Monthly Archives: May 2018

More Books for the Desert Island

More than five years ago I posted my Desert Island Book choices. Time to update. Here’s how I began that post.

It’s that old scenario, white sandy beach, a single palm tree, gulls shrieking, strings playing Sailing By and Kirsty Young asking you to choose eight books. The Bible and the Complete Works of Shakespeare are apparently already under the palm tree, thanks to the DIBSTUS (Desert Island Bible and Shakespeare Top Up Society).

Tobago Cays (shoreline)  Nicolas Rénac on VisualHunt/ CC BY-SA

What criteria to use? After all, millions of people are not listening to your choices, so you don’t have to answer to them, or make your choices represent important people or events in your life. But DIBSTUS will only deliver 8 more books so you do have to find some criteria or other.

It’s clear that I should choose books I want to read again and again, for all the years I will be stranded, listening to Sinatra singing My Way (also provided by DIBSTUS for all castaways). I could go for the top of the greatest books list. The Guardian’s 100 greatest novels of all time begins well enough with Don Quixote, and Pilgrim’s Progress, and then at #3 – just the thing on your desert island – Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe. There are no women writers in the top eight books in the list. Jane Austen’s Emma and Frankenstein by Mary Shelley come in at #9 and #10. They may be the greatest (longest?) novels of all time, but these top eight are worthy, harsh and actually, rather masculine. I’ll take a different set to my desert island.

My new list, or Desert Island Books in 2018

Still on my list from 2013

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

Austerlitz by WG Sebald

Middlemarch by George Eliot

I think I’ll drop some of my original choices and take a collection of poetry instead.

Poem for the Day, edited by Nicholas Albery

I have three reasons to add this.

  1. It would act as a calendar for all the time I am there, having 366 poems, each connected to its allocated day.
  2. My friend Gil gave it to me when I was feeling very down some years ago: ‘for heart healing’ she said. Gil herself has died since then, and so I need heart healing for that loss too.
  3. I would enjoy getting to know 366 poems.

I’m allowed three more choices. I’d probably put in something by Elizabeth Taylor, perhaps a book in French such as La Peste by Albert Camus. And, and … please make suggestions.

Desert Island Books in 2013

And here is the original list:

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

The Waves by Virginia Woolf

Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy or The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula le Guin

Austerlitz by WG Sebald

Middlemarch by George Eliot

What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge

I had my reasons, which you can find in the original post here.

Oh dear, Kirsty is asking for a last choice: just one of my choices and one luxury. Reading glasses perhaps. But which book?

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Harvey Weinstein and those books

On Friday 25th May the notorious Harvey Weinstein arrived at a New York police precinct to be arrested on charges of rape, a criminal sex act, sexual abuse and sexual misconduct.

The press were waiting and he was photographed emerging from a car with three books under his arm. He did not appear to have shaved and wore his trademark light blue pullover stretched over his frontage, over an unbuttoned white shirt and under an unbuttoned dark jacket. Unbuttoned and with three books.

What was the meaning of the books? The Guardian identified the meaning by identifying the individual books, one about Rogers and Hammerstein, and another a biography of Elia Kazan, the movie mogul who testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee and who was also accused of predatory sexual behaviour. They could not identify the third.

Later Harvey Weinstein emerged, looking less relaxed, flanked by one female and one male police officer. He no longer held the books.

I’ve got two different questions:

  1. Why did he take books to a police precinct where he was to be arrested?

Perhaps he planned to look cultured, inquisitive, a man who never looses the opportunity to add to his knowledge. I think this is unlikely as he has never appeared in public looking cultured, or without that stubble. And anyway, I do not think he has been arrested before, so there would be plenty to learn from his experiences inside the police station.

Perhaps he thought that the experience of being arrested would be so boring, like waiting for an outpatient’s appointment, that he would need distraction.

