Tag Archives: The Stone Angel

The top 5 posts about older women in fiction on Bookword in 2016

In the last 12 months the same reviews from the older women in fiction series have continued to be read, more or less. There has been a slight change in order for four of the top reads, and a replacement for the 5th: All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West, from August 2014, replaces Mrs Dalloway is Ageing.

The older women in fiction series now has 25 posts. My purpose in starting it was to counter the invisibility of older women in fiction, and to introduce some novels and sort stories in which readers can enter lives and other worlds that they might not otherwise understand. We need to see images, read books, watch plays and films about the less visible to understand their experiences.

The five most read posts on older women in fiction in 2016

Here they are, with links.

  1. Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor explores some of the painful and amusing aspects of being older and neglected by family. A key word might be dignity. It was her last published novel appearing in 1971.
  2. The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence, A Canadian novel, first published in 1964, telling the story of Hagar Shipley as she resists the consequences of her family’s attempts to do what they believe is best for her as she ages.
  3. Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey. I loved the respectful portrait of Maud who is becoming increasingly confused. There is much humour in this book, but not at her expense. It does reveal the confusion and debility of cognitive decline. And it raises important issues about family and intergenerational care for people with dementia. The only recent novel in this top 5 lists, it was published in 2014.
  4. A Passage to India by EM Forster. The portrait of Mrs Moore is one of the many attractions of this classic novel, first published in 1924. Mrs Moore infuses the action long after she departed.
  5. All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West. Lady Slane is the widow of a very great man and she surprises everyone by her choices in her final years: choices of place to live, friends, activities and interests. Her passion is not spent, even if her former husband’s was. This novel was first published in 1931.

    Lady with a Red Hat by William Strang.

Over to you

There is a list of over 70 titles, all relating to older women in fiction on the blog. It was compiled with the help of readers. You could add your suggestion to the list!

Does the most read list surprise you? Which book would recommend for the top five stories of women ageing? Is it included in the Bookword list?

Please add your comments and suggestions.

 

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Top posts about women’s novels on Bookword

Here are the top 6 posts featuring novels by women from my blog in the last year. I notice that half of them refer to an Elizabeth. Half were written before the Second World War. The exceptions are Elizabeth is Missing, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont and The Stone Angel. These three are also from the older women in fiction series:

  1. The Last September by Elizabeth Bowen
  2. Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor
  3. The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence
  4. Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey
  5. To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
  6. The Land of Green Ginger by Winifred Holtby

Enjoy reading the posts again, or for the first time. Links are included.

The Last September by Elizabeth Bowen

Last September

Do you keep a cache of chocolates after Christmas, so that you can savour again the pleasures of treating yourself? The novels of Elizabeth Bowen are like that. She is a novelist I am glad to have come across late in my reading career. I picked up a copy of The Last September recently in an Oxfam second-hand shop and in February 2013 it came to the top of my reading pile. Read more …

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor

Not a conventional heroine, Mrs Palfrey is a genteel widow, needing to live somewhere, not invited and not minded to share a home with her daughter in Scotland. She moves into the Claremont Hotel on the Cromwell Road in London, joining a small group of elderly residents. Upon this group Mrs Palfrey practices a deceit. Having fallen in the street, she is rescued by Ludo, a young writer. Her grandson Desmond has failed to visit her at the Claremont. Ludo, who is also lonely and attracted by the adventure of play-acting agrees to stand in as Mrs Palfrey’s grandson. Mrs Palfrey achieves a grandson and a visitor and establishes her status among the residents. One of the charms of the novel is how Mrs Palfrey and Ludo cope with the risks and difficulties that this deception gives rise to, including a visit by le vrai Desmond. Read more …

The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence

25 Stone Angel

The Stone Angel is narrated by Hagar Shipley, intended to be current when it was published in 1964. Her story is framed by her situation: an old woman, cared for by her less favourite son and his wife, and becoming increasingly ill, forgetful and always a handful. ‘A holy terror’ is her son’s description. The reader must agree. It is the picture of her decline in old age that most shocks, even now. The dilemmas for Hagar, her son and daughter-in-law, the medical staff and others who come into contact with her, cannot not be resolved. It’s a powerful portrayal, not without humour affection or sharp pain. Read more …

