Category Archives: Reading

The Decades Project one year on

At the start I didn’t mean it to work out like this, I just wanted to introduce a little discipline to my reading for the blog. I decided to select a novel from each decade from 1900 onwards, reading one a month, and reviewing it here on the blog. What happened was that for the first two decades my choices were both by women and before long I had decided to stay with novels by women. It’s my blog so I do what I want to.

by Henri Lebasque

The decade’s list

Once a month I picked a novel and reviewed it. Here’s the full list with links to my posts:

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, (1905)

O Pioneers by Willa Cather, (1913)

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie, (1926)

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, (1938)

They were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple, (1943)

The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing, (1950)

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin, (1969)

Woman at Point Zero by Nawal el Saadawi, (1975)

Hotel Du Lac by Anita Brookner, (1984)

The Shipping News by E Annie Proulx, (1993)

Persepolis by Marjane Satrap, (2003)

The variety

I am very pleased to have included such variety here: from different countries and continents, two translated into English, some sci fi, a classic or two, one was a graphic memoir and there were several prize winners.

The book I most enjoyed rereading …

… was undoubtedly The Shipping News by E Annie Proulx (1993). I was already an enthusiastic reader of her books when I first read it, and on rereading I found that this one combined the best of her humorous and humane writing. Set largely in Newfoundland it took me somewhere I had only been in the film of the novel.

It was serendipitous that as I was making my choice for the 1990s Annie Proulx was awarded the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. The judges noted especially her ‘deep reverence for the beauty and complexities of rural America’. You can find her acceptance speech here. In it she reveals that she did not begin writing until she was 58. She laments

the accelerating destruction of the natural world and the dreadful belief that only the human species has the inalienable right to life and God-given permission to take anything it wants from nature, whether mountaintops, wetlands or oil.

The Shipping News by E Annie Proulx (1993) 4th Estate. 337pp

The book I reacted badly to …

… was Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. It’s a classic. For many people it is their favourite book. But I hated the manipulation of the reader into wanting the narrator and Max to get away with what they thought was murder.

But it has many qualities, not least in the way the tension mounts, and in the creation of Mrs Danvers. And it has a terrible grande dame, Mrs Van Hopper, in the opening scenes. I don’t suppose my criticisms matter a bit to readers who love this book and enjoy the nostalgic thrill of the opening sentence as they begin another reading.

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. (1)

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (1938) Virago Modern Classics (2003). 441pp

The book I was most pleased to read …

… was O Pioneers by Willa Cather. I have wanted to read it for years, and was pleased to have made the acquaintance of this writer. I expect to read more by her soon.

O Pioneers! By Willa Cather. First published in 1913. I used the edition by Oxford World Classics. 179pp

A theme that emerged …

… was of the position of women in relation to marriage. Beginning with the tragedy of Lily Bart in The House of Mirth, readers of these books find themselves confronted with variations on the theme of independent women. In complete contrast, but still in the United States, Alexandra Bergson is revealed as a pioneer, with no need of a husband, indeed as more capable than all the men in her corner of Nebraska. Rebecca emerges from a frightened mouse to become a fierce lioness, protecting her man. In They were Sisters Dorothy Whipple compares the lives of three women, and shows how their marriages affected their fortunes, and their children’s. And who could read Doris Lessing’s novel The Grass is Singing without seeing the worst kind of marriage, oppressing both partners, this one set against the racist backdrop of Southern Rhodesian white society. And how terrible are the trials of Firdaus in Egypt in Woman at Point Zero. Anita Brookner has, with class and style, written many times about the challenges for single intelligent women. Hotel du Lac was a prize winner.

The theme was magnificently emphasised in Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, which is set on a planet where near-humans have no gender for most of the time, but when they go into oestrus they may emphasise either their male or their female characteristics. So what does gender do when it’s not for reproduction, she asks.

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin first published in 1969.

The Decades Project in 2018:

I enjoyed seeking out and rereading novels for 2017. The project introduced a wildcard element to my reading and blog. Next year I plan to follow the same pattern, but to read non-fiction by women from each decade. I have already found that the choices for some decades are easier than others. It may be that in the first decade of the 1900s women only published gardening books. Watch this space.

Suggestions for this new series are always welcome.

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Dance by the Canal by Kerstin Hensel

Dance by the Canal is a novella, published by the much appreciated Peirene Press and sent to subscribers as the third in their East and West Series: Looking Both Ways. In this book we are brought to East Germany before and after reunification, to explore how a young woman fails to find her way in either. The bleakness of the Communist East offers little to a free spirit, and reunification with West Germany is suffocating her hometown. Where is a young woman to be? First published in German in 1994, four years after the reunification, Dance by the Canal still has a great deal to tell us about Europe today.

