Category Archives: Reviews

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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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 Quest for Christa T by Christa Wolf

I failed. I got to page 93 out of 185 and I stopped reading. I have tried. For several weeks I have picked up this book and read the first chapter. Then put it down and later tried again. Now at the half-way point, ten chapters out of 20 have been read, but I can’t go on. I’ve weighed up the time it was taking to read this novel against what I felt I got out of it. I’ve decided to move on to other books.

The title of this post should really read: The Quest for Christa T by Christa Wolf

The Quest for Christa T

Christa T is not an especially remarkable woman. Like the narrator, she grew up in eastern Germany during the war, and like many in that area, fled before the advancing Red Army. Living in East Germany (the DDR), as normality is resumed, the girls meet again in university and form a loose friendship. The narrator reconstructs Christa T’s life from the documents she left when she died young of Leukaemia.

Part of the novel seems to be about the impossibility of recreating anyone’s life, fictional or real. She opens the novel with doubts about memories.

The quest for her: in the thought of her. And of the attempt to be oneself. She speaks of this in her diaries, which we have, on the loose manuscript pages that have been found, and between the lines of those letters of hers that are known to me. I must forget my memory of Christa T.- that is what these documents have taught me. Memory puts a deceptive color on things.

But must we give her up for lost? (1)

It’s this kind of elliptical yet lyrical prose that made reading it so hard. And the novel continues by exploring witness evidence, documents, and conjecturing what happened in the gaps. There is very little narrative, more a series of events alongside the narrator’s suggestions of what might have been happening in Christa T’s mind and explanations of her responses.

What are we to make of the author’s name being shared with the main character? Why has Christa Wolf embarked on this search, the quest for her namesake, at all? I guess I’ll never know because I am moving on to other reading.

Christa Wolf

Christa Wolf lived 1929 to 2011, mostly former East Germany. The area in which she was born is now in Poland, and when her family fled the advancing Red Army at the end of the war they ended up inside the Russian Zone.

She worked as a literary critic and journal editor and although critical of the DDR leadership during the Cold War period she remained a socialist. She won many awards for her writing. From reading her obituaries and about The Quest for Christa T it seems that Christa Wolf was interested in individuals who make their own way rather than following the crowd. This had obvious implications for the East German state. Her book was not banned when it appeared in 1968, but only a limited number of copies were printed.

A Novel in translation

Well, I am sorry for my failure to get beyond half way. The Quest for Christa T was my October choice for the Women in Translation project. I chose it because it appeared in several lists of recommended reads for #WIT and others had responded positively. For example, on Heavenali’s blog and Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings. I plan to read another, but more recent, text by a German writer: Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck (2017) in November.

I would like to hear from people who got further with Christa T than I did, and who got more out of it.

The Quest for Christa T by Christa Wolf, first published in English in 1970 by Hutchinson & Co. The translation from the German is by Christopher Middleton. I read a library copy from Exeter Library stacks. Virago also published a version.

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My Shitty Twenties by Emily Morris

In my case it was my shitty thirties. To be honest only certain aspects of my thirties were shitty. I became a single mother and tried to continue to make a life for myself. It was hard, very hard, and it came back to me when I read Emily Morris’s memoir about becoming a single mother in her twenties. It’s a memoir of a much more recent past than my struggles as a single mother.

The pregnant student

Emily was enjoying the life of a student in Manchester at the turn of the century. She had a job she loved, was just begun to find the focus for her studies as well as appreciating the contrast between her social life in the city and her hometown of Southport.

Then she discovered she was pregnant. And there she is: 22 years old, pregnant, studying, working, and in Manchester. She decided to keep the baby.

It has to be said that the father of her child comes out of this memoir very badly indeed. In the first place he lied to her suggesting he was not able to make her pregnant. In the second place, his response to her decision to continue the pregnancy was

Enjoy your impending shitty, snotty, vomitty twenties. Goodbye. (16)

In the third place, he offers no support and no interest once the baby was born. In the fourth place … you get the picture. I suppose he did give her a great title, and contributed a tiny something towards her son.

The heroine, not including Emily herself, is Emily’s mother who supports her as a model mother would. She backs her decision, is interested in how Emily will manage, offers her a home, provides her with a home, goes with her to hospital, including on the night Tom is born and then continues to support her for another 18 months or so. Every single mother should have a mother like her.

Emily herself shows considerable perseverance and determination. Just having a baby is physically hard work. It’s true what people say. They don’t call it labour for nothing. And then, this small dependant being takes over everything, and if you are the sole parent you have to make all the decisions, shoulder all the worry, make all the arrangements, and try to remember your own life in the midst of the focus on the shitty, snotty, vomitty baby.

