Memento Mori by Muriel Spark

So how would you respond to being told to remember that you must die? With anger, acceptance, agreement, curiosity about the speaker, avoidance, denial? The characters in Memento Mori by Muriel Spark react in ways that illuminate their lives and characters. They each receive a phone call. A voice merely says

Remember you must die.

With her sharp wit, sparkling style and genial good humour Muriel Spark leads us through the final months of her many characters, drawing less attention to the mystery of who makes the calls and becoming more concerned with their reactions to the calls.

This is my first contribution to #ReadingMuriel2018, hosted by Heavenali. I look forward to reading more of Muriel Spark’s work in this anniversary year of her birth.

The story of Memento Mori

This novel is short, bizarre, almost macabre. Published in 1959 and set in the ‘50s in and around London, the story concerns a connected group of older people. Dame Lettie Colston (a philanthropist who behaves with no charity) has received phone calls commanding her – ‘Remember you must die’. Lettie does not wish to remember, and has reported the calls to the police. Her brother, Godfrey, says the caller must be a maniac. He is fairly detached about it until he receives his own call. His wife Charmian, a novelist, accepts the reminder. Other characters also receive the call: Alec Warner, who is researching gerontology, taking copious notes about the effects of aging on people, including himself; the poet, Percy Mannering, who can do nothing without being loud and shouty (including spending a windfall on an excessively long telegram about another poet).

In this novel the characters are living in their 70+ years as they did when they were younger – using and deceiving other people, being cruel, blaming, lying to and exploiting each other. They pursue vendettas and inheritances, try to get even, settle old scores, behave as badly as ever.

Miss Taylor, once Charmian Colston’s maid, now a resident of a hospital ward for old women (referred to as Grannies), has a theory about the calls. It will do.

‘In my belief,’ she said, ‘the author of the anonymous telephone calls is Death himself, as you might say. I don’t see, Dame Lettie, what you can do about it. If you don’t remember death, Death reminds you to do so. And if you can’t cope with the facts the next best thing is to go away for a holiday.’ (179)

Those that live as though they will never die are the most troubled by the phone calls. Every character is at the mercy of the physical manifesdtations of aging. Guy Leet, writing his memoirs, for example, is finding it hard going.

The laboriousness of the task resided in the physical, not the mental effort. His fingers worked slowly, clutched round the large barrel of his fountain pen … (185)

This is not a pleasant group of people. Miss Pettigrew is an evil, blackmailer and yet she achieves her goal of inheriting money through foul means. She has a stroke so is not able to enjoy it for long. In the end they all die, as we all do. We are reminded of this in the final pages, which list the fate of them all.

Muriel Spark

This was Muriel Spark’s third novel of the 22 she wrote. Her novels are very readable, mostly fairly short and written in a sharp style, but with depth. The focus of this novel could not be clearer, yet it is not preachy. We must acknowledge that we will die, not live as we did in our youth, when we could afford to image an endless future. Or go on holiday.

In a recent essay on her work in the Guardian Review Ali Smith quotes Muriel Spark and explains her wide reach and appeal.

Above all: “It is my first aim always to give pleasure.” This is how she described her raison d’etre as a writer, and to me she is one of the 20th-century writers most vitally, joyfully, seriously philosophically, aesthetically and politically engaged with the living materials of history, and with her own time, in a way that gives back to our time, and that will always give to readers no matter what time they’re embroiled in, whenever they read her.

Ali Smith also quotes her poem Author’s Ghosts, in which the ghosts creep back to update their texts. This is to notice that some books remain relevant. And Muriel Spark’s books have something important to say in our time, even if written more than 50 years ago, as Memento Mori. While we may live longer, on the whole, we see less of death in everyday life and we should all remember we will die.

I recently was given a copy of Jacob’s Room is full of Books by Susan Hill. She too admired Muriel Spark and makes several references to her style. Here’s an example of her wit, observation and lightness of touch from this novel. She is reporting the conversation of the Grannies in Miss Taylor’s ward and inserts this little grenade.

Mrs Reewes-Duncan, who claimed to have lived in a bungalow in former days, addressed Miss Valvona. (36)

I notice that both Ali Smith and Susan Hill are rereaders and this was my second reading of Memento Mori. I have mostly avoided rereading on the grounds that there is so much new to fill my reading hours, and I didn’t want to miss it. But now I am thinking that I don’t want to miss the pleasures that come with rereading. Expect more.


For March/April in this readalong I can choose between The Girls of Slender Means and The Mandelbaum Gate. I have copies of both. One would be a reread the other a first look. Now which to choose?

Memento Mori by Muriel Spark first published in 1959. I reread the Virago version. 226pp

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Photo Credit: Muriel Spark: thomas ford memorial library on Visualhunt / CC BY-NC-SA



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The Winterlings by Cristina Sanchez-Andrade

Choosing a novel by a woman in translation can be tricky, with so few reviews in newspapers and on blogs. I chose this one for three reasons. It won an award from English Pen who support writing in translation. And it is in Spanish, and I haven’t reviewed a book originally in Spanish for some time. And when it arrived, with two other possibilities, I liked the cover so much that my choice was made.

The story of The Winterlings

It is soon after the end of the war in the 1950s in the Spanish countryside. Two sisters, the Winterlings of the title, reappear in the remote village in which they grew up decades before. They move into their grandfather’s house, bringing a cow, some sheep and chickens and settle into life there. Where have they been? Their grandfather sent them away shortly before he was killed during the Civil War, and they spent time in England, doing domestic work, learning to be seamstresses and going to the cinema. Before their return one of them had briefly been married.

