheaper and more expensive services are available, but ultimately all travel classes end up in the same boat. The agent receives a commission of about three hundred dollars. This is kept by a middleman until the passenger’s safe arrival in Italy. The sales agents – well most of them – care about their reputation. Their livelihood depends on recommendations from people they have successfully helped across the water. (18)

The two journalists and Amar find an agent, and after many days of waiting, they do get on a boat, but almost immediately are pushed overboard by the smugglers onto Nelson Island near the Alexandrian port and are arrested along with the rest of their group. Being foreign nationals they are deported to Europe, ironically making quick and easy passage into that part of the world their group was trying to reach.

Other journeys

The rest of the book follows other members of the group as they continue to try to cross into Europe. Some have family to join in Sweden. Amar, their main contact point, spends days, weeks, months waiting and considering the schemes of various agents and trying a few. Eventually he succeeds by a long and expensive trip that takes him via Tanzania and Zambia into Europe. In the English edition we find that his family have been able to join him legally.

Two brothers, Alaa and Hussan, set out again on the journey by boat, or rather, by more than one boat. The deal-making between smugglers’ organisations and the captains, continues. Even the passengers join in to influence with more money the delays and shortages of supplies they experience as they make their dangerous, slow and erratic crossing. They are rescued as their boat is beginning to collapse and they are worried about why they are not near the Italian coast. They are saved by the Italian Navy, who happen to be in the area because they were fishing survivors and bodies out of the water the previous day, casualties of another voyage gone badly wrong. This account is gripping as it illustrates what can happen day by day to the people on the boats.

Written in a direct style, with the experiences of different people vividly retold, enhanced by Stanislav Krupar’s photographs, our understanding is deepened of how driven these people are. Bauer also includes a passionate indictment of EU policy towards migrants and of inactivity in the war in Syria. ‘Have mercy’ he concludes.

Refugees on a boat crossing the Mediterranean Sea, heading from Turkish coast to the northeastern Greek island of Lesbos, 29 January 2016. Mstyslav Chernov/Unframe via WikiCommons

More and more journeys

More and more people are crossing the Mediterranean into Europe, and European countries are making more and more efforts to keep them out. Because of the illegal nature of the journey accuracy in statistics is hard to gauge. But what we do know is startling enough.

In 2016 362,753 people are known to have made the voyage – which is about 1000 every day, although some days, of course, are less suitable for the journey than others. 55,374 people have made the crossing so far in 2017. Among all refugees to Europe last year (not all by sea) 100,00 were children, and of these 33,000 were unaccompanied. Most of the unaccompanied children were male.

Yesterday, drawing by a 18 years old Syrian boy, currently living in Kara Tepe Refugee Camp, Lesbos Island, Greece. 6th April 2017 Polviak via WikiCommons

Between January and 16th May 2017 an estimated 1364 people have died or gone missing as they made the attempt to cross. One person in every 35 who crosses from Libya to Italy has perished.

5 million people have fled from Syria since the war began in 2011. There are many other countries from which people are fleeing.

I have taken these figures from the data portal of the UNHCR.

I have reviewed several accounts of crossings and movements of peoples in this series of posts. It amazes me that European countries cannot find better solutions to this unstoppable movement of peoples.

Read it

Crossing the Sea with Syrians on the Exodus to Europe by Wolfgang Bauer, first published in German in 2014. English translation with update published by And Other Stories in 2016. 122pp

Translated from the German by Sarah Pybus. Photographs by Stanislav Krupar.

A note on the publisher: And Other Stories is a Community Interest Company with a not for profit ethic. They publish literary works supported in part by subscriptions. Find out more at their website here.

My walk and challenge.

I have been raising money for Freedom from Torture, through sponsorship of a monthly walk and blogpost. This is the eighth post in the series and my last walk. You can read more about the challenge on the page called My Challenge (click on the page title below the masthead).

At the time of my final walk I have 91% of my target, need just £141.67 to reach it without gift aid. With gift aid I have already exceeded it, and have raised £1779.58. Donations are still acceptable.

May walk

Dawlish, Devon

For this walk I returned to the sea, taking the coast path from Dawlish Warren passed Dawlish on the south Devon Coast and back. The sea is a theme in this and other posts in the challenge series. The sea promises much and promotes thoughtfulness, this day of the Manchester bombing that had just taken place. My train journeys to London pass this way. It can also be dangerous. The railway line here was undermined by the sea in the winter storms of 2013/14. And the coast is still being reinforced. At Dawlish Warren there were more hard hats than sun hats. This walk was about 9 km (5.7 miles).