Perhaps his lawyer had advised him, at the front door, that the books would be a good prop, helping to create the image of a thoughtful man, because we all know that thoughtful men never commit rape. (For those who do not spot it, that’s irony.) I can imagine the lawyer’s assistant grabbing three books from a pile languishing by the door and passing them to Harvey Weinstein as he got out of the car.

  1. What happened to the books?

Although Harvey Weinstein did not carry them out of the building, the photographs show a clutch of books carried by someone just behind him as they emerge. Four books? More books than taken in? The same books?

Will we ever see them again? Will they be returned to Harvey Weinstein? What if he wants to read them them while he is jail?

I want to give Harvey Weinstein some advice, although it has been shown to be a bit pointless on previous occasions. But I will say it all the same. Do not touch, Harvey Weinstein. Books and people are not just for you to use.

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A Line Made by Walking by Sara Baume

A Line Made by Walking is about the pain of being alive. I quote from the blurb. Frankie’s pain comes from not yet knowing how to be alive. She is in her mid-twenties, and struggling with expectations: to have achieved specialist knowledge, a career path, social connections, a partner, and having left a loving family.

Frankie’s troubles are (I’m quoting from the blurb again) absorbing, heart-wrenchingly real, painful, raw, compelling, poignant … But she never quite loses the ability to observe and reflect on her own suffering, and eventually to take the line that will help her escape.

Sara Baume’s writing achieves its impact through plenty of self-absorption by Frankie but no self-pity; observations that strike hard but provide no winsome lessons from suffering; lots of nature but much of it known through corpses.

A Line Made by Walking

Frankie is 25, has been brought up in Ireland, studied at Art College in Dublin and then worked in an art gallery in the city. One day she decides she can no longer do it and so packs her bags, calls her mother and goes home. Calling her mother is a bit of a theme.

After a couple of weeks with her parents she arranges to live on her own in her grandmother’s bungalow, believing that the solitary life will restore her ability to be alive. Writing in the first person, Frankie describes her everyday life, not quite coping, isolated, outside relationships. She meets the neighbour, a lonely old man called Jinks, who tries to help her find the Lord. And her family call in to check on her, and to maintain the bungalow as Frankie neglects it. She walks, drives and cycles in the surrounding countryside, often finding dead wild life, which she photographs for a possible art project: robin, rabbit, bat, rat, mouse, rook, fox, frog, hare, hedgehog and badger. There are photographs in the relevant chapters.

Interspersed with the dead animals are flashbacks to her earlier life, and to her recollections of art works (painting, installations, performance pieces) that relate to or explain her situation.

Works about Lower, Slower Views, I test myself: Richard Long, A Line Made by Walking, 1967. A short, straight track worn by footsteps back and forth through an expanse of grass. Long doesn’t like to interfere with the landscapes through which he walks, but sometimes he builds sculptures from materials supplied by chance. Then he leaves them behind to fall apart. He specialises in barely-there art. Pieces which take up as little space in the world as possible. And which do as little damage. (261-2)

This is the pattern for the many paragraphs referring to works of art and they occur throughout. She is especially interested in installations, performance pieces and other creations, such as Cold Dark Matter by Cornelia Parker, which I think of as the exploded shed. She is interested in works that record repetition, physical feats that are interrupted before they finish. Often the concept in the mind of the creator seems more important than the experience of viewing the art work. There is an appendix that references them all.

But take a look again at what Frankie says about Richard Long’s A Line Made by Walking. The repetition is there, ‘footsteps back and forth’. I rewrite it to make clear Frankie’s frame of mind:

Frankie doesn’t like to interfere with the landscapes through which she walks, but sometimes she imagines sculptures built from materials supplied by chance. She specialises in being barely-there. She takes take up as little space in the world as possible. And does as little damage …

Her reflections on life, not just her own life, cut very close to the bone. Here’s a section that jumped out at me.