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey

Maud is old and becoming very forgetful, suffering from dementia. She is the narrator, which is an ambitious aspect of the novel: the ultimate unreliable narrator? At the start of the novel she lives on her own, cared for by her daughter Helen and a professional carer. Her forgetfulness is evident from the first chapter when she buys yet more tinned peaches to cover her memory lapse in the local shop. Her condition worsens as the novel progresses. She tries to find her friend Elizabeth and unravel the mystery of what happened to her sister 70 years before. Read more …

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

209 To_the_Lighthouse

Before the First World War the Ramsay family is holidaying on Skye. The youngest boy James (5) wants to go to the lighthouse the next day, but weather makes the expedition doubtful. The family and house guests, including the painter Lily Briscoe, go about their activities, walking on the beach, listening to the great Mr Ramsay and reading to James. Mrs Ramsay presides over a dinner party. Ten years go by, and the house is neglected. Mrs Ramsay and two of her children die, a marriage turns sour, everyone gets older and the Great War engulfs Europe. Many of the original house party return to Skye. Lily Briscoe sets about completing her painting and Mr Ramsay sails with his two youngest children to the lighthouse. It is not the story that carries the reader on but the impressions, responses, and insights of her characters. Read more …

The Land of Green Ginger by Winifred Holtby

The Land of Green Ginger is the name of a street in Hull, briefly glimpsed by Joanna when she was a child. Its intriguing name represents her ambitions for a life in a different place, for travel, excitement and exoticism. Joanna is an attractive heroine and a very flawed one. Her attraction comes from her otherworldliness, and her desire for more than life has offered her. And indeed this belief carries her through to the novel’s conclusion. Read more …

137 LofGG cover

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The top 5 posts about older women in fiction on Bookword

There are people who are less visible in our world, less visible than white, middle-aged males or beautiful young people. We need to see images, read books, watch plays and films about the less visible to understand their experiences. Fiction allows us to enter other lives and other worlds that we might not otherwise understand.

The Bookword series focusing on older women in fiction began after I attended a course about growing older and examples of older women in fiction seemed hard to bring to mind. I began to seek out and review fiction about older women. To date there have been 18 reviews and 3 associated posts. I have been able to see which posts attract most readers since I changed some things on my blog.

The five most read posts on older women in fiction

These are the five most read posts, with links.

Mrs Palfrey grey

  1. Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor explores some of the painful and amusing aspects of being older and neglected by family. A key word might be dignity.
    151 E missiing cover 3

2. Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey. I loved the respectful portrait of Maud who is becoming increasingly confused. There is much humour in this book, but not at her expense. It does reveal the confusion and debility of cognitive decline. And it raises important issues about family and intergenerational care for people with dementia.

25 Stone Angel

3. The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence, A Canadian novel, telling the story of Hagar Shipley resisting the consequences of her family’s attempts to do what they believe is best for her as she ages

188 Mrs D cover

4. Mrs Dalloway is Ageing. This post focused on a rereading of Mrs Dalloway, exploring the theme of ageing in Virginia Woolf’s novel. There is, of course, so much more to find there.

139 P to I cover 2

5. A Passage to India by EM Forster. The portrait of Mrs Moore is one of the many attractions of this classic novel. Mrs Moore infuses the action long after she departed.

Over to you

There is a fine list of nearly 50 titles of fiction relating to older women compiled with the help of readers. Add to the list!

Does the most read list surprise you? Which book would recommend for the top five stories of women ageing? Is it included in the Bookword list?

Please add your comments.

Please subscribe by entering your email address in the box. You will receive emails about future posts on Bookword.

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Filed under Books, Elizabeth Taylor's novels, Older women in fiction, Reading, Reviews, Virginia Woolf

Bookword’s top ten stories of women’s old age

When Paul Bailey, novelist, compiled his list of Top Ten Stories of Old Age for the Guardian in February 2011 he mentioned only two by women writers: ‘The Bear Came Over the Mountain’ a short story by Alice Munro and Memento Mori by Muriel Spark – at 3rd and 4th place respectively. Where were the women writing about older women? There is an irony in this list, which I will reveal later.