Dawlish Warren

You can sponsor my walk/blog here, by clicking onto my Just Giving Page.

Related posts and websites

The Challenge page on this website

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid, 8th walk in Italy.

The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen, walk 7 in Hertfordshire in March

Refugee Tales Ed David Herd and Anita Pincus, walk 6 in February

A Country of Refuge Ed by Lucy Popescu, walk number 5 in January 2017.

Dartmoor, Hay Tor and Freedom from Torture, an extra walk in December, supported by about 20 walkers.

The Optician of Lampedusa by Emma Jane Kirby. My fourth walk in December

Do Refugees need holidays? My third walk in November

Breach by Olumide Popoola & Annie Holmes, the second walk in October

Lost and Found, the first walk in September 2016

Write to Life at Freedom from Torture

The final post about the challenge will appear on this blog …

… in June

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The Orange Grove by Larry Tremblay

This novella, The Orange Grove by Larry Tremblay, begins in the parched landscape of a Middle Eastern country, or perhaps of Afghanistan, in the shadow of mountains. A family is struggling to make a living from the orange grove, against the harshness of the climate. Then the grandparents’ house is bombed from over the mountains, and the way is open for revenge and the gradual destruction of the survivors of the family.

The novella

The Orange Grove was written by a Canadian writer, who is also a theatre director and actor. It was translated from the French by Sheila Fischman and published by Peirene Press in the East and West Series.

Larry Tremblay seems to invite the reader to share his struggle to understand participation in war and violence. The novella concludes in a North American city, where a theatre teacher, Michael, is staging a play about war and violence. Among his student actors is Aziz, a twin, now twenty, who grew up alongside the orange grove. Michael and Aziz struggle to find the ending for the play that will reflect something of the reality of the experience of violence and of Aziz’s experiences in particular, and the reality of its aftermath.

He [Michael] was asking himself the same questions about evil. It was too easy to accuse those who committed war crimes of being assassins or wild beasts. Especially when those who judged them lived far from the circumstances that had provoked the conflicts, whose origins were lost in the vortex of history. What would he have done in a comparable situation? Would he, like millions of other men, have been capable of fighting for an idea, a scrap of earth, a border, or even oil? Would he, too, have been conditioned to kill innocents, women and children? Or would he have had the courage, even if it meant risking his own life, to refuse the order to shoot down defenceless people in a burst of gunfire? (120)

The story of the twins, Aziz and Ahmed, attempts to bring us closer to such circumstances from which families were unable to escape. The father and grandfather of the twins tend the orange grove. One night the grandparents’ house is bombed and they are killed. Soulayed arrives preaching revenge, and demands that one of the twins is prepared by his father for a suicide mission on a base on the other side of the mountain. Ahmed is chosen. But Aziz has a terminal disease and their mother asks Ahmed to allow Aziz to die in his place.

The novella follows what happens after one twin leaves with the suicide belt to cross the mountain and how eventually the other twin goes to North America. He decides to become an actor, hearing so many voices in his head. Through his difficulties in helping Michael conclude his play he retells his experiences of the aftermath and dilemmas he and his family faced, especially when the truth about the target of the mission was revealed.

He addresses the audience at the end of the play.

‘No, you don’t need to have a reason or even to have right on your side to do what you think you must do. Don’t look elsewhere for what is already within you. Who am I to think in your place? My clothes are dirty and torn, and my heart is shattered like a pebble. I cry tears that tear at my face. But as you can hear, my voice is calm. Better still, I have a peaceful voice. I am speaking to you in a voice that is seven years old, nine years old, twenty years old, a thousand years old. Do you hear me?’ (138)

You cannot fail to be moved by this story. Meike Ziervogel, Peirene Press publisher, said ‘this story made me cry. … This story reminds us of our obligation to forgive – ourselves as well as others’. We cannot fully understand individual experiences of the horrors of the world. But we can hear. And we can know that all refugees begin by being forced to leave their homeland, through violence, often committed for revenge or to create unrest and more violence. A thousand stories, not all ending well. Not all heard.