The Story of Dance by the Canal

Gabriela von Haßlau grows up as an unloved and untalented child, in a fictional town called Leibnitz in East Germany. Gabriela is a disappointment and distraction to her parents. Her father is a self-important surgeon finding the restrictions of the East German state hampers his ability to impress people. Her mother is scarcely interested in her daughter and when the couple begin entertaining, against the wishes of the state, she begins an affair. The marriage disintegrates as Gabriela’s father is removed from his post.

Led astray at school, Gabriela begins to distance herself from her family and the future organised for her by the state. She begins an apprenticeship at a machinery factory. From there she is rescued in a shady deal. In exchange for reporting on her friends she is to be a spy, and when this doesn’t work out she ends up on the street, sleeping under the canal bridge.

Bleak because there seems no answer for Gabriela, and she cannot help herself. Neither the East nor the reunified Germany can cope with her.

Humour

There is a great deal of wit in this novel, despite its rather bleak tone and ambiguous ending. Her father, a vascular surgeon, rebukes the child for crying when the tangles in her hair are pulled.

– Think of all the people with varicose veins, Father would say, you don’t see them crying. (12)

And here is the vivid way in which Gabriela describes the work she was required to do at the I-Plant: filing iron plates.

Five kilograms of iron, heave up, press to bib, clamp, screw down, file, position, up and down, thirty-degree angle, release vice, hold the plate tightly, turn the plate, retighten, file, up down up down, only fucking’s better, rotate, change, take off plate, set aside, check with bare fingertips, five kilograms of iron, heave up, clamp, turn it the other way, nose wipe, iron stinks, bad filing cuts into flesh, five kilograms is women’s weight, arms like a heavyweight, the screech of drilling, shriek of milling, screech of grinding, file by hand, up down, the stack of plates shrinks, the other grows, […] after eight hours I don’t know who I am. (86)

And there are some great characters. The other down-and-outs who drink at the Three Roses could have emerged from the Commedia del Arte. Semmelweis-Marrie, Rampen-Paul, Klunzer-Lupo and Noppe. The wonderful partner in crime from her schools days, Katka. Various teachers. Her mother’s hammy lover. The sinister Queck and Manfred who end up drowned …

Gabriela is the narrator of the novella. From the writing emerge the sense of things happening to Gabriela, her lack of control over the events, her escapes and the bleakness of her life.

Kerstin Hensel

Kerstin Hensel was born in 1961 in what was called Karl-Marx-Stadt in East Germany. She studied in Leipzig, medicine and literature. She publishes poetry and plays as well as novels. Dance by the Canal was her first novel.

Dance by the Canal by Kerstin Hensel, published in German in 1994, and in translation in 2017 by Peirene. 122pp

Translated from the German by Jen Calleja

For another review of Dance by the Canal by Kerstin Hensel, go to the blog ALifeinBooks.

On Bookword

I am reading and reviewing at least one book by a woman in translation every month: here are three recommendations from those I have already included.

Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated from the German by Susan Berofsky.

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors, translated from the Danish by Misha Hoekstra.

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell.

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A Birthday for Our Writing Group

There’s nothing like a good celebration for reminding us how much we have achieved. Our writing group decided to turn our performance project into a celebration for our fourth birthday. It is always good for a group to celebrate. And for a birthday party we needed cake.

Celebration

Founded four years ago in September 2013 by the librarian, a group of writers have met every fortnight, on a Saturday morning, to read our work to each other, receive critical comments and discuss issues and challenges we face. The writers are a diverse lot. They include a gardener, care worker, home tutor, counsellor, IT expert, bowls player, theatre producer, artists, teachers, psychologist, editor, journalists, filmmaker. Some are established writers, others are beginners.

Two years ago we published a collection of our writing, Gallimaufry, covering our costs by selling copies, suggesting they made good seasonal presents. We could have repeated the success and produced Gallimaufry2, but we wanted to get our work heard in a different way. We like to stretch ourselves to see what we can learn from different experiences.

We chose a live performance, but many in the group did not have confidence to read to the public, so we limited our audience by invitation. And then we set about arranging the event.

Organisation

Our group prides itself on its loose organisation. We have no leader, no secretary, and any decisions are made by whoever is present at a meeting. Action is taken by volunteers, who scope out venues, bring equipment, agree to take on roles, and to undertake tasks.

When we reviewed the event, one of our writers reflected that we organised the Birthday Celebration much as we write. There is an initial idea, we explore it further, perhaps taking a turn around a short deviation, revisiting the ideas, and then moving forward tweaking and polishing as we go.

And so it was. Someone found the function room above the local pub, we all brought something to read up to a limit of 10 minutes, we drew up the programme together. By email we ensured that it said what people wanted it to say. We worked out that we needed to pay £3 each to cover the cost of the venue, but we didn’t want to make a profit. What would we do with it?