They came past one morning like the thrumming of a hornet, swifter than an instant.

The women.

The Winterlings.

The men bent over the earth straightened up to watch. The women stilled their brooms. The children stopped playing; two women with big, tired bones, as thought worn down by life, were crossing the town square.

Two women followed by four sheep and a cow with swinging gait, pulled a covered wagon filled with provisions and utensils. (3)

Much remains unchanged in the village, but there is a sense that change is on its way. The villagers remember everything. The grandfather had bought the brains of many inhabitants (as a way of putting money in their pocket perhaps), and now they want the ownership of their brains returned and the receipts cancelled. Then news arrives that Eva Gardner is in Spain to make films and one of the sisters goes to be her body double. The other sister has her teeth renewed, but falls ill and gradually dies. The remaining Winterling moves on.

There are so many mysteries in this village, especially concerning the two women. What happened to their grandfather and to the brief husband? What is the dental technician’s source of teeth? He has another secret – he’s a cross dresser. What was the role of their grandfather and the greedy priest during the Civil War? And why does the priest, who is also smelly, go up the mountain every day to read the last rites to a woman who is taking forever to die? How has the return of the Winterlings upset the villagers? What is wrong with the chickens?

The writing of The Winterlings

The novel is written in a naïve style, spare, almost primitive. The author herself says it derives from the oral tradition and many of the stories come from her own experiences or those of her family. Nothing is presented as strange, or with very much explanation or description. It has the air of a fable, of turning back the corner of a peep show. There is not so much a plot as a sense of place, with all its stories.

There is no explanation in the novel for the title, although it is an elision of winter and siblings. The author tells of how she drove past a sign to Las Inviernas and how that road sign sparked the novel’s origins.

You can read what Cristina Sanchez-Andrade says about writing the novel on the English Pen website. Here is the link.

The Winterlings by Cristina Sanchez-Andrade, first published in Spanish as Las Inviernas in 2014, and in English translation by Samuel Rutter in 2016 by Scribe. 249pp. Winner English Pen Award

Women in translation series

Every month I review a book by a woman in translation on this blog. Here are some recent posts with links.

Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky.

Dance by the Canal by Kerstin Hensel, translated from the German by Jen Calleja.

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

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

I came across these recent recommendations for 12 essential Spanish language female authors.

Over to you

Do you have any recommendations of novels by women in translation?

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Filed under Books, Women in Translation

Unwanted and abandoned books

What do people leave in hotel rooms? Travelodge publishes a list every year. In 2017 it included a winning Euro Millions lottery ticket, a bath full of jersey potatoes, a mother in law (no jokes please) and 84 pairs of builder boots. I’m guessing that the 84 pairs were not all in one room. And of course, people leave books.

In 2014 the books most left behind were Fifty Shades of Grey by EL James, Billionaire series by JS Scott and The Marriage Bargain by Jennifer Probst. I have not read any of these, but I believe they have similar themes. Previously political memoirs topped the list.

Where do the abandoned books go?

Oxfam in Swansea received so many copies of The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown that the manager built a tower and asked for saleable donations, especially vinyl. In 2014 they had built a fort out of Fifty Shades of Grey and again asked for vinyl instead.

Both these books have sold very well, in their millions, which of course means that there are more of them about to leave behind or to give to charity shops. The Da Vinci Code sold 8 million copies.

I still like the idea of BookCrossing. You register the book on the website and if the person who finds it reports its location you can track its journey. Sadly very few books I have set free to travel the world (161 to date) have been tracked in this way – a mere 21.

Garbage collectors in Ankara have recently opened to the public their library of 6000 abandoned books. Brilliant.

Which books are unwanted?

On a recent visit to my local Oxfam bookshop my donations were received enthusiastically and were priced and on the shelves before I had left the shop. The volunteer explained that they would be snapped up quickly as they were ‘quality books’. Well, of course I preened a little, but I was not sure of their criteria for quality books. Or indeed mine for giving them away.

When I moved house I considered my criteria for de-cluttering my shelves (see post on decluttering). And I give away books that I give up reading (see my post from 2014 Abandoning books). Very few of the books review on Bookword get passed on, mostly because I only review books I value enough to tell people about. I am always hoping that the books I pass on will find happier readers.

Goodreads listed the top 5 most abandoned books in January 2018 (from a straw poll – so what follows is not to be considered as reliable research):

Wicked by Gregory Maguire

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

Atonement by Ian McEwan

100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

All these books have big reputations, so perhaps the abandoners were not their natural readers.

And the 5 most abandoned classics – same source in 2013

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (?really???)

Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien

Ulysses by James Joyce

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand

Over to you

What books have you abandoned? Or found? What do you do with unwanted books?

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My Antonia by Willa Cather

My Antonia was Willa Cather’s fourth novel. She wrote twelve in all. Her early novels appeal with their frank nostalgia for the pioneer life in Nebraska. She has feisty young women in her stories, and this too is attractive.

The story of My Antonia

My Antonia is a story of pioneers, based on Willa Cather’s own childhood. It is told by Jim Burden, and features Antonia Shimerda his childhood companion. The story begins with their shared childhood and continues into mature adult life. Jim is orphaned and comes to live in Nebraska with his grandparents. Antonia arrives with her family at the same time. The Shimerdas come from Bohemia and have little English and no sense of farming, so initially do very poorly. It emerges that it was Mrs Shimerda who argued for the family to emigrate in order to give her oldest and favourite son Ambrosch the best start in life. The difficulties mount in winter and the father shoots himself. The family struggle to make a living.

