Monthly Archives: August 2019

The Juniper Tree by Barbara Comyns

The Juniper Tree was published in 1985 when Barbara Comyns was 78. It was the ninth of her eleven novels. Her early work had involved magical or mystical aspects, such as a strange plague and levitation. For The Juniper Tree Barbara Comyns retold the Grimm tale of the same name. In the original Grimm story the stepmother deliberately kills her stepson and is messily punished by magpies. In the story told by Barbara Comyns it is not the stepmother who is culpable. She retells it with a feminist slant.

The Juniper Tree

Bella is young, rather messed up, scarred and good at letting other people make decisions for her. When the story begins she is drifting after the end of a relationship with a mean young man who was driving when she received the injuries that resulted in her scars.  She has a little money in the bank. 

For a time this money seemed a curse to me, yet I wouldn’t share it with Stephen. It was the insurance money paid for my damaged face. … For some reason Stephen thought we should share it, although he was responsible for the damage. (18)

Bella seems very susceptible to this kind of treatment by people and not to be very decisive herself. She has a daughter by a man whose name she can’t remember. The child, Marline also called Tommy, is mixed race and very attractive. Bella and her daughter are taken up by a couple called Gertrude and Bernard Forbes. They are a well off couple who long for a child

Bella finds a job running a second hand shop and enjoys herself for the first time, but she becomes more and more absorbed into the Forbes’ life especially after Gertrude becomes unexpectedly pregnant. Gertrude dies having given birth to a son. Now Bella is roped in more and more to the housekeeping chores and childcare and eventually Bernard marries her. You probably can guess what is coming.

Bernard takes up another young girl and Bella realises that she has left behind a life that she really loved. Then the little boy is killed accidentally, in a storage chest for some apples. Bdelieving she was responsible Bella tries to hide the death from Bernard. She has a breakdown.

Magpies do appear in this story, together with some details from the Grimm tale, such as the juniper tree, a red slipper and stolen jewellery. But there is no bloody revenge, only some soul searching, including an emerging understanding that because Bella was susceptible Bernard persuaded her to do things against her better judgement. Bella, though malleable, is also a trooper and she learns to trust her own judgement and ends up happily married to someone else.

The most destructive person in Barbara Comyns’s version is Bella’s mother who treats her very badly when she is a child, although they are later reconciled. It turns out that she too has been badly treated by a man.  

The writing style is very even. The sentences follow one from another, regardless of the many mishaps in Bella’s life. Sometimes there are little warning bells hidden inside this evenness. 

… I told him the truth that I was quiet because I felt so happy, and he [Bernard] said, “How extraordinary, people so seldom admit they are happy. Gertrude did and look what happened to her. Take care, dear Bella. Happiness is a very fragile thing, but no one deserves it more than you.” (103)

It was published in the 80s but it felt more like the 60s. Although there is a trademark Comyns surreal feel to everything.

The Juniper Tree by Barbara Comyns, published in 1985 by New York Review Books. 177pp

You can find the Grimm’s version of the story in Grimm Tales for young and old  by Philip Pullman, published by Penguin Books in 2012. 420pp

Books by Barbara Comyns reviewed on Bookword:

Who was Changed and Who was Dead by Barbara Comyns (April 2018)

The Vet’s Daughter by Barbara Comyns (March 2019)

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Selfies by Sylvie Weil

When I noticed that Selfies by Sylvie Weil was getting good responses on Twitter I ordered it to read for Women in Translation Month (August): #WITMonth. Selfies by Sylvie Weil was published in English in June 2019, having first appeared in French in 2015. It is translated by Ros Schwartz.

Selfies

I am not clear about the genre of Selfies. It would probably be classed as a memoir, but it is creative and imaginative, so it might be a novel. This confusion results partly from its presentation. This is part of its charm.

Each of the 13 sections contained within Selfies begins with a brief description of a self-portrait by a female artist. The original painting is then is reinterpreted in words as a scenario with the author as the subject. Then follows a narrative, short or long, related to the scene. It seems a little clunky at first, but soon the creative and imaginative format appeals, and it becomes hard to stop reading.

