Monthly Archives: October 2019

Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie

Sometimes you just know that you must own a copy of a certain book. I heard an extract and a strong recommendation on a recent Backlisted podcast and thought – that’s a book for me. I went as far as Waterloo Station to find it. And I bought it in hardback as it is the only edition currently available. I was setting myself up for disappointment. 

But I was not disappointed. The book contains a series of essays by the Scottish poet, Kathleen Jamie. It is a beautifully produced book, attractive cover, rich tactile paper and it contains some grainy but appropriate B&W photos. And the text is special too.

Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie

This was not a random shot in the dark attraction. I am interested in archaeology and history. There’s an annual dig a mile from where I live which is rewriting Roman history in the South West. The site appears to have been in occupation for decades, perhaps centuries, before and after the Romans came and went. It is still unclear why the village relocated in the early medieval period. But this is not what I want to write about.

And good writing is always attractive. As an esteemed poet Kathleen Jamie has brought her skill and craft to the natural world for some time.

What attracted me most to these essays was that she connected archaeological finds with the indigenous peoples who live next to the site today. She travels to Alaska to visit a site of an abandoned Yup’iq village which is being gradually washed away by the Pacific Ocean as a result of rising sea levels. The artefacts are in danger of being lost. 

At the end of the dig the archaeologists display their finds, everyday objects, to the villagers. She reveals that archaeology is a force to connect communities and affirm a community’s history. In this case the dig has exposed finds from 500 years ago, before Europeans ‘discovered’ America.

[…] I wandered round from table to table, eavesdropping.

‘And you’d pull the bow like this …’

‘A lamp! My mother had one.’

‘Nowadays we use synthetic sinew, ballistic nylon.’

I saw George, the water man. The last time I had spoken to him he had a map in his hands. Here he was again, but he’d swapped the map for his seal-hunting harpoon, which stood taller than he did. He was showing the students how his modern harpoon toggle compared to those of his Yup’iq forbears at Nunallaq [the dig site]. His was the same shape, same mechanism, but made of brass.

A lady came with a basket she had woven from beach grass. She was plump and wore a bright floral kuspuk and tracksuit bottoms. Her basket was bow-shape, a foot deep and decorated with stylised flowers in what looked like torn strips from an old polythene bag, but no, she said, it’s seal-gut, dyed. I saw her in earnest conversation with a PhD student who was studying the grass-work. (86-88)

Kathleen Jamie visits another archaeological site, this one in danger from lack of funding. On Orkney a large community, built over centuries from stone, is being uncovered, but funds will run out and the elements will destroy what remains. Successive generations built on the foundations of the settlement of others.

Similar themes are approached in different ways in other essays. The Reindeer Cave puts the reader by the poet’s side in a cave in the West Highlands.

You’re sheltering in a cave, thinking about the Ice Age. (1)

Her reflections on the aeons of time and our own world are thoughtful and lyrical. A short observation of an eagle in a landscape is another gem. For a longer meditation she takes us to her past in a Chinese village during difficult times. Her observations of the people in the guest house, the place they find themselves in, and the people whose world they are visiting, these are a delight. Like no writer I know, she links time and the land in ways that provide insight into the current environmental and archaeological crises. 

You can find admiration from another book blogger, who was already familiar with the work of this Scottish poet: dovegreyreader scribbles in September.

Surfacing Kathleen Jamie  (2019) Published by Sort of books. 247pp

And another thing: podcasts

Mentioned that my source for this book was a podcast. I have recently become more enthusiastic about these, finding them excellent companions for the washing up. This was largely a matter of working out how to access them from my ipad, which turned out to be very simple. 

The podcast I mentioned in the opening of this post featured Elizabeth Taylor and specifically her novel The Soul of Kindness. So my discovering of Surfacing was serendipitous. How lovely. You can find a link to the Backlisted website here: https://www.backlisted.fm.

