Monthly Archives: March 2022

Reports of the Death of Book Blogs …

Reports of the Death of Book Blogs are a little premature, perhaps even exaggerated. The question being asked on this post is: is book blogging dying? Right, posing the question on a book blog provides the answer– the book blog is not dead. This book blog is not dead. This, after all, is my 721st post since I began Bookword in December 2012. 

I pose the question because three times in the last week I have come across reports of the demise of the book blog. I have never come across this suggestion before, but I can spot a trend. Three suggestions in one week – perhaps book blogging is on its way out.

Checking the possibility

So, I looked online. Actually, there was no evidence for the death at all, although it is claimed that other social media activities (TickTock or podcasting, for example) are pushing out blogging. There is no evidence for the claim which is perhaps based on individual experience and taste.

It’s a little like the promise of the paperless office. Remember that? In my experience workplaces use paper andon-line file management. In the workplace where I volunteer the IT is so unreliable that we have to manage with both paper and online files, and in every office there are piles of paper and people staring at computer screens. I suspect that there are an increasing number of podcasts about books now, but they exist alongside book blogs.

I asked Google (a typed question not a spoken query) if book blogging was dead. Google replied promptly by presenting me with a list of the top 100 book blogs based in the US, and several rather older and similar lists. I added UK to my question and came across another list of 100 top book blogs. If there are 200 top blogs in the US and the UK then book blogging is clearly not dead. 

The criteria for being top (or the best) are not provided. Nor was information about who compiled the list. My inner researcher (yes, I used to work in a university) was despairing of these lapses, but my basic question is answered. Book blogging is not dead.

Indeed, I couldn’t find any evidence that it is even ailing. Perhaps it arises from an assumption that if podcasts are increasingly popular, blogging will be less popular. People used to say that Kindle and other digital readers would spell the end of ‘real’ books. Again, both seem to thrive. It’s a question of plurality, of variousness not of a zero sum.

Book Blogs Live

I went back to the list of 100 top book blogs and noted some blogs that I am familiar with. And I noticed that among the ‘toppest’ were many corporate sites: publishers, periodicals, professional bloggers. I don’t think these existed in such great numbers when I started Bookword, but since their purpose is, among other things, to sell books I conclude that they see a value in blogging.

The more individual blogs, the ones where people just like to write about books they are reading, these blogs also appeared in the list. I enjoy these more. We often leave comments on each other’s blogs. We promote each other’s sites on Twitter. 

The list also included information on how often the blogger posts. The frequency ranged from 10 a week through to once a quarter (ie four times a year, or once every three months). These were the extremes, most seemed to post around once a week. (Here on Bookword it’s every 5 days, but I think I am going to slow down slightly to join the once a weekers.)

Flexibility

One of the great things about blogging is its flexibility: form, content, style, frequency, birth and death. There are no rules.

I began my blog to connect with other readers who like writing and talking about books. I keep going because I still want to do that. That’s why I read other blogs. Even if DoveGreyReader has disappeared, there are still many great bloggers out there. Here are some of the blogs that I keep visiting:

Book Bloggers: keep on blogging!

Related posts

Book Blogging Is Dead, But That’s Okay on FrappesandFiction. The blogger explains why she likes blogging about books (March 2022)

Being a Nice Book Blogger – a post looking at the claim that book blogging was harming literature (March 2017).

The death of real books/the end of e-books – a post looking at the sales of ebooks and real books, both holding up at that time (August 2017)

It was Mark Twain, btw, who said, ‘the report of my death was an exaggeration’. He is often misquoted.

Picture credit for Blog Cortega9 on WikiCommons.

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The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard

The big question for members of my reading group was this: were any of us going to read the four subsequent novels in the series known as The Cazalet ChroniclesThe Light Years is Volume I and over 500 pages long. Did we like it enough to want to read more?

The Light Years

The Chronicles appeared from 1990 onwards and follow the fortunes of the Cazalet family from 1937 through three generations. They are an upper-middle class family, whose money comes from the timber trade. 

The Brig and the Duchy live in Home Place, looked after by their unmarried daughter and their servants. Home Place is a much-extended house in the Sussex countryside in the south of England. It is the family tradition that the three sons will bring their wives and children to spend two months of the summer on the farm. The sons will spend some of that time in London, pursuing the family business. 

In 1937 this life, this pattern of the year, seems likely to continue for ever. The horrors of the First World War are nearly two decades behind them. Two of the sons fought in the trenches. Hugh lost a hand and is fearful of any return to war. Edward emerged unscathed. But as the family assemble for their summer holidays such considerations seem far behind.

