Monthly Archives: September 2020

Missing my writing group

I miss my writing group. We have not met in person since March, six months ago. The Coronavirus pandemic has postponed or cancelled some of the good things planned for this year, including an away day to work together on writing.

The Writing Group

I have been in this writing group since it started 7 years ago. The librarian called together some local writers and we formed our group. We have retained the library connection because we want people to be able to join in, as freely as they visit a library. It’s open to all. We only have one rule: don’t put yourself or your writing down. (None of this ‘it’s very rough really and I think you’ll hate it,’ or ‘I’m not sure about this, I’m not as experienced as the rest of you,’ and so on. It’s surprising how hard it is to wean people off this way of introducing their writing.)

Over the years we have achieved some rewarding things. We produced an anthology of our writing called Gallimaufry. We sold it to the public for £5 a copy, using the marketing ploy that it was an excellent Christmas present. We put our oldest and whitest haired members to the front and stood in the library entrance and sold them. 

It was a good experience. We learned a fair bit about producing a book and although it did not raise any funds for the group we were proud of our efforts.

Then there was the evening when brave members performed their work. We celebrated our 4th birthday with a brilliant bookish cake. We were not quite brave enough to open this to the public, but the event was attended by tolerant and appreciative friends and relations. 

Emboldened by all this, and wanting to try new aspects of sharing our work in the community, we decided to host a one day writing festival. None of us had realised what a step up that would be. It tested our organisational skills and rather got in the way of writing for the committee members. 

But in September 2019 we hosted about 100 local people to attend 12 workshops, some readings, a school’s writing display, a sale of books, and a poetry slam. It was a great success 

The feedback was positive. No we wouldn’t be doing this annually. We might repeat some of the activities. We needed to recover. We got ourselves sorted to use our funds for various activities, all aimed to support writing by people in the community and –

Covid-19 locked us down.

Writing in a pandemic

It’s been hard, writing in this pandemic, or rather not writing. Like many people I wrote a lockdown diary. I stopped after 4 months because I felt that my life was being prescribed by the virus. I began to feel that I should make my life be about more than Covid-19, that I would take account of the pandemic of course, but not be more defined by it than necessary. 

I have continued with my Morning Pages. I follow a modified version of the recommendation in The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. I start every day with Morning Pages. It helps me reflect on my writing and my reading and other activities important for my mental health. 

And I have continued to post on this blog every 5 days. Bookword was launched in December 2012, and I have since posted 613 times. Most of those posts are about books, but a fair number are about writing and publishing. I have no plans to stop soon.

Recently I felt frustrated by my lack of writing. I stopped wondering why I wasn’t getting on with my short story. They always take me a long time, but this one was largely conceived in November 2019. I have written perhaps two thousand words, some of it very poor and written just to get something down. So I decided that I would write 500 words a day. That’s roughly two handwritten sides of A4. I have been doing that since the beginning of September and enjoyed it. Some of it is memoir. Some of it is comment on what’s happening. Some is more like an exercise, a description or a response to a prompt.

And I have decided to take advantage of some on-line writing courses. I love writing courses, although I did feel at one point that I was a course junky and that attending courses was replacing or displacing my writing activities.

And in the last two or three months the writing group has been meeting on zoom. Or rather a few of us have been meeting on zoom. Usually one of us volunteers to offer a prompt and then we write together and read the results of our efforts. There is always laughter and always lots of praise and encouragement. We were just thinking that we might meet in person in a suitably distanced way when the rule about meeting in groups of six as a maximum was introduced. 

We are at the point of thinking about some variations in the way we use the zoom facility to share our work on the chat or screen share facility, using the audio and visual possibilities and so on.

So now I know

So now I know that my writing group, in person, round a table, with people who I know only as writers (often nothing more about them, their families, jobs, where they live etc etc) is important for my writing and that I will want us to operate again as we did when this is over.

What I like about the group is the stimulus, the laughter, the audience, the critique and above all the community.