Antonia works hard, sometimes on the family farm, sometimes helping families in the towns. As a young woman she departs to marry a train conductor who leaves her pregnant and unmarried. She returns to Nebraska, marries a decent guy and has many children. Jim visits them on their modest farm in Nebraska. By this time Nebraska is no longer frontier country, farming is established and people are settled.

The appeal of My Antonia

Antonia is an attractive character, flawed but engaging. From the start she demonstrates a strong will and a determination to learn. Much of the pleasure of this novel comes from the childhood Antonia and Jim shared on the wild plains, especially in the summer months.

As with O Pioneers!, the landscape of Nebraska is a character in this novel. These are the first farmers, and in Jim and Antonia’s childhood there are no fences, few delineated fields. But the freedom of the prairies brings the need for hard work and community. Willa Cather is at pains to show the strength that this life required of the settlers and especially of the young girls. Only 50 years later American women were being encouraged to buy a very different dream – life in suburbia.

Willa Cather Prairie, Nebraska

As the pioneers face the winter conditions and Antonia’s family’s attempts to make their way Willa Cather offers us the virtues of the community. When Antonia’s father shoots himself their neighbours set to and organise the funeral and then support the family until they can stand up for themselves. The families share hardship, bounty and celebrations.

Hard work is another virtue, also celebrated in O Pioneers! All the successful and likeable characters turn their hands to everything, and work tirelessly to ensure the farms keep going. Sometimes special effort is required, as in deep winter or harvest time. The women in particular are shown as every bit as significant in their labours as the men. In a section called The Hired Girls, Willa Cather describes what these early settler girls took on even as they became more independent.

Determined to help in the struggle to clear the homestead from debt, they had no alternative but to go into service. Some of them after they came to town, remained as serious and as discreet in behavior as they had been when they ploughed and herded on their father’s farm. Others, like the three Bohemian Marys, tried to make up for the years of youth they had lost. But everyone one of them did what she set out to do, and sent home those hard-earned dollars. The girls I knew were always helping to pay for ploughs and reapers, brood-sows, or steers to fatten. (97)

Some of the young pioneer women take up other enterprises, and they do well. Lena, for example, knows her mind from early on. Despite being very attractive to men she has determined not to marry.

“I don’t want to marry Nick, or any other man,” Lena murmured. “I’ve seen a good deal of married life, and I don’t care for it. I want to be so I can help my mother and the children at home, and not have to ask lief of anybody.” (80)

Lena becomes a very successful seamstress. She does not marry. She supports her mother.

Willa Cather

Willa Cather in 1912 via WikiCommons

Born in 1873, Willa Cather adopted her first name from an uncle who died in the Civil War. Her most significant relationships were with women, living with Edith Lewis from 1907 until her death in 1947. She led an active life as a journalist, writing novels, editing magazines, and traveling in Europe, Canada and the US. Her talents were acknowledged in her lifetime. She received the Pulitzer Prize in 1923. A prairie is named after her (see photo)

I reviewed O Pioneers! in the decades project series (1910-1919) last year. You can find a link to the post here.

My Antonia Willa Cather first published in 1918. I read the Dover Thrift edition. 175pp

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Picture credit: Willa Cather Memorial Prairie, Webster County, southern Nebraska, September 2010 by Ammodramus, via WikiCommons


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Imposter Syndrome for Writers

‘It’s only me …’ That’s the first part of imposter syndrome. The second is ‘… and I’m about to be found out.’ This is a recognised psychological syndrome. According to some writing blogs it is especially prevalent in writers. I suspect that’s because they read mostly about writers and their difficulties. It is more likely common everywhere, and in all walks of life, with the possible exception of politicians who often are imposters but have no fears about discovery.

If any group experiences its discomforts more than others I suspect it is women, who, like everyone, suffer from believing they may not be good enough, but have the added experiences of being constantly told that women are not as good.

So there is a lot of it about. What can writers do to mitigate its paralysing effects?

Imposter syndrome and ‘real’ writers

It is clear from a small amount of research that published writers also suffer from imposter syndrome. Maya Angelou was one, despite seven volumes of autobiography, and praise for her poetry. She was asked by President Clinton to recite On the Pulse of Morning at his inauguration in 1993. You can see her performing this poem here. Neil Gaiman is another, but he changed when he met another sufferer – Neil Armstrong – according to his blog.

Imposter Syndrome and less experienced writers

In my writing group recently a member revealed that she wanted to write a book. She said she hesitated to say it in front of ‘real’ writers. And furthermore, when she thought about writing she always found something else to do, had no time available to write in, and no space she could shut herself away in.

Another member of my writing group recalled working for a poet, male, who retreated to his study every morning at 10 and expected to remain undisturbed until lunch was ready. There was some admiration for the man’s discipline and routine, but also the wry acknowledgement that the model was not altogether satisfactory for many women.

And it made me wonder what image of writers, ‘real’ writers, is common in people’s minds. Is it the silence, the closed doors, the removal from the world that our first member seemed to refer to? I mentioned a writer who frequently works in a café, loves the busy-ness of the public place. Perhaps by a ‘real’ writer she had a belief that this is someone who has been published.

A third member of our group reminded us that we can choose to call ourselves writer and that the only thing that makes someone a writer is … that they write.