The three sections of the book follow the members of the family as they prepare for the summer in 1937, and then through the two summers that follow. It culminates in the relief of Munich. There will not be war in 1938.

What we noticed

It’s a long novel, about 500 pages. But we all found it easy to read, well-written and always interesting. The short sections and the many characters kept one’s interest.

There are many characters: the Brig and the Duchy, their four offspring and three wives, and eight grandchildren. There are also many servants and some aunts, friends and cousins who appear at Home Place. We all appreciated the family tree. Those reading on Kindle revealed that they had photographed it on their phones to consult while reading. 

The novel has very little narrative, no big overarching storyline. Instead, as in any family, there are trails and sequences, themes picked up or lost. A baby is born, another conceived. The grandchildren make and break friendships. Rachel, the unmarried daughter has a female friend who is able to visit from time to time. They are very much in love, but this is not openly acknowledged by the family.

Jane noticed that there are many single women, who did not live happy lives, in The Light Years. Rachel is expected to remain caring for her parents as they age. She keeps them company, solves many domestic problems and is seen as indispensable. Her own wishes do not figure. There are aunts who come to stay. And the governess, Miss Milliment, who had lost her soulmate in the first war has a very bleak existence in Stoke Newington until summoned to attend to the grandchildren, first in London and then at Home Place. These are the ‘surplus’ women of the inter-war years.

We were attracted to different characters. We enjoyed the episodes that revealed the relationships between them. And we could see Elizabeth Jane Howard’s skill in developing believable and changing characters and relationships over time. 

Will we read on?

One member of the book group had read The Light Years in preparation for our meeting, and then immediately gone on to read the other four novels, finding them a good distraction from episodes of sleeplessness. Another had finished The Light Years and immediately looked at the BBC TV 2001 series (The Cazalets). A third has ordered the next two volumes from the library. A fourth has decided to finish reading The Light Years

And me? Well, you will have to wait and see. I noted that the next book in the series is called Marking Time. After that there is ConfusionCasting Off and All Change.

The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard (1990) Pan. The Cazalet Chronicles (I) 554pp.

Thank you, Marianne, for your recommendation.

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Thursday Afternoons by Monica Dickens 

Occasionally, when I am not sure what to read next, I pick something from the books I inherited from my mother. Her collection included Thursday Afternoons by Monica Dickens. I was confident that I would enjoy it as I had previously read Winds of Heaven (1955) about a widow finds herself lost in post-war Britain. I featured it in the Older Women in Fiction Series

Thursday Afternoons is an earlier novel, published in 1945. Monica Dickens had served as a nurse, an experience she drew on for her popular novel-memoir One Pair of Feet, published in 1942, featuring her training during the Second World War. This novel returns to the setting of hospitals, before the NHS, and the world of doctors, nurses and patients.

Thursday Afternoons

The title of Thursday Afternoons suggests routine, the things that happen every Thursday afternoon. The reader is introduced to Dr Stephen Sheppard and here he is one Thursday afternoon running his clinic in suburban Dynsford for no pay as he has a lucrative private practice in London’s Wimpole Street. Nurse Lake is assisting him, organising the patients in the waiting area, sorting their files, and ensuring that everything goes smoothly. Routine. Settled ways of doing things. A writer introduces these in order to provide some disruption.

The disruption builds up from the start of the novel. It is the late spring of !939. It begins with patients who will insist on handing the doctor their out patient Registration Card. He only needs their file. But they persist. There is worse coming than upsetting the routines of Dr Sheppard’s clinic. As the novel progresses the likelihood of war increases. Trenches are being dug in London parks, people are deciding which of the armed services to join, to remove their families out of London, and women are exploring the possibilities of war work. 

Everyone likes Dr Sheppard, especially Nurse Lake. The patients hang on his words, the nursing staff are in awe of him, the ward sisters and Matron want to entertain him for tea and biscuits. His colleagues respect him. His wife defers to his every decision. His friends can’t get enough time in his company. Dr Sheppard lives the life of an entitled and privileged man.

No-one is quite so pleased with Dr Stephen Sheppard as Dr Sheppard. The reader sees him enjoying all his privileges. His wife Ruth is a tedious woman with little flair. We notice that Dr Sheppard has recently been unfaithful to his wife. We learn that they had a daughter who was drowned, and it emerges that Stephen was sleeping on the beach at the time. 

He is bored by his life, drinks, smokes and eats a great deal and takes it for granted that he will be successful at whatever he turns his hands to. One of his projects is to write a novel, and he pursues the secretary of a publisher, one of his patients who owes him money. We learn that he has no skills as a writer, but he assumes that he has. 