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The Little Old Lady who Broke all the Rules by Catharina Ingelman-Sundberg

I like the way the translated version of the title sets up a tension between the image of a biddable older woman and breaking the rules. All the best titles hold some contradictions I believe. And here is an older woman who is not the stereotype of the little old lady. Indeed she is not afraid to stand up for herself and for others and to create a community of older activists in the process. A great basis for a novel about an older woman. This is a guest post, by a writer friend, Carole, who responded to my request for examples of older women in fiction and got herself volunteered. 

The Little Old Lady who Broke all the Rules is the 43rd in the series of older women in fiction. This is what Carole wrote for me:

The Little Old Lady who Broke all the Rules

Here is a little old lady who fights back. Martha is no passive acceptor of whatever is thrown at her by life. She takes an active part in shaping her future and that of her friends. 

When greedy new owners force cutbacks to staff and services, Martha Andersson decides that conditions in prison would be preferable to those endured by the inmates of the Diamond House Retirement Home. A lack of outings, microwaved meals and a cocktail of appetite suppressants and sedatives make doing time seem a luxury to the residents. Spurred on by a hidden stash of cloudberry liqueur, Martha encourages her friends to form the League of Pensioners and to embark on an adventure. Together they set off to commit a crime that will get them banged up.  

Although Martha is a 79 year old lady who knits and uses a Zimmer frame, she is portrayed as a woman who is so much more than just that. She has a past life with skills that can be utilised to help her overcome the present crisis. She has a strong character that inspires her to want to fight injustice, a logical mind and an imagination. She is so much more than ‘a little old lady’. While medication may have masked the talents of Martha and her friends, it has not robbed them of their ability to remember the people they were – and still are. Within the limitations that age has inflicted (an ability to forget things and slower reactions) Martha wrestles with her problems and comes up with ingenious solutions that utilises the talents of her friends in League.

While occasionally disbelief must be suspended, Martha is portrayed as a real and likeable character. The plot is funny and shows us people who are having relationships, who worry about how they look and what they’re going to eat. They bicker and gripe but mostly they rise to the challenge. Despite their crimes I found that I was on their side and their honourable intentions were enough to carry me through to the end. It is interesting that the original title in Swedish offers no inkling as to the age of the protagonist. It may be that the change of title was made because of our fixed ideas about what ‘little old ladies’ should be doing in their twilight years. 

The book raises questions about what we expect from ‘old people’ and whether dignity should be a right. It shows how easy it may be to sit back and accept a restricted life and limited opportunities as part of ‘growing old’ never questioning whether something better is possible. Worse may be the ease with which we (i.e. younger than ‘old’) accept that prognosis for others – defining them by their years not their ability. Although it is greed that has sparked the changes in the Diamond House Retirement Home, the book raises questions about the standard of care offered in so many of our own retirement homes where cost cutting is biting into the normal stuff that we, who consider ourselves to be less than ‘old’, may take for granted. Read in the present light of questioning whether it is wise to write people off just because they are old or infirm, this book gently highlights some thoughts on the matter. Martha shows that by utilising people’s changing abilities and encouraging adapted skills, great things can be achieved. 

It is a book that I would strongly recommend. It is light and easy to read with a humour that underlines the most serious of questions. Martha is a likeable character who bravely battles the system but she, and her friends, also show acceptance of other people’s foibles whether these are caused by old age or just part of being human. While the book has a tremendous feel-good factor, it gently gets you thinking. 

The Little Old Lady who Broke all the Rules  by Catharina Ingelman-Sundberg. First published in 2012 by Bokfürlager Forum, Sweden under the title Kaffe med Rån  (Coffee with Robbery). This edition published in 2014 by Pan Books. Translated by Rod Bradbury.

Guest post written by Carole Ellis

Here are some recent additions to the Older Women in Fiction series:

The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant

Meet Me at the Museum  by Anne Youngson

Eleanor and Abel  by Annette Sanford (guest post)

Should You Ask Me  by Marianne Kavanagh

The Woman from Tantoura  by Radwa Ashour

See also a comprehensive list including many recent recommendations by readers, on the page called About the Older Women in Fiction Series.