Tell us what do you need from a writing group?

Related posts

Gallimaufry or why my writing group is cock-o-hoop (January 2016)

A Writing Festival – why would you organise one?

A Birthday for Our Writing Group

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Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney

Manhattan – the last time I was there was in 1969. It was so unfamiliar to me when I picked up this novel that I had to relearn the names and order of the Avenues, and look up the position of some of the most famous landmarks. I also had to use a Google map to follow Lillian Boxfish’s path through the city. I am not surprised that Daunt Books published this, as a bookseller Daunt’s is associated with travel books and the novel is so strongly set in the city of New York. 

I remember New York as a lively city, full of excitement and strangeness. It was noisy and dirty and I imagined I would be back soon. This was my return. And it was such fun. Lillian Boxfish was an ideal walking companion, a flâneuse with class.

This is the 49th novel in the series championing older women in fiction in order to make them more visible. You can find the complete list of reviews and suggested books in the series here.

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk

The book is set in 1984/5 beginning on New Year’s Eve. Finding herself alone on an evening which is typically celebrated in company, Lillian decides to take a walk. She has lived in Manhattan since 1921 and so now she walks first to her usual Italian restaurant, then to another in south Manhattan, then to a party in Chelsea and finally home. On the way she passes some landmarks of her life and we learn about her history.

The plot is tightly focused on Manhattan. Lillian does not stray further north than 42nd Street. The city has changed since she moved there in the 1920s: muggers, skyscrapers, the new World Trade Towers, loft conversions, Korean-run bodegas and so forth. We also get to reflect on how the city has continued to change since then.

Lillian Boxfish

Lillian is 84/5 and inspired by the real life Margaret Fishback. Like her inspiration,  Lillian has worked as a copywriter for Macy’s store, becoming rich and successful as a result of her poetic sales pitches. She also wrote books of guidance for young women and verse, often humorous, including for greetings cards when she lost her job at Macy’s. She was successful, she was well paid and had a lively social life. Unlike her contemporaries did not want to get married. But Lillian fell in love and married Max, and later became pregnant. 

Of course she lost her job when she became pregnant. This was the late 1930s. Her husband, being Italian-speaking, spent the war years away, and their lives were not the same on his return. They became less happy together and he was unfaithful. She descended into alcoholism, and an attempted suicide before being sent to a sanatorium and receiving electric shock treatment. 

By the time of this walk Max, her husband, had been dead for many years. His second wife is dying and her son Johnny lives with his own family away from the city in Maine. Her best friend also died a few years earlier. Her new friend is welcoming, but their shared interests are limited. She has no-one to share her New Year’s meal with.

Despite her isolation Lillian is a very sociable person, speaking to many strangers on her perambulation. She is also not your stereotypical elder, not scared of the city, even at night. When she meets a group of three muggers as she returns home, she stands up to them and a curious and successful bargain is struck. The incident reminds us of a conversation with her son early in the novel. He requested that she should not walk on the streets and reminded her about the Subway Vigilante who shot four young muggers when they asked him for five dollars. What if she had taken her grandsons on the subway? The people of New York are idolising him, she says.

‘I walk everywhere dearest,’ I say. And it’s true: I like the exercise, and the subway cars are graffitied with so much text it’s like being screamed at, like the voices inside my head and everyone else’s have manifested their yelling outside, ill-spelled with spray paint. ‘And we weren’t on that train. And he isn’t shooting elderly ladies and adorable tots.’
‘But guys like the guys he shot are everywhere. Hoods. Gangs. Toughs. Whatever you want to call them.’
‘I would not resist if young thugs approached me for money,’ I say. ‘I would acquiesce. I agree with Governor Cuomo that a vigilante spirit is dangerous. Rude, too.’
‘Rude?’ he says.
‘Yes Gian. Incivility is not incivility’s antidote. […] New Year is bigger than any mugger, the way it makes people feel. Being old is depressing. The Subway Vigilante is depressing. But I love it here, this big rotten apple. I’m near my old haunts, my sycamore trees, my trusty R.H. Macy’s.’ (11-12)

We can see she is a woman of considerable spirit, although her breakdown which we learn about half way through was so serious she needed shock treatment to recover. And we learn at the end of the book, she did not acquiesce to the muggers, but together they struck their own bargain. She’s a lively creature, who maintains her standards, especially of honesty and of engaging respectfully with others. 