He decides to join the navy taking it for granted that the service will welcome a man of his talents and successes. The recruiters see him as out of touch and ill-prepared for the demands of medicine in war. This not very nice doctor sails through London in his nice car, imagining that life still has much to offer him. Actually, life has other plans for him and for everyone as war approaches. Hubris is a word to associate with him.

One theme of this novel is the hierarchies of the health service before the war: public/private; male/female; medical/nursing/patients; entitlement/charity and so forth. The hardship of the lives of trainee nurses are exposed, they are bound by petty rules, extreme long hours, hard work and humiliating exams. Dr Sheppard, of course, sails above this. Nurse Lake experiences it every day. And Monica Dickens knew what she was writing about.

It was good to be reminded of the history of the hierarchies that still exist today, and of the inability of people to control their destinies. 

Monica Dickens

Monica Dickens (1915-1992) said that her aim in writing was ‘to entertain rather than instruct’ and hoped that readers would ‘recognise life in my books’. She was a rebel. Expelled from school, brought out as a debutante, she rejected the life mapped out for her and decided to go into service, and then into nursing. She used these experiences in One Pair of Hands (1939) and One Pair of Feet (1942). After the war she married an American and lived for much of her adult life in the States. Her great-grandfather was Charles Dickens. She was a writer all her life and had already published four books before Thursday Afternoons. She published many, many more in her life, including the Follyfoot series for children.

Thursday Afternoons by Monica Dickens, first published in 1945 by Penguin Books 320pp

Related post

The Winds of Heaven (1951) by Monica Dickens in the Older Women in Fiction Series (June 2018). 

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Quake by Audor Jónsdóttir 

I opened this book to judge whether I wanted to add it to my tbr pile. I finished it in 24 hours. I was drawn in by the opening, the mystery of the woman who knew nothing of her own circumstances. In addition, it was set in Reykjavik, Iceland, a place I had liked immensely when I visited. The country is famous for its seismic activity, and the novel appeared to make a reference to it in the title: Quake.

Quake

The narrator is a woman of about 30 whose name is Saga. The story begins when Saga comes round from a grand mal seizure, and she cannot work out where she is, or remember how she got there, or where her son is or why they are not together. She is in hospital in Reykjavik.

The quake of the title disrupts the narrator’s memory and understanding of her past and her identity. But it also refers to the upset of her life that immediately preceded a series of seizures. They have returned after a long absence since adolescence. 

Saga is very ill and even when she is well enough to go home, she must not be left alone, or take care of her son. She needs help. Her parents arrive, then her sister and eventually she employs the teenager and her boyfriend next door to stay with her. These two seem to be more organised than any of the other characters in the novel, including the medical staff.

When her mother goes missing Saga becomes less of the focus for the family which is when she finally realises that her life is difficult, indeed that she has to face up to some enormous changes. Her husband does not want to return to her, she finally understands the causes of her mother’s periodic disappearances, and her work must come second to her son and her recovery. Having understood all this she can begin to put things together for herself and for her family.

Her love of her son runs through the short chapters. Here is the moment he visits her in hospital. Saga has been afraid that he was lost when she fell.

He stands by the side of my bed. Laughter lights up his face, his golden locks. His baby teeth graze my cheek, little nips of love. Wasn’t he going to the doctor? […]
“Mamma is here,” I whisper as I breathe him in greedily, drag him into my arms, still uncertain whether it’s a dream or flesh and blood. It’s enough that he’s here, my Ívar, in this strange room in which he doesn’t fit. In which I shouldn’t fit. He should never find out how frightened I feel, stitched into this sterile landscape with hypodermic needles. (14)

As Saga gradually recovers, and talks with her sister and her parents, and the young couple who seem to have adopted her, she begins to see the world as it is, although she is tempted to continue to see it only as she wishes it to be. 

Instability – of the ground beneath your feet, or in your life – is unlikely to occur only once. But Saga is better equipped to deal with the dramas she will encounter by the end of the novel

Her name, Saga, is a reference to the cultural heritage of her country, and to the place of storytelling in creating identity and belonging. When she first has her seizure Saga loses both but regains them through retelling stories with her family and with her son.

Books and Iceland

Iceland is a fascinating country. It has a population of under 400,000, of whom nearly 125,000 live in the capital Reykjavik. It has only been settled since the 9th Century. Due to plate tectonic activities volcanoes and earthquakes are common, and the island country has many hydrothermal baths. It has some attractive traditions, including the Jolabokaflod, the Christmas book flood, the name given to the book-buying bonanza of the Christmas period. Books are Iceland’s most popular Christmas present.