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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After Leaving Mr Mackenzie by Jean Rhys

My choice for the 1930s club is After Leaving Mr Mackenzie by Jean Rhys. Published in 1930, it was her second novel, and is set in sad rooms in Paris and Bloomsbury in London. Julia is a young woman who has no independent means of support. 

The 1930s Club is hosted by Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at Stuck in a Book. You read a book from the year and post your thoughts on it, linking to their blogs. Simples, and a great way to pick a book that you might not otherwise read. It suits me perfectly, because I don’t want to chase new books all the time, but reread books and read published books, especially from the 20th century. 

After Leaving Mr Mackenzie

Janet finds herself in a sad room in a down at heel hotel in Paris after she has split up from Mr Mackenzie. It is clear that she has been financially dependent upon the men she slept with, but Mr Mackenzie’s solicitor has cut off her weekly allowance.

What is she to do? Increasingly desperate she finds Mr Mackenzie in a restaurant and challenges him. Later she is pursued by Mr Horsfield who takes pity on her but cannot manage her. She returns to London, where her sister Norah is behaving properly but is no more successful than her. Their mother dies and Janet gets nothing. She returns to Paris and continues to sink. In the last scene she once again receives money from Mr Mackenzie.

It’s a novel about managing life, or rather about the mistaken idea that life can be controlled. Propped up by convention the men believe they do control it, but it is clear that Julia challenges this notion.

Is this autobiography?

The young Jean Rhys

‘How this hopelessly inept, seemingly incomplete woman could write with such clarity, power and grace remains a mystery,’ said her editor, Diana Athill.

And indeed it might appear that this novel is autobiographical. Other sources suggest that while Jean Rhys drew from her experiences, there is a crucial difference: 

‘A novel has to have a shape, and life doesn’t have any.’ 

This quotation from the author can be found in Diana Athill’s introduction to Smile Please: an unfinished autobiography by Jean Rhys (1979).

Much of After Leaving Mr Mackenzie concerns people trying to control their lives. Janet is poor at it, and moves from one gentleman to another, borrowing money and asking favours. She appears to be managing very badly. The men in her life, and her sister, are not doing much better. The men draw on conventions to try to appear in control. But Mr Mackenzie is at a loss when Julia appears in the restaurant in which he is dining. She complains that his lawyer has said there will be no more cheques. 

Mr Mackenzie thought, ‘Never again – never, never again – will I get mixed up with this sort of woman.’

His collar felt too tight for him. He thrust his chin out in an instinctive effort to relieve the constriction. The movement was exactly like that of a horse shying. (25) 

Mr Mackenzie vacillates between horror of what she might do and attempts to humiliate her. After a moment, this happens.

A cunning expression came into Julia’s face. She picked up her glove and hit his cheek with it, but so lightly that he did not even blink.

‘I despise you,’ she said.

‘Quite,’ said Mr Mackenzie. He sat very straight, staring at her.

Her eyes did not drop, but a mournful and beaten expression came into them.

‘Oh, well,’ she said, ‘all right. Have it your own way.’

Then, to Mr Mackenzie’s unutterable relief, she gathered up her gloves and walked out of the restaurant. (26)

Jean Rhys, while she suffered from men’s behaviour towards her, did not resent them. Indeed she claimed in a radio interview that writing about such incidents, while autobiographical, was also therapeutic. It purged her unhappiness. Once something had been written out, she said, it was done with. (Quoted by Diana Athill in Smile Please).

Jean Rhys was innovative in this novel, for example she uses multiple points of view to show her protagonist’s situation. We are taken into the heads of the people she meets, or reports on, and by this means we are shown how Janet is a challenge to people. She has not left Mr Mackenzie at the start of the novel, although she does leave him at the end. He is still as self-satisfied as at the start, and while he may not want to be ensnared by another woman like Julia, we know that he will go on exploiting women.

