Tag Archives: The Summer Book

Island Novels

Setting a novel on an island allows the writer to use a dramatic device, limited physical range for their characters. Their characters must respond to the boundaries created by the sea, and they are usually trapped with whoever else might be on the island. Here are a few novels that have used an island setting.

Night Waking by Sarah Moss

265 Night Waking

Anna Bennet and her husband and two children are spending the summer on a St Kilda-like island. With a young child she is suffering from lack of sleep, and from lack of time to finish her book, connected to her fellowship at Oxford. Her husband counts puffins and seems unaware of her struggles.

A skeleton of a baby is discovered near their house and Anna spends some time checking the history of the island, its inhabitants and absentee landowners. A parcel of letters is found in the chimney from a young woman in Victorian times who tried to bring better birthing practices to the island’s inhabitants.

By the end of the novel Anna has moved into relative freedom from her children and recommitted to her marriage. She has helped a family who have come as trial guests to the holiday home on the island and decided that her older son needs a little help with his rather bizarre fixation on death and catastrophe.

Written in the first person, the narrator seems quite mad at times, and as if ghosts are about to intrude. In the end these are revealed to be functions of sleep deprivation, as the title indicates.

Night Waking by Sarah Moss, published by Granta in 2011.

Sarah Moss has a new novel, The Tidal Zone, published in July by Granta.

Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson

265 Snow Falling

A Japanese-American fisherman is on trial for the murder of a German-American fisherman on the island of San Piedro off the north west coast of America. Tensions are high. There is a snow storm that further limits the characters. There is a long history of family arguments about land, and of ancient love affairs. The story unfolds, revealing some racism, some old fashioned liberalism, a great deal of loss and some huge misunderstandings and disappointments. All is more or less resolved.

I found that there were too many long back-stories of some less significant characters, almost as if Guterson had included the outcomes of activities suggested in a creative writing workshop for knowing the characters. The writing is superb, however.

Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson, published by Bloomsbury in 1994. 404pp

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

Although the story is set on the island of Skye, much of this novel does not really fit my theme, but it needs no excuse to be recommended yet again. The model for the holiday was in fact Cornwall, the location of the Stephen family’s annual summer holidays.

Before the First World War the Ramsay family is on holiday on Skye. The plan to go to the lighthouse the next day is jeopardised by the weather. The family and house guests 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. There are deaths and a marriage turns sour, everyone gets older and the Great War engulfs Europe. Many of the original house party return to Skye. Mr Ramsay sails with his two youngest children to the lighthouse. This is a novel to be read not for the story but for the evocation of impressions, responses, and insights of her characters.

To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf published in 1927 by the Hogarth Press.

And …

The Summer Book by Tove Jansson

This one is from the older women in fiction series. It’s partly a meditation on a grandmother-granddaughter relationship, but also a dreamy rendition of summers spent on an island on the Finnish coast. I’m not even sure if it’s counted as fiction, but it is a moving book.

The Summer Book by Tove Jansson, published in 2003 by Sort of Books. Translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal.

80 Summer Bk cover

Shipping News E Annie Proulx

Another great novel, where every character has limitations, and every character is challenged by the rugged conditions of Newfoundland, the weather, and the events of their own life. The island keeps the community together.

Shipping News E Annie Proulx (1993). Winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the US National Book award. An excellent film was made of this book.

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James (2014)

Winner Man Booker Prize 2015

Being a prize winning novel that is set in Jamaica, but is neither brief or about only seven killings.

Over to you …

265 The LeopardWhat other novels are there? Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, set in Sicily.

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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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Rereading books

Do you reread books? My lovely friend Eileen suggested this topic was a good one for Bookword blog. I thought she was right and with a little arm-twisting she agreed to contribute this post. We benefit from her research skills and her colourful use of pseudonyms. And she has referred to lots of great books – read or reread them!

Eileen writes about rereading books

Ladder of Years, by my favourite author Anne Tyler, was serialized on Radio 4 a few weeks ago and I thought ‘I must reread that’. I have read all her books, some more than once, and The Accidental Tourist many times. Do you have a favourite author or book that you come back to again and again? I wondered if other people are similarly addicted so I asked Caroline if she would write a blog about it. She replied ‘Why don’t you!’ (Note to self: Be careful what you ask for.)

177 Therese R coverThe book I read compulsively is Thérèse Raquin by Emile Zola. I first read it when I was 20, found myself reading it again at 30, and then kept going. You probably know the story – two lovers plagued by guilt – gripping stuff!