The extract above also illustrates a feature of this book. The reader is given insight into her thoughts, which are often witty ripostes or reflections on the world as she sees it. We notice by this means the rich inner life she has cultivated for herself, that she has not been diminished by her experiences or by her age. She has loved many aspects of her life, and been as much in charge of it as she could be.  

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney published in 2017. UK publisher is Daunt Books. 277pp

Recent posts in the Older Women in Fiction Series

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout.

Frangipani House by Beryl Gilroy

The Old Woman and the River by Ismail Fahd Ismail

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The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard

Do you have this experience? It doesn’t happen very often, but when I finished The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard I felt that I had been lifted onto a different plane. In part it was the accomplishment of the writing, its elegance, sparseness and the observations of human relationships revealed in the prose. And in part it was the breadth of Shirley Hazzard’s observation and of her imagination of the post-war world.

The Transit of Venus is my choice for the 1980s in the Decades Project 2020 (see below). The novel captures something of the international influences happening in the decades following the Second World War. 

The Transit of Venus

The novel’s narrative stretches over 30 years allowing the characters and their relationships to be played out with the inevitability of the transit that gives the book its title.

Two Australian sisters have come to Britain in the 50s and are staying in a house of an eminent astronomer, Professor Thrale. Grace is the younger, very pretty, engaged to the son, Christian. Caroline is older and with more purpose in life. There is a third sister, a half-sister Dora who is an eternal victim who has cared for Caroline and Grace since their parents died. We follow Grace and Caro through several decades, and mostly Caro because Grace leads a calm and largely unexplored life. 

Ted Tice is a young astronomer come to spend time with Thrale and he falls for Caroline, a love he nurtures beyond the end of novel. Caro however is seduced by a friend of the family, a young playwright, Paul Ivory who in turn is engaged to Tertia who lives in grand style nearby. Paul and Caro begin an affair. The reader is sure that Paul is untrustworthy and that Tertia knows about the affair but has other motives for continuing with her engagement and marrying Paul. 

Paul Ivory is the bad boy, cynical, calculating, enjoying power and influence. He has a secret, known to Tice (and he knows Tice’s secret too). He breaks up with Caro.

She works in an office, subjected to the taken-for-granted sexism of the time. She is very hurt by the end of her affair with Paul but eventually marries an American benefactor and goes to live in NY. Christian Thrale has an affair because he believes he should. Grace falls in love with her son’s doctor, but he refused to compromise her. The marriage is not made better or worse by these episodes. Ted Tice goes on loving Caro from a distance until two important secrets are revealed. 

Themes

Although the transit of Venus across the sun is predictable it is an event that occurs only every 120 years, and then twice in 8 years. Captain Cook’s voyage to Tahiti in 1768 was designed to coincide with one transit to help with astrological measurements, specifically the size of the solar system. His measurements were inaccurate. The next transit will be in December 2117.

Shirley Hazzard understands that our lives are influenced by both predictability and chance, by those we meet and the moment we meet them. The important thing is what we do with our experiences: perhaps use them to manipulate others as Dora does. She turns every situation into a story of wrong being done to Dora. She is the saddest of all the characters.