Julia, in short, is like that person on the street whose eye you do not want to catch. She makes you feel uncomfortable. Yet you pity her for not managing her life. But in truth all lives are, to some degree, unmanageable. We are all just a small step away from chaos or disaster or poverty. 

No one who has read Jean Rhys’s first four novels [After Leaving Mr Mackenzie was her second] can suppose that she was good at life; but no one who never met her could know how very bad at it she was. [Diana Athill in Stet.] 

After Leaving Mr Mackenzie by Jean Rhys, was first published in 1930. I used the  Penguin Modern Classic edition (2000) with an introduction by Lorna Sage. 138pp

Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys was reviewed on Bookword in July 2013.

The Romantic Life of the writer Jean Rhys was published in September 2016, in which I suggested that it is amazing that Jean Rhys wrote so well in the light of her considerable difficulties.

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The Story of Tracy Beaker by Jacqueline Wilson

My choice for the 1990s in the Decades Project is Tracy Beaker’s own story  about being a child in care in the 1990s, looking for foster care. This is the tenth post in the Bookword 2019 Decades Project focusing on children’s literature. 

Tracy Beaker is the most successful character created by Jacqueline Wilson. There are three books with her name, and a television series among other indications of success. What is it about this spirited young girl that endears her to readers of all ages?

The Story of Tracy Beaker

Tracy tells her own story, which is as it should be for a ‘looked after’ child. Tracy is her own heroine, which is also as it should be. 

She is 10 years old and does not have a great deal going for her. She is in care and no one wants her, despite attempts to find suitable foster parents. She lives in a children’s home (Dumping Ground) and has a social worker (Elaine). She is not an attractive kid and Nick Sharratt’s illustrations aptly show her as a tangle-haired girl in ordinary clothes. Usually she has a smile on her face. 

Nick Sharratt and Tracy Beaker from his website

Tracy writes her own story in a vivid and clear style, as if she is writing in a social services workbook: Who am I? Clear-sighted as regards others, she is blind to her own faults, finding excuses for them, like hay fever (not crying), and that her mother is a Hollywood actress and will visit next Saturday. (It is likely that her mother has lost touch with her.) She is fierce and loyal, beastly to her enemies and grudgingly respectful of the residential social workers who have to deal with her tantrums.

The reader quickly sees that she is a child who will stand up for herself and at the same time she is a sulky child with poor behaviour because she has been let down by her mother, foster carers and the world. Those around her find it difficult to get on with her, but ‘dopey Peter Ingham’ persists. He shares a birthday with her and is also a resident in the children’s home. The story of how they become friends is an important subplot.

It is the search for a decent home that drives the story. Poor Tracy has been a ‘chid of the week’ in the local paper. This is how she would advertise herself.

TRACY BEAKER

Have you a place in your hearts for dear little Tracy? Brilliant and beautiful, this little girl needs a loving home. Very rich parents preferred as little Tracy needs lots of toys, presents and pets to make up for her tragic past. (61)

This is what appeared in the paper, written by Elaine.

TRACY

Tracy is a lively, healthy, chatty, ten-year-old who has been in care for a number of years. Consequently she has a few behaviour problems and needs firm, loving handling in a long-term foster home. (62)

Tracy’s reaction is over the top, of course.

I ask you!

‘How could you do this to me, Elaine?’ I shrieked when I saw it. ‘Is that the best thing you can say about me? That I’m healthy? And anyway I’m not. What about my hay fever?’ 

‘I also say you’re lively. And chatty.’

‘Yeah. Well, we all know what that means. Cheeky. Difficult. Bossy.’

‘You said it, Tracy,’ Elaine murmured. (62-3)

And then along comes Cam, a writer who is trying to write something about children in care for a magazine. Tracy, who also has aspirations as a writer, decides to adopt her although Cam finds that this is not plain sailing. Tracy tested her to the limit.