My next most often reread book is To kill a Mockingbird – such fantastic story telling and powerful themes. I’m not keen on stories from a child’s perspective but this one’s amazing. Have you seen the film adaptation staring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch? Fabulous.

177 Atticus FinchI also admit to rereading: Madame Bovary, Cold Comfort Farm, Gone with the Wind, Jane Eyre, Jude the Obscure and Far from the Madding Crowd – well anything by Hardy. And I’m planning to read H is for Hawk again soon. It’s such an exquisitely written book. Do read it if you haven’t.

In order to understand my predilection for rereading I asked 12 of my friends to consider the novels they have reread, why they do it and what they gain. I loved their enthusiastic responses and reminders of some excellent stuff.

You might want to consider your own responses before reading on? If so, Dear Reader, look away now!

The Survey results

It turns out that none of my friends reread books as often as me. Indigo was a bit indignant: ‘I have never reread a book. I don’t have the time and there are so many other books I want to read’. Would that be your reaction? About six of my 12 buddies agreed to some extent including Marigold: ‘I always feel I don’t read enough and feel like I’m wasting time if each read isn’t new’. But she often rereads poetry and short stories such as those by Raymond Carver, Alice Munro, Muriel Spark and Ali Smith. And she added: ‘I have reread The Summer Book a good few times – I find it subtle, delightful and fresh each time’.116ToveJanssonSignature

Violet told me she has only ever reread one book. If you were going to pick just one which one would it be? For Violet it was Pride and Prejudice, which she would happily read again:

I read it once at school as a set text with no appreciation, watched the various films and then reread it a couple of years ago. That brought both enjoyment and a deeper appreciation of Jane Austen’s craft. The opening sentence is a total triumph and she manages to maintain her skill throughout the book.

She surprised me by saying that when she has greatly enjoyed a book she rarely reads a second one by the same author: ‘… that may seem odd. Perhaps I feel it sets the bar too high’.

The prospect of disappointment was also on Carmine’s mind: ‘If I really enjoyed something, I don’t want to read it again in case I don’t enjoy it as much’. Magenta agrees especially after her experience of rereading Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandrian Quartet:

I picked up the first book, Justine, and it seemed so dated.  I am definitely not the 18 year old that read it in the 1960s. It just didn’t speak to me as it had done. I did not finish the first volume never mind the four. I would rather leave the good memories.

People of a certain age, like me and my mates, like to reread to gain new perspectives on books read in their youth. Carmine spoke about this in her reply saying there was bound to be things she’d missed in the first reading. The example she gave was I Know why the Caged Bird Sings. Yes, I agree. That is worth another look.

Ebony loved reading the following eclectic mix in her teens: Hundred Years of Solitude, Death in Venice and On the Road. These had made a real impression and she wondered if they still would.

Rereading them reminded me of ways of thinking and of expressing ideas that struck a chord. These books shaped my thinking and I was curious to see if I still thought they were relevant and inspiring. They were, which was reassuring.

Blanche reread Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady for a similar reason. When she first read it in 1978 she found there was much that related to her feelings: ‘Rereading was a different experience as I was not identifying with the character and so appreciated it in a new way’. Sapphire mentioned the need to reread a book straight away in order to grasp its meaning: ‘As soon as I finished The Sound and the Fury I reread it. I understood it the second time!’

Exploring far off countries and cultures was important. Jade had reread three particular books that gave her insights into places she liked or wanted to visit – A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute, Cache Lake Country by John Rowlands and Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee.

Ruby spoke about her passion for Barbara Kingsolver’s books, rereading to psych herself up for travelling. I savoured her reply:177 poisonwood B

I bought and read The Poisonwood Bible voraciously when it was first published in Blog.doc paperback in 1999, because I’m a big fan and am always impatient for her next book. I reread it before my trip to Mali in 2007, to get me in the mood for Africa. (OK, so Mali is in West Africa and The Congo is in Central Africa, but there are commonalities: we’d be travelling by pinasse on the Niger River, the women wear similar combinations of brightly coloured cottons as body and head wraps, carry their babies on their backs, sell similar goods in the markets, etc. Both countries struggle with poverty and instability.) More recently, I read it for the third time just prior to seeing Barbara Kingsolver discussing the book with John Mullan, and I now have my copy signed! It’s not an enjoyable reread but I valued and savoured it more.