Since imposter syndrome is not a rational condition, the solution is not to say ‘don’t be so silly, just write,’ but more to acknowledge that to be a writer you need to write.

The first piece of advice is Claim yourself as Writer and it comes from Writing Alone, Writing Together by Judy Reeves (2002).

Claim yourself as Writer.

Until you name yourself Writer, you will never be a writer who writes (and keeps writing).

Most writers I know, especially those who have not published, say, “I want to be a writer.” Or “I’m a [fill in the blank] and I like to write.” Or “I’ve always dreamed of being a writer.” But they don’t actually call themselves a writer. …

If you announce you are a writer, rather than simply mouthing that you want to be or you’d like to be, you may be transformed. Try it. Right now. Speak your name out loud followed by, “I’m a writer.” Let yourself experience the sensations you feel when you sound out the words. (2)

You can probably tell that this is an American text. Nonetheless, the first step is to claim I am a writer. The second step is to show up at the page. And the third step is to write.

And to support all of this claiming and naming, here are some ways to provide infrastructure for writing to substantiate the claim:

  • allocate time,
  • find a place or places to write,
  • budget money to support your writing (eg courses, tools, research activities),
  • invest in the tools you need,
  • socialise with other writers,
  • and read.

Imposter syndrome means being in danger of being found out

Just for a moment, apply some reason to the fear of being exposed. How often does it happen? Do you know people who called themselves writers and you find out that they aren’t? Or people who are bad writers? Actually this does happen. Dan Brown’s novels are frequently criticised for being badly written, publicly, loudly, and yet … You know he’s made a ton of money out of them?

Perhaps the fear is that you are an imperfect writer. This is true, you are. There is no such thing as perfection in writing, and even if your writing is excellent you still have more to learn.

But many, many writers have a fear that their writing will be rejected. The advice about rejection seems to be toughen up and grow a pair. I find this advice sexist and unhelpful. We do have to learn to accept rejection, and it is possible to argue that you learn through the experience. Writing being such a personal activity, in which writers have usually invested a great deal of themselves, it is not comfortable and to be told that your labours have resulted in something that is not wanted. And dispiriting. And discouraging.

Dorothea Brande in Becoming a Writer (1934) suggests that every writer goes through a slough of despond. Every thought appears to erode further the writer’s self-confidence. And, she suggests, many writers give up at this point. Only writers who decide to persist manage to crawl out of the other side of the slough, she suggests.

Another classic giver of advice to artists is Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way (1993). Her approach is to practice affirmations, to turn negative thoughts into positive alternatives.

And what do writers say?

In Your Creative Masterclass (2012) Jurgen Woolf includes a helpful chapter on confidence. Checkov advises a version of turn up at the page.

You must once and for all give up being worried about success and failure. Don’t let that concern you. It’s you duty to go on working steadily day by day, quite steadily, to be prepared for mistakes, which are inevitable and for failures. (214)

Joyce Carol Oates, a very prolific writer, reminds us about writers who had to change after failure to become writers of other stuff.

One must be stoic, one must develop a sense of humour. And, after all, there is the example of William Faulkner, who considered himself a failed poet; Henry James returning to prose fiction after the conspicuous failure of his play-writing career; Ring Lardner writing his impeccable American prose because he despaired of writing sentimental popular songs; Hans Christian Andersen perfecting his fairy tales since he was clearly a failure in other genres – poetry, play writing, life. (215-6)

So, what to do?

You may have your own tactics for dealing with that voice saying – it’s only me and I’m about to be found out. We’d love to read them. Meanwhile think on this. What happens when you turn up and write? What happens when you claim it and invest in it? Can you practise persistence and affirmation when it all seems discouraging? Could you read your poems at the next presidential inauguration?

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Photo credit: Maya Angelou at President Clinton’s inauguration by staff photographer, President’s office via WikiCommons.



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My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem

I did love reading My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem. This book was chosen for January by my local book group. I don’t always welcome memoir, but the case was made for it and I began reading it as soon as it arrived. I found myself enjoying it way more than I had expected. Let me count the reasons after a brief introduction to the book.

Introduction to the book

Gloria Steinem is perhaps best known for co-founding the influential American feminist magazine Ms. in 1971.

I realized as a journalist that there really was nothing for women to read that was controlled by women, and this caused me along with a number of other women to start Ms. magazine. [from 2011 Documentary – Gloria: In her Own Words]

Spring 1972

My Life on the Road reveals that the magazine was only one part of a much broader pattern of activities addressing equality issues, especially in relation to women. She describes her career in these terms.

At first I was a journalist telling stories, then a sometime worker in political campaigns and movements, and most consistently an itinerant feminist organizer. (xxiii)

Can you imagine telling the careers officer, ‘I plan to be an itinerant feminist organizer’? If I had had such an idea in my head in the early 70s my career would have been very different.

The itinerant part turns out to have been extremely important, for travelling allowed Gloria Steinem to have hope encouraged by all the people she has met. Travel brings hope by passing on stories; being on the road forces you to live in the present; it provides alternative ways of looking at human activity. So I honour her efforts and her latest book by passing on something of my enthusiastic responses to her book.

  1. Her father’s story

Leo Steinem, her father, led an itinerant life, and was a big man in many ways. Gloria Steinem describes him as an unusual, restless man, open to change and differences. Many fathers pass on their political attitudes to their offspring, whereas Leo Steinem’s big-hearted generosity can be seen in his daughter’s story, the value of travel. A life on the road was his legacy.