A Memoir

I found My Shitty Twenties surprisingly readable. There is no self-pity, no mawkishness, no self-indulgence, no lingering over how hard it all is. And it all is. Rather, Emily’s courage and determination to bring up the child, to continue her studies and to earn her living are reported in a straightforward tone and with a combination of good humour and insight.

I was not surprised to read that this memoir began as a blog. The chapters are short, and often end with the reversal of some belief, or a person being proved wrong, or a new insight into life. She presents her struggles with breastfeeding, the mothers’ web site, the consoling parrot, and we understand them all. She writes with the immediacy of the best bloggers, and doesn’t go on too long.

This I know

It’s hard and unrelenting work being a single mother. The rewards are huge. Managing work, the expectation and assumptions of strangers and friends and family is tiring, although often amusing afterwards. There are bad days, abuse by strangers, misrepresentations. There is also unexpected kindness and luck. And in writing My Shitty Twenties she has built a history to share with her son.

I hope that we can expect more from Emily Morris now she has reached her ******y thirties.

My Shitty Twenties by Emily Morris (2017) Published by Salt. 310pp

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Picture credits:

Baby crying Photo credit: liewcf via Visual Hunt / CC BY-SA

Smiling baby Photo credit: Vato Bob via VisualHunt.com / CC BY

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Tell me a Riddle by Tillie Olsen

A woman who is old is not merely an old woman. She is all the people she has been in her life. Tillie Olsen tells us that Eva has been a revolutionary, a prisoner, an immigrant, a mother and now, at 69 she wants to live in her own way. She rejects being defined as a grandmother. This is the significance of the title. She refuses to amuse the young, she will not tell a riddle.

Tell me a Riddle is the 29th in Older Women in Fiction series on Bookword. Tillie Olsen’s short story was originally published in 1961, and has gained the status of American classic.

The Story

Here is the opening paragraph of Tell me a Riddle. Her desire to live in her own quiet and space brings Eva to a serious quarrel with her husband David.

For forty-seven years they had been married. How deep back the stubborn, gnarled roots of the quarrel reached, no one could say – but only now, when tending to the needs of others no longer shackled them together, the roots swelled up visible, split the earth between them, and the tearing shook even to the children, long since grown. (74)

They have raised seven children and never had enough money. They are Jewish immigrants from Russia to US. Eva wants to live in quiet in her own home, to decide on what she does. David wants to sell their house and live in a care home, the Haven. They sink into warfare: she is often mute, he is furious.

Then she becomes ill and it is terminal. He takes her to stay with various children and eventually to California, where they are looked after by a granddaughter, Jeannie who is a nurse. Eva dies there.

Eva and David’s relationship changes: from hostility, to distance and to fear of impending loss, with an underlying love. The love survives even if he has pushed her, as everyone has, into the role they think she should play. It’s a complex and hard story.

The older woman

Eva is a woman who at the end of her life tries to live as she wants after a lifetime of giving to others. She rejects, now, the roles people want to give her. But she must confront the wishes of her husband and is defeated by death.

The history of their marriage is sketched in through the story. It is not unusual. Eva has been defined in her marriage by the needs of her children. Eva’s closed, constrained life emerges in their quarrels. Here, for example, David tries to persuade her with arguments about the leisure that the Haven will offer.

“In the cottages they buy what you ask, and cook it how you like. You are the one who always used to say: better mankind born without mouths and stomach than always to worry for money to buy, to shop, to fix, to cook, to wash, to clean.”

“How cleverly you hid that you heard. I said it then because eighteen hours a day I ran. And you never scraped a carrot or knew a dish towel sops.” (77)

He suggests she would enjoy a book group at The Haven. She reminds him that he never once stayed at home with the children so that she could go to a book club. And that she had to ask for every penny they needed, that she was the one required to manage.

She would not exchange her solitude for anything. Never again to be forced to move to the rhythms of others. (79)

This last line is repeated in the story. What is unusual, or was in the 1960s, is the articulation of the deprivation of the years when they had children.

When the family are told that she has at best a year to live, everything changes. We learn that Eva was active in the 1905 revolution, and that David found her in prison. We learn that she still has strong beliefs about how the world should be. She loved her children but no longer frets over their lives. And indeed her children and her grandchildren have become hard to understand. Her life is so different. Here’s a scene from a visit to cousins in California.

Jokes, stories, people they had known, beginning of reminiscence, Russia fifty-six years ago. Strange words across the Duncan Phyfe table: hunger; secret meetings; human rights; spies; betrayals; prison; escape – interrupted by one of the grandchildren: “Commercial’s on; any Coke left? Gee you’re missing a real hair raiser.” (106)

Her experiences include hunger; secret meetings; human rights; spies; betrayals; prison; escape. This is not your typical American housewife. This part of Eva’s life is ignored by everyone, is even unknown to them.