One of our technical experts provided a sound system, I brought a music stand, someone else provided a light to clip to the stand. Our radio experts have recorded the event to draw on for their local radio programme. And Thelma provided the cake. We set about inviting our audience.

Celebrate!

And on the night it was all a great success. We had loaded for success, by asking Thelma to launch us with one of her Tasteless Verses.

And we were off! Poems, short stories, memoirs, all steered by our two MCs. My own contribution was a section of a long short story. We pride ourselves on the variety of our writing. Thelma was also our closing star reading more verse before we did a round of story tag involving willing audience members (aged 9 – 93). There was plenty of laughter, intense listening, nervousness and sense of achievement. The evening had a delightful air of playfulness and lightness. We did it! We entertained about 40 people for an evening.

And what did we learn?

Performance is different from reading within the group. It needs more polish and practice.

We realised that the attentiveness of the audience was partly due to the close listening we practise in our normal sessions.

And we thought perhaps we might go on tour next: to village WIs, church tea or coffee concerts, libraries, schools, any one who will have us really. Or do something else new to us. Or both.

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Marking the page

A few weeks ago when I picked up my 8 year-old grandson from primary school I noticed he had a plaster on his knee. ‘What happened there?’ I asked. ‘I found a plaster in a reading book and I put it on because I needed one.’

Elastoplast! Of course, the ideal bookmark. So what else do people find in books to mark their page, I wondered.

 

From my internet research

Here’s what Margaret Kingsbury found in pre-read books, as a buyer for a used bookstore:

  • Money
  • Rubber bands
  • Toilet paper
  • Handwritten letters
  • Family photographs

You can find her comments in a Book Riot post from earlier this year.

And librarians reported that they found these items:

  • Food
  • Bus and theatre tickets
  • Wine labels
  • Divorce papers
  • Photos
  • Money

These were reported by Claire Fuller, author of Our Endless Numbered Days and Swimming Lessons, writing in Publishers Weekly. The presence of money in both lists suggests we should be leafing through many more pages as we ponder our next read.

But really people, food? That’s worse than turning down the pages. No really, it is.

Bookmarks I have found

I have found no money, no photos and no food in my books. I have found shopping lists and dried flowers – even dried laurel leaves. There are frequent random slips of paper, cut or torn off something larger but insignificant. I find receipts for the books, or for other items purchased. Not very interesting.

I once found a postcard with details of a change of address in a book I had bought at a second hand store. It seemed poignant, the black and white photograph, the stamp with King George VI’s head, and the neat placing of the two addresses: one for the postman and the other for the recipients. There may have been a story there. What happened when Pauline Jones couldn’t find her friend’s new address? Did they loose touch? I put the card back in the book and have never seen it again.

I tend to use post cards to mark my pages. I expect a fair few have gone to the library, or onto Oxfam’s shelves.

I completed a draft of this post, but within a few days I was in the Oxfam Bookshop when I found this bookmark inside a copy of How it All Began by Penelope Lively. It looks a little special, handmade even, and if you recognise it and want it back get in touch with me via the comments.

One of the characters in my novel [yes I’m still revising it] hides a letter from her lover between the pages of Anna Karenina. The working title of the novel is The Uses of Secrecy. One person’s bookmark is another‘s secret.

Persephone Books provide bookmarks when you buy from their stores. They match the endpapers. Full marks to Persephone Books for understanding the importance of the bookmark. This glorious bookmark for The Squire by Enid Bagnold is Magnolia, from a design for cotton and rayon from 1936.

Over to you …

What do you use to mark your page? What have you found in books?

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Photo Credits:

Bookmark Dean Hochman via VisualHunt.com / CC BY

Bank note Neal. via Visualhunt.com / CC BY-NC-SA

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Some Tough Reading

I have chosen to read some pretty tough books recently. They all concern the large-scale political events of the 20th and 21st centuries, and all concern wilful and intentional policy of inhumane treatment towards others. Depressing indeed!

The books refer to Russia in the time of Stalin’s great purges, Paris and Auschwitz in the 1940s, China from the 1930s through to Tiananmen Square and the plight of refugees in Europe today. Books take you to places you have never been, but can profoundly depress you while you are there. What follows is a kind of inhumanity Mash-up.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

I put off reading this novel, and then I had to restart it. It was difficult to read. With brilliant story-telling gifts Madeleine Thien retells the history of China through its effects on several generations of one family and their friends. At the centre of her narrative is Sparrow, a Chinese composer, and Lai his friend and a brilliant concert pianist. But the story stretches back from the wanderings of Sparrow’s mother in the 1930s and forward from the starting point of the novel when Sparrow’s daughter meets Kai’s daughter in Toronto. The fathers have both died.