The point of being here, alone in the bungalow on turbine hill is to recover. This is what I told my mother before she agreed to let me care take, and the only thing I can do to stop her from worrying is to try and look well when she comes to visit. Because she cannot see inside my head, outside my head I must be nourished and calm and bright. The straightforwardness of this comforts me: body over brain.

With only a poorly stocked village shop, the absence of choice is liberating. I buy whatever they have and challenge myself to cobble it into something. Here on turbine hill, meals are the only thing that structure my days so I force myself to maintain their pattern. Because structure and maintenance and pattern, and broccoli, are what sanity consists of. (32-33)

I find that final sentence comforting. May be all that many of us are doing is achieving a basic level of ‘structure and maintenance and pattern, and broccoli’ and we can hold on to the idea that these are what sanity consists of.

I was just wishing Sara Baume would get on with it, get Frankie’s story to the end – there weren’t many pages to go – when, without calling her mother, she did and wooomph, Frankie spread her wings (compare to dead robin), leapt away (cf dead hare) abandons subterfuge (ditto fox, crow etc) … and that’s all I’ll say.

A Line Made by Walking by Sara Baume, published by Windmill Books (Penguin) in 2017. 307pp. Short-listed for the Goldsmiths Prize in 2017.

Sara Baume’s previous novel was Spill Simmer Falter Wither (2015), which won many prizes.

Related links

Richard Long: A Line Made By Walking, 1967, Tate Gallery. That image can be accessed here.

Lonesome Reader reviewed A Line Made by Walking on her blog in February last year. She focuses on the place of art in life, and Frankie’s belief in the redeeming value of art over institutionalised belief systems. You can read it here.

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The Abbess of Crewe by Muriel Spark

‘Come let us mock at the great’ quotes Muriel Spark in the epigraph for The Abbess of Crewe. She is quoting WB Yeats’s poemNineteen Hundred and Nineteen. ‘ … for we/ Traffic in mockery’ it ends.

The immediate reference for this scrutiny of corruption, power, surveillance and false information is the Watergate scandal of the early 1970s. For those too young to remember two Republican Party employees broke into the Watergate building to install wiretaps so they could overhear the plans of the Democratic Party for the forthcoming US Presidential Election. President Nixon tried to cover up his connection with the burglary but the scandal unravelled his career and he resigned in 1974. Are bells ringing yet?

This is my third contribution to #ReadingMuriel2018, hosted by Heavenali. You will also find reviews of Memento Mori and The Girls of Slender Means on this blog.

The Abbess of Crewe  by Muriel Spark

The novel opens as the newly elected Abbess of Crewe, Sister Alexandra, speaks with the naïve Sister Winifrede, who has forgotten that the Convent is bugged, including the poplar avenue in which they are walking.

The Abbess is a striking character, who dresses in white while the other nuns are in black. She drives the novel forward with her belief in herself, and the self-serving actions that result from her self-belief. As her plotting becomes more and more convoluted and Rome begins to question what is happening in the convent, she tries to claim special privileges.

In the election Sister Alexandra defeated Sister Felicity, who has then left the Convent and is stirring up press interest, especially about her stolen thimble. The Abbess is ably supported by two nuns, Sister Walburga, the prioress and Sister Mildred, the novice mistress. Their gofer is Sister Winifrede, the hapless young woman who will do whatever they ask, and get thrown to the dogs for her sins.

It emerges that the theft of the thimble was a by-product of a break-in by two young Jesuit novices, paid to look for evidence against Felicity, specifically her love letters from her Jesuit lover. It is not clear why they took the thimble. In the background is Sister Gertrude who is absent from the Convent as she seeks to reconcile cannibals and vegetarians in Peru and other such intractable opposing groups. The Abbess has recorded everything, which may or may not bring her down in the end. She plans to tough it out using a mixture of obfuscation and confidence.