Bookword’s top ten stories

There are plenty of strong, bold, feisty and resolute older women in fiction, mostly created by women writers. Some of these older women hate the idea of dying, some live as they always have, some take on new challenges, some are brilliant and some are ill or suffer with dementia. Here’s Bookword’s list of top ten stories of older women, (with links) in an order that reflects reading of the blog series (see below). It includes one male author.

  1. Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor explores some of the painful and amusing aspects of being older and neglected by family. A key word might be dignity.25 Stone Angel
  2. The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence, a Canadian novelist, telling the story of Hagar Shipley as she resists the consequences of her family’s attempts to do what they believe is best for her.
  3. Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively. On her death bed, Claudia Hampton resists the infantalising aspects of hospital care and reveals that she has always been a feisty woman. As an old woman she is all the women she has ever been.117 All passion cover
  4. All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville West tells the story of Lady Slane released into widowhood after many years of being married to a great man. She blossoms with new friendships and independent decision-making.
  5. The Summer Book by Tove Jansson. Translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal, this novel is about a grandmother and granddaughter and it reveals another strong older woman, with the full range of emotions and much wisdom. She is the kind of grandmother who has wisdom without being a Mrs Pepperpot.

    Dorothy Whipple

    Dorothy Whipple

  6. Greenbanks by Dorothy Whipple is another grandmother/ granddaughter story, set in a northern town in the early 20th century. The novel reveals the strength of the old woman in family relationships.
  7. A Passage to India by EM Forster. The portrait of Mrs Moore is one of the many attractions of this classic novel. Mrs Moore infuses the action long after she departed.164 cover S Riding
  8. South Riding by Winifred Holtby features several strong characters, including Mrs Beadows, an alderwoman, who provides compassionate service on the council to her impoverished inter-war Yorkshire community.
  9. A Reckoning by May Sarton focuses on Laura Spelman’s attempts to meet death on her own terms. Strictly speaking the heroine did not meet my criteria, being only 60, but the story is an interesting one, and the main character faces the end of her life with determination to do it her way.
  10. Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey. I loved the respectful portrait of Maud who is becoming increasingly confused. There is much humour in this book, but not at her expense. It does reveal the confusion and debility of cognitive decline. And it raises important issues about family and intergenerational care for people with dementia. 151 E missiing cover 3

Fiction about older women

I strongly believe that we need to see images, read books, watch plays and films about those who are less visible in our world than white, middle-aged, males or beautiful young people. Fiction allows us to enter other worlds and lives which we might not otherwise experience.

The series reviewing older women in fiction on this blog began after I attended a course about growing older. All the examples from literature we were given related to men: Odysseus, King Lear, Prospero, some poetry including, of course, Dylan Thomas’s Do not go gentle. Where, I wondered, were the older women? I began seeking out and reviewing fiction about older women for Bookword. To date there have been 16 reviews and there is a fine list of nearly 50 titles of fiction relating to older women compiled with the help of readers. Add to the list!

A note of an irony

The irony of Paul Bailey’s article is this. In Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor Mrs Palfrey makes friends with a young novelist, Ludo, who undertakes to act the part of her nephew in the Claremont Hotel. In his introduction to this novel Paul Bailey reveals that Elizabeth Taylor met him and based some of Ludo’s circumstances on his life.

Which book would you have placed in the top ten stories of women ageing? Is it even included in the Bookword list? Please add your comments.

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Most Popular Posts on Bookword

I’ve been walking in France. So only one new post and now I refer you to some of the most popular posts on the Bookword Blog to date. Please comment and let me know what you think.

I am thrilled by the success of the older women in fiction category. About 50 novels have been suggested so far. And I initiated the list because I thought there was a shortage of older women in fiction! Two novels are included in the list below. You can visit more of the twelve reviews in this series. Click on the category to find all the posts.