Another way to envisage this book is to anticipate 13 episodes, significant in the author’s life, and to see them refracted through a painted self-portrait. 

Sylvie Weil introduces us to her first self-portrait. In about 1200 Claricia, a German illuminator, portrayed herself swinging by the arms from the tail of a large capital ‘Q’. 

I will paint my self-portrait as a letter ‘I’ against a background the warm hue of ancient parchment. A perfect upright, slender, graceful adolescent girl, wound like a vine around a rope dangling from a ceiling that is either invisible or covered in verdant foliage, since this is an illumination. … (10)

 Her narrative is an account of a gym lesson in her convent. She is climbing ropes and experiencing the sensuous pleasure of her own body. 

Gwen John’s Self Portrait with Letter is reimagined as the author painting her own portrait holding a postcard. The pc has a message from an American lover, who after a few days in Paris decides that they will marry and he invites her to New York. The visit does not go well and the reader is relieved when … 

We see her as an older woman taking many photographs of everyone at a social event and deleting all except the ones of her son; we read about the best friend relationship that turns out to be not so close; we recognise her reaction to friends who had their dog put down for their convenience and so on. She reflects on herself and how the people around her have influenced her. As one reads the vignettes her development and character become a clearer.

The reader inevitably wonders what self-portraits would s/he draw on, and what that would reveal. I love this French experimentation with form, which makes it an intriguing and compelling read.

Selfies by Sylvie Weil published in English in 2019 by Les Fugatives. Originally published in Paris in 2015. 152 pp

Translated from the French by Ros Schwartz.

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My Bookish August

This has been a rather mad month in terms of bookish and writing activities. I know we are barely half way though August but it has been non-stop in the Bookword world. 

Woman’s Hour

For readers outside the UK who may not know it, Woman’s Hour is a long-running magazine programme on BBC Radio 4. As the title suggests, it focuses on issues from the female perspective, and covers a very wide range of topics. It has a large audience.

Early in August I was asked to join a discussion on older women and fiction, to be broadcast live. The prompt for this discussion was some recent research into the tastes and disappointments of women readers over 40, commissioned by the website Gransnet.

Our topic took as its starting point that women over 40 are the biggest buyers of fiction, but the survey revealed that readers were dissatisfied with how older women are depicted. They often appear in novels as stereotypes, for example unable to operate a smart phone. I made my points about how everyone needs to read good examples of older women, not just readers over 40. And I recommended three good titles, having plugged my blog. I have been asked to repeat my recommendations – so here they are, with links to the reviews on Bookword.

I was asked to arrive by 9.30am, but was unable to find the studio. Fortunately I have done this kind of thing before, or I would have been completely fazed by arriving late, having followed internet directions to the studios in Exeter that they left four years ago. My smart phone was no help; no one answered my increasingly desperate calls and no one could tell me where I was supposed to be. It took a gasman, a community centre receptionist and a taxi driver to deliver me to the studio. The programme order was rearranged to accommodate my tardiness.

This time I met no chickens as I waited to go on air. For an account of a previous experience in September 2014 in a BBC radio studio to promote a book see the link here: Retiring with Attitude at the BBC.

Guest Blogging on Global Literature in Libraries Initiative website

Karen Van Drie invited me to blog in August about older women in fiction around the world. I hope you have or will take a look. By the end the month there will have been about 25 posts. Sadly only six are translations. This is disappointing because August is Women in Translation Month: #WITMonth.  

You can find the blog here: Global Literature in Libraries Initiative, and for more information about the guestathon see my post on Bookword for 3rdAugust.

Planning for the Writing Festival

But most of my energies in August have gone on my contribution to planning a writing festival. WRITE NOW TOTNES will be held on Saturday 21stSeptember, organised by the Totnes Library Writing Group. We have pulled together an exciting range of workshops and other events designed to appeal to participants with a range of experience and of confidence. 

We are proud that it is a local event, ie all workshop leaders and performers are from the area around Totnes, and it is held in the centre of Totnes in the community buildings known as the Mansion. We are thrilled to have attracted funding, including from the Arts Council Lottery Fund. 