The Abbess of Crewe today

Watergate was not so colourful. But Muriel Spark brings out the farcical, as well as the shocking corruption that comes with reckless pursuit of power.  Political corruption is shocking, perhaps more shocking in a religious house. But Muriel Spark is not making a case against the Roman Catholic Church, only using its traditions, establishments and rituals to demonstrate how people are manipulated, power is illegally obtained, and how information gained by any means is used to achieve and maintain power. Relevant today?

As I don’t own a copy of this novel, I borrowed one from Devon Libraries. It had no less than six labels for date stamps, from 1982 to today. This has been a popular book. It is savage, unrelenting, short, sharp and relevant to any situation where a manipulator is trying to hang on to power – to politics, then. I should point out that no one comes out well from this treatment, this ‘traffic in mockery’ by Muriel Spark. And I should also point out that there are many, many small points of humour and many quotations from English poetry.

I am very glad that #ReadingMuriel2018 put this novel my way.

The Abbess of Crewe by Muriel Spark, published in 1974 by Macmillan. 128pp

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Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

It is easy to see why this book is so popular. When anyone says they are ‘completely fine’ we all know that they are trying to mislead us. Eleanor Oliphant is not completely fine, and the reader knows this from the start. She will only get better, with blips on the way. This is an attractive feel-good story that appeals to the misfit in all of us. We want her to feel fine and we are happy to read about how she manages it.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is doing very well: Book Award overall winner 2018;Costa Book Awards Winner 2017; No 1 Sunday Times Bestseller; Women Prize for Fiction long list 2018.

The story of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

Eleanor Oliphant is just 30, but socially inept. And her face is very scarred. She is a very unreliable narrator, for having told us about her boring job, lack of office or other friendships, a visit to the doctor to beg for more painkillers, and her routines that involve speaking to no one at the weekend and an unhealthy consumption of vodka, she presents herself to the reader in the first chapter in this way:

I have always taken great pride in managing my life alone. I’m a sole survivor – I’m Eleanor Oliphant. I don’t need anyone else – there’s no big hole in my life, no missing part of my particular puzzle. I am a self-contained entity. That’s what I have always told myself at any rate. But last night, I’d found the love of my life. (8)

As she tells her story it emerges that she had a most terrible childhood, her mother being a frighteningly wicked presence, and with a sister who died in terrible circumstances, probably at the hands of their mother. She has lived on her own in Glasgow since leaving care, and worked at the same office job since graduating with a Classics degree. She is a woman of routines, who keeps her distance from neighbours, colleagues and casual acquaintances. It emerges that Eleanor is not even her given name. The reader can see that this young woman has a terrible backstory. The question that hangs over the narrative is what caused Eleanor such pain that she has chosen to live in this way?

The story begins at the point at which Eleanor’s life starts to change. We feel for her excruciating loneliness, and all that she does not have in her life. A new computer geek comes to work at her office and fixes her computer. Raymond befriends her. She conceives a plan to fall in love with a singer, and is horrified when she sees how unrealistic it is. Gradually she begins to see how being kind to people and having them be kind to you alters how she feels about people, and she gradually changes herself to better fit in. There are set backs on this journey of this ugly duckling. The second question for the novel is, how will Eleanor Oliphant become completely fine?

Her outsider status allows her to notice the curious, the odd, and the illogical in the world around her. She is capable of some very funny observations and of some socially excruciating behaviours, and clothing.

One of the receptionists had hosted a party at her flat and invited all the women from work. It was a beautiful flat, a traditional tenement with stained glass and mahogany and elaborate cornices. The ‘party’ however, had merely been a pretext, a ruse of sorts to provide her with the opportunity to attempt to sell us sex toys. It was a most unedifying spectacle; seventeen drunken women comparing the efficacy of a range of alarmingly large vibrators. (96)

In the end, after an unexpected plot twist, Eleanor Elephant is completely fine, and no longer needs to assert this. She has been helped by friends and by counselling, and has taken her own steps to emerge into the world. No longer lonely, we know that she will go on to find romance and deal with what’s left of her demons.