Book Reviews

  1. Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor. This review has never been out of the 15 most read of my posts. It’s a charming but distressing account of an older woman who on being widowed moves to live in a hotel in the Cromwell Road, London. Published in 1971, it still has things to tell us about ageing today, not least the challenge of loneliness. I wrote about what we can learn from Mrs Palfrey in a more recent post, which you can find here.
  2. The Last September by Elizabeth Bowen. I reviewed this soon after I launched the blog, and in the last 6 months it has become very popular (something to do with search engines?) and is currently the single most popular post on my blog. Elizabeth Bowen was a wonderful writer, and in this novel she explored Ireland in 1920 and the ways in which people communicate and don’t. The title refers to the impending troubles in Ireland of the 1920s. I have also reviewed her war-time novel (one of her best) The Heat of the Day, chillingly observant about people and why they behave as they do.25 Stone Angel
  3. The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence. Also in the series on older women in fiction, this is the story of Hagar Shipley, who is furious at her growing dependence as she ages, and at the ways in which she is treated by her son and by the medical staff who care for her. She is not going quietly into that good night. Margaret Laurence was a Canadian writer.
  4. Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys. Jean Rhys was not afraid to look into the darker aspects of life, in this case a woman who has very few resources, except her body, living in the demi-monde of Paris. It is bleak, amusing, insightful and leaves a sense of unease, especially in view of the author’s own later life.

    The young Jean Rhys

    The young Jean Rhys

Connected to Books

  1. Decluttering my books. Who would have guessed that the trying question of managing books would be so popular? And so riven with emotion. What to remove and the manner of the disposal. I was preparing to move house at the time I wrote this post, but it seemed to strike a chord with people who buy books. Book buyers always need more room.
  2. How do you organise your books? Another popular post about book management. This one also surprised me because so many people showed an interest in how books are arranged in their homes: alphabetically, by genre, by colour, by size …?

83 WPFF bookpile

Others

A word rant, rather against my better judgement I made some criticisms of word use, as I like to play up the positive and not use the blog to vent spleen. But people had two reactions: they read it, and if they knew me they declared a fear of offending me with their use of language.

And our tribute to our editors, on the publication of our book also received lots of attention.101 RWA cover

I hope you find something to enjoy in this round-up of popular posts from the blog.

 

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Older women in fiction: the top five posts

I am very proud of the series on older women in fiction on this blog. The reviews are among my most read posts, which means there is an appetite for fiction on this subject. Looking at the whole series it is clear that these novel writers do not want to present the stereotype of the cosy granny. Instead, they show the realities and suggest some feisty alternatives to the stereotype. Here are the five most read posts from the series with summaries and links to the comments. All are highly recommended.

mrspalfrey green1 Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor (1971)

Mrs Palfrey is a widow, with a little money and some class. Not wanted by her daughter she goes to live with other elderly people in the Claremont Hotel near the Cromwell Road in London. She meets an aspiring novelist as a result of a fall and presents him as her nephew. Confusions result. There are sharp observations, gentle humour and an honest look at what it meant to be old and lonely in the 1960s and ‘70s. A lesson for today as well.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor published by Virago Modern Classics.

  1. The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence (1964)

25 Stone AngelThe Stone Angel is by a Canadian and follows the slow loss of capacity by the aging Hagar Shipley as she becomes dependent upon her son and his wife. It is an arrangement that suits them all badly and as she declines further she is institutionalised. She escapes and experiences adventures and insight before she dies. She is a fighter, ‘a holy terror’ according to her son.

Thanks Litlove for the recommendation

The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence published by Virago Modern Classics

  1. All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville West (1931)

117 All passion coverThe widow of a great man steps out of his shadow and away from the controlling impulses of her many children to live her final months on her own terms. As a result 88-year old Lady Slane meets people who have more qualities than her former husband, despite his achievements. And she herself becomes a force for good. It is set in London in the years between the wars.

Thanks Emily Books for the recommendation

All Passion Sent by Vita Sackville-West published by Virago Modern Classics.

  1. Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively (1987)

46 Moon TigerAnother feisty woman this time aged 76, a journalist, who on her death bed is reflecting on her life. We are given further insights as she is visited by people from her past. The novel, as all by Penelope Lively, provides insights into the effects of one’s past on the present, as we see from the extended passage from the diary of Claudia Hampton’s lover who died in the war. As a result we come to see Claudia’s final weeks and her whole life in a different way. This novel won the Booker Prize.

Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively published by Penguin Modern Classics.