There is so much to organise and get right. I have volunteered to do a workshop on blogging of course.

For more details see our Facebook page.

And …

Just three things to keep me busy? Did I mention the dog, or writing or  …? Enough!

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Filed under Books, Learning, Libraries, Older women in fiction, Publishing our book, Reading, Reviews, The Craft of Blogging, Women in Translation, words, Writing

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D Taylor

I was teaching in a school in north London in the 1980s and it seemed that every student in Y8 was reading Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. It is easy to see why. There is a very engaging main character, Cassie, telling the story, a family suffering injustice and violence and a caring set of adults who explain the world and make it as safe as possible. But to be black in Mississippi in the Great Depression was to live in a violent and unsafe world.

We have reached the 1970s and Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry  by Mildred D Taylor was published in 1976. This is the eighth post in the Bookword 2019 Decades Project focusing on children’s literature. 

The original cover, by Jerry Pinkney

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry

Cassie lives with her family on a small piece of land in Mississippi in the Great Depression. It is unusual for such a family to own land, even a small parcel of land, because they are black. Her father works away, as does her uncle, because the income from the cotton crop does not make enough to sustain the family. Cassie has three brothers, her grandmother and her mother who together make up her loving family. 

Cassie first notices racial segregation when she and her brothers have to walk through the mud to their school, while the white school children have a bus and go to their own school. What’s more, for sport, the bus driver frequently runs them off the road into the muddy ditches. The boys in her family plot to teach the bus driver a lesson. They succeed in breaking the school bus axle, and are not caught, although at about the same time there is trouble for some black families. This is a time of lynchings, burnings and violent racism.

Cassie’s family try to operate a boycott of the plantation shop, to use economic pressure to stop the exploitation of black families. But as they are the only black family with land they cannot muster enough support. Tensions rise. Cassie falls out with a rude young girl in a neighbouring white family, and is forced to apologise for standing up to the girl’s superior behaviour. Her father has his leg broken in a skirmish with some white men.

Finally, their friend TJ gets himself involved with some badass white kids. The three of them break into the local store, and the manager and his wife are badly injured. TJ is blamed and the white men come for him. He flees to Cassie’s family and then tries to get home. He is brought out of the house and his parents and siblings are violently manhandled. A friendly white lawyer tries to intervene, and only when a fire threatens the cotton crop does the community avoid violence and come together to save their common livelihood.

In the process of these events Cassie learns a thing or two about growing up and taking responsibility. There is a fair amount of sermonising and wise guidance by the adults. She must learn when to speak up, when to disobey, when to take action.

The readers in the 1980s would have been aware that the threat of violence was real, and that racial segregation and injustice was ubiquitous in the southern states. Cassie takes the role of the innocence who must have the behaviour and the injustices explained. Cassie asks the reader’s own questions. The threat of violence grows throughout the novel and culminates in a thunderstorm. We learn that despite great strength and size of each of the three black men, Papa David, Uncle Hammer and Mr Morrison, they choose the path of peaceful resistance.

Mildred D Taylor in the Author’s note that precedes the novel suggests that from her father

I learned a history not then written in books but one passed from generation to generation on the steps of moonlit porches and beside dying fires in one-room houses, a history of great-grandparents and slavery and of the days following slavery: of those who lived still not free, yet who would not let their spirits be enslaved … (7)

The first page suggests that the novel is based on the author’s own experiences.

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cryby Mildred D Taylor, first published in the USA in 1976. I used the Puffin Books edition from 1980. 220 pp. My copy has the London school and English department stamp inside the cover. It’s on an extended loan. 

The Decade Project in 2019

In 2019, the third year of my Decades Project, I am exploring children’s fiction from the start of the 20thcentury through my monthly choices of a book from successive decades. Next month it will be a book from 1980-89. 

