Category Archives: Books

The Ungrateful Refugee by Dina Nayeri

Those of us who have never had to leave our country because of fear of torture or death might assume that that refugees should express gratitude to those who provide them with a place of safety. Is that right? This book by former refugee Dina Nayeri questions this assumption, turns it round even. Not what should our attitude to refugees be, but how should refugees view their new home? There is, she says, no debt to repay. And if we want to build better communities that include refugees, then we should pay attention to those things that help build communities and good relationships. 

The Ungrateful Refugee

In her previous books Dina Nayeri drew on her own life to write her fiction: Refuge and A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea. This book is not fiction. She tells the story of her escape with her mother and her brother from Iran when she was eight years old in 1988. They went first to Abu Dhabi as tourists and, when the visas ran out, to Italy where they were accommodated in a hotel, converted to a refugee camp, near Rome. Finally they were allowed to settle in Oklahoma. 

Her mother was a doctor, persecuted in Iran for her Christianity. Her father was a dentist, but arrested more than once for opium abuse. He did not accompany them, although he provided passports, money and contacts that enabled their flight. 

The difficulties of fitting into Oklahoma society were huge. Her mother’s medical credentials were never accepted. Her brother gained credibility because he played sports. Dina endured years of being an outsider in school, but became determined, fixated even, on going to Harvard, seeing it as the pathway to acceptance in the US. She has lived in other countries, recently moving from London to Paris. And has spent time in Amsterdam.

Her story is interwoven with more recent ones, often from men who found it harder than her family to escape to safety as more and more barriers are erected to keep refugees out. These men came from Syria or Afghanistan. She writes a great deal about immigration systems that make people wait, that try to catch out asylum seekers in minor inconsistencies. Often these people end up in detention with the threat of deportation unresolved. The effects of these policies, condemning good people to years of uncertainty and living on the margins, cannot be justified. Some do not survive. Others, by luck, manage to thrive.

The story of being saved

People in their new country want to hear refugees’ stories of escape, the stories of their gratitude. They act as if they are owed it. But they never ask about the life the family lived before they left Iran, the food, the family members, the family history and so on. The story is all about coming to the US, or Britain or the Netherlands.

Likewise, the assumption is that certain actions and behaviours by the immigrants will mean that refugees can fit right in. But coming to a new life is a relational thing: it requires a response. Those lucky enough to have been born in this place should shuffle up and welcome those who want to share their bounty; especially where they have been damaged, physically and/or mentally by their home country. Communities, new families, new relationships, social, economic, political connections, these will create a sense of having a place in the new country. 

We need each other to make a community – the immigrant can’t transform by sheer will.  … A lasting, progressive kind of assimilation requires reciprocation. It is mutual and humble and intertwined with multiculturalism, never at odds with it. It’s about allowing newcomers to affect you on your native soil, to change you.  (341-2)

Instead  of reciprocity, the onus has all been on the incomer, and made more difficult by an increase in hostility to refugees, in government policies and attitudes among some groups in some countries. I attended a lecture and discussion recently on refugee literature, for which this book was recommended reading. It was suggested that people who are hostile feel they are too close to becoming refugees themselves. 

I think that something darker is at work. Refugees are reminders to hostile people of the fragility of their lives; but more significantly refugees remind us of the shame and destruction inflicted by our countries’ foreign policies, that our countries have contributed to situations that the refugees are fleeing. Think of the refugees from Viet Nam, those who went to the US (see for example The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen, which we also discussed in that session. You can find my reaction to these brilliant short stories here.) 

Look at the chaos in those middle eastern countries in which the US and UK have been militarily involved: Afghanistan, Syria, Iran, Iraq … We can be ashamed too of our lack of generosity towards people in difficulties. And there is a strong thread of racism in all this. For these reasons, shame and racism in particular, the government in the UK perpetuates the hostile environment to keep refugees out. And sections of our society support that.

I was pleased to hear Dina Nayeri say in an interview that in her experience Londoners were responding positively to the changing population in the city, to the presence of refugees in their community. She said that she thought the people of London might be at odds with their government on this. (Interview on Perspectiveon breaking down misconceptions about immigrants, September 2019).

Thanks to Trudi Tate at Literature Cambridge for the on-line session on Refugee Literature. 

The Ungrateful Refugee: what immigrants never tell you by Dina Nayeri, published in 2019 by Canongate. 370pp

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Best Books for … the Long Haul

The virus mutates. And despite our fervent wishes and good news about vaccines, it is clear we are in for the long haul for yet awhile, for restrictions and lockdowns beyond the new year. No escape. Except perhaps into books.