What links them through this terrible period of Chinese history is music and literature in the face of oppression and mob enforce repression.. Music and literature forge family loyalties, even in the face of violent opposition to Western culture, or any artistic expression.

The stories of the family members over time merge, as they wander off, surface again in distant provinces, often in exile or in terrible prison camps. They suffer enforced re-education, the mob mentality of the Cultural Revolution and the Red Guards, the demonstrations and repression of Tiananmen Square. The willingness of the people to try to do as bidden in order to make China better is heartrending in the face of so much brutality. One asks: and today?

It’s a captivating book and one that I have frequently seen read on train journeys.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien (2016) Published by Granta 473pp

Short-listed for the Man Booker Prize 2016 and short-listed for Bailey’s Women’s Fiction prize 2017

Into the Whirlwind by Eugenia Ginzburg

Endpaper for Into The Whirlwind

This book is a memoir, beginning with an account of the author’s arrest in 1937, accused of betraying the Revolution. Sentenced to 10 years in solitary, she endures two in the company of Julia before being sent on to a labour camp in East Russia.

From the moment she is sentenced she has no knowledge of her husband, or of their children (seeing only one of her sons in later life). It’s a grim story, beginning with the Kafka-esque accusations that began the great purge, the cult of personality. The conditions under which the first three years of her sentence are served are so appalling both in isolation and in the work camp, that one wonders anyone survived. At each stage the women support each other, learn how to deal with their warders and those who control their lives. This volume (but not her imprisonment) ends in 1940, and she continued her memoirs in another volume, up to the point of her rehabilitation in the 1950s.

The personal cost of Stalin’s monstrous campaign to ensure his own rule is vividly revealed. Remaining human was a constant struggle, to do with clothes, footwear, keeping warm, eating and acts of generosity towards others.

Into the Whirlwind by Eugenia Ginzburg (1967) Published by Persephone Books 344pp

Translated from the Russian by Paul Stevenson and Manya Harari

A Train in Winter: A story of Resistance, Friendship and Survival in Auschwitz by Caroline Moorehead

While this book is a story of courage generosity and hope (cover blurb) it is also a depressing account of barbarity, inhumanity and the infliction of suffering. It focuses on the 230 French women sent to Auschwitz in January 1943, arrested for anti-German activities. It leaves us to imagine what happened to their menfolk, friends, children and the others who died in huge numbers even before the women arrived in Auschwitz.

The culpability of the Vichy government, the French police, the German occupiers of France, the many who betrayed the communists and members of the Resistance, the guards and commanders of the camps, the medical staff, the Kapos is overwhelming. And so is the disappointment of the women who were largely ignored on their return to France.

What kept the 49 women who survived alive? Friendship, care for each other, courage, hope and a determination to tell the story of what they had experienced and seen.

I included my reflections on this book in a post about visiting Auschwitz, Bookword in Poland.

A Train in Winter: A story of Resistance, Friendship and Survival in Auschwitz by Caroline Moorehead (2011) Published by Vintage 374pp

And just in case you think that this kind of inhumanity doesn’t happen any more in Europe, I refer you to the recent post reviewing a novel about refugees in Germany: Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck.

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Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

We have reached the 2000s and my choice for this decade is Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi. In the previous 10 posts I have reviewed a variety of novels. This choice is a memoir in graphic form. The graphic form was new to me in the 2000s. And the book came out of Iran, which had seemed very mysterious since the revolution in 1979. Persepolis reminds the reader/viewer that real people live through such historical events and their lives can be shaped by them.

Persepolis: the story of a childhood

Marji’s family are connected to a former ruler of what had been called Persia and her parents are Marxists with a liberal attitude towards their only child. The memoir follows her life through the time of the revolt against the Shah when she was 10 years old, the Islamic revolution and the long war with Iraq. What did it mean to live in Tehran in those days? For some of the time the borders were closed, and for much of the time Iran was besieged by Iraq. There were extreme dangers for those who supported the old regime, for those who did not embrace the Islamic revolution and for anyone who broke the rules on the streets.

Even as a child Marji is not sheltered from the tumultuous events. Her family are implicated in the early struggles of the 20th century. She is on the streets when many are killed in a demonstration against the Shah: Black Friday. And she hears all the stories about the friends and relatives of the family as the Islamic Revolution takes hold. Always there is talk, especially after the clamp down, borders are shut and the long war with Iraq is on.

We Iranians are Olympic champions when it comes to gossip, says Marji (135) as the family discuss Iraq’s military range.

We follow Marji growing up challenging and defiant, wanting jeans, posters of western pop idols, and willing to take risks. Finally her parents decide she must leave in order to continue her education in Europe.

Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi was published at the same time and also revealed the horrors of being a young woman, a reader of western literature, during the Islamic revolution. The young women readers come to understand their situation through the books they choose.