Absent parents in children’s literature

Almost all the books featured in this year’s Decades Project have been stories about children whose parents are absent or dead or completely inadequate. From the Fossil orphans of Ballet Shoes and Mary in the big Yorkshire house in The Secret Garden, to Willie in Goodnight Mister Tom parents who are present and good enough are in short supply.

The job of fiction is to explore a different reality, and in this way children can see that others may be less fortunate than them, and it allows them to face their fears about their parents.

The Story of Tracy Beaker by Jacqueline Wilson, first published in 1991. I used the Corgi edition (Puffin Books) published in 2018. 217pp. This edition contains an additional story Tracy Beaker’s Thumping Heart. Illustrations by Nick Sharratt.

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 2000-2010. 

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

Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian (1983)

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry  by Mildred D Taylor (1976)

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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Young Anne by Dorothy Whipple

Dorothy Whipple is one of those twentieth century writers, often female, whose work was at risk of disappearing into the place where neglected writers’ books go: library stacks, second-hand shops, recycling bins? But she has been rescued and restored by Persephone Books and gained justified popularity through word of mouth and bloggers’ admiration.

Young Anne was her first novel and some of it may have been based on her early life. But it is all her own writing with its strong storyline pulling you forward from the infant Anne to the moment when she resolves a dilemma about her future. How has she gained this maturity? Who were her guides?

Young Anne

Young Anne was born in a northern town at the end of the nineteenth century. She lives with her two parents and two brothers. Anne is the youngest. Two things determine her early life: her gender and the comparative lack of money in the family. Her father’s strictness and insistence that things are done right and her mother’s casual lack of interest in her children mean that Anne lives a restricted life with little encouragement. She is bright, independent and her only support at home is the housemaid Emily. 

The first school she attends is closed suddenly when one of the teachers dies of starvation. Anne is then sent to a convent to have discipline instilled in her. She comes to enjoy the comforts and security of the nuns and her friends but rejects Catholicism.

Soon after she leaves school her father dies and her mother moves away to become a permanent guest in other people’s homes. Anne becomes dependent upon Great Aunt Orchard, a fearsome figure who regards Anne as fortunate to be living under her roof, although she pays for this by having to darn her combinations (already 50 years old) and seek her permission for everything. Fortunately Emily transfers to the household as well. 

Anne had a youthful love affair with George Yates, but abruptly ended it when a poisonous cousin suggested her parents had to marry. This produces a crisis in Anne for she now believes her father to have been a hypocrite. Moreover intimate physical relations revolt and horrify her.

When the first world war comes George enlists and Anne gets a job in a Medical Office during the war and marries the chief administrator. He is much older. When peace comes she has nothing much to occupy herself and becomes very bored, despite Richard’s gift of a fancy new fiat car. A crisis comes when George returns and she is torn between her old feelings for him, the excitement of a passionate affair, and what she has with Richard. The turning point is her treatment of Emily, faithful but unable to help her. When Anne sees she could have lost her lifelong friend she pays attention to her sense of what is right.

Dorothy Whipple

Dorothy Whipple

Born in Blackburn, Lancashire in 1893, Dorothy Whipple wrote 8 novels and several collections of short stories. She was popular between the wars. Two of her novels were made into films in the 1940s. But she gradually fell out of favour until Persephone Books restored her reputation and recommended her to new readers. She died in 1966

The new edition has an excellent preface by Lucy Mangan. She points out how Dorothy Whipple’s prose is easy to read, yet how she has depth to her novels, always pointing to the difference between the lives of men and women in her writing. HeavenAli, in her review, notes how all characters are well-rounded. In this novel there are several horrors, Great Aunt Orchard, the poisonous cousin and Muriel Yates a childhood friend. The father is dire as well. We are under no illusion that it is Emily who provides the greatest support for young Anne and the strong moral sense of Anne herself that allows her to develop into a mature young woman.