5 The Summer Book by Tove Jansson (1972) Translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal

80 Summer Bk coverAn evergreen book that centres on the relationship between a grandmother and her granddaughter as they spend their summers on an island off the coast of Finland. This grandmother is an artist and is tetchy, wise, ailing and independent.

The Summer Book by Tove Jansson published by Sort of Books

 

Some further reflections

All but one of the books explored so far in the series have been written by women. A Passage to India by EM Forster is the exception. Mrs Moore is not one of the main characters in the novel, although the idea of Mrs Moore is more extensive than her presence. You might also notice that several of them are published as classics, and that Virago is responsible for three of the five.

During the last two years I have built up a list of fiction containing older women, including suggestions from readers of the blog and twitter users. You can find it here. Please make suggestions for additions to the list.

Please add your comments to these reviews. I have noticed that people do not tend to comment on reviews of books on Bookword, or not as much as they do on other topics.

The 12th post in this series will appear in February, when I look at Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey.

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The Liebster Award and the craft of blogging (4) … Why do it?

Some time ago Norah Colvin nominated Bookword (among other blogs) for the Liebster Award. Many thanks Norah. But I have delayed in meeting the obligations of the Liebster Award: answering some questions and then nominating others and asking them questions in turn. It’s like a chain letter, and it promotes less well-known blogs.

88 liebster2I have decided to delay no longer, and to flunk the Liebster test. Instead of the normal nominations I am identifying a few blogs that I enjoy and inviting them to answer the question of this post: why blog?

Please visit these blogs and see what you think:

  1. Jon Stein – a writer and musician and fellow member of a writing group. Jon wrote a guest post for me on being a writer in Andalucía. He also makes interesting comments on my posts.
  2. Norah Colvin – already recipient of Liebster Award. Such a lively blog about life, education, writing with added antipodean perspective.
  3. Annethology – for a great mixture of reflection, comment, and original writing. Anne is also the recipient of the Liebster Award, also nominated by Norah. Both Norah and Anne are frequent visitors to Bookword. I feel as if I know them, like members of a reading group!
  4. Anna Lodge Consulting – this is my daughter’s blog. She encouraged me to start with social media, being experienced through her consulting business. I like her human approach to setting up her own business. I wish she would post more on her own blog! Go Anna!
  5. And finally two for all booklovers, although they are probably too big to qualify for a Liebster Award I am sure – Vulpes Libris.
  6. Shiny New Books – a new blog subtitled what to read next and why.

 

Why blog? My answer

Citizens’ publishing, that’s what blogging is. Micropublishing, that’s another phrase I have heard used. It’s so hard for writers to get anything published in the traditional way these days, so doing it yourself is an obvious response. But also because the internet makes this democratic behaviour possible. There is an associated challenge in that there are few quality controls (unlike traditional publishing), so we have to hone our discriminating faculties. So the first answer to my question, why blog? is: I can publish my writing, so I do.

But this is far from the full answer to my question, why blog? I began because I planned to pitch for a blog to promote our book* (see below). The submission required familiarity with WordPress. At that time I had rarely read a blog, and so started it to gain the necessary experience. Another part of the answer is: to learn something new.

But as I have gained experience I have learned some of the additional pleasures that keep me posting every 5 or 6 days.

Connections

25 Stone AngelI love having connections with people who share my passion for books and read the blog. The most read of all the posts on Bookword is my review of The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence. I read it because I had asked for ideas read older women in fiction. Litlove, from Tales from the Reading Room suggested it. I hope I have encouraged a few other people to read it as well. I’m glad I didn’t miss that one!

 

Improved writing

A number of people, including my two writing collaborators say that my writing has improved since I began the blog. They should know. I think revising the book* with my co-author and with the guidance of editors, has helped. You can argue that in reverse, so I guess that I can conclude that writing helps writing. Or, as many people have said (according to Google searches), all writing is rewriting.

Persistence and achievement

I have recently posted for the 100th time. I began about 18 months ago, and I have kept going at a regular pace. (Guidance on blogging always says you should be consistent. I don’t know if readers respond to consistency, but I am pleased to have achieved this.)

The number of visitors has risen steadily, along with the number of subscribers and those who add comments.