Reading Persepolis

The black and white graphics, the simple drawings of Persepolis are distinctive and effective. They allow us to see through the eyes and assumptions of a child, and to cut through much of the posturing to identify hypocrisy, weak arguments, the use of force and so forth. For example, when very young she is convinced that she will grow up to become a prophet and so has a relationship with God, whom she realises resembles Karl Marx.

The simple drawings, the avoidance of colour suggest that Marjane Satrapi is reproducing the regime’s desire for conformity. In fact it also emphasises the individuality of her characters. Marji, at the beginning, has the features of a young child but she matures over the course of her memoir. I am impressed by how the artist manages to convey so many different faces and emotions in a space the size of a 5p coin.

For many western readers, especially in the UK, Persepolis was our introduction to the graphic form. It is still not as embedded in our reading culture as, say, in France where bandes dessinees have been popular for decades and have acquired accepted cultural status. In the UK they are regarded as ‘comics’ and therefore an inferior cultural form. Perhaps graphic fiction is gaining ground. The graphic short story has had its own prize in the UK for ten years, as was reported recently in this Guardian article: ‘I was in shock!’.

Marji lives on

Marji’s further adventures were recorded in Persepolis 2. Marjane Satrapi also made a movie from the original. She now lives in Paris.

Persepolis: the story of a childhood by Marjane Satrapi Published in 2003 by Pantheon 153pp

Translated from the French by Mattias Ripa and Blake Ferris.

  • ALA Alex Award WINNER 2004
  • Booklist Editor’s Choice for Young Adults WINNER
  • New York Public Library Books for the Teen Age WINNER
  • School Library Journal Adult Books for Young Adults WINNER
  • YALSA Best Books for Young Adults WINNER

The Decades Project

For the Decades Project I selected a book from each decade from 1900 onwards, reading one a month, and reviewing it here. The idea came from my library’s Reading Passport scheme.

Previous posts in the Project

The Shipping News by E Annie Proulx, 1993

Hotel Du Lac by Anita Brookner, from 1984

Woman at Point Zero by Nawal el Saadawi, published in 1975

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin, published in 1969

The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing, published in 1950

They were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple, published in 1943

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

And now …?

In December, at the end of my first year of The Decades Project, I will reflect on the experience of blogging on this topic and reveal the theme for next year’s Decade Project.

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Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck

What is the most pressing and intractable problem facing humans today? My answer would be the responses to migration, to the movements of peoples. I mean racism and the other abuses practised on vulnerable peoples. And I mean the responses of governments and especially of the EU to the people who arrive seeking asylum. Go, Went, Gone confronts these issues.

The story of Go, Went, Gone

Richard lives in Berlin, in what used to be called East Berlin, but in his lifetime it has been reunited with the rest of the city. He has just retired from his post as Professor of Classical Philology, and now faces decisions about how he will spend his time, his life. The description of his dilemmas about confronting retirement is excellent in itself.

Memorial to the Berlin Wall, May 2014

Richard’s attention is drawn to a group of refugees who are causing the authorities some worries as they are on hunger strike and then by camping out in Orienplatz. He visits their camp and notices that they have created a community. He decides to investigate, as he might have approached an intellectual question in his professional academic life. He reads up about migration and draws up questions for the migrants and goes to interview them. Here he reflects on what he reads after he has heard some of the men’;s stories.

Much of what Richard reads on this November day several weeks after his retirement are things he’s known most of his life, but today, thanks to this bit of additional information he’s acquired, it all seems to come together in new, different ways. (142)

And when he combines his reading with his previous studies he notices something about the world.

When he considers the path the Berbers may have taken: from the Caucasus by way of Anatolia and the Levant all the way to Egypt and ancient Libya, then later into modern day Niger (and then back from Niger to modern-day Libya and across the sea to Rome and Berlin), it’s nearly a perfect three-quarter circle. This movement of people across the continents has already been going on for thousands of years, and never once has this movement halted. There were commerce, and wars, and expulsions; people often followed the animals they owned in search of water and food, they fled from droughts and plagues, went in search of gold, salt, or iron, or else their faith in their own god could be pursued only in the diaspora. There was ruin and then transformation and reconstruction. There were better roads and worse ones, but never did the movement cease. (142-3)

Never once has this movement halted, never did the movement cease.

As soon as Richard hears the stories of one man after another, the intellectual becomes the personal. He becomes absorbed in their lives, begins to make a difference through language teaching and donations, and becomes a somewhat naïve witness to the treatment of the refugees by the authorities.