I have read that Gail Honeyman was inspired to write a novel about loneliness having read Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City: adventures in the art of being alone. Eleanor is a character that emerges from the isolation enforced by her childhood, a childhood in care, an abusive relationship, an unchallenging job and the geography of the city. We are reminded that small acts, open-heartedness and generosity together with a dose of initiative help people to live together.

It is a winning structure, to put all the bad things behind Eleanor, to watch her make mistakes and misunderstand, and then observe her acquire more poise and wisdom and escape.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman, published by Harper Collins in 2017. 385pp

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The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank

Choosing non-fiction by women from each decade of the 20thCentury can be tricky. But for the 1940s there was really no choice. To begin with I was reluctant. I sought other important books by women. In the end, it had to be this book. Anne Frank’s Diaryis my choice for the 1940s in the Decades Project on Bookword. And it has to be this book for a simple reason. The 1940s were defined by the horrors of the Second World War, and amongst the horrors was the Holocaust in which Anne Frank was first a witness and then a victim. We must never forget.

Sue Black, a forensic anthropologist, has examined bodies in mass graves, following the paths of brutal armies and militias. Her job is to find the truth of what happened to the people in such graves. She describes the impetus to do this work in this way:

We need to show that ‘our humanity transcends the worst malevolence of which our species and nature are capable’. Sue Black (2018) All That Remains: A Life in Death.

Ann Frank’s Diaryis hard to read, for we know that her brief and bright life ended in Bergen-Belsen just weeks before its liberation. But to reread it is to know again that there is humanity in the world, even in the face of the worst malevolence.

Some facts

Anne Frank was born on 12thJune 1929 in Frankfurt, Germany. Her family moved to The Netherlands in 1933 in response to the Nazi regime in Germany. When Holland was occupied and Jews being taken away, her family went into hiding. Her father, mother and older sister joined with another family (called the van Daans by Anne Frank) and later a dentist and all eight people lived in the Annexe at 263 Princengracht. The house is a fixture on the Amsterdam tourist trail.

They remained in hiding from July 1942, a month after Anne had begun her diary, until 1944 when they were arrested on 4thAugust. The last entry in the diary is dated 1stAugust. Anne was sent to Auschwitz, and then on to Bergen-Belsen with her sister. They both died in the typhus epidemic probably in February or March 1945. The camp was liberated on 12thApril. Her father, Otto Frank, was the only survivor from the Annexe.

The text of the diary

Two secretaries had worked in the building and supported the people in hiding. They found the pages of Anne’s diaries strewn over the floor after the arrest. Miep Gies locked them away in a drawer. When Otto returned, and it was clear that Anne had not survived, Miep gave the diary to Anne’s father.

He devoted the rest of his life to publishing and promoting Anne’s diary because of its simple resonance with people and its positive message. It was not an immediate best-seller, even in Holland. A shortened version was published to begin with. But gradually as it was translated, and as her father decided to publish the full text, it became better known and more widely read.

Anne had revised some of her original text herself, because in 1944 the Dutch Government in exile announced that it would publish eyewitness accounts after the war. Anne provided pseudonyms for many people, and revised early entries. But she hoped it would be published.

And why should it be read even now?

We must never forget. A thirteen year old girl, lively, vivacious, inquisitive, was growing up in Amsterdam with her life ahead of her. She stands for the many, many people who suffered under fascism and from the antisemitic policies of the Nazi occupiers. It is in the everyday stories of lives destroyed that we can begin to understand the damage wrought by such policies.

This is a young girl’s account of being alive, growing up in restricted circumstances. She is an adolescent, highly self-conscious, very analytical, very sensitive. In distressing and difficult circumstances she hones her beliefs and comes to honour particular qualities in people – equality, honesty, unselfishness, kindness, listening, asserting oneself and so on. And she tries to carry on being alive as best she can, missing the natural world, fresh air, her friends, varied activities, school. She tries hard to remain positive. She mostly succeeds.

