Tag Archives: Guardian

Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout

It sometimes seems that everyone else has known about a great writer long before I discover her. This was true of Elizabeth Strout. When Olive Kitteridge was recommended to me for the older women in fiction series on Bookword it seemed that everyone else had already read the book. Everybody who hadn’t read it had seen the tv series, and vice versa and some had absorbed both. I was just catching up.

I did read Olive Kitteridge and included it in the older women in fiction series in June 2016, and then I read My Name is Lucy Barton in March 2017, also reviewed on the blog. Now I am catching up again.

Anything is Possible

As with Olive Kitteridge, Anything is Possible is a series of connected short stories. Such a structure makes possible details from a variety of perspectives, and unexpected connections between incidents and characters. In this novel, the connection is the town of Amgash, Illinois. Lucy Barton grew up here, in utter poverty.

Anything is Possible references her previous book, My Name is Lucy Barton, but it also stands alone. Lucy Barton is a character in one story, Sister, and is mentioned by several characters in others. Her brother Pete is featured in two stories.

What emerges from these stories is pain, hidden and overt: pain from extreme poverty in childhood, from experiences in Vietnam, from hiding homosexuality, from maintaining a veneer or trying to escape.

Anything is Possible requires the reader to look into what is not said, to the silences, the gaps. As the New Yorker reviewer Ariel Levy observed, ‘withholding is important to Strout.’ Her characters find it almost impossible to express their emotions.

Here’s a passage from the story Sister, about Lucy Barton’s return to Amgash, to see her brother Pete. Their sister Vicky joins them. Each of the three has prepared their appearance, and each of the three feel that they got it wrong. I notice that the concrete details – the couch, the attempt to cross her legs, the lipstick, the lack of lipstick – show the reader the awkwardness of this reunion, within each character but also between the three of them. Just before this point Pete has noticed that Vicky has become fat (‘He had known this without knowing it’ 160). We are looking through his eyes.

Vicky dropped her pocketbook onto the floor and then sat down on the couch as far away from Lucy as she could. But Vicky was big so she couldn’t get that far away, the couch was not very large. Vicky sat, her almost-all-white hair cut short, with a fringe around it, as though it had been cut with a bowl on her head; she tried to hoist a knee up over the other, but she was too big, and so she sat on the end of the couch, and to Pete she looked like someone in a wheelchair he had seen in Carlisle when he went to get his hair cut, an older woman, huge, who was sitting in a motorized wheelchair that she drove around.

But then he saw: Vicky had on lipstick.

Across her mouth, curving on her upper lip and across her plump bottom lip, was an orangey–red coating of lipstick. Pete could not remember seeing Vicky wear any lipstick before. When Pete looked at Lucy, he saw that she had no lipstick on and he felt a tiny shudder go through him, as though his soul had toothache. (161-2)

Each of the stories reveals the conflicts between people and within people, and does it through their dialogue, the details of their actions or their observations and through strong imagery, like the soul with toothache. Another reviewer, Elizabeth Day in the Guardian, referred to Elizabeth Strout’s skill at understatement and how well she shows the reader the conflict between ‘private desire and public obligation’.

This is the lot of small towns. There is deep loneliness for the characters in the small town, and for some an irresistible urge to leave, as Lucy Barton did, as Elizabeth Strout herself did. She grew up in a small town, Brunswick, Maine, and is now able to return with insight. Lucy Barton told the story of her ache to leave Amgash in My Name is Lucy Barton. Anything is Possible tells the stories of the inhabitants who know there is something beyond the town, something other that Lucy found, but are not able to escape.

Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout, published by Penguin in 2017. 254 pp


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Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews, short stories

Decluttering my books

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

Here’s the original post (slightly edited)

Moving house with books

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

Precious about books?

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

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

Into the cellar

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


Keeping book buying under control

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

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

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


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

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

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

Related posts

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

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

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Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews

A little rant about marketing books like cornflakes

Everything has its value and anything can be commodified, and marketised, even books. But selling books in the same way as cornflakes or cat food is disturbing. It’s a sign of some serious problems in the business of book production.