Here are the links to the books in this year’s Decades Project so far:

A Wizard of Earthsea  by Ursula K Le Guin (1968)

The Eagle of the Ninth  by Rosemary Sutcliff (1954)

The Little White Horse  by Elizabeth Goudge (1946)

Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild (1936)

Joan’s Best Chum  by Angela Brazil (1926)

The Secret Garden  by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1911) 

Five Children and It by E Nesbit (1902)

To subscribe and receive email notifications of future posts on Bookword please email me with your email address: lodgecm@gmail.com

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Eleanor and Abel by Annette Sanford

This is a post from a writer friend of mine, orginally posted on the Global Literature in Libraries blog. Like many writers Annie is a reader and her choice is a contribution to the theme of older women who thwart expectations. Eleanor Bannister might be expected to have an unadventurous retirement. Indeed she appears to expect it of herself. But that would be to under-estimate this older woman as Annie reveals.

Eleanor and Abel 

In this small town America older women are expected to work for the church, give charity lunches and continue to do their bit for the community. An uncompromising ex-school mistress Eleanor Bannister is aware that the eyes of the town are watching her as her relationship with Abel, an itinerant builder develops.  She is defiant, wary and to her chagrin vulnerable in this area of her life hitherto unexplored.

Eleanor’s routine is disrupted when the roof of the ‘honeymoon cottage’ left to her by her parents is damaged in a storm. The same storm blows Abel into town, looking for somewhere to rent. A competent builder he persuades her to let him repair the cottage.She is reluctant, she wants shot of the place, too many memories of her childhood, she still isn’t over the death of her parents some years before. Slowly she gives in and he becomes a regular feature in her life. The goal posts are moved bit by bit as she becomes used to his presence.

There is constant comment from her neighbour and life long friend Grace, who is jealous of the intruder but slowly gets to like the idea of a man in Eleanor’s life. Eleanor is in denial that she is romantically involved and repeatedly resorts to prayer and her diary as a means of dealing with this upset.

Abel has pretty quickly told Eleanor he is in love with her, the first time he sees her she is in her nightdress barefoot on the grass and that is when it happened. It’s not the Eleanor she feels herself to be and she is embarrassed but secretly excited by this.

Abel is polite but continues to woo her despite her determination to keep him at arms’ length. It’s a game of to and fro, each holding his or her ground as petty tiffs and reconciliation shape the development of their relationship.

At the point when Abel is really starting to get to her, Eleanor feels like shedding her old life. She sees her home as she now feels others see it, stuffy and old fashioned. On a whim she gets rid of all her clothes except of course her underwear and Grace is enlisted to help her buy a whole new wardrobe. Her clothes go to charity but she then sends Grace out to buy back her dressing gown, she can’t quite go through with it. 

Abel’s past life emerges in the form of his daughter who much like him has drifted through her life. He had told Eleanor he could never be sure he wouldn’t blow out of town just as quickly as he had blown into it as he’s always had a restless spirit.

His daughter leaves her own child in their care as she sets off to look for her errant husband.

The honeymoon cottage is finished, but Abel then takes off to look for his daughter. Eleanor is now in a state of confusion having committed herself to a man who might at any time just disappear from her life. 

Eleanor’s character

Eleanor resembles a woman from the pioneer era. Tough, independent, resilient, she built her life around these qualities, steering the town’s young population into adulthood with a stern resolve. She has never expected to be liked, she isn’t known for her sense of humour. Duty is important. Once one stage of life is finished another takes over and retirement means she can still have an important role in the community. She has little concern for the opinions of others or at least she likes to appear that way. Her weaknesses lie in the fact that she has clung onto the view of herself as a daughter to the parents with whom she lived. She seems unable to move on from this role and one wonders if the same doesn’t hold for her view of herself as a retired schoolmistress. 

As the book evolves a very emotional Eleanor emerges. The desire to look after someone again takes over – she wants to iron Abel’s shirts as she’d done her father’s. It causes her all sorts of distress as it makes her vulnerable, something she dislikes. There is the fear of losing what she has so lately found. She finds she is more flexible than she thought; the prospects make her anxious, change is a challenge which she likes but find very scary.