Dora sat on the corner of the spread rug, longing to be assigned some task so she could resent it. […] Dora was not one to lie down under the news that a veranda was called a loggia, or a mural a fresco. Let alone villa for house. (45)

Grace lives a life of conventional comfort, with her husband making steady progress in the Foreign Office, and children and a nice house with beautiful things. A mirror bought in Bath is frequently mentioned, yet towards the end of the book Caro reflects that

It was not clear now, as formerly, that Grace was satisfied with chintz and china – with Christian saying, “A wee bit fibrous,” or hoisting his trousers at evening and announcing, “Must get my eight hours.” It was not quite certain Grace had remained a spectator. Those who had seen her as Caro’s alter ego might have missed the point. (324)

The reader has seen Grace’s thwarted love for her son’s doctor and noted the dignity ascribed to her by Shirley Hazzard.

With these prospects and impressions, Grace Marian Thrale, forty-three years old, stood silent in a hotel doorway, with the roar of existence in her ears. And like any great poet or tragic sovereign of antiquity, cried on her Creator and wondered how long she must remain on such an earth. (289)

Caro’s life has also contained much hurt and loss. She had not remained a spectator, but engaged with the experiences life sent her with dignity, reflection and generosity.

Writing

Reading The Transit of Venus one could not fail to notice the quality of the writing. The novel’s plot is skilfully managed and the tension is held to the final chapter. Some of the sentences are beautifully constructed. Look at what she wrote about Grace’s reaction to the departure of her would-be lover quoted above. And as I typed Caro’s reflections I noted the provisionality of the sentences: ‘not clear now’, ‘not quite certain’, ‘might have missed the point’. 

Within her sentences the choice of words, especially adverbs and adjectives, add complexity, depth and nuance to the novel. She writes on a wide canvas: across several decades and across the globe: Australia, Britain and New York as well as parts of Europe and South America. It has been described as an unbearably sad book, but I felt moved by it, as if the experience of reading it had added to my own life. In part this is because of her ‘huge charity towards the people’ (Kirkus Review 1980). 

Perhaps you have felt uplifted by this novel and are only surprised that I mention it. Or perhaps you have yet to experience one of Shirley Hazzard’s novels, in which case you have a great treat in store for you.

Shirley Hazzard

Shirley Hazzard was born in Australia and died in 2016 in New York. She had spent time in the Far East after the war, before being employed by the UN from 1951. She was posted for a while to Naples, and developed a love of Italy. 

It wasn’t until 2003 that she published her next and final novel, The Great Fire, which was also much acclaimed by the critics. I am currently reading some of her essays in a volume called We Need Silence to find out What we Think.

The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard, published in 1980) and reissued by Virago in 1995. 337pp The novel also won the National Book Critics Award.

The Decades Project 2020

In 2020 I am exploring previously published novels by women. I am framing my choices from the Virago collection: Brilliant Careers: The Virago Book of 20th Century Fiction, edited by Ali Smith, Kasia Boddy and Sarah Wood. This collection reproduces an extract from one hundred books, one published in each year of the century and reissued by Virago. My choices include rereads, classics and some new discoveries. 

The most recent choices for the project are

A Stricken Field by Martha Gellhorn (1940)

The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy (1958)

The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter (1967)

Benefits by Zoe Fairbairns (1979)

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In Dependence by Sarah Ladipo Manyika

#BlackLivesMatter has encouraged me to promote novels by women of colour on my blog and on twitter with more vigour. Wanting to highlight such books I looked through the 600 or so posts on Bookword and found fewer than I expected. There have been more in recent months. When I reviewed Girls, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo in June I included her list of recommendations on the Penguin site in March 2020

In Dependence appeared on that list. I was attracted to it because I had hugely enjoyed Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun by Sarah Ladipo Manyika and included it in Bookword’s older women in fiction series. The main character in that novel is an older woman from Nigeria, a professor of English Literature in San Francisco. She is a very attractive character, as flamboyant as the title, as she faces up to the social and physical consequences of a fall. You can read about that novel here

In Dependence

The story of In Dependence follows two friends who meet in 1963 at Oxford University. Nigeria has recently become independent. The politics of the time is allowing young people to control their destinies more, at least in Europe, and to feel more independent. In 1963 Tayo arrives in Oxford from Nigeria. He is handsome, intelligent but not naive or superior. He meets other African students, including Christine with whom he becomes enamoured. But they quarrel when he meets Vanessa, a white woman with ambitions to become a journalist in Africa. Tayo and Vanessa become lovers.