As she becomes more sick, she begins to ramble, to taunt David and to sing the songs of her youth. But when she lies in her hospital bed at night and he sleeps beside her in the double bed, they hold hands. As David observes, she finds it hard work to die.

Eva wanted to reclaim the idealism of her youth, which once she shared with David. She is pained that he has lost this vision for the world and that her children never shared it. In the final scene of the short story, David understands what he has lost by abandoning the struggle of their youth.

All her names

David, Eva’s husband, has developed a habit of calling her by names laden with sarcasm. You can almost follow the story by these names:

Mrs Word Miser       Mrs Unpleasant

Mrs Live Alone And Like It

Mrs Free As A Bird  Mrs Take it Easy

Mrs Excited Over Nothing

Mrs Inahurry                        Mrs Bodybusy

Mrs Suspicious          Mrs Invalid

Mrs Orator Without Breath

Mrs Miserable           Mrs Philosopher

Mrs Babbler              Mrs Live Alone

Mrs Cadaver             Eva

Other people call her Mum or Granny as appropriate to their relationship. Her seven children and husband have defined her. Only as she dies do we find out that she is called Eva and and she can reclaim her name.

I am reminded of the doctor in Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively, who says of Claudia Hampton ‘that yes, she does seem to have been someone’.

Tillie Olsen

Tillie Olsen by Julieoe via WikiCommons. Tillie Olsen recording Tell me a Riddle and other stories at The Library Of Congress in 1996.

Tillie Olsen was an American feminist who lived 1912-2007. She was born into a family of Russian immigrants and became active in trades unions and the communist party. For much of her life she lived in California. Tell me a Riddle was her first published book, but her output remained small, largely because of her domestic and family responsibilities. She also wrote the non-fiction Silences (1978).

Tell me a Riddle by Tillie Olsen. Published in the UK by Faber & Faber in 1964 in a collection of four short stories. 53 pp

Recent posts in the older women in fiction series:

Kent Haruf Our Souls at Night

Elizabeth Von Arnim The Enchanted April

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International Translation Day 2017

International Translation Day occurs every year on 30th September to celebrate the work of translators in publishing. It’s a good day to celebrate their work and it’s a good day to focus on books in translation. We need to do this from time to time because books in translation do not form a very large part of our reading diet – just 4%. Not much is published, not much is read.

Fiction in Translation

Daniel Hahn is a translator. He suggests that literary translations are founded on these principles:

It assumes that just because you’re from Here doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be reading stories from There. That it’s possible to strip a story of its language, wrest it thousands of miles, re-clothe it in a strange new language, and keep its essence intact – because stories can be citizens of the world, just like we can. That just because something is particular doesn’t mean it’s not universal. (A basic principle for all great literature, surely?) That openness to other literatures – and other narratives, and lives, and worlds – doesn’t threaten our own, it strengthens and enlivens it.

[From Carrying Across, in The Author, Summer 2017].

Only 4% of fiction published in the UK is in translation. Of that 4% about 20% is by women. Partly to correct this Meytal Radzinski who writes the Biblibio blog promoted events with the hashtag #WITMonth: Women in Translation month for August, and encouraged people to join in. This year it was very successful again. There were articles in advance that included lists of recommendations. Here’s an example: 13 books by women writers to add to your Reading List for #WITMonth from the Booksatchel Blog. And here’s another list from Jacquiwine’s blog for the same event.

And recently (13th September) the long list for the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation has been published. You can find it here.

These events and posts feature many recommended books in translation.

On Bookword

To maintain the impetus of #WITMonth I announced in August my project to read at least one book by a woman in translation every month and to write a response here on Bookword blog. These are my reasons:

Fiction in English does not hold the monopoly on quality. A great deal of excellent fiction is written in other languages. If the job of fiction is to take you to new worlds I want to explore those other worlds written in another language as well as those in English. Promoting fiction in translation is part of my intention for this blog.

Fiction by men does not hold the monopoly on quality either. Promoting fiction by women is another purpose of my blog. Women’s fiction gets less space in the printed media than men’s. See VIDA statistics for how much less.

I will promote women in translation over the next year or so and I am doing this at a time when popular culture favours creating barriers not making connections across language and gender. I hope you will be inspired by some of my choices.

Here are recommendations from the last 12 months, some of which appear in the linked lists and posts above:

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

Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan, translated from the French by Irene Ash.

Woman at Point Zero by Nawal el Saadawi, translated from the Arabic by Sherif Hetata.

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

I’m planning to read these novels very soon:

The Quest for Christa T by Christa Wolf, (1968) translated by Christopher Middleton.

Go, Went, Gone by Jennifer Erpenbeck, (2017) translated by Susan Bernofsky.

Over to you

Tell us which novels in translation would you recommend from your reading?

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