My reactions

I was quickly absorbed by this book. The stories of the refugees are full of impact, not least because surviving the fearsome passage across the Mediterranean leads only to yet more suffering. Many of the men who have landed, usually in Italy, find themselves a great deal worse off than before they made their decision to leave, and with little prospect for improving their lives. Everything is a problem: shelter, clothing, work, communications with authorities, language, transport, neighbours, money …

As he learns more, Richard reaches back into what he knew best, classical studies, and makes connections with this knowledge. The centrality of the Mediterranean emerges in all stories. Richard reflects too on parallels with the reunification of Germany and the changes that came with this, especially for those who had lived in the former GDR. German history, however, has little significance for the migrants and they know nothing of Hitler and the atrocities of the 1940s or the division of Germany that followed the Nazis.

Brandenburg Gate, Berlin, May 2014

The meanings of boundaries of all kinds surface again and again. Humans seem to separate themselves from others to create enclaves; they identify and differentiate themselves from others in ways that cause huge problems. Above all, the accident of birth determines a human’s legal rights, and those who were born in the wrong places suffer over and over. The project of the EU does not help those who are born outside it.

The movement of peoples, and the dividing of peoples, the creation of boundaries to try to halt them have been going on for thousands of years. What arrogance it is that the EU, and German citizens (or any citizens) believe they can stop it. It seems to me that attempts to breach those boundaries are what it is to be human. Towards the end of the book Richard reflects on the new boundaries as he watches a standoff between the refugees and the police in Spandau.

So a border, Richard thinks, can suddenly become visible, it can suddenly appear where a border never used to be; battles fought in recent years on the borders of Libya, or of Morocco or Niger, are now taking place in the middle of Berlin-Spandau. Where before there was only a building, a sidewalk, and everyday Berlin life, a border has suddenly sprouted, growing up quickly and going to seed, unforeseen as illness.

At the New Year’s Eve party, standing with his friend Peter on his girlfriend’s balcony gazing out into the darkness, Peter told him that for the Incas the centre of the universe wasn’t a point but a line where two halves of the universe met. Is this scene unfolding before Richard’s eyes at the entrance to the asylum seekers’ residence? And are the two groups of people facing off here something like the two halves of a universe that actually belong together, but whose separation is nonetheless irrevocable? (209)

Richard’s experiences remind us that people can learn and change. His interest in and generosity to the men he meets reminds us of our individual responsibilities and possibilities. He draws in many of his friends into his activities. I also liked this book because it ended in a picnic, or rather a joyous barbeque.

Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck, first published in English translation in 2017 by Portobello Books. 283 pp

Translated from the German by Susan Berofsky

Go, Went, Gone was the Winner of the English Pen translate awards, which, by the way, included 50% of women writers and translated. You can find the complete list here.

On Bookword

I am reading and reviewing at least one book by a woman in translation every month: here are a couple of recommendations from those I have already included.

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors, translated from the Danish by Misha Hoekstra.

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell.

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The Clocks in this House all tell Different Times by Xan Brooks

The long title is not the most unusual thing about this book. The Clocks in this House all tell Different Times indicates that things are awry in 1923 England. The First World War has done untold damage. It has ruined bodies, mental dispositions, families, and the economic and social relationships. This is a world that ignores child prostitution and trafficking, and where the upper classes still hold power. England, in this book, is full of oddities.

The story of The Clocks in this House all tell Different Times

Lucy Marsh is a teenage orphan, living with her grandparents in a declining pub in northeast London. Her grandfather rents her to a client, who takes her every week to meet ‘the funny men’ in Epping Forest. There she finds other children who are also required to be nice to the gentlemen. Winifred becomes Lucy’s unreliable ally until the climax of the story.

We are introduced to a number of other characters: Arthur Ellis, the fat boy who has the ability to produce fire from his fingers, The Long Boys who form a black jazz band, the funny men themselves and the indolent upper class inhabitants and guests at the Big House.

The funny men are named after Dorothy’s companions in The Wizard of Oz and are disfigured and disabled victims of the war, mistakenly recorded as dead but in fact given accommodation by the Earl of Hertford in the grounds of Grantwood House. He is paid for this service. And the men who bring the children to the forest are also paid, and they pay the parents and grandparents of the children.

Many of these characters end up on the Grantwood Estate, where the heir, Rupert Fortnum-Hyde, amuses himself with his pet projects, of which he quickly tires. There is the camel in the garden; some very modern art works including a Pick-Arsehole [say it]; the jazz band, the fat boy and the funny men. Rupert Fortnum-Hyde is a great obnoxious creation. The damage he does, while claiming forward looking ideas is revealed at the novel’s climax.

Winifred and Lucy become demanding and want to cut out the middlemen. They try some enterprise of their own and set up with the funny men. This is not a long-term option for Lucy, although we are led to believe that such activities might be for Fred. Lucy escapes with more maturity than her bland kindness demonstrated in the opening scenes. She helps Scarecrow to escape as well, although both have to learn to look beyond the world of Grantwood House.