Summer Flowers by Sundown, silk and linen furnishing fabric. Endpaper

Young Anne by Dorothy Whipple, first published in 1927. I used the edition published in 2018 by Persephone. 292 pp

Other posts about Dorothy Whipple’s Novels

They were Sisters  (May 2017)

Greenbanks  (October 2013)

Young Anne  on HeavenAli’s blog

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The Salt Path by Raynor Winn

You cannot have escaped the good reception this book has had, perhaps you’ve been told about it by someone who has read it, or noted it in a shortlist for a prize. It has some alluring ingredients: resilience in the face of bad fortune; it is set in that liminal seashore zone; betrayal, illness, walking, wild camping, beautiful landscapes and wildlife. 

With such ingredients it was sure to be successful and bring pleasure to many. My book group read it in September and discussed it a couple of weeks ago. It provoked lively discussion, which is our criterion for a good book. If you haven’t read it I can assure you that you will find something to please you in it.

The Salt Path

Raynor Winn and her husband Moth are in their 50s and have been living in Wales for many years on a freehold small farm. Their children have grown up, the farm and its land are taken from them in a court case which is presented as both unfair (the judgement) and a betrayal (by a former friend). They have no means, no financial security at all. And then Moth is diagnosed with a degenerative and terminal illness: CBD. What are they to do?

They decide to walk the South West coast path, from Minehead to Portland, and to camp along the way. The choice is pretty near random, based on a book: The South West Coast Path: From Minehead to South Haven Pointby Paddy Dillon, complete with OS maps and a waterproof cover. The choice of guidebook also determined the direct of their walk, even though it meant doing the toughest part first.

So they set out in late summer of 2013 and with a break in the winter living in a shed they were renovating they walked 600 miles in the next 10 months. They slept wild and ate as cheaply as possible, and therefore badly. And they hoped that by walking they would find a solution to their homelessness, their lack of income and the pressing problem of living with an approaching death. Walking is known to help clear the mind, but these two had such difficult daily experiences from the challenges of their walk that they were not able to spend much time thinking about or discussing their imponderable future. 

But they met these challenges with stamina, endurance, resilience and mutual support despite being preoccupied with the daily pursuit of food, a safe place to sleep and an occasional wash. They were resourceful in the face of having so little cash. A scene that gives real pleasure was set in St  Ives, and out of cash as usual Moth begins a loud recitation of Beowulf in Seamus Heaney’s translation and Raynor takes round the hat. They earn £28.03.

Other people cross their path or walk with them for a while. Few are aiming to go so far or are rough sleeping. Some are welcome company, a few are not. Some are generous too with warmth or food or a welcome. The landscape, especially the northern coast of Cornwall is impressive while also providing severe challenges. Early mornings, before many people are around, and while the shore birds are still feeding, and the air is fresh and clear, these are the good times.

They encounter strong prejudice against homeless people, and experience urban homelessness briefly in Plymouth and note the contrast with their coastal path existence.  

And they find that their love for each other is a strong as ever having been severely tested by the circumstances of their walk. They meet good luck and generosity having arrived at some decisions about their futures, and find permanent accommodation as easily a pretty feather or a pebble. 

What did the book group think?

All members of the group had enjoyed going on the emotional journey of The Salt Path with the writer. Some felt angry about what had happened to them and respected the couple’s positive response to such a dreadful position.

Much of the time while I was reading this book I wondered why we were being asked to applaud bonkers behaviour. Why on earth were they walking the coastal path? But in my book group it was suggested that a better question would be – why not? They had nothing better to do. 

And because we live close to the South West coastal path, and have all walked parts of it, we set to again to discuss what we had enjoyed about this compelling and moving book. One reader suggested that the best writing described the walking and the landscape and she was not so keen on the insertion of bits of local history. Another remarked that it was the author’s story, not so much the couple’s.

We all agreed on the pleasures of walking in the south west, and that walking is good for you and makes you feel good.

The Salt Path by Raynor Winn published in 2018 by Penguin. 275pp

The Sunday Times bestseller, Winner of the Royal Society of Literature Christopher Bland Prize & shortlisted for the 2018 Costa Biography Award & Wainwright Golden Beer Book Prize 2018

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