This is one book where knowing the ending, or the absence of ending, provides the impetus to read. It is a compelling story: so many months in hiding, so many tiny battles and irritations with the other occupants of the Annexe, so much time to survive, so many hopes, fears, alarms, and even hopeful news when in June 1944 they heard about the invasion: D-Day, at last. There should have been a happy-ever-after.

But we do need evidence, as Sue Black says, that humanity can transcend our species’ worst malevolence. Anne Frank’s diary does provide such evidence, also bearing witness to her father’s determination to do the right thing for her, and to the helpers who kept the family alive.

Anne Frank 1940 (school photo, photographer unknown)

The Diary of a Young Girlby Anne Frank, first published in a short form in 1947. I used the Penguin revised and definitive edition of 2003. 350pp

Translated from the Dutch by Susan Massotty, edited by Otto H Frank and Mirjam Pressler.

The Decades project on Bookword

In 2018 I am featuring non-fiction by women for each decade in the project having focused on novels in 2017. I select one book each month from successive decades (January 1900-1909; February 1910-1919 etc). Suggestions are always welcome.

Here are the links to the previous three books in the Decades Project:

My Own Storyby Emmeline Pankhurst(1914)

Another look at A Room of One’s Ownby Virginia Woolf(1928)

Testament of Youthby Vera Brittain(1933)

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Love by Hanne Østavik

The single word of the title, Love, is absent throughout this short novel. Is there love? Do the characters love each other? Can Vibeke love Jon as a mother should? Is it absence of love, or the search for it that causes the final tragedy? Set in the snowy north of Norway, without daylight, these are some clues about the emotional temperature of this novel.

Every month I read and comment on a book by a woman in translation. Mostly they have been works of fiction. Love by Hanne Østavik is a short book, sent by the Asymptote club. Originally published in 1997 in Norwegian, it was translated by Martin Aitken for publication by archipelago books this year.

A summary of Love

Vibeke, a single mother, and her son Jon have recently moved to the village in the north of Norway. The events of the novel take place over a single night. It will be Jon’s 9thbirthday the next day.

The story is told alternating, almost every paragraph between Vibeke and Jon, their thoughts and actions. Jon thinks about his mother and what she might be doing all the time. Vibeke, as far as we are told, never thinks about Jon once when she goes out.

After a quick meal of boiled sausages and bread wraps both mother and son go out, without the other knowing. She goes to the library, then to the fair and then to find some nightlife with a fairground worker. We see her creating a belief in the attraction the man Tom feels for her. She interprets every action as a step towards a closer relationship. He returns her home without anything happening. She assumes Jon is in bed. She has given no thought to him or his birthday or to the promises she made him last year.

Jon goes out to sell raffle tickets for a club he has recently joined, visits the house of a girl who attends his school and then goes home to find he has locked himself out and his mother is not in. He convinces himself that she has gone to get ingredients for his birthday cake. As he waits he is picked up by another fairground worker. At this moment one feels he is in real trouble, but it turns out that the driver of the car wants company. He too tries to guess what is in his companions’ minds, and to keep at bay his childish fears.

With two characters who make assumptions all the time, the final tragedy is inevitable but not foreseen.

Reading Love

As one reads this short but compelling novel, the absence of love, or of love expressed dominates every page. The relationship felt dysfunctional from the beginning. There were some moments when Jon’s naivety looks as if it will lead him into trouble: an old man leads him to his basement, but gives him a pair of old skates; he accepts the invitation to get in the stranger’s car, for example.

Vibeke appears distracted, wanting something that she can only imagine or fabricate from her situation. As a single mother myself I wondered how she could live with so little thought for Jon. Jon persuades himself that Vibeke is thinking of him and acting on his behalf, preparing for his birthday. Tragedy comes from the miscommunication.