Epping Forest

Reflections on reading The Clocks in this House all tell Different Times

The story is savage and sordid, strange, fast paced and populated by many oddities. A chaotic time is explored. It reminded me of The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov (written in the 1930s). There is less magic than in the Russian novel, but the unexpected and sometimes unexplained often happens.

The trials of war-damaged Arthur Ellis reminded me of Septimus Warren Smith from Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Wolf. Both men are utterly changed and eventually destroyed by their experiences. Ellis has become amoral, thinking only of himself and how to find enough money to survive.

In the house, among the guests and their hosts, there is much talk of the future. And it is true that the war has changed so much. The Earl has had to close one wing of the house, to his chagrin. But the future must grow out of the past and the present, and it is clear that despite the Earl and his son’s reputation for being pink and liberal, they intend that their class will retain power.

‘My feeling is this,’ explains the Earl kindly. ‘Mobility and equality – these are things I will always support. And yet it follows that mobility is most effective and lasting when it is properly regulated. That is why we look to sensible, progressive members of the ruling class. To ensure that there is free movement and proper fairness for all.’ (277)

Despite some high-minded talk, the revolting houseguests are guilty of some sordid and savage behaviour. I found myself shocked by their Monster Hunt. They claimed to be chasing monsters, but the term better describes their casual cruelty and their indifference to the suffering of others.

Eventually the entrepreneurial adolescents, the disabled surviving funny men and the favoured ruling class meet, collide and are ignited. The reader is implicitly invited to consider how the present day compares with this anarchic time.

Related Links

One of the reasons I chose to read this book was the review by Anne Goodwin on her blog Annecdotal. She notes that it is like nothing she has read before and hopes that prize judges will not ignore it.

The review in the Guardian by M John Harrison in April was also very complementary.

This is the second book published by the Independent Publisher Salt that I have reviewed recently. The other was My Shitty Twenties by Emma Morris.

The Clocks in this House all Tell Different Times by Xan Brooks (2017) Salt 388 pp

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Photo credit: Epping forest Julian Stallabrass via Visual Hunt / CC BY

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The Shipping News by E Annie Proulx

There have been ten novels in the Decades Project so far. We have reached the 1990s and my choice is The Shipping News by E Annie Proulx. I was so pleased to reread it. It’s an excellent novel that celebrates the power of stories to build communities.

The story

Here is an account of a few years in the life of Quoyle, born in Brooklyn and raised in a shuffle of dreary upstate towns. (1)

Quoyle is hapless. A good word that, which in its original meaning speaks of the lack of hap, ie luck. Today it also implies incompetence. This novel is about how Quoyle found his hap.

Hive-spangled, gut roaring with gas and cramp, he survived childhood; at the state university, hand clasped over his chin, he camouflaged torment with smiles and silence. Stumbled through his twenties and into his thirties learning to separate his feelings from his life, counting on nothing. He ate prodigiously, liked a ham knuckle, buttered spuds. (1)

At the start of The Shipping News Quoyle is a journalist in New York, but not competent enough to stay in employment. He is married to Petal, but she prefers to sleep with anyone else. She runs off with one of her lovers taking their two children. In one terrible week Quoyle’s parents commit suicide together, Petal is killed in a car crash having sold their children. The children are rescued and Quoyle’s aunt agrees to help him, suggesting that they move back to her childhood home in Newfoundland.

Her house there turns out to be isolated, very old, and held down by ties into the rocks. It needs a great deal of work to make it habitable. Aunt sets about getting things organised and Quoyle takes up his job with the local newspaper, the Gammy Bird. He starts out with responsibility for the shipping news, a record of which ships enter and leave the port of Killick-Claw.

He turns out to be rather good at telling stories about the boats, and just about everyone they meet has a story to tell, often connected to boats, fishing and the sea. Quoyle, Aunt and the two girls gradually connect to their new community, through work, supporting each other, making friendships and love affairs, and telling their own stories.

By the last page Quoyle has learned a good lesson.

And it may be that love sometimes occurs without pain or misery. (337)

Some reflections

The theme of knots and knitting runs through this novel. (I could have said threads). Quoyle’s name is a variant of coil. We are told that ‘it may be walked on if necessary’ (1). He needs straightening out. The woman who will do it is called Wavey. Many of the characters knit. Knots appear in the headings of the chapters, often with line drawings taken from The Ashley Book of Knots. One character uses knots to conjure magic spells. Knots, of course bind, and are essential to those who live with boats.

Another theme is of sexual abuse, especially within families. The Gammy Bird runs a column on SA stories in every edition. For one character, only when her story of abuse is revealed can she live in peace in Killick-Claw.

I love the writing of this novel. Frequently sentences appear abrupt, often because pronouns have been omitted, or phrases such as ‘there were’, or verbs. It has the effect of putting the reader alongside a character.