215 Bogof 2Have you seen books promoted with a BOGOF offer? Buy one get one free. It makes me mutter out loud in the aisles of the supermarket.

The Net Book Agreement

It all started with the abolition of the Net Book Agreement. The NBA allowed the price of books to be agreed between publishers and book sellers, and required the sellers to abide by the agreed price. It lasted 90 years. They still have such an agreement in France and Germany.

In 1991 the NBA was challenged by Dillons which wanted to sell books at a discount and other sellers joined in. Eventually in 1997 the NBA was judged a restrictive practice. The Office of Fair Trading claims that book sales have risen 30% since then. The abolition of the NBA has resulted in the slow reduction on the number of independent bookshops, and the concentration of most sales in the hands of a few big stores, notably Waterstone’s and Amazon.

Sales of books may be up but writers’ incomes are down. Mean income for writers surveyed in 2013 was £11,000, a drop of 29% since 2005 when it had been £12,370 according to ALCS (Authors Licensing and Collecting Society). Writers get their income from royalties, a percentage of the price at sale not the cover price. Books are rarely sold at the cover price. My own income from writing is much, much less than £11,000. Few writers are able to devote all their working time to writing.

The margins for the publisher have reduced, some appear to have economised by letting the editors go. They play safe with the books they publish, taking fewer risks and promoting books they are sure will sell. The shelf life of books have been reduced, so have current lists and back catalogues. Even so several smaller publishers have been swallowed by the bigger houses. Thank goodness that independent publishers are holding their own and giving us books of quality rather than just backing sure-sellers.

It’s the quantity Stupid

Of course it’s a good thing that more books are being sold, but what matters more than the quantity is the quality. We have come to expect to buy books very cheaply. Like our food and milk. But if we value low cost above everything then we will get poor quality, adulteration, very angry farmers and very disappointed writers and readers.

Hay-on-Wye Bookshop July 2009 by Jonathan Billinger via Wiki Commons

Hay-on-Wye Bookshop July 2009 by Jonathan Billinger via Wiki Commons

All books are not the same

This is the ranty bit. Books are not the same. One cornflake is pretty much like another cornflake. One book is not like another. Book marketeers love the idea of a series because it suggests that if you read one book by Percy Smith you will want the next book by Percy Smith or one with a very similar cover indicating the same genre.

And we need experimental, innovative, imaginative books. The market today discourages risk-taking and innovation by publishers. They no longer have the margins to cover losses on a book they think is worth publishing but may not be a commercial success. Commercial success indicates popularity and is not a measure of literary quality.

Buying books

215 obama-at-prairie-lights

We want, we need people to buy books. I remember being in Stoke Newington Bookshop in 1995, browsing away as you do. Two young women were in there with me (this was in the old premises which was more like a corridor than a room) and so we were constantly squeezing past each other. One young woman announced, ‘I’ve never bought a book in my life’. I was so struck by this statement that I made a note of it. I hope she isn’t still able to make that claim.

Paris Bookshop September 2008 by THOR via Wiki Commons

Paris Bookshop September 2008 by THOR via Wiki Commons

And then, a couple of years later, I overheard a student at the University of London saying, no doubt in relation to her studies, perhaps an essay she was writing, ‘You read a book and that changes everything.’ I would have liked to introduce these two young women.

215 BOGOFPerhaps the increase in the number of literary prizes is the publishers’ way of supporting initiatives to promote the sale of good books.

Euston Road, London

Euston Road, London

I am surprised but pleased when I see a book advertised on billboards, on the bus stands or on the underground in London.

And then rather shocked when novels, usually thrillers, are promoted with something very much like a film trailer on tv.

And now I am expecting to find a free book in my packet of cornflakes.

Related posts

Sam Jordison in the Guardian in 2010 laid out the damage done to publishers and booksellers by the ending of the NBA.

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Filed under Books, Publishing our book, Reading