The reader must work hard to discern the narrative, follow the two characters at the same time, distil their actions from the description, and feel the tension as it winds tighter and tighter. Here’s a random choice (I could not decide any criteria for a choice, except to show both Jon and Vibeke). Jon is in the house of a girl from his school, playing the board game Othello. Vibeke has just found that the library is closed but sees the lights of the fair.

“It’s my birthday tomorrow,” says Jon.

“Let me guess, you’ll be eighteen,” the girl says with a laugh.

Jon has the upper hand, his black counters are all over the board. The girl has given up and isn’t taking it seriously anymore.

Vibeke goes in through the fairground entrance. A reveller bumps into her, braying something unintelligible and carrying on oblivious. She stops and looks around. (35)

Love is a challenging but compelling read.

Love by Hanne Østavik published in English in 2018 by archipelago books. Translated from the Norwegian by Martin Aitken. Originally published as Kjaerlighetin 1997. 125pp

Women in translation series

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

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

The Winterlingsby Cristina Sanchez-Andrade, translated from the Spanish by Samuel Rutter.

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

Nothing Holds Back the Nightby Delphine de Vigan, translated from the French by George Miller.

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The Trick to Time by Kit de Waal

Not having read My Name is Leon, I had no idea what to expect from The Trick to Timeby Kit de Waal. I chose it because I had read nothing on the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018 long list and I recognised the author’s name. Indeed I have supported her Unbound project for an anthology of working class writers.

We follow the main character Mona in three timeframes. Mona is a child living by the sea on the west coast of Ireland, then a young woman in Birmingham married to the man she loves, pregnant with their first child, and finally nearing her 60thbirthday living alone in a seaside town in the south of England. We learn that her life has been punctured by loss, most poignantly of her child, but also of her husband William, on the night of the Birmingham pub bomb.

The Trick to Time

Given that the reader must follow Mona in three timeframes it is helpful that her father gave her some sound advice about time early on. They are on the beach and he is trying to persuade Mona to spend more time with her mother before she dies.

One day, you will want these hours back, my girl. You will wonder how you lost them and you will want to get them back. There’s a trick to time.’

He stands up, brushes the sand from his trousers, and Mona jumps on his back for the ride home. He lollops over the dunes with her hands round his neck and her chest against his ribs.

‘What’s the trick, Dadda?’

He likes to explain things so Mona expects a good long answer that might delay them getting back home.

‘You can make it expand or you can make it contract. Make it shorter or make it longer,’ he says. (21)

In this novel the characters relate to time depending on where they are in life. The young woman who helps Mona in her shop has all the time in the world. Mona is approaching 60 and feels that time is no longer on her side so she must change things for the better before drifting further.

Birdie, a cousin of her mother’s, was in love with Mona’s father, and waited for him until Mona left for Birmingham. Time was cruel to her, taking the love of her life within the year.

Val was a student nurse who attended to Mona when her daughter was still born. It was Val who found the body and brought it to Mona to hold while the hospital was in uproar from the bombing. These hours with her daughter, Beatrice, allows Mona to grieve. Every year she visits Val and her daughter’s grave, marking the years since Beatrice was lost.

Time and loss are explored with great poignancy. Mona’s love of her husband William hangs over the decades of Mona’s life that follow his loss. Love is a great healer, but it is not omnipotent.

The characters are sustained by strong communal bonds throughout. The Irish have their family connections. After the dreadful night of the IRA bomb, Mona is cared for by William’s aunts and when she looses William as well she returns to her childhood home to the care of her cousin Bridie.

In Birmingham the Irish community is strongly connected, but this leads to bad feelings after the bomb attack. In her English seaside town Mona is loosely connected to her neighbours and to those whose work supports her doll business. Some connections endure for years, like Birdie’s for Mona’s father, or the affection between Val and Mona.

To help people with the loss of their child, Mona uses an imaginative technique, getting the parents to articulate the life that might have been, recreating the time that the child would have lived. In the end she receives comfort for her own losses in this way.