The Orange Grove by Larry Tremblay (2013 in French, 2015 in English) Peirene Press 2017. 138pp

Translated from the French by Sheila Fischman

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The Running Hare: the secret life of farmland by John Lewis-Stempel

I experienced so much pleasure reading The Running Hare that I told my grandsons about it (8 and 5 years old). It made sense to them too. The book is a mixture love, etymology, naturalism, polemic, folklore, birds, arable farming and historic writing, including one of the English poets I love most: John Clare. And hares.

The author, John Lewis-Stempel, is a farmer and a writer. He says in the preface,

Now that I look back, I see that I have written with some anger. …

Where our friend lived was beautiful, but as life-full as a cemetery. Someone had removed the birds from the farmland all around her. For hundred and hundreds of square miles around her.

The Farmer is to blame. The Supermarket too. And let us not forget the Politician, and the Consumer. Let us not omit Me, or You.

Really I just want the birds back. (11)

I would say that this book is delightful and important and angry.

What’s it about?

The book is an account of one year in the life of a field, and what happened when it was farmed in the old-fashioned way. The account takes John Lewis-Stempel down many byways as he explores the origins of words, his recollection of farming in his youth, what 19th Century writers described about the countryside, a visit to John Clare’s village, the corn dollies, local churches and information about birds, flowers, bees and hares.

Piers [Plowman] ploughed in order to ameliorate society’s evil. Why don’t I take a modern, conventionally farmed arable field, plough it and husband it in the old-fashioned, chemical-free way and make it into a traditional wheatfield? Bring back the flowers that have all but disappeared from British ploughlands, such as corncockle, Venus’s looking glass, shepherd’s needle, corn marigold and the cornflower, with its bloom as brilliant as June sky? And the birds and animals that loved such land – grey partridges, quail, harvest mice.

And hares. Could I entice in a hare? (17)

And he does. He finds a field, Flinders, close to his own farm in Herefordshire, and takes out a short tenancy on it. He proceeds to plough and sow and harvest in the old ways, and to watch the variety of birds and animals, butterflies and bees, return. And there are hares.

Some problems

  • The weather.
  • The farm next to the field, quickly nicknamed the Chemical Brothers, who use chemical methods that sometimes spread in the wind.
  • The previous neglect of the field.
  • Equipment failure or inadequacy.
  • Predators: foxes, sparrowhawks and kestrels.

Some pleasures

The physical pleasures of ploughing.

The experience of Flinders from the perspective of a small animal. On the eve of cutting the wheat, in late August, the author lies down.

… so I might know the world in which the hares and the red-legs [partridges] live.

My God: the terror and the beauty.

The robin in the hedge begins a wistful song. …

The docks in the field margin are rusting; chains of bryony, Tic-Tac orange and lime green, are tying up the hedges, there are insistent wasps on the flowers of the ivy, and daddy-long-legs are puppets on invisible strings. The evening swirl of swifts has become thick and black, because the young birds have joined in.

Summer is past its peak. (218)

The pleasures include watching the lives of birds and animals in the field, and the return of the wild flowers as they bloom and shed seeds, even getting stranded without a torch in the woods at night.

And the pleasures also include learning the old techniques, like sowing broadcast.

Outcomes

Albrecht Durer. Hare

He got his wheatfield, without chemical pollution, and the birds returned along with the wild flowers. And there were hares.

And there were even economic gains: savings of £30 a ton on animal feed, for which he used the harvest.

And uncountable gains from saving flora and fauna.

One field, just one field, made a difference.

If we had a thousand fields … (288)

My reactions

Part of the pleasure from reading The Running Hare came from a familiarity with the area. I grew up in what was then called Monmouthshire neighbouring Herefordshire. The world of his childhood was familiar. I realise with horror, how much has disappeared. I only turned away for 40 years. I don’t recall any hares (plenty of dead and dying rabbits), but I have seen them since in the Black Mountains and in Cumbria.

And now I have returned to the countryside, and find special pleasure in the wild flowers, the birds, the landscape. Reading this book I renew my sense that it is precious, and may be in mortal danger.

Or perhaps not. Here’s how John Lewis-Stempel ends the book.

I drove past Flinders recently, so I turned on the Land Rover’s headlights.

There were still hares there. Running. Dancing. (295)

The Running Hare: the secret life of farmland by John Lewis-Stempel (2016). Paperback edition by Black Swan. 314pp

Illustrations by Micaela Alcaino.