And for those who write themselves there is another purpose for rereading. I was intrigued by Marigold’s comments about The Accidental Tourist. She saw somewhere that it’s the perfect structure for a novel: ‘I started reading it with an eye on the structure and just ended up enjoying the minutiae’. Caroline’s research for her blog inspires her to reread. Her recent posts include: What Katy Did, Brighton Rock, A Passage to India and Love, Again. Another writer, Sapphire, says she studies high quality novels in great detail, reexamining each paragraph and sentence to appreciate good construction.

177 I capturedLoving the style, or the lifestyle depicted in particular books came up. Scarlet said she had reread Perfume by Patrick Susskind and Memoirs of a Geisha. She likes both because they’re visceral and experiential and she becomes completely immersed. And Jade said she had reread I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith as she loved the lifestyle portrayed.

If you belong to a book club you might reread novels to prepare for the discussion as Caroline, Blanche and Magenta do. Caroline has recently reread The Awakening by Kate Chopin because someone mentioned it in a book group and so she wanted to look closely at that again. She returns to a book in order to read more carefully rather than relying on memory. She reads so much and so quickly that she doesn’t keep the story in her head for long. Blanche enjoys being a member of a book club to get her rereading. She still sees novels as a holiday luxury, despite retirement, filling her life with ‘doing’ things. Recognise that pattern? I do.

And, of course, new technology has an influence. Magenta says she now mainly reads on a Kindle and has a tendency to read quickly, almost skimming the book:

I don’t take it in fully on the first reading, so I often read a second time and then get a lot more out of it. I do that particularly with books that we are going to discuss in our book group. So that is a very pragmatic use of rereading that is done immediately rather than after a long gap.

Comfort reading – ah yes! Carmine said: ‘Another reason is to be taken to a place I know is OK and comfortable, when I don’t want to be challenged, like reading Alexander McCall’s books when I want something interesting but light’. And ‘for therapy’ Caroline reads Pride and Prejudice and Catch-22.

Last was rereading by mistake – starting a novel and then remembering it had been read before.

So, do you ever reread books?

  • to be intellectually stimulated – to gain new perspectives or insights or shape your thinking
  • for emotional reasons – to immerse yourself in the warmth of the familiar, the joy of meeting old friends or the feeling a character, style or place can inspire
  • to develop your own creative skills – to study the beauty of the language, structure and plot for ideas for your own writing …
  • … or do you think rereading is a complete waste of time. Do let us know.

 

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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 Summer Book by Tove Jansson (again)

It is the centenary of Tove Jansson’s birth, today, 9th August 2014. Yes, another centenary! To celebrate this amazing woman’s life I am re-posting this review – first posted in February in my series exploring older women in fiction.

116 TJ with Moomin 1956Tove Jansson’s writing will be familiar to readers of children’s fiction. She created the Moomins in 1945. They appeared in books and cartoons and then newspapers, eventually in 12 countries. They were so successful that Walt Disney wanted to acquire them. He was turned down. Tove Jansson was much more than the creator of a hippo-like family for children. She was also an artist and a writer of adult fiction, including The Summer Book.

The Summer Book has never been out of print since its publication in Swedish in 1972. It emerged as the most popular fiction title in ten years of sales at the London Review Bookshop in 2013. I came across it as a recommendation in a Mslexia diary and borrowed it from the library. I have since bought two copies: one for my mother and one to keep.

80 Summer Bk coverWhile The Summer Book is fiction, it is evident that Tove Jansson drew on her experiences of summer living on an island in the outer archipelago in the Gulf of Finland. There was an island, and a house and a little girl called Sophia (a niece not a grandchild) who has now grown up. Tove Jansson spent five months every summer with her ‘long-term companion’ Tuulikki Pietila on an even more remote island from 1964 until 1991.

How does The Summer Book fit with the series of older women in fiction? The main characters are a grandmother, who is a sculptor, and her six-year-old granddaughter Sophia. Their shared summer life is revealed through a series of episodes. These illuminate a vivid relationship between the generations. The grandmother lives with a sharp awareness of nature: the sea, birds, the plants, the long summer days and the weather. And she encourages Sophia’s inclination to do the same.

Sophia and her grandmother, like any friends, dare each other to break the rules, argue and fall out, comfort, taunt and tease each other. And they turn to each other in time of need. Sophie’s mother has recently died. They have adventures, and exchange observations on the world. They discuss death, heaven and hell, why a scolder died, share a terrible song about a cow pat, build a miniature palace, dodge sex education, and sometimes avoid each other. Both have tantrums and sulks, and fears and regrets. They are respectful of each other too in a way that is rare between adults and children.