To survive and even enjoy some aspects of the long haul I think we need a good combination of hope, persistence, resilience, patience and a long view. I have selected seven books that celebrate these qualities.

The Salt Path by Raynor Winn
Women Talking by Miriam Toews
Americanah by Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
Middlemarch by George Eliot

These books are not all long, but they all feature some of those qualities we need at the moment. Personally, I am trying to hold on to a long view, and to remember that this too will pass.

The Salt Path by Raynor Winn 

Let’s start with a book that was a great success with my reading group and the post I wrote about it has been read many times in the last year. The author and her sick husband lose everything and decide to walk the South West coast path, requiring resilience in the face of bad fortune and hope that things will turn around for them. It is set in that liminal seashore zone; betrayal, illness, walking, wild camping, beautiful landscapes and wildlife. It is a true story. My book group liked it enough to decide to read the sequel later this year: The Wild Silence by Raynor Winn 

You can find my review here

Women Talking by Miriam Toews 

This novel was inspired by a real-life event, the repeated rape of drugged women and children in a Mennonite community in Bolivia. The women discover that the rapists were men of their own community. We follow the conversations of the women who meet to decide what to do while the men are away: will they leave or will they stay. Their manner of arriving at a solution is heart-warming and hopeful.

You can find my review here

Americanah by Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie 

This novel follows the lives of Ifemelu and her childhood boyfriend Obinze from Nigeria, growing up in the time of military dictatorship. They both aspire to escape. Ifemelu goes to America where she stays for 17 years. Obinze does not get a visa, so goes to the UK and is deported. The couple meet again after many years when life has moved on for both.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn  by Betty Smith

This book was recommended by a friend whose reading choices I respect, and she said that I will enjoy this book about tenacity in Brooklyn in a family of extreme poverty in the early years of the 20th century. It is also about books. I should read it soon.

Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively

This book is from the Older Women in Fiction series here on Bookword. Moon Tiger features Claudia Hampton who is 76 years old and is dying. As  the doctor recognises, she was once someone. In fact she had a life full of action, research, important writing and love. The novel refutes the conventional narrative of what a woman should be and that the endpoint, the purpose of her life is marriage, and motherhood. The Booker Prize winning novel told the story of a long life fully lived. 

You can find my review here

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles 

This is a cheerful book that takes a long view. I recommend this story of a Russian Count Alexander Rostov, under house arrest in Moscow’s Metropol Hotel from 1920 until 1954. He sees his own situation change and Russian history rolling forwards outside the windows. He meets interesting people, makes good friends, helps many fellow Russians in that time and manages to make a decent life despite his confinement. It is charming, witty, funny and a good well-told story. There is a happy ending.

You can find my review here

Middlemarch by George Eliot

And finally, I recommend a book that has breadth, depth, integrity and a great heroine. I don’t recommend Mr Casubon’s method of passing the time: endless research for his book on the key to all mythologies. Rather we could emulate the many devoted and trusty citizens of Middlemarch, not least Dr Lydgate and his sponsor, Dorothea. Published in 1871, the town is thought to have been modelled on an earlier version of Coventry, close to Nuneaton where Mary Ann Evans (aka George Eliot) was born.

I hope that these final stages of the pandemic are not too hard on readers. And I hope fervently that we are in the final stages, dark times though they are.

Best Books for …

This was my fourth post in an ad hoc series which all begin The best book for …  Some other ideas are … reading in translation; … recommending to book groups; … taking on holiday; … when I am ill in bed; and so on. The first three were: 

The Best Books for … changing my life in December 2019

The Best Books for … giving in January 2020

The Best Books for … a lockdown in May 2020

Over to you

So what books would you add to a list of the best books for the long haul?

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Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me by Kate Clanchy

They are at it again. They are always at it. Teacher bashing! I spent nearly 50 years working in schools professionally (and another decade as a school child). They have always done it. Blamed teachers for: falling standards of morality; falling standards in exams; grade inflation; poor grammar; crime; teenage pregnancy; homosexuality; radical politics. And now blaming them for the pandemic, or for being cowards or not helping with the roll out of testing. Or for the rising rate of infections. Whatever it is it’s the teachers what done it.

I have way more experience of schools and teachers than any gavin-come-lately education minister. I know teachers who knew what it was to hold to a child steady between the chaos of home and their own selves. I have seen teachers feed and clothe children, not their own. I have known teachers coax necessary disclosures from young people. And teachers who have inspired youngsters with love of knowledge, of history, or geography or maths. Teachers who introduced young people to literature and to becoming readers for life. 