Summary

The book was very easy reading. I was attracted to the character of Abel although I found him unbelievable. Eleanor’s character could at times be annoying, she is strong but rigid. I wished her to pack up her belongings and take off with Abel and perhaps this is what the writer intended. The limitations of small town life had been too thoroughly absorbed. The writer has captured the intimacy and involvement in its residents’ lives. The routine of everyday life and the challenge of sharing these with a hitherto stranger, whether to leave the door open when you’re in the bathroom, are those small but important details that face anyone regardless of age.

For older women readers who might like the idea of finding a relationship late in life this is a book to go for. The chances of finding a tall, slim, handsome at 75 drifter in your neighbourhood, who is fit, sexy, a sympathetic listener, saves his money, is incredibly practical and prepared to do his share of the cooking might be pretty unlikely but that’s what fiction is all about. A good holiday read.

Eleanor and Abel by Annette Sanford published in 2003 by Arrow Books. 188pp

Written by my guest: writer Annie Morris.

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Older women in fiction around the world

So this month I am guest blogging on Global Literature in Libraries Initiative, thanks to an invitation from Karen Van Drie. Karen had seen the series on Older Women in fiction on Bookword and suggested I did a version of older women in translation. 

A blogger’s dream invitation

It’s a blogger’s dream, my blogging dream – an invitation to blog almost daily for a month about older women in fiction in translation. Regular readers will know that I have been writing about older women in fiction almost from the start of this blog. And I have also been supporting initiatives to publicise women in translation such as Women in Translation Month, which is August: #WITMonth.  

Why Older women in Fiction?

A common complaint of older women is that they become invisible. My blog series is in part a challenge to that invisibility in fiction.

More urgently, we need to change how people see older women. James Baldwin said,

The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you alter, even but a millimetre the way people look at reality, then you can change it. [quoted in the TLS by Sarah Ladipo Manyika* 28.5.19}

When I began looking for my own examples of older women who were not sweet, eccentric or death-fixated I was underwhelmed. I decided to collect readers’ ideas about better models of older women in fiction and now I have reviewed 40 titles and have a list of another 40 on my blog page about the older women in fiction series.

Not enough older women in translation

But there was a problem with Karen’s invitation. As far as I have discovered there are not many books in translation into English about older women in fiction. On Bookword to date there are only four (about 10%):

The Summer Book by Tove Jansson (Finland)

The Door by Magda Szabo (Hungary)

The Woman of Tantoura by Radwa Ashour (Egypt)

The Lady and the Little Fox Fur by Violette Leduc (France)

The shortage of older women in translation is an amplification of the failure of publishers to include fiction by women in translation on their lists. Some of the smaller independent publishers do great work it must be said. To some extent the market will develop as the population of older women increases, as it is worldwide. But for now I am just being eagle-eyed and watching the initiatives for promoting fiction in translation. You can help by making suggestions. There is the excellent Biblibio blogwhich hosts Women in translation month; The Global Literature blog; and the PEN organisation. 

So with no shortage of older women, only of translations, I suggested to Karen that I could provide posts on older women around the world.

Blogging about the Older Women in Fiction around the World

On Global Literature in Libraries Initiativeblog the continents will be my organising principle for this month:

  • Week 1 North America
  • Week 2 Europe
  • Week 3 Africa and the Middle East
  • Week 4 fiction from the UK 
  • Week 5 a roundup of those that got missed.

Where are the older women from South America and the Far East and – most surprising to me as there are so many excellent writers – from New Zealand and Australia? 

Not all books with strong examples of older women are written by women, although the large majority of them are. You will find several examples of books by men over the month. 

I have not written all the posts. I asked some other readers/writers to contribute.

Like a Mule bringing Ice Cream by *Sarah Ladipo Manyika will be featured in Week 3.

I am so grateful to Karen Van Drie for this opportunity.

…and on Bookword?

During August I will be blogging as usual on Bookword, posting every five days. Some posts will be edited examples of the more editorial posts from Global Literacies, but I will also be posting the next in the Decades Project on Children’s Literature where we have reached the ‘70s. And I may post some book reviews if my reading prompts me to. 

But it is Women in Translation Month so I hope to keep most of my posts with that theme in mind.

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