I first heard of this book when it was read by Bernard Hill on Radio 4 in October 2016. No longer available on the iplayer, but a recording can be purchased.

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They Were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple

The title of this novel implies something unsaid: They were sisters … but they were so different, … they never knew, … you wouldn’t know it. Dorothy Whipple’s novel takes the first idea, they were so different, but also emphasises the family connections between them, their contrasting marriages and the influence of the sisters on each other’s lives.

The novel is set in the 1930s, as war was approaching. She wrote it during the first years of the war, and it was published in 1943. The publisher was concerned about the length of the book in times of shortage of paper. But her readers enjoyed the setting in the years before the war. Persephone Books has republished many of Dorothy Whipple’s novels and I used their lovely edition for this post. I have reached the 1940s in the Decades Project.

The Story

The sisters come from a large family of three brothers and three sisters. The two older brothers are despatched early on, and the youngest brother only reappears at a funeral. Dorothy Whipple wants to focus on the three sisters: Lucy, Charlotte and Vera.

Lucy is the oldest, who on their mother’s early death takes on the responsibility of bringing up the other two girls, giving up her place at university. In time the three girls get married. Charlotte’s husband is a practical joker turned bully. His youthful larks lead the older brothers to drink, very bad behaviour and their banishment to the colonies. Geoffrey’s behaviour to his wife and three children is abusive. Over time Charlotte takes the line of least resistance, drinks, takes drugs and eventually dies young and broken. They have three children: Margaret, who becomes her father’s favourite, which is a bit yucky. Stephen runs away at 16 and Judith who is her aunt’s favourite and rather ignored by parents, finds an eventual escape.

Vera, the second sister, is a stunning beauty and always has people doing things for her. She chooses a steady, decent man to marry who she thinks she can count on to provide her with the money and tolerance she wants. As their marriage weakens she proceeds to ignore him, and her two children Sarah and Meriel. When Brian has had enough he goes to America and she has to live on much less money, and on her fading looks.

Lucy marries a slightly awkward older man, but he has respect for her and down to earth opinions. She tries to rescue her sisters, but in the end rescues their daughters.

The action takes place over 20+ years, and covers all three sisters and their families. Sometimes there are jumps of a year or more in the narrative. At each crisis Lucy dashes to help, to provide guidance to the children, while the other sister is too immersed in her own life to offer help.

Dorothy Whipple

Although the approaching war barely intrudes upon this novel Lucy represents a version of what was worth fighting for: decency, doing things for others, helping those you love, providing assistance to the needy. She has a Christian faith to support this, although this is not a prominent theme.

The two monsters of the novel together with the many weak characters represent dangers to this simple morality. Geoffrey is hideously cruel, have himself been ignored and abandoned in his childhood. The episode with the dog is heart breaking. His mastery over his family reminds us of the power that men and fathers wielded even into the post-war years. His behaviour can be represented to the world as for the good of the family, although Dorothy Whipple makes it clear that he only thinks of himself.

Dorothy Whipple

The other monster is Vera, who is so beautiful that every door is opened to her, all difficulty smoothed out of her way, all misdemeanours forgiven, until she becomes middle-aged. She treats her husband with flagrant unkindness, and when he leaves her, looks round for another admirer. Her nemesis is age, and she is forced to face her weaknesses when her niece replaces her in her young man’s attentions. Vera is too weak to give up the young man and they run away to a life of more unhappiness in South Africa.

Lucy and, through her influence, two of her nieces counter these examples of selfishness. She has no children of her own, but provides guidance for her sisters, who cannot follow it, and for the next generation who can. This is the final paragraph of the novel:

Her sisters had been like two fair ships with no hand on the wheel; one had foundered and gone down, the other was racing before the wind, headed for disaster. Lucy, grieving that she had not been able to help or save them, never thought – she had no idea – that she herself had been the beacon to bring their children to harbour. (445)

They Were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple, first published in 1943. I used the Persephone edition from 2015. It has an excellent Afterword by Celia Brayfield. 455pp

A film was made of They Were Sisters in 1945, starring James Mason as Geoffrey, Phyllis Calvert as Lucy, Anne Crawford as Vera and Dulcie Gray as Charlotte.