I was reminded of Elizabeth Taylor’s novel A Game of Hide and Seek, which also follows two people who were once in love and meet each other over the years, finding their lives cannot be entirely disentangled. Such long-term relationships cannot be easy for they involve changes in two people as well as the involvement of others.

The story unfolds over the years up until the end of the 20th century when Tayo receives an honorary degree from Oxford. In the meantime, Christine has committed suicide, Vanessa and Tayo split up when he got another (Nigerian) woman pregnant. He married her. Vanessa adopted a son in Senegal from a good friend who was killed, and later married an older man, a mutual Oxford acquaintance.

Tayo and Vanessa are apart but continue to think of each other. The book explores themes of extended and mixed families in the diaspora, how love does and doesn’t endure, changing Nigerian politics, dependence on children and partners and longstanding friendships. The implications of the title become clear, we are interdependent.

Sarah Ladipo Manyika

The author was born in 1968 and was raised in Nigeria. At one point in her life she taught English Literature in San Francisco State University. She has written two novels and several short stories as well as many articles. 

Also by Sarah Ladipo Manyika: Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun (2016) from older women in fiction series in 2018.

In Dependence Sarah Ladipo Manyika, published in 2008 by Legend Press and more recently reissued by Cassava Republic Press. 271pp

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Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020

And the winner is …

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

Congratulations to the winner

After 25 years is this prize still necessary?

This prize has been going for 25 years. Kate Mosse, co-founder, argues that it is still important because it can still do 3 things:

  1. honour and celebrate excellent fiction by women
  2. make women’s endeavours in fiction more visible 
  3. use funds to promote more excellent fiction through charitable, educational and research programmes.

Fiction, she says, can still make a difference. You can read her article published in the Guardian about the prize and its continuing relevance here.

Honouring and celebrating excellent fiction

So in the spirit of the prize, I give you forty brilliant books, all written by women, from the short- and long-list for this year and all the previous winners. I have included links to the books I have reviewed on Bookword. 

The 2020 shortlist 

  • Dominicana by Angie Cruz
  • Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo
  • A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes
  • The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel
  • Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell
  • Weather by Jenny Offill

The 2020 longlist 

  • Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara
  • Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner
  • Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams
  • Dominicana by Angie Cruz
  • Actress by Anne Enright
  • Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo
  • Nightingale Point by Luan Goldie
  • A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes
  • How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee
  • The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo
  • The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel
  • Girl by Edna O’ Brien
  • Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell
  • Weather by Jenny Offill
  • The Dutch House by Ann Patchett
  • Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson

Previous winners of the women’s fiction prize. 

Tayari JonesAn American Marriage (2019)

Kamila Shamsie: Home Fire  (2018)

Naomi Alderman: The Power (2017)

Lisa McInerney: The Glorious Heresies (2016)

Ali Smith: How to be Both (2015)

Eimear McBride: A Girl is a Half-formed Thing (2014)

A.M. Homes: May We Be Forgiven (2013)

Madeline Miller: The Song of Achilles (2012)

Téa Obreht: The Tiger’s Wife (2011)

Barbara Kingsolver: The Lacuna (2010)

Marilynne Robinson: Home (2009)

Rose Tremain: The Road Home (2008)

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Half of a Yellow Sun (2007)

Zadie Smith: On Beauty (2006)

Lionel Shriver: We Need to Talk About Kevin (2005)

Andrea Levy: Small Island (2004)

Valerie Martin: Property (2003)

Ann Patchett: Bel Canto (2002)

Kate Grenville: The Idea of Perfection (2001)

Linda Grant: When I Lived in Modern Times (2000)

Suzanne Berne: A Crime in the Neighbourhood (1999)

Carol Shields: Larry’s Party (1998)

Anne Michaels: Fugitive Pieces (1997) 

Helen Dunmore: A Spell of Winter (1996)

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Non-Combatants and Others: writings against war by Rose Macaulay

Rose Macaulay opposed the First World War, and later joined peace organisations. This stylish and well produced collection of her writings against war 1916 -45 was sent to me for review by the publisher, Handheld Press. It includes her short novel Non-Combatants and Others, first published in 1916. The war didn’t end until November 1918.