I visited Iceland in February 2017 and I wrote about it on this Blog: Bookword in Iceland. The photographs in this post are from that visit. By the way, I never finished reading the Laxness.

I have read Burial Rights by Hannah Kent, a difficult story based on real events, about a woman awaiting execution in Iceland in 1829. I included it in a post called Why use real people in fiction?

Quake by Audor Jónsdóttir, first published in Iceland in 2015 by the dottir press. 295pp. The English version was published in 2022, translated from the Icelandic by Meg Matich. 

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In the Sea there are Crocodiles by Fabio Geda

Two things immediately draw the reader to this short book. The first is the title, a child’s warning of dangers lurking for a voyager crossing the sea. It is the cry of fear by a young boy about to enter a boat in the Mediterranean, who does not believe it is safe. Although there are no crocodiles in that sea, the boy is correct. There are salt-water crocodiles, and the journey from the shores of Turkey to Lesbos in Greece is perilous.

In the Sea there are Crocodiles has a sub-title: The story of Enaiatollah Akbari. In the Author’s Note, the writer Fabio Geda recounts meeting Enaiatollah Akbari at a book presentation in Italy and how they agreed to retell his story of migration. He reveals that while it is based on a true story, the two of them had to reconstruct Enaiatollah’s journey and that what we have is a ‘recreation’. The story dates from about 2000. 

The second thing that interests the reader is the set-up for the story.

One night, on the dangerous Pakistani border, Enaiatollah’s mother tells him there are three things he must never do: use drugs or weapons, cheat, or steal.
When the ten-year-old Afghan boy wakes alone the next morning he realises that she was saying goodbye – and that it is now up to him to find a place of safety. [Blurb]

His mother believed that Enai was at more risk from the Taliban if he stayed living in their village than if he lived outside Afghanistan. He is from the ‘wrong’ ethnic group. But what does it mean for a ten-year-old boy to be abandoned by his mother?

In the Sea there are Crocodiles

At first, after that morning, Enai must simply learn to survive, which he does by being useful. He is polite and willing to apply himself. He adapts himself to many jobs in the course of this story, and his lack of complaints is probably one of the reasons why he survives.

Enai gradually moves away from the border town to find work in Iran. He is by no means alone in being exiled from Afghanistan. He benefits from a loose brotherhood among the exiles, and also, one imagines, from the vulnerability of his age. Nevertheless, he must work for his living. Pretty soon he is caught up in the building trade and he learns the ways of indebted labour, saving what money he can to meet the requirements of traffickers who are essential to his search for safety.

What is revealed is how the building trade, the world over, relies on an illegal work force, which keep costs low and also feeds into the trafficking economy. I was reminded of Sunjeev Sahota’s novel called The Year of the Runaways (2016) which was a raw account of the lives of migrants from the Indian sub-continent who worked illegally in the building trade on sites in the Midlands and the north of England. Enai works in Greece to complete the Olympic sites in 2004, for example.

Enai’s journey

Enai did not set out to travel to the EU. At 10 years old he hardly knew it existed. Instead, he makes decisions to improve his lot, to follow his friends or to find more work. As a result, he goes to Iran, is returned to Pakistan, moves back to Iran, and then decides to move on to Turkey. He learns about better opportunities in Greece and finally of his chances in Italy.

Life is hard for a young boy with no resources but his wits and the ability to work and learn. He faces up to being an illegal worker in Pakistan and Iran, sometimes having to work for months to pay off the traffickers who transport him. When he decides to go to Turkey he faces a long, gruelling journey over the mountains to Istanbul. After the dangers of the mountains there follows a 3-day trip in the false floor of a lorry. Many do not survive. 

To get to Greece, he joins a group of even younger boys who endure a terrifying passage by boat, without encountering any sea monsters. Finally he makes it to meet a fellow refugee from his Afghani village in Turin.

The story reveals the endurance and resilience of a young boy. He also benefits from a fair bit of luck and the kindness of strangers. We also learn about the commerce of trafficking, how it is an organised trade. It is exploitative, but it also provides a service for the trafficked, the employers along the way, as well as an income for themselves.

It is a moving story, not least because we would like to think that boys of 10 do not have endure a life such as Enai’s. But it leaves us with some important questions:

  • How many migrants do not have his happy ending?
  • How can we understand refugee and migrant experiences without stories such as these?
  • How is it that we live in a world where such conditions persist?
  • While traffickers make a living off migrants, they do not cause the migrant crisis. Why does our government persist in making them the targets of action, the bad guys, rather than using resources to make the conditions of migrants’ lives more humane?