The Decades Project

I took my idea for the Decades Project from my library’s Reading Passport scheme. To encourage readers the passport is stamped on completion of a book from a different decade. I select a book from every decade from 1900 onwards, reading one a month, and reviewing it here.

Previous posts in the Project

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier published in 1938

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie, published in 1926

O Pioneers by Willa Cather, published in 1913

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, published in 1905

The next decade: 1950s

I have not yet decided what to read from the 1950s in June. Please make suggestions for subsequent decades, 1960s and 1970s.

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Six Crimes against Library Books

The original version of this post was one of my earliest, written four years ago. At that time I included only 5 crimes, but since the assault on public libraries has been unrelenting I have added the worst crime of all: closing public libraries and preventing access to books. This piece focuses on the books themselves.

Libraries are under attack

Libraries are under attack and not just from this thing they used to call austerity but also from readers. I’ve quoted before from a very charming and poignant novel in a previous post about libraries in danger: Sophie Divry’s The Library of Unrequited Love. Damage Limitation. That’s how the French librarian narrator describes her mission, limiting the damage readers do – men readers in particular, apparently.

I don’t always manage it. They do stupid things all the time. Inevitably. They put books back in the wrong place, they steal them, they muddle them up, they dog-ear them. Some people even tear out pages. Imagine, tearing out pages when photocopies are only seven centimes a shot! It’s men that do that, every time. And underlining like crazy, that’s always men as well. Men just have to make their mark on a book, put in their corrections, their opinions. You see the pathetic comments they write in the margin: ‘Yes!’, ‘No!!!’, ‘Ridiculous’, ‘Very Good’, ‘O.T.T.’, ‘Wrong’. It’s forbidden to write on the books, that’s in the Library Rules. (22)

Despite her railing at the person (a man I think) who had a sleepover in the stacks for which she is responsible, Sophie Divry’s librarian has very positive views about libraries and their value.

I share this strong belief in the importance of libraries. I also find myself incensed (as well as inconvenienced from time to time) by the activities of my fellow library book borrowers.

Six things not to do to library books:

  1. Mark them. People, don’t underline your favourite bits with pen or pencil, and forbear from using a highlighter. It is not your book, and the rest of us do not want to know what you found useful, interesting or noteworthy about this book. Do not write your shopping list on the end pages, or your to do list on the title page. Do not add anything to the writers’ text.
  2. Damage them. It won’t stay open? Don’t crack the spine by bending the covers backwards. My shoulders don’t meet behind my back either. If necessary peer between the pages. Don’t damage them in any way. Don’t tear out pages you want to keep. Photocopiers were invented for you to copy pages. Don’t prop up your wobbly table by placing it under the leg, turn down the page corner to mark your place, drop it in the bath or throw it at your disgraced lover or partner.
  3. Leave important things between the pages when you return them. Never again will you see that bank note, dry cleaner’s receipt, oyster card, railway, concert or winning lottery ticket, love letter, Indian Takeaway flyer, business card. The compromising photographs, however, will reappear.
  4. Collect your toenail clippings in the open pages. More respect to other readers please.
  5. Forget to return them.
  6. Close libraries so that readers do not have access to them.

What response could there be to such bad readers and local councils? It is not good enough to suggest that we close libraries because everyone has access to on-line books nowadays. In the first place they don’t. Not everyone has access to the internet at home. If you have ever been in a public library you would know that the use of the on-line facilities is part of their attraction. And not everyone wants to read the books on-line. And libraries are not just about access to books, they have many other purposes, including being social places, although I think holding a sleepover in them may be going a little far.

Jungle Books via WikiCommons January 2016 by Katja Ulbert

Libraries and books open eyes to the world beyond the everyday, beyond the immediate and into new imaginary places and adventures. Neil Gaiman said this more eloquently and powerfully in his 2013 annual lecture lecture to the Reading Agency: Reading and Obligation. Note that word Obligation. Our society has an obligation to provide libraries.

Love libraries. Love library books. Love librarians?

Any pet hates to add to my list?

The Library of Unrequited Love (La Cote) by Sophie Divry was a gift from my sister. Published by MacLehose Press in 2013. Translated from the French by Sian Reynolds.

Related Posts

Libraries are in danger. Too much silly stuff is written about them in the media. For a refreshing riposte see this piece in Huffington Post by the American librarian, Rita Meade: A librarian’s response to ‘what’s a library?’