This is no sweet, passive grandmother but an older woman acutely aware of her surroundings and herself including her physicality. The book opens with a section called The Morning Swim:

It was an early, very warm morning in July, and it had rained during the night. The bare granite steamed, the moss and crevices were drenched with moisture, and all the colours everywhere had deepened. Below the veranda, the vegetation in the morning shade was like a rainforest of lush, evil leaves and flowers, which she had to be careful not to break as she searched. She held one hand in front of her mouth and was constantly afraid of losing her balance.

“What are you doing?” asked little Sophia.

“Nothing,” her grandmother answered. “That is to say,” she added angrily, ”I’m looking for my false teeth.”

The child came down from the veranda. “Where did you lose them?” she asked.

“Here,” said her grandmother. “I was standing right there and they fell somewhere in the peonies.” They looked together.

“Let me,” Sophia said. “You can hardly walk. Move over.” (p21)

When they have retrieved the dentures the grandmother leads the way to a forbidden ravine. She tells Sophie what it feels like to dive.

“You let go of everything and get ready and just dive. You can feel the seaweed against your legs. It’s brown and the water’s clear, lighter towards the top, with lots of bubbles. And you glide. You hold your breath and glide and turn and come up, let yourself rise and breathe out. And then you float. Just float.” (p24)

This is a grandmother who takes children’s questions seriously, is herself fully alive, and not just shown as a person in relationship to others. She has weaknesses and sometimes a short temper. She is playful and mostly responsible. Both Grandmother and Sophia suffer from jealousy, temper and disappointment. And they are generous with each other, as the scene with the false teeth shows. In the most electrifying chapter in the book Sophia believes she conjures up a massive and frightening storm. She is distraught at what she has done and is only mollified when Grandmother claims responsibility.

This old woman lives on her own terms. She is straightforward about pain, nature, what other people do. She has a strong sense of herself and is offended when she is ignored. She is stoic about her infirmities, frequently taking herself off to sleep. She is practical, creative and bolshie. Of all the older women considered in the novels in this series (about older women) she is the one I most want to be like.

One of the most poignant episodes relates to Sophia’s attempt to sleep in a tent. In the night she creeps back to her grandmother, and the two get talking about sleeping rough.

“All I said was that when you are as old as I am, there are lots of things you can’t do any more …”

“That’s not true! You do everything. You do the same things I do!”

“Wait a minute!” Grandmother said. She was very upset. “I’m not through. I know I do everything. I’ve been doing everything for an awfully long time, and I’ve seen and lived as hard as I could, and it’s been unbelievable, I tell you, unbelievable. But now I have the feeling that everything’s gliding away from me, and I don’t remember, and I don’t care, and yet now is right when I need it!”

Sophia helps her remember what it was like to sleep in the tent and this enables the child to return to the tent feeling safe. And the grandmother remembers better. They both fall asleep. (p93-4)

The episodes pull you along, related in a calm, even voice, a little at a distance from the two main characters, which has a hypnotic effect. This distance may be just the effects of the translation from Swedish. It made me want to visit Finland again.

116ToveJanssonSignature

Translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal.

Here’s a link to a BBC piece by Mark Bosworth, Tove Jansson: Love, war and the Moomins, looking at her life as writer and artist.

Have you read this novel? Did you react as I have?

Older Women in Fiction: The next book in the series will be Vita Sackville-West’s All Passion Spent. It will be in my next post.

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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 Summer Book by Tove Jansson

Tove Jansson’s name will be familiar to readers of children’s fiction. She created the Moomins in 1945. They appeared in books and cartoons and then newspapers, eventually in 12 countries. They were so successful that Walt Disney wanted to acquire them. He was turned down. Tove Jansson was much more than the creator of a hippo-like family for children. She was also  an artist and a writer of adult fiction, including The Summer Book.

80 TJ & moomin

The Summer Book has never been out of print since its publication in Swedish in 1972. It emerged as the most popular fiction title in ten years of sales at the London Review Bookshop in 2013. I came across it as a recommendation in a Mslexia diary and borrowed it from the library. I have since bought two copies: one for my mother and one to keep.