  1. Nostalgia

Nowadays we refer to the Second Wave of feminism, but living through that exciting time of growing awareness in the late 60s and early 70s felt like a tsunami. Reading once more about this period of my past I felt something similar to when I read Harriet Harman’s recent autobiography. It was an exciting time to be alive and to take part in the struggles, some of which stretched across the Atlantic. Consciousness raising, cooperative and direct action, building the sisterhood, these were the lessons we learned. Some of us were propelled into the abortion debates. Later we battled against the placing of cruise missiles on Greenham Common, or supported the fight for fair wages with the Dagenham women and so on. Gloria Steinem tells of parallel struggles in the US.

Raissa Page, Greenham Common 1983

  1. Some specific women she met

I found myself wishing I had met so many of the women she describes. Many were activists who have been compelled to take action by local issues, standing up against inequality in their neighbourhood. There was Wilma Mankiller of the Cherokee Nation. And Hillary Clinton, in whose race for the Democratic nomination she worked and then helped unify when she lost to Barack Obama. Robin Morgan, another writer, and many, many more. How lucky to have met all those wonderful women and worked alongside them.

  1. The significance of listening

Women have expressed dismay at inequality over the years. What Gloria Steinem identified and reported in the book is the importance of listening to these experiences. On the individual level that was why consciousness -raising groups were so important: they gave women both a forum to speak and a forum to be heard. We are learning more and more about how women are silenced (I refer you to Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain things to Me and Mary Beard’s Women and Power.).

In My Life on the Road Gloria Steinem describes how listening was the basis of her learning. It was the basis of cooperative, democratic actions. She did not bring answers, but modelled listening and finding local answers.

  1. Feminism is everything

By writing feminism is everything, I do not mean that it is the most important thing, I mean it connects every aspect of human life: the personal, the political, the physical, the relational, the economic, and so on. Gloria Steinem demonstrates a set of values that are not bounded by feminism, rather link her responses to inequality based on gender, to inequalities based on race, or class or undemocratic actions.

  1. Gloria Steinem

We must honour our heroes, and Gloria Steinem is undoubtedly one of mine.

Gloria Steinem 2012

  1. The struggle goes on

There is still a long way to go, and it is likely to take many more waves. The book was published in 2015, that is before some of the most depressing undemocratic developments of the last 18 months. But in addition to the election of a misogynist US President, and a referendum which will cause especial difficulties for women, who always bear the worst of the burden of social problems, we are today in a time of fighting back.

Steady progress has been made in respect of LGBT+ rights and expectations. Victims of male violence, and especially of male sexual violence are speaking out and naming men as never before, and being applauded for it. I write as Hollywood honours the #MeToo campaign at the Golden Globe awards and it becomes possible to think that a step has been taken that cannot be untrodden.

And there are the role models and actions that brave women are taking. I especially honour the example of Senator Elizabeth Warren, from whose actions the hashtag #shepersisted was coined. Remember how the majority leader tried to silence her when she read Martin Luther King’s widow’s letter to oppose Session’s nomination for the role of Attorney General? Sessions had used his position against black voter registration. Senator McConnell made the famous/infamous statement:

She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.

I like persisters. I think Gloria Steinem is a persister too.

Ms. Magazine 2007 – 35th anniversary issue

My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem, published by One World in 2015. 312pp

Additional picture credits:

Ms. early and anniversary issues from WikiCommons Liberty Media for Women.

Author Photo via WikiCommons. Jewish Women’s Archive by Joan Roth, March 2012.

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Bookshops in Books

Today I am blogging about books set in bookshops I am celebrating two things that add great pleasure to my life: books and bookshops. And the occasion is that this is my 400th post on Bookword. Setting a novel in a bookshop allows for an eccentric proprietor and a variety of customers and other visitors. The novels in this post do not disappoint.

Since my blog is bookish I thought I would indulge myself. Here are five books about bookshops to recommend to you. I’m sure you could suggest others. And please enjoy the next 400 posts.

The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald

This novel is set in 1959-60 in Suffolk. Florence Green is a widow with experience of selling books. She decides to set up a bookshop in Hardborough, the small town she inhabits on the coast. By opening the bookshop she offends many people in the neighbourhood because she did not consult them or ask for advice, or because books bring culture and challenge to the town, or simply because it represents change and hope. She achieves some success, for example with Lolita, but in the end is out manoeuvred by the local grande dame, Violet Gamart.

Hardborough is populated by a range of people with odd characteristics and big human failings. The bookshop attracts them. There is indolent Milo, who works at the BBC, reclusive Mr Brundish, Christine the girl who runs the subscription library for Florence, the builder, solicitor, bank manager, the rapper (a poltergeist) and many others. None helps her to save her shop. But she tried, and will go on to other endeavours.

The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald (1978) Harper Collins. 156pp

Shortlisted for the Booker prize

If on a winter’s night a traveller by Italo Calvino

This is the ultimate meta-novel, a novelist’s novel. Calvino addressed the reader in alternate chapters, and creates a novel in the others. Each chapter featuring the novel explores some aspect of novels. Each reader chapter considers other aspects of reading and writing. Ultimately there is a discussion between readers in a library, who all read in different ways and to different purposes. Each discussion deserves to be lingered over and so it can take some time to read.