Libraries again and again; in this post I reported on the importance of libraries overseas, using the example of Nakaseke Community Library, Uganda and praising the work of Book Aid International.

Library Cuts are Pay Cuts. Really! This post looked at everybody’s financial impoverishment caused by cutting libraries.

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The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie

Quirky, spirited, screwball, all words used to describe The Portable Veblen, the second novel by Elizabeth McKenzie, an American writer. The book was inventive enough to catch the notice of the judges of the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction last year, who placed it on their shortlist. The title is arresting and the novel includes a wicked example of what we used to call the military-industrial complex, a pair of lovers and their dysfunctional families, and a squirrel.

The story

There are three Veblens in this novel: Veblen is a Latin word for squirrel; the philosopher and economist, Thorstein Veblen, who was of Norwegian origin. He invented the phrase ‘conspicuous consumption’. The third Veblen is a young woman, who for reasons that quickly become apparent, hides herself from many social challenges. She works as a temp, and for fun she is learning Norwegian and translating the works of her famous namesake.

The story begins in Palo Alto, California, when Paul Vreeland proposes to Veblen. He is a medical researcher, who is developing a drill to help brain-injured servicemen in the field. She is a temp at the hospital.

And what was her response to his proposal?

Her body quickened, like a tree in the wind. Later, she would remember a filament that passed through her, of being glad she had provided him with happiness, but not really sure how she felt herself.

‘Yes?’ the man said.

The squirrel emitted a screech.

‘Is that a yes? Paul asked.

She managed to say it. Yes. Two human forms became as one, as they advanced to the sidewalk, the route to the cottage on Tasso Street.

Behind them, the squirrel made a few sharp sounds, as if to say he had significant doubts. As if to say, and she couldn’t help translating it in this way: There is a terrible alchemy coming. (4)

This extract illustrates three themes of the story. First, Veblen has been trained to smooth the way for others, ensure they are happy; second she is not in touch with her own feelings; and third, the squirrel comments and provides both Veblen and the reader with judgements about events. Like the squirrel, the reader wants to say – don’t do it!

Both lovers come from very difficult families. Their attitudes and responses to others have been formed in childhood. The narrative is driven by the approaching wedding and marriage, and by Paul’s attempt to conduct his trials and the compromises he must make and are made on his behalf by the pharma company who pay for his research. Sinister events land him in hospital when he finds that his ambitions have led to compromises to the ethics of his research. Fortunately the big pharma executive gets her comeuppance in a very satisfactory way.

The writing

The first few chapters delighted me with their lightness of touch and the possibilities of the emerging story. The squirrel’s activities provide an amusing reflection on the couple’s different attitudes to squirrels, the natural world and to their forthcoming marriage.

Veblen talks to squirrels, has done since her troubled childhood. As she becomes more troubled by her approaching wedding she address him more and more frequently and finally takes him on a road trip to visit her father.

The best creation in the novel is Veblen’s hypochondriac mother Melanie. One reviewer (Scarlett Thomas) suggests she is worthy of Dickens, and Melanie is indeed an extravagant character. When Paul is taken to meet her the reader sees why Veblen is unable to push herself forward in conventional ways and seeks to please and appease people she cares for.

Cloris Hutmacher is another rich character, something of a caricature. She exploits the world and everybody in it to her advantage through her family’s company. She entraps Paul and his cranial device and precipitates the climax of the plot.

What I liked

Elizabeth McKenzie is delightfully creative. I enjoyed the squirrel, although as a narrative device he could be irritating.

A western gray squirrel (Sciurus griseus) by Aaron Jacobs, November 2005 via WikiCommons

Veblen’s anxieties about losing her independence and adjusting to another person in her life were a theme that was well developed through this novel. This extract gets to the heart of Veblen’s coping strategies. Veblen finds herself uninterested in her wedding and with self-searching to do.

Until this engagement, Veblen thought she knew what she was about. By thirty, she had managed to put away the simmering loneliness of childhood, finding relief in things outside herself, such as in skilfully tending family members who were scattered and needy, and becoming a secret expert on the life of Thorstein Veblen. To ward off uneasy feelings that crept in at unguarded moments, she’d drawn upon a wide range of materials and activities, keeping up with all major periodicals of the day, typing along to Norwegian films, clipping interesting pictures from magazines for some future project, taking brisk bike rides. And then came Paul and the whole enterprise of their future. Escapist feelings at this point showed a serious breakdown in self-discipline. And strangest of all, right at the moment she should be happiest. (219)

It’s about love, and families and written with great verve and quirkiness. The quirkiness reminded me of Where’d you go, Bernadette? By Maria Semple (2012), also shortlisted for the Baileys Prize (in 2013). I enjoyed The Portable Veblen less as it went on, but some bits were very funny indeed.