I’ve got a schedule with 20 ideas pencilled in, and a file filled with further ideas. And people keep publishing books. And I keep reading them. Why stop?

So finally: I blog

  • above all because I can share my love of reading and writing, and
  • to publish my writing
  • to learn new things
  • to improve my writing
  • and because it’s an achievement.

*And the book I refer to will be published on 24th July: Retiring with Attitude, by Caroline Lodge and Eileen Carnell. Published by GuardianBooks. (See also previous blogpost.) Much more in subsequent blogs about this book and the process!

101 RWA fan

So I’ve said why I write my blog. Why do you read it? Comments please!

 

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#readwomen2014

You will understand my title even if you don’t know what a hashtag is (a twitter thing) or have never heard that 2014 is the year of reading women. It started when Joanna Walsh, writer and illustrator, decided to call 2014 ‘the year of reading women’ and sent Christmas cards listing 250 names to encourage recipients if not to read women exclusively at least to look up some of the named writers. From this #readwomen2014 grew. She wrote on the Guardian blog about it: Will #readwomen2014 change our sexist reading habits?

100 BookshelfI’m not one of those who have decided to only read women writers, but I do want to do my bit to encourage people to read women, especially in the face of fewer women getting published, fewer women’s books being reviewed, and fewer women reviewers. (See the VIDA statistics for the record of different publications, aka the hall of shame). And there are days at a certain literary festival where there are no women featured at all. We need #readwomen2014.

Some reviewers, prompted by #readwomen2014 decided to read, and therefore review, only books by women in 2014. An American journal, Critical Flame, decided to go one step further and dedicate 2014 to women writers and writers of colour. This kind of action challenges the idea that white males set the standard and are the default position for how the world is to be seen in fiction: through the male consciousness. It encourages diversity.

It’s an attractive idea – expanding reading horizons. You could look at the gender balance of your recent reading*. Or of the books on your shelves. Or of the books in your local library. You could ask yourself how any imbalance has come about? How much is it to do with how you find out about books?

Last week I heard about a newly established mixed reading group, who picked their books for the first year, and not one of them was by a woman. And no one present had noticed.

83 BWPFF logo biggerSo in the spirit of #readwomen2014, and because this is my 100th blogpost, and because the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2014 will be announced this week, I am using my blog to wholeheartedly recommend reading more fiction by women (and, yes, to split an infinitive or two!). So here’s some suggestions from Bookword blog, with links to the posts.

Everything on my older women in fiction theme is by women. You can find these by clicking on the category link on the right. My review of Margaret Laurence The Stone Angel has been consistently one of my most read posts for over a year.

Elizabeth Taylor – novels and short stories (link to reviews by clicking on the category link).E.Taylor 1

Elizabeth Bowen – In the Heat of the Day.

Claire Cameron – The Bear (longlisted for the Bailey’s Prize).

Ruth Ozeki – Tale for the Time Being.

Jean Rhys – Good Morning, Midnight.

Ann Tyler – almost anything by her, and I reviewed The Accidental Tourist.

Carolyn Heilbrun – Writing a Woman’s Life for some non-fiction.

musselfeast_web_0_220_330Foreign fiction by women should not be ignored either. Try The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke, translated by Jamie Bulloch. It has just been given a special mention at this year’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

And Tove Jansson – The Summer Book.

*I checked my reading record over 12 months and it is 70/30 in favour of women. Perhaps I need to read more male writers.

 

More about #readwomen2014 in Guardian article by Alison Flood.

And for an excoriating post about the label ‘women’s fiction’ see Joanne Harris’s blog Capitalize This.

 

So: will your next book be written by a woman? Tell us one of your recommended reads by a woman.

 

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The craft of blogging (1) … the medium

Do something 77 times and you expect to gain some insights in the practice. It is true of practicing the scale of C# minor (contrary motion) on the piano; of hill starts in a car; of attaching photos to tweets; how to spell imeadiately immediately; and waking up on New Year’s Day (not that I’ve actually done that 77 times, but you get the idea). I hope I have learned something about how write blog posts. I plan to write a series of posts about the craft of writing for a blog. This is my 77th blogpost!