80 Summer Bk coverWhile The Summer Book is fiction, it is evident that Tove Jansson drew on her experiences of summer living on an island in the outer archipelago in the Gulf of Finland. There was an island, and a house and a little girl called Sophia (a niece not a grandchild) who has now grown up. Tove Jansson spent five months every summer with her ‘long-term companion’ Tuulikki Pietila on an even more remote island from 1964 until 1991.

How does The Summer Book fit with the series of older women in fiction? The main characters are a grandmother, who is a sculptor, and her six-year-old granddaughter Sophia. Their shared summer life is revealed through a series of episodes. These illuminate a vivid relationship between different generations. The grandmother lives with a sharp awareness of nature: the sea, birds, the plants, the long summer days and the weather. And she encourages Sophia’s inclination to do the same.

Sophia and her grandmother, like any friends, dare each other to break the rules, argue and fall out, comfort, taunt and tease each other. And they turn to each other in time of need. Sophie’s mother has recently died. They have adventures, and exchange observations on the world. They discuss death, heaven and hell, why a scolder died, share a terrible song about a cow pat, build a miniature palace, dodge sex education, and sometimes avoid each other. Both have tantrums and sulks, and fears and regrets. They are respectful of each other too in a way that is rare between adults and children.

This is no sweet, passive grandmother but an older woman acutely aware of her surroundings and herself including her physicality. The book opens with a section called The Morning Swim:

It was an early, very warm morning in July, and it had rained during the night. The bare granite steamed, the moss and crevices were drenched with moisture, and all the colours everywhere had deepened. Below the veranda, the vegetation in the morning shade was like a rainforest of lush, evil leaves and flowers, which she had to be careful not to break as she searched. She held one hand in front of her mouth and was constantly afraid of losing her balance.

“What are you doing?” asked little Sophia.

“Nothing,” her grandmother answered. “That is to say,” she added angrily, ”I’m looking for my false teeth.”

The child came down from the veranda. “Where did you lose them?” she asked.

“Here,” said her grandmother. “I was standing right there and they fell somewhere in the peonies.” They looked together.

“Let me,” Sophia said. “You can hardly walk. Move over.” (p21)

When they have retrieved the dentures the grandmother leads the way to a forbidden ravine. She tells Sophie what it feels like to dive.

“You let go of everything and get ready and just dive. You can feel the seaweed against your legs. It’s brown and the water’s clear, lighter towards the top, with lots of bubbles. And you glide. You hold your breath and glide and turn and come up, let yourself rise and breathe out. And then you float. Just float.” (p24)

This is a grandmother who takes children’s questions seriously, is herself fully alive, and not just shown as a person in relationship to others. She has weaknesses and sometimes a short temper. She is playful and mostly responsible. Both Grandmother and Sophia suffer from jealousy, temper and disappointment. And they are generous with each other, as the scene with the false teeth shows. In the most electrifying chapter in the book Sophia believes she conjures up a massive and frightening storm. She is distraught at what she has done and is only mollified when Grandmother claims responsibility.

This old woman lives on her own terms. She is straightforward about pain, nature, what other people do. She has a strong sense of herself and is offended when she is ignored. She is stoic about her infirmities, frequently taking herself off to sleep. She is practical, creative and bolshie. Of all the older women considered in the novels in this series (about older women) she is the one I most want to be like.

80 Finnish islandOne of the most poignant episodes relates to Sophia’s attempt to sleep in a tent. In the night she creeps back to her grandmother, and the two get talking about sleeping rough.

“All I said was that when you are as old as I am, there are lots of things you can’t do any more …”

“That’s not true! You do everything. You do the same things I do!”

“Wait a minute!” Grandmother said. She was very upset. “I’m not through. I know I do everything. I’ve been doing everything for an awfully long time, and I’ve seen and lived as hard as I could, and its been unbelievable, I tell you, unbelievable. But now I have the feeling that everything’s gliding away from me, and I don’t remember, and I don’t care, and yet now is right when I need it!”

Sophia helps her remember what it was like to sleep in the tent and this enables the child to return to the tent feeling safe. And the grandmother remembers better. They both fall asleep. (p93-4)

80 sm Fin islandThe episodes pull you along, related in a calm, even voice, a little at a distance from the two main characters, which has a hypnotic effect. This distance may be just the effects of the translation from Swedish. It made me want to visit Finland again.

Translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal.

Have you read this novel? Did you react as I have?

 

Older Women in Fiction: The next book to explore in the series will be Doris Lessing’s Love Again. This will be in April.

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Filed under Books, Older women in fiction, Reviews