But why are there three different covers for the novel, this one for the American edition.

The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie 4th Estate (2016) 422pp

Over to you

The New York Times reviewer thought highly of it, describing it as ‘a novel of festive originality that it would be a shame to miss’.

Have you read it? Any thoughts to add?

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The Exeter Book

When did English literature begin? Where, how did it begin? A contender for the honour can be found in a city in the South West of England: Exeter, in its Cathedral Library and Archive. It’s called the Exeter Book.

The Exeter Book has survived a thousand years, not always cared for, and not always intelligible. It is now in the Exeter Cathedral Library and Archives collection, and you can visit it on its monthly open days.

What is the Exeter Book?

Written in Old English some time between 960 and 990 the Exeter Book – or The Codex Exoniensis to use its Latin name – is first heard of in the library of the first Bishop of Exeter, Leofric, in 1072. It is not known how it came into Leofric’s possession.

Originally the Book had 131 parchment leaves, but the first eight pages are lost. The text was written by one person, in miniscule Old English, and with some runes included.

The Book contains 96 riddles and some longer poems. A few of the poems have Christian connections, but the collection is largely secular, despite its long connection with the Cathedral.

Another mystery is the reason for its original compilation. The anthology may have been a random collection of riddles and poems, or the favoured pieces of its first owner, surely a wealthy man. The preparation of the 130 parchment leaves, from animal skins, and of the ink from oak galls would have required many hours of labour.

Leofric’s described the Book in this way:

mycel Englisc boc be gehwilcum þingum on leoð-wisan geworht (ie: a large English book of poetic works about all sorts of things).

Leofric was a collector of books. He gave 66 to his cathedral between 1050 and 1072 when he died. The first page of his Anglo-Saxon Missal, now in the Bodleian, contains his ‘curse’, first in Latin and then in Anglo-Saxon.

Bishop Leofric gives this missal to the Church of Saint Peter the Apostle in Exeter for the use of his successors. If anyone shall take it away from thence, let him lie under eternal malediction.

Why has it survived?

The survival of the Book is a good story in itself. It may have survived precisely because it was not valued. It is more than a thousand years old, but for 700 years few people, if any, could read Old English and the great tome was neglected. There is evidence that it was used as a stand for a pot of glue and to hold gold leaf. It bears the marks of significant neglect, such a scorch mark on the last few leaves, perhaps from a poker. It may have survived precisely because it was not valued. Despite his curse, in the 17th century many of the books from Leofric’s library, along with others from the Cathedral’s collection, were given to the Bodleian Library in Oxford. The Exeter Book was left behind, perhaps unnoticed.

Why is it important?

Books were treasured articles in the 11th century. They required much labour to produce and sacred texts with their illuminations required skill and artistic sensibility. The Book has a very pleasing regular script, even if it contains no illuminations.

The Exeter Book is one of only four Old English books to have survived to the present. You probably know of Beowulf. In recent times, interest in the text has been reawakened. In particular, both WH Auden and JR Tolkien are known to have been influenced by the poems. The riddles have been translated into Modern English by Kevin Crossley-Holland and published by Enitharmon Press (2008). One of the riddles inspired Nicola Lefanu to compose a song (Broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Thursday 27th April 2017).

Riddle 47

A moth ate words. That seemed to me
when I heard of that strange happening, a curious event,
that the insect, a thief in darkness, devoured
what was written by some man, this excellent language
and its strong foundations. The thievish stranger was not
at all the wiser for swallowing these words.

For the answer change the last letter of this blog’s name.

An Artist’s Treat

The book is kept in the Exeter Cathedral Library and Archives. I visited it in April 2017. There are monthly open days to view the book and talk to Archive staff. They are proud and enthusiastic about this precious volume: no lying ‘under eternal malediction’ for them. And, yes, visiting books is the kind of thing I do for fun, or as a Writer’s Treat.

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