77 laptop

Writing to be read on-line

Understanding the medium is the place to start. The writer has to pay attention to being on-line, on pcs, laptops, tablets, smartphones and probably some other things I haven’t heard of yet. Writing on-line means you have to catch the readers’ attention, and keep it. As a writer you can take advantage of the connectivity. And while a post has a short life it can be archived and amended. This makes it different to writing for printed formats.

Catching the attention of readers is a matter of a hook and appearance. The hook can be an outlandish statement, provocative or questioning. For example: How to get readers to look at your blog in 5 steps. Or Preparing to meet our editor. It can also be very straightforward. As I write a blog about things literary, especially books, the title and author are often enough. The title/hook should give just enough information for a reader to know the topic of the post, but entice them to read further.

77 iphoneThe appearance is important too. Your text will acquire an edge from being back-lit  on the screen and enhanced by the addition of relevant images. I use frequently use book covers (which led to a post on book covers and how much I like them). Additionally the page will be scrolled so the screen must not be too crowded. I like clear uncluttered page format, which includes lots of white space. In fact the 30-30-30 principle works well: 30% text, 30% image, 30% white space. Luckily there are some great ready-to-go formats. I use Word Press.

While appearance will bring in readers and keep them there, the content has to be good. To keep readers returning it needs to be reliably good. It pays to work on content (see future blogposts). Some bloggers suggest that 600 words is the maximum length for keeping readers. I find it hard to say what I want to write in less than 1000 usually. I have no idea whether readers give up before they get to the end. You could tell me in the comments box.

Being on-line means you can connect your post to other websites. The roots of blogging were in making connections, the original blogs were simply reports of other sites visited by the blogger. Links to other sites relevant to the content have become an important feature of my posts. I link to other reviews and to relevant on-line material, such as speeches, newspaper articles. Here are a couple of blogs about blogging that have lots to say, set out to be helpful, by including tips, tutorials, or plain advice. ProBlogger has been going since 2004. Successful Blog focuses on building community through blogging. While both sites include stuff about earning money through the blog, they are nevertheless relevant to a not-for-profit blog like mine. And here’s Annie Daylon’s advice to novice bloggers.

Connecting works in the other direction too. You can also get readers from other sites, from their links and blogrolls, which list the blogs they favour. Search engines help with this, key words being the means to do this. One could go for SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) if visitor numbers were the key thing (eg for a site selling stuff, or pushing a political message). I’ve done without so far. And then there is twitter, facebook and other social media to promote your blog.

Communication with your readers through the comments facility also sets this writing apart from conventional publishing. I used to write articles for publication in academic journals. The Director of the Institute where I worked said that only 5 people read articles in academic journals. (NB for people who work in HE in the UK: this was pre-RAE and REF.) I loved reading articles and wondered where the other four people were. I never knew what the three people thought who read my article about using photography in educational research. But I do get feedback on my blog posts. People make suggestions, take issue, tell me off, thank me for suggesting a good read, comment on what has been said … A term I have come across for inviting these comments is the call to arms. I think questions do the job very well. How about you?

They can also be edited after publication. You can correct errors, update information and add newly discovered links.

77 ipadI have learned that blog posts have a short life. I have also learned that some posts have shorter lives than others. The two longest running and most popular posts of mine are the review of The Stone Angel by Marguerite Laurence and Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor. These two reviews don’t attract much comment, but they have been in the top ten most read posts since I set up the analytical programme (Google Analytics). Blogposts about writing (like this one) often attract a good readership in the first two weeks of posting but then fall away. They may have short lives, but a blog has its own archive and a search function.

Your blog will be made up of regular readers (often subscribers) and flitters. (Mine is about 30/70 and I have no idea whether this is healthy or not.)

But blogging is no different from other kinds of non-fiction writing – purpose is key. Every blogpost has to have a point, a reason to be written and posted. On this blog I share tips for writers, or survey of a writer’s work, indulge in quirky interest like how people organise their books, or make a political point about how writing and books help people.

A book that I highly recommend: 77 Blogging-coverBlogging for Creatives, by Robin Houghton (Ilex Press).

Here’s the call to arms bit: Bloggers – what have I left out? Tell me what I’ve got wrong! Anyone – please tell me what you think about how well I’m doing. Add a comment in the box below.

The second post in this series will consider selecting the appropriate format.