You know these people. You have met these people. They always have stories to tell. They always have experiences that are illuminating. They are adaptable inside the classroom or in the playgrounds and corridors to rapidly changing situations , and to governments and ministers who claim to know better what to do. (Governments and ministers easily fall into this trap as there is so little over which they have influence, especially, it seems, at the moment).

I found the experience, including as the headteacher of in inner London comprehensive, so draining, so exhausting that I have retired to the country and don’t involve myself very much at all with educational discourse. This book changed that.

Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me

I first came across the talent of Kate Clanchy when I discovered her tweets during the first lockdown, many of which contained poems by young people she was working with. That taster led me to Unmute, a collection of poems by young poets who met on-line during Lockdown. All thirteen had at one time or another attended her weekly poetry workshops when attending their Oxford secondary school. I obtained a copy and was very impressed and wrote a post on this blog about it. You can find it here.

A friend (yes from the world of education) told me about this year’s winner of the George Orwell Political Writing prize: Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me. She knew I would be interested in the writings of a teacher who respected the voice of students. It came to the top of my reading pile recently

The world of schools and teachers must seem a little exclusive to outsider. It is hard to understand the way it calls you, holds you, gives back almost imperceptibly the richness of the school community. But in her Introduction to Some Kids, Kate Clanchy has captured why so many people become entrapped and entranced.

Thirty years ago, just after I graduated, I started training to be a teacher. As far as I remember, it was because I wanted to change the world, and a state school seemed the best place to start. (1)

Most teachers I know began with the same desire. To those who belittle the profession, partly because it employs so many women, Kate Clanchy suggests more people should listen to teachers. Having considered and accepted the title Miss, she goes on:

I would like more people to understand what Miss means, and to listen to teachers. Parts of this book, therefore, are a kind of telling back: long-stewed accounts of how teachers actually do tackle the apostrophe; of how we exclude and include; of the place of religion in schools; of how the many political changes of the last decades have played out in the classroom; of what a demanding, intellectual, highly skilled profession teaching can be. These confident answer, though, are short and few, because mostly what I have found in school is not certainty, but more questions. Complex questions, very often, about identity, nationality, art, and money, but offered very personally; questions embodied in children. (4)

It is not the public perception that teaching is ‘a demanding, intellectual, highly skilled profession’ is it? But this book demonstrates exactly that.

And the perception that the questions raised in schools are ‘embodied in children’ is succinctly put. I remember Oddy (full name Odysseus) and the stolen koi carp, Boris (another wayward one) and the milk float, the child of the murderer, the refugee who did not know the fate of her parents, the child afraid he was homosexual, Carl who lied and lied and was not literate, the slow to read, to write, to understand. 

Kate Clanchy explores the questions raised by the young people she has met, and by some brilliant fellow teachers, much of it mediated through poetry. Here are some chapter headings:

About Love, Sex, and the Limits of Embarrassment,
About Exclusion
About Nations, Papers and Where We Belong
About Writing Secrets, and Being Foreign
About the Hijab
About Uniform
About Selection, Sets and Streaming
About What I think I am Doing.

Each chapter embodies its topic in young people’s stories and struggles. 

No wonder readers are suggesting that trainee teachers and would-be teachers read this as part of their preparation. 

I would have liked to  have worked with her. I would like to have had her teaching poetry in the London Comprehensive where I was headteacher in the early ‘90s) alongside the many brilliant teachers of Art, Drama, RE, English, PE and life. And all the brilliant work that we did with our students.

The Schoolyard by Cynthia Nugent. (That’s me on the right there, in the blue jumper, carrying some files.)

Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me by Kate Clanchy, published in 2019 by Picador. 269pp Winner of the Orwell Prize for political writing 2020

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The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

I wanted to read more Angela Carter. I picked The Bloody Chamber as the timing was auspicious for a zoom lecture and discussion I planned to join. Ah me, the best laid plans and all that. I managed to miss the session. And perhaps there were dark reasons for this consistent with the black tones of the stories?

The Bloody Chamber

This collection of ten short stories are based on well-known tales, such as Blue Beard, Little Red Riding Hood, Beauty and the Beast and Puss-in-Boots. They were published in 1979, at the height of feminism’s second wave. The stories are of different lengths, one as long as 34 pages, another only two. 

Angela Carter explained that she wanted ‘to extract the latent content from traditional stories’. Just pause a moment to consider that phrase ‘latent content’. How often in fairy stories are young women, nearly always young and beautiful women, rescued by handsome men, or their fathers, from sleeping, or being eaten, or some other gruesome fate? What about the other girls? What about the women who were no longer virginally attractive to men?