It is wonderfully playful, playfulness – such a good quality in writing. Playing with the reader, as reader. Philosophical too. It begins as you, the reader, open a newly purchased copy of If on a winter’s night a traveller by Italo Calvino, but there is an error in the pagination …

If on a winter’s night a traveller by Italo Calvino, first published in Italian in 1980 under the title Se una note d’inverno un viaggiatore. I read the edition published by Vintage in 1998. 260pp

Translated by William Weaver

Mrs Sinclair’s Suitcase by Louise Walters

The action of this novel begins with a discovery made in the second hand bookshop in which Roberta works. Her father is dying and has given her some books to dispose of (in the suitcase of the title). She discovers a letter in one book that puzzles her. The book belonged to her grandmother but the letter does not seem to be consistent with what Roberta has been told about her grandmother.

Roberta uncovers her grandmother’s story; death of her baby, husband goes to war and abandons her, she falls for a Polish squadron leader, a land girl gives birth unexpectedly and Roberta’s grandmother finds a solution to all this.

Roberta’s story is also resolved – she has worked for ever for the bookshop owner, looked after him, cleaned up his mess and discovers he too has kept a secret.

Mrs Sinclair’s Suitcase by Louise Walters, published by Hodder & Stoughton in 2014. 294pp

Weird Things Customers say in Bookshops by Jen Campbell

This little volume is well named. Neil Gaiman’s quote on the cover is also apt: ‘So funny, so sad … Read it and sigh’. Here’s a sample so you can see how right he was.

CHILD: Mummy, can we buy this book?
MOTHER: Put that down. We’ve got quite enough books at home.


(Local author comes into bookshop, lifts his books from the bookshelf and starts rearranging them on the table in the middle of the room.)

BOOKSELLER: What are you doing?

LOCAL AUTHOR: Well, they’re never going to sell when they’re sitting on a bookshelf, are they?


CUSTOMER: Did Beatrix Potter ever write a book about dinosaurs?


CUSTOMER: Do you bother to arrange your books at all, or are they just plonked places?

BOOKSELLER: They’re in alphabetical order …



CUSTOMER: Where do you keep Hamlet? You know, ‘to be or not to be’? Is it in philosophy?

Weird Things Customers say in Bookshops by Jen Campbell. Published by Constable in 2012. 119pp

Mr Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

A fun read, a nice mixture of hi-tech, good old-fashioned values and pleasure in reading. It’s a page-turner with some nice interactions between old and new technologies.

Clay takes a job in the bookstore and soon realises that he has stumbled on a cult. The entrance test into the cult seems far-fetched but Clay solves it in a few minutes through the application of computer technology. Together with his friends he solves all the mysteries of the cult, and he finds out how important is friendship.

Mr Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan, (2012), Atlantic.

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Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada

I have read more adventurous and innovative fiction since deciding to read a book a month by a woman in translation. And the topics covered appear to be serious issues for humans. Those in German seem especially concerned with world issues – climate change, refugees etc.

A major prize has been inaugurated since I began the project in September: the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation. This month I look at the first winner:

Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky, published by Portobello Books.

Three Stories

I could have called this post Why write about real bears? (as I did about people some time ago). The novel is formed of three stories each told by a different but related bear with origins in real life. I have included pictures of Knut, the youngest bear, born and brought up in Berlin Zoo.

The first bear, his grandmother, was born in Russia, sent to East Germany and then to Canada. She wrote her own biography after she was unable to perform in a circus.

The story of the second bear, her daughter Tosca, is told by her trainer as she tried to design an original and creative act for the bear in the circus. Tosca rejected her cub at birth so he is raised by a human, with whom he formed a close connection. Knut tells his own story as he grows up in Berlin zoo, the poster cub for conservation.

Knut with Thomas Dorflein, in Berlin Zoo April 2007

Each section opens with a physical sensation of bear-ness, and one we can relate to in our human-ness: curling in a foetal position, stretching, suckling. The stories are strange, dreamlike, prone to sudden shifts in the telling. It seems that the bears can communicate with humans, write and even, in the case of the first bear, move around in human society without arousing curiosity.

As with any story told from the point of view of an animal, it points to aspects of humans, especially about their relationships with the natural world. As a result this is also an unsettling book. What are the boundaries between humans and other animals, we find ourselves asking. Are we so different? What can we say about the way we care for animals, even, as in the case of Knut, for good motives. (In his case he was used to promote awareness of climate change.) And what about our care of the natural world? (Knut never saw the Arctic. What does it mean to keep a polar bear in temperate conditions?) Polar Bears are being made highly vulnerable by the shrinking of the ice caps in the Arctic.

Much of the subtext is concerned with communication and language, and raises questions about humans and language, especially as so many humans today need to use something that is not their native/mother tongue.

The first bear is told by her publisher’s representative that she should write in her mother tongue:

“What’s my mother tongue?”

“The language your mother speaks.”

“I’ve never spoken with my mother.”

“A mother is a mother even if you never speak with her.” (51)

And later her reminds her to write in her own language.

“My own language? I don’t know which language that is. Probably one of the North Pole languages.”

“I see, a joke. Russian is the most magnificent literary language in the world.”

“Somehow I don’t seem to know Russian any more.”

”That’s impossible! Write whatever you want, but in your own language please.” (57)

And to make a point, and to further her campaign to be relocated to Canada because it is colder than Berlin, she writes this for the publisher, in Russian.

“All penguin marriages are alike, while every polar bear marriage is different.” (58)

Confusions of language and communication abound in the three novellas, much as they must do for any migrant. And we must assume that Yoko Tawada has some insight into this, having moved to Berlin from Tokyo in her 20s.