It is a moving and engaging novel.

Kit de Waal

Kit de Waal was born in 1960 and brought up in the Irish community of Birmingham, the daughter of an Irish mother and a Caribbean father. Kit de Waal is her pen name. Her previous novel, My Name is Leonwas well received, shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Prize, and the Desmond Elliot Prize and winning the Kerry group Irish novel of the Year Award in 2017.

She has established a creative writing scholarship at Birkbeck, University of London, to support writers from disadvantaged background. Another project is a collection of working class writing with Unbound, which she has edited, is called Common People: an anthology of working class writers.  It is due to be published in 2018. I am proud to have supported this initiative.

In April, The Trick to Timewas reviewed on Heavenali’s blog.

The Trick to Time was long-listed for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018.

The Trick to Timeby Kit de Waal, published in 2018 by Viking (an imprint of Penguin Books). 262pp

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The book group, the blogger and the book

There’s a cliché about book groups: the members are all women of a certain age, keen yoghurt knitters and instead of discussing a book they drink wine and gossip. They may exist, but I have never been in a book group remotely like that cliché. But I am having difficulty, partly because I belong to too many book groups.

kiki_b on Visualhunt.com / CC BY

Why belong to a book group?

What’s not to like? We talk about books. This is not something we can do just anywhere. With the odd exception (that is people who have read The Master and Margarita) on buses and trains people don’t expect to talk about books. The opportunity to indulge in these discussions is my main reason to be in a group.

I also enjoy reading other people’s choices, books I might have missed, or may have rejected for any number of reasons: I read it before; someone I know didn’t respond well to it; I’ve heard not good things about it; I am a book snob.

I like to be social, and meet new people, especially when I moved to Devon several years ago.

Book Group wars

There are some things to guard against in book groups, I have heard. There are people who speak too much. There are people who pronounce on a book’s qualities or weaknesses and will not listen to the views of others. And there are people who are downright nasty to other members, have secret meetings, and plot to make someone leave a group. I have never been in a group like that. But I know people who have been.

My book groups

I attend two face-to-face book groups. We meet in people’s houses and drink wine in the one that meets in the evening. Both groups are serious about discussing the books.

On my blog I join in readalongs, currently Muriel Spark’s centenary #ReadingMuriel2018 hosted by Heavenali. Recently there was the 1977 Club hosted by Stuck in a Book and Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings. In the past I joined a year of Virginia Woolf. I like the on-line community, the different views of the bloggers, the slow conversation on-line and the sense of involvement in a project with others.

I have my own projects, the older women in fiction series, the women in translation series and the decades project. I also occasionally support the celebrations of birthdays of neglected women novelists.

I receive monthly novels from the Asymptote club that aims to promote fiction from around the world.You could try it.

Books about Book Groups

The Prison Book Group by Ann Walmsley

Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe

These first three are all non-fiction. The next three are novels.

The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler: a clever book, a fun and creative spin-off for ‘Janites’.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

The Readers of Broken Wheel recommend by Katarina Bivald. Translated from the Swedish by Alice Menzies

No! I don’t want to join a bookclub by Virginia Ironside, about much, much more than bookclubs.

And for a list of nine (including some of the ones I have mentioned) you could check out this article from bustle.

Book groups – so what’s the problem?

Recently I have been thinking that all this book clubbery is too much. Already I schedule my reading to meet the demands of my groups and blog plans. But this is making me feel under obligation about my reading. I want my choices back again.

The tension mounted and it became still more difficult when my blog was playing up recently. I have fixed the blog but the requirement to read certain things by certain dates remains with me.

Fortunately the resolution is in my own hands. It’s simple – I may not keep to my schedules. I don’t believe many people will notice or that anyone will suffer from this decision. But you have been warned!

Do you ever suffer from book-reading-obligation blues?

Tell us about it.

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