Non-Combatants and Others

The events of the novel take place in the period from April 1915 until the new year. The war had begun the previous summer, and already the thousands upon thousands of volunteers were being slain and there was talk of the need for conscription. It was introduced in March 1916.

In this short period of time Rose Macaulay shows us how the war impacted upon Alix. We meet her as she is sketching a local child, and we are told that it is all she does. She is 22 years old and attending Art School. Despite living with her cousins, she does not share their busy and useful attitude to the requirements of the war. Members of the household are on war committees, volunteer as VAD, in the Women’s Volunteer Reserves, a special constable, concerned with Belgian refugees. Another cousin has volunteered and been injured at the front, and another is driving an ambulance in France. Alix’s own mother is active on work to promote peace. Her younger brother volunteered to join the army straight from school.

Such activity does not appeal to Alix, who is slightly lame. She is horrified when her injured cousin returns, on leave to recover, and shows himself to be psychologically damaged. She is at her window on the night of his return and sees him below her. 

Outside his own window, John, barefooted, in pink pyjamas, stood, gripping with both hands on to the iron balustrade, his face turned up to the moon, crying, sobbing, moaning, like a little child, like a man on the rack. He was saying things from time to time … muttering them …Alix heard. Things quite different from what he had said at dinner.  […] His eyes were now wide and wet, full of horror beyond speech. They turned towards Alix and looked though her, beyond her, unseeing. John was fast asleep. (23-24)

She leaves her aunt’s house to live in Clapton with the widow of another cousin. Here the war plays little part in the household. The daughters are not very involved except in gossip about the Belgians and servants. And the mother is benign but unconcerned. While she is here Alix receives news of her younger brother’s death, later accidentally learning that it was suicide. Her almost lover, a painter, is wounded and wanting the comfort of a woman takes up with Elsie, the attractive daughter of the household. Alix tries various distractions: church, days out, talking to her older brother who is a journalist. But gradually she comes to understand that she cannot escape the effects of war. She is horrified by her brother’s death, a young man of great promise, but naïve. And her career as a painter seem to be going nowhere. 

Eventually she cannot bear the lack of involvement in this second household. She leaves to spend Christmas with her mother who is about to launch her campaign for peace in England.

The final sentences of the novel are these:

The year of grace 1915 slipped away into darkness, like a broken ship drifting on bitter tides on to a waste[d?] shore. The next year began. (206)

This bleak image is a strong one. With the benefit of hindsight we know that 1916 went the same way, and much of 1918 too. The effects of the war resonated in individual lives for decades.

Rose Macaulay

Rose Macaulay is another prolific twentieth century woman writer, and one who has been somewhat neglected in the last 50 years. Born in 1881 Rose Macaulay lived until 1958, having written 23 novels and a great deal of journalism, and other works. Perhaps her best known novel is The Towers of Trebizond (1956). She was well respected in her lifetime, but her popularity has not been sustained. It is good that Handheld Press is reissuing some of her work, bringing her to our attention, for she had some important things to say. And their books are beautifully produced and designed. 

Non-Combatants and Others: writings against war, 1916-1945 by Rose Macaulay, first published in 1916 and reissued by Handheld Press in August 2020 with an introduction by Jessica Gildersleeve. 300pp

I haven’t yet read the miscellaneous pieces against war which are included in this volume. I did read Potterism by Rose Macaulay, also from Handheld Press. You can read the review here.

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