We have weather, the changing seas, the mysteries of the local small islands, the seafood diets, creative and handy people, and above all the stories. By the final page Quoyle has found his hap for he is now the editor of the Gammy Bird and takes part in telling the story of his community.

Annie Proulx

This year Annie Proulx won the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, noting especially her ‘deep reverence for the beauty and complexities of rural America’. Now known simply as Annie Proulx, she has written other novels, short stories and memoirs. The Shipping News won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize in 1994. Kevin Spacey and Judi Dench starred in the 2001 film adaptation of the novel. While it does not capture the full subtlety of the novel – how could it? – it was good, not least for the grainy appearance of the Newfoundland setting. Brokeback Mountain in the collection called Close Range was also made into a film. I enjoyed Postcards (1992), but have to admit that I didn’t get far with Barkskins (2016).

(Photo Annie Proulx in 2009 US Embassy in Argentina, via wikicommons)

The Shipping News by E Annie Proulx (1993) 4th Estate. 337pp

The Decades Project

For the Decades Project I have selected a book from each decade from 1900 onwards, reading one a month, and reviewing it here. The idea is from my library’s Reading Passport scheme.

Previous posts in the Project

Hotel Du Lac by Anita Brookner, from 1984

Woman at Point Zero by Nawal el Saadawi, published in 1975

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin, published in 1969

The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing, published in 1950

They were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple, published in 1943

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: 2000s

I have not yet decided what to read for the final two decades – 2000s and 2010s. Suggestions are always welcome.

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The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

The underground railroad was a means by which slaves from the American Southern States were helped to escape and find freedom in the North. Making the railroad a concrete thing, with stations, tracks, engines, engineers and boxcars, is a daring move by Colson Whitehead. It has the effect of emphasising the hard work of building the network, maintaining it and it also exposes the vulnerability of the routes to freedom and the many ways to disrupt it.

The story of The Underground Railroad

This novel is Cora’s story. It tells of her life on the Randall’s cotton plantation in Georgia from which she is determined to escape. The difficulties in realising an escape encountered by Cora in each state she passes through form the bulk of this novel, with occasional short sections to reveal what happened to those who played a part in her journey. Spurring her on are the experiences of her grandmother, captured in Africa and a survivor of the fearsome middle passage. Cora’s own mother achieved notoriety, or a reputation, by being the only escapee not have been returned to the Randall’s place. There are men who make a living out of catching and returning slaves to their owners. And the owners themselves are without qualms when they punish returned slaves. They aim to deter others. Cora makes her bid for freedom, partly encouraged by her mother’s example and partly because another slave, Caesar, provides the opportunity and the moment.

It is quickly established that Cora cannot do this on her own, but nearly every one who meets and helps her is killed, often brutally and others become damaged as she makes her slow journey to freedom. This is a story of violence and inhumanity.

She comes across many different ways in which black women are enslaved. It begins with the backbreaking work on the plantation, and the law that casts the slave as the property of her owner. Her owner can dispose of her as he wishes. Randall sets the slave catcher, Ridgeway on Cora’s trail. Already eluded by her mother’s escape, Ridgeway develops a terrifying obsession with tracking down Cora. Their paths cross, she escapes, and again, until …

Cora finds sanctuary with sympathisers as she eludes Ridgeway. In South Carolina they are treating the black folks well, educating them, providing employment and offering healthcare. The healthcare is compromised, however, designed to sterilise slaves, so Cora moves on.

In North Carolina they have a policy of violent eradication of all black residents. Hidden in an attic Cora witnesses brutal executions of those who harbour escapees, and of the escapees themselves. Another escape, to a farm colony in Indiana, but the local people find it too threatening and a massacre takes place. Cora escapes the massacre because Ridgeway captures her.

At each moment of escape Cora must find the railroad platform, wait for a train, and travel with it to the next unknown destination. Ultimately it is the railroad that saves her from Ridgeway’s final attempt to recapture her.

Some reflections

This is an exciting story exposing the effects of an immoral set of beliefs. The story moves along briskly, but at times I did not want to read on because of what I feared would come next.

The questions posed by The Underground Railroad are important– for example, what forms of slavery are there beyond the plantation? What do white supremacist beliefs mean today? How can the world atone for such uprooting, such brutal treatment, such unspeakable acts? How is it that we continue to value humans differently, separating out people by the accident of birth, or differentiating between economic migrants and asylum seekers? What forms of slavery exist today? Is the work of a few dedicated railroad maintenance workers enough to keep people from being subjugated by others?

This is a powerful novel, which deserves the success it has been enjoying. In itself it is a strong argument for the importance of fiction to show us other worlds and experiences. Thanks to Ed for the recommendation and for lending me his copy.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (2016). Paperback version published by Fleet. 366pp

Winner of Pulitzer Prize for fiction 2017.

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