Warwick Prize for Women in Translation

The prize was introduced in 2017. Here is the announcement of The Memoirs of a Polar Bear on the website. I welcome this award as it will raise people’s awareness of women in fiction (woefully small numbers of novels published by women and tiny proportion of those chosen for translation). And I’m pleased that it is my alma mater hosting it. I did a history degree there about half a century ago, which required the study of foreign languages. The tradition of promoting foreign language use continues.

Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada, first published in German in 2014, Etuden im Schnee. Published in English in 2016 by Portobello. 252pp

Translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky

Winner of the Warwick Inaugural Women in Translation Prize (2017)

Yoko Tawada May 2016

Related Links

An interview with the translator, Susan Bernofsky, about her work in the LARB.

Previous posts in this series include

Dance by the Canal by Kerstin Hensel, translated from the German by Jen Calleja.

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

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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Photo credits: Knut with Thomas Dorflein, in Berlin Zoo April 2007. Photo by Christopher Pratt via WikiCommons

Author picture by G.Garitan from May 2016 at a conference in the library Falada at Reims.via WikiCommons


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Ms Jekyll and her Garden

I decided that in 2018 my decades project will explore non-fiction by women and immediately landed myself with a problem. Women’s non-fiction writing in the first decade of the 20th century has left very little impression on our available electronic databases. One can explain this: the world of non-fiction was the exclusive world of men; women by and large were still excluded from higher education, and their knowledge and experiences were not valued. If women wanted to write they were expected to produce fiction.

There is an exception. Gertrude Jekyll began to publish her influential gardening books when she had reached the age of 55. By the turn of the century she had an unrivalled reputation as a garden designer, developed over many years of experience and commercial success. And once started she published 13 books, no less than 7 in the decade 1900-1910.

Home and Garden

From all the possibilities I chose Home and Garden. Its subtitle is: Notes and thoughts, practical and critical of a worker in both. I found a second hand copy of a Macmillan edition published in 1984. The original was published in 1900 with 53 photographs by the author. 16 colour photographs were added to the later edition.

Gertrude Jekyll uses the style of writing based on the belief that there is no need to use just one word when a whole paragraph will do much better to convey the full nuanced meaning intended. The subtitle suggests a certain lack of structure and rigour in the writing. This is a miscellany.

The chapters cover a wide range of topics, in no sequence that I could divine. Roses and Lilies, Large and Small Rock Gardens, these are to be expected and instructive. But we also have Gertrude Jekyll’s thoughts on a medley of other topics: the Workshop, the Kinship of Common Tools, the Making of Pot-Pourri, the Home Pussies, Things Worth Doing. The opening chapter is long and is called How the House was Built.

Some heavy oak timber-work forms the structural part of the inner main framing of the house. Posts, beams, braces, as well as doors and their frames, window-frames and mullions, stairs and some floors, are of good English oak, grown in the neighbourhood. I suppose a great London builder could not produce such work. He does not go into the woods and buy the standing timber, and season it slowly in a roomy yard for so many years, and then go round with the architect’s drawing and choose the piece that exactly suits the purpose. The old country builder, when he has to get out a cambered beam or a curved brace, goes round his yard and looks out the log that grew in the actual shape, and taking off two outer slabs by handwork in the saw pit, chops it roughly to shape with his side-axe and works it to the finished face with the adze, so that the completed work shall ever bear the evidence of his skill in the use of these grand old tools, and show a treatment absolutely in sympathy with the nature and quality of the material. (15)

This is not so much about gardening as about building a house to her own specification in a beautiful setting, with an award-winning friend who happened to be the architect Edwin Lutyens. The extract illustrates her style, but also the influence of the Arts and Crafts movement.

There is plenty in the book of what one might call gardening advice. In the chapter on Midsummer, having listed the advantages of many types of Iris Gertrude Jekyll then broadens her comments to include other flowers and combinations.

One of the happiest mixtures of plants it has ever been my good fortune to hit on is that of St Bruno’s Lily and London Pride, both at their best about the second weeks of June. The lovely little Mountain Lily – fit emblem of a pure-souled saint – stands upright with royal grace and dignity, and bears with an air of modest pride its lovely milk-white bloom and abundant sheaves of narrow blue-green leaves. …

The well-grown clumps of this beautiful plant (it is the large kind and nearly two feet high) are on the narrow west-facing bank that slopes down to the lawn. The place would be in the full blaze of the late afternoon sun, but that it is kept shaded and cool by a large Spanish Chestnut whose bole is some ten yards away. Between and among the little Lilies is a wide planting of London Pride, the best for beauty of bloom of its branch of the large family of Saxifrage. Its healthy-looking rosettes of bright pale leaves and delicate clouds of faint pink bloom seem to me to set off the quite different way of growth of the Anthericum so as to display the very best that both can do, making me think of any two people whose minds are in such a happy state of mutual intelligence, that when talking together bright sparks of wit or wisdom flash from both, to the delight of the appreciative listener. (112-114)

You will notice that only lengthy quotations do justice to Gertrude Jekyll’s style, her mixture of knowledge about plants and observations of humans. Her painterly approach to gardening, to the pleasure of being in the garden (rather than the show gardener might put on) is evident here. This was the essence of her skill as a garden designer. And she has included a photograph of the St Bruno Lily planted with London Pride to add to her case.

But I am wondering for whom this book was written. The style suggests that the reader needed leisure. And they needed disposable income for they were expected to have gardeners to do the heavy and dirty work.

Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932)

Miss Jekyll’s Boots by William Nicholson, 1920

Gertrude Jekyll is credited with a new form of gardening, one that combined the experience of being in a garden with knowledge about the soil, aspect and combinations of plants. She brought a painterly approach, appreciation of texture and structure that have influenced so much in modern gardening. While she did not invent the herbaceous border she brought her own knowledge and eye to her guidance on this most English garden feature.

Her first ambitions were in painting, and she went to Art School before developing her career in garden design. During her long career she designed 400 gardens, mostly in Britain, but a few in the USA and Europe. Sadly most of her gardens have disappeared, although her own garden at Munstead Wood in Surrey, where she lived, has been reconstructed and is open to visitors. She advised on the planting of the gardens at Castle Drago in Devon a National Trust property, which is currently undergoing restoration.

She was a prolific writer, contributing more than 1000 articles to Country Life, besides her 13 books.

Gertrude Jekyll Rose

Her influence on gardens and gardeners has been recognised in two notable ways:

  • A rose has been named after her, which has twice been voted the nation’s favourite rose.
  • The googledoodle for 29th November 2017 celebrated her achievements.

She never married and had no children. You can find more about Gertrude Jekyll and her gardens at the official website.

The Decade Project in 2018

This year I plan each month to choose a non-fiction book written by a woman and review it here. Next month, February, I plan to read and review My Story by Emmeline Pankhurst, published in 1914. Suggestions for further decades are welcome, especially for the 1930s.

To read more about the Decade Project in 2017 please follow the link to the final post here The Decades Project one year on. This post listed all 11 choices of novels.

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All for Nothing by Walter Kempowski

This is a novel of accumulating tension, yet the tension is set alongside the everyday concerns of people, even when they are afraid, or needing to flee.

The Georgenhof estate was not far from Mitkau, a small town in East Prussia, and now, in winter, the Georgenhof, surrounded by old oaks, lay in the landscape like a black island in a white sea. (Opening paragraph 1)

From the outset, the reader sees a bigger picture: this estate is quiet and sheltered, largely passed by, muffled in winter. But it is January 1945 and history is about to intrude. Europe is in the final stages of war. The Russians are coming. The Red Army will soon arrive.

The Story

The residents of the Georgenhof estate have not been much troubled by the war. The family had already disposed of most of the land they once owned, relying on foreign investments to support them.

Eberhard von Globig, the estate’s owner, is away at an army desk job in Italy. His wife Katherina remains on the estate, with their son Peter, an old retainer called Auntie and several foreign workers who manage the farm and the kitchen. Katherina has several admirers, and many family members come to Georgenhof for supplies. Dr Wagner comes to tutor Peter from the nearby town. Across the road there is a new estate of houses, controlled by the local Nazi puffed up self-important Drygalski.

Despite being somewhat cut off more and more people come to the Georgenhof, for a night or two or because they are billeted there. Gradually it becomes obvious that everyone is leaving, a great westward trek is in progress. Katherina is persuaded to hide a man on the run, at the request of the local pastor. She is imprisoned. Everyone leaves and she joins the trek under guard. The second half of the novel recounts Auntie and Peter’s trek West and the gradual disintegration of their group, Auntie’s death by an enemy bomber and Peter’s transformation into a near-feral child. We see what happens to the visitors to Georgenhof. Each person in turn abandons something very precious that they brought with them.

There is a tension between the large and growing trek west with the casual deaths, abandonment, dead ends, thefts and so forth and the occasional highly organised rest centres.

Some reflections

I have never read anything by Walter Kempowski before, there is not a great deal that has been published in English. What struck me immediately was the number of characters he introduces very quickly, and how more and more people arrive on the page, gathered in to this great exodus. The details of their lives remind the reader that people have to be concerned with their own safety, hunger and chances before everything. And that humans may in retrospect think that the wrong priorities were chosen. The von Globig family, for example, take forever to decide to leave, wondering about their silver plate and crockery, and which pictures and what else will be left behind.

Peter’s journey is an example of how humans can be neglected: his mother is a prisoner, the Polish man who has been helping them abandoned Peter and Auntie, when Auntie is killed a pastor takes Peter in, but is himself about to leave. The child is alone. It seems as if there is no future for him but it is Drygalski, the local Nazi, who in an act of self-sacrifice gives up his place on the last crowded boat to leave.

Each person is a rounded character. Their motives are often nugatory, venal, self-serving, but they come across as human. The people who visit or who are billeted at Georgenhof are passing through, but one has a sense of their experiences up to this point, and that their lives will continue elsewhere. This accords with Kempowski’s work, chronicling the experiences of people during the war. He was a major figure in German literature after the war.

The novel considers what happens when a very controlled society begins to act in an anarchic way, but not all at the same time. The question implicit in the title remains over the entire story. With its insistence upon the significance of each individual the novel asserts the importance of humanity over ideology.

Walter Kempowski

Walter Kempowski’s work (1929-2007) is not well known in English. Born in Rostock, in the war he was unhappily enrolled into the Hitler Youth and then the Flakhelfer, the youth auxiliary of the Luftwaffe. His father was killed in the last months of the war. Walter Kempowski was imprisoned in East Germany for 8 years. He was accused of spying for the US.

He was a prolific writer. His work included 10 volumes of Das Escholot, a collage of German voices and their experiences of the Second World War. He was a writer who helped Germany come to terms with its Nazi past. This was his last book.

All for Nothing by Walter Kempowski, published in English by Granta in 2015, first appeared in 2006 with the title Alles Umsont. 343pp

Translated from the German by Anthea Bell

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