In the Sea there are Crocodiles: The story of Enaiatollah Akbari by Fabio Geda, published by Tamarind in 2011. 215pp. Translated from the Italian by Howard Curtis. 

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Beowulf – 3: Grendel by John Gardner

A year ago I posted my first piece about Beowulf. I referred to versions of the poem that I had on my shelves at that time, two of which were designed for children: versions for present-day readers by Seamus Heaney, Rosemary Sutcliff and Michael Morpurgo.

A few months later I reported on a feminist version of the ancient tale. It is called The Mere Wife and is by Maria Dahvana Headley. She suggests that we can look at Beowulf another way, giving a name to Beowulf’s second opponent, Grendel’s mother, and telling a modern version of the story, avoiding depicting her as a monster.

The traditional story is quickly told. Beowulf, from the kingdom of the Geats, in present-day Sweden, brings his warriors to help the Danish king defend his beautiful great hall from Grendel, a blood-thirsty monster who terrorises the hall at night. Beowulf kills Grendel by tearing his arm off. The monster’s mother wants vengeance and Beowulf follows her into a deep, dark lake where he kills her too. Many years after his return to his homeland, Beowulf is made king and takes on a fire-breathing dragon in the battle to protect his people that is his last. 

Beowulf is a poem that delights in masculine power, and it is a story told by men about men for men. For this third Beowulf post I have read Grendel by John Gardner. As the title suggests, his rendition casts Grendel as the main character. When I first read it in the ‘70s, I was entranced. On re-reading it I find it rather overblown. 

Grendel

The story is narrated by Grendel. The monster is a lonely creature, unable to communicate with others; his mother has no language and the humans he encounters do not see beyond his monstrous body. He retells the story of the Danes, from the landscape of war lords, the accumulation of territory and power by Hrothgar, the celebration of Hrothgar’s achievements by the Shaper, including the building of the great hall.

I could have called this post Beowulf meets Jean-Paul Satre, but this would have invited ridicule and mocking accents of Monty Python; and it would have overloaded the interpretation of the story with existentialism and other philosophical references. See Wikipedia, which tells me that John-Paul Satre was a strong influence on Grendel. Judge for yourself.

What John Gardner does is retell the Danes’ heroic history, and Beowulf’s killing of Grendel in a way which subverts the widely known version reproduced above. The mocking reports by Grendel of his alternative version reminds us that victims have a story to tell that is seldom heard.

Grendel is bemused by the people on whom he feasts and not above random acts of cruelty himself. He is maddened by the hypocrisy, the vainglory and the boastfulness of the great hall and its thanes. As we are entirely within the head of Grendel we are privy to his reasoning and responses to those he meets: his mother (a mewling incoherent hag crazed by mother-love), the dragon (a nihilist of great greed), the Shaper (who sings songs of the Danes’ heroic past), the hero Unferth (a coward who is easily outwitted) and Ork the priest (who is deluded by his contact with Grendel). Of Beowulf he has nothing but contempt, seeing him as insane, but able to defeat him in the end.

The reader sees an outsider trying to make sense of a world that is antagonistic to him and offering a counter-version to the truths of great literature and myth. This alternative view was very refreshing in its time. People were revising all kinds of shibboleths and suggesting that some of the ways that were seen as taken for granted may have been illusions, sleight of hand to maintain power.

‘A surprising novel,’ said the editor Diana Athill in Stet (2000)She was recommending a number of novels she had come across and suggested her reader should seek them out, Grendel among them. 

‘If I hadn’t [sought it out] I would have missed a great pleasure – a really powerful feat of imagination.’ (93)

I agree that the imagination revealed is impressive, but I found it overloaded and in the end I tired of Grendel’s obsession with himself.

John Gardner

The author was born in New York state in 1933 and killed in a motorcycle accident in 1982. He taught Creative Writing and wrote other novels. The Art of Fiction and On Being a Novelist were both published in 1983.

This version of the Beowulf myth generated some spin-offs: a film in 1981, voiced by Peter Ustinov; two versions by rock bands, also in 1981; and an opera with dance more recently.

Grendel by John Gardner, published in 1971. I used the Picador version which I bought for 40p. 120pp. This edition contains the illustrations by Emil Antonucci.

Related posts

Beowulf – 1 (February 2021)

Beowulf – 2, in which he meets a feminist (June 2021)

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