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Filed under Books, The Craft of Blogging, Writing

The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence

Find me some more examples of strongly drawn older female characters – that was my challenge when I reviewed Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont. I only had one response – Litlove suggested Hagar Shipley, from The Stone Angel by Canadian author Margaret Laurence. Hagar Shipley was an excellent response to the challenge. But I still only have two good examples.

The Stone Angel is narrated by Hagar Shipley, intended to be current when it was published in 1964. Her story is framed by her situation: an old woman, cared for by her less favourite son and his wife, and becoming increasingly ill, forgetful and always a handful. ‘A holy terror’ is her son’s description. The reader must agree. It is the picture of her decline in old age that most shocks, even now. The dilemmas for Hagar, her son and daughter-in-law, the medical staff and others who come into contact with her, they are not able to resolve them. Nor are we. It’s a powerful portrayal, not without humour affection or sharp pain.

25 Stone Angel

Hagar’s story is told through integrated flashbacks. She was born in the small town of Manawaka in Canada, and her life was hard, but not distinguished by any exceptional misfortune. Her mother died in childbirth, she married against her father’s wishes a much less refined man and bore him two sons, before leaving him and finding her own way in life with her youngest son. In this novel children frequently disappoint their parents, do not inherit their looks or skills or abilities, are rejected, not favoured or die to be much mourned.

Hagar believes that people should be private, independent and above embarrassing displays of emotion. These views prevent her from asking for help when she needs it; telling her husband that she enjoys sex (he gives her a night off as a favour); grieving at her son’s death; or accepting that she is aging. And this is where the dilemma of aging lies. Hagar wants independence but she is not able to be independent.

In fact, in many ways Hagar has created her own difficulties, as she comes to see far, far too late. Attitudes such as hers were survival strategies, as the scene of the chaplain Mr Troy’s visit to hospital so poignantly reveals. Hagar declines the invitation to pray with him, but recognising he is doing what his role requires asks him to sing All people that on earth do dwell.

‘All right then.’ He clasps and unclasps his hands. He flushes warmly, and peeks around to see if anyone might be listening, as though he’d pass out if they were. But I perceive now that there is some fibre in him. He’ll do it even if it kills him. Good for him. I can admire that.

Then he opens his mouth and sings, and I’m the one who’s taken aback now.  He should sing always, and never speak. He should chant his sermons. The fumbling of his speech is gone. His voice is firm and secure.

And while he sings, Hagar comes to see that she has never been able simply to rejoice.

Every good joy I might have held, in my man or in any child of mine or even the plain light of morning, of walking the earth, all were forced to a standstill by some brake of proper appearances – oh, proper to whom? When did I ever speak the heart’s truth?

Pride was my wilderness, and the demon that led me there was fear.

The old woman and the inadequate younger man exchange a moment of understanding, and then Doris returns and fusses and the moment has passed.

While the novel illustrates the strong gender divisions between men and women in Canada (as elsewhere) at this time, these are not the main culprits in Hagar’s final situation. We also feel sorry for poor put-upon Doris, who as Hagar’s daughter-in-law has to change her bedding at night, manage an ungrateful and bitter woman, and is herself in her sixties.

While one sympathises with Hagar’s unwillingness to accept some of the patronising attitudes she meets within the healthcare system, we are also acutely aware that she is not acting in her own best interest. Here she is at a visit to the GP

Finally I’m called. Doris comes in as well, and speaks to Dr Corby as though she’d left me at home.

‘Her bowels haven’t improved one bit. She’s not had another gallbladder attack, but the other evening she threw up. She’s fallen a lot-‘

And so on and so on. Will she never stop? My meekness of a moment ago evaporates. She’s forfeited my sympathy now, meandering on like this. Why doesn’t she let me tell him? Whose symptoms are they, anyhow?

Margaret Laurence has created a very believable character in Hagar Shipley, but one that also chills us, because we see so much of ourselves in her (according to Sara Maitland afterword in the Virago Modern Classics version I read) and I agree with this. Thanks Litlove for the recommendation.

Now I repeat my challenge – please identify more fictional strongly drawn older female characters.

 

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16 Comments

Filed under Books, Older women in fiction, Reviews