What Angela Carter does in their retelling is to suggest some alternatives. Take the truly terrible story of Blue Beard, who murders each of his wives, and keeps each victim in a room in his castle for the next wife to find. The story is retold by the final wife in The Bloody Chamber. She is about to be beheaded when she is rescued by her revolver-toting mother, who hearing distress in her voice over the telephone comes at all speed to rescue her. See what she did there? A little dose of modern day sprinkled into an old tale. 

Feminism in The Bloody Chamber

So the introduction of feminism into these tales is very welcome. The reader, female or male, must ask why, in traditional fairy tales, women and girls are represented in the ways they are. And how would the world look if power did not lie only with men? How would the world look if sexual relations were built not on pain and subjugation?

The result is a flamboyant and exuberant set of stories. 

To begin with, the heroines are often strong young women, with intelligence and respect for others. The protagonist of The Bloody Chamber is a lonely young woman, with a talent for playing the piano. Her new husband has offered her huge wealth, and isolation in a castle with its own piano. Of course, there is a key on the ring which he entrusts to her, that she must not use. But of course she does. And what she finds is horrifying. Because she has disobeyed him, he intends to kill her. 

Or, in The Courtship of Mr Lyon, Beauty is a thoughtful and perceptive young woman. Helped by the beast’s spaniel, she comes to see that she could be happy with Mr Lyon. She is not helplessly caught up in his spell as in the original story. And so on.

One of the themes is that domesticity can be a horrendous trap. Again, the castle in The Bloody Chamber is seamlessly managed, the décor is beautiful, delicious meals arrive, all comfort is provided. But the secret is in the chamber where the previous wives have been horribly murdered and arranged as if in domestic situations; on a bed, under a sheet, or impaled by an Iron Maiden. An Iron Maiden is not very domestic, but note its name.

The dangers in distorted male sexuality is another aspect of these stories that is hard to read. Blue Bear of course, but the tiny story of The Snow Child is deeply disturbing and entirely about a man dominating his wife. (She rejects it, but only after we have seen his vile attempts to impose his will on her).

The style of The Bloody Chamber

Angela Carter’s writing is gloriously flamboyant, extravagant and exaggerated, as fits the origins and subversions of her stories. Some of it is joyous. I loved the story of Puss-in-Boots, and our hero, like Figaro in The Barber of Seville that she evokes at the start of the story, is wonderfully naughty, impish and daring. He has his own side-line in feline amorous pursuits, but he happily and ingeniously engages in supporting his human friend to defeat the pantomime older man who has married an attractive young woman. The story is told with swagger and bravado, entirely appropriate to this engaging adventurer. Puss-in-Boots tells how he became the owner of the boots one night as he sang of his passion:

Do you see these fine, high, shining leather boots of mine? A young cavalry officer made me the tribute of, first, one; then after I celebrated his generosity with a fresh obbligato, the moon no fuller than my heart – whoops! I numbly spring aside – down comes the other. Their high heels will click like castanets when Puss takes his promenade upon the tiles, for my song recalls flamenco, all cats have a Spanish tinge although Puss himself elegantly lubricates his virile, muscular, native bergamasque with French, since that is the only language in which you can purr. (68)

There is so much fun to be had in that paragraph, and also much to be admired in the language and vocabulary used. It is operatic, although the subject is an attempt to stop feline caterwauling. 

The imagery used in these stories also underlines her purposes. In The Bloody Chamber the protagonist describes the removal of her clothes by her new husband ‘as if he were stripping the leaves off an artichoke’ (15). We can notice again, the male attempt to control the woman and where there is the additional notion of him consuming her.

In the bloody chamber itself, so full of horrors, the young pianist finally comes across the corpse of her husband’s most recent, Romanian wife. 

She was pierced, not by one but by a hundred spikes, this child of the land of the vampires who seemed so newly dead, so full of blood … (29)

Every sense is enticed in these stories, not just visual ones as in the spikes and the blood. But she draws on taste (I love artichokes and they have a rich and complex taste and texture. The image of peeling a young woman like an artichoke I fin to be alluring and disgusting in equal measure.) There are plenty of sounds, and music is a frequent aspect of hearing: the piano, the opera, the caterwauling, locks and keys and birds. And touch, our sense of touch is fully activated: furs, cold keys, spikes, roses and thorns. Smell, lilies, and blood, and wine and other exotic aromas.

When I read The Magic Toyshop recently, I said in my post that I wanted to read more of her work. It took something of a strong stomach, and required some trust in the writer because even now I find her to be shocking. It is not just the material, the inversion of traditional subjects, but the language in which she coaches her insights  into the reader’s awareness. In the post I said of The Magic Toyshop, ‘I loved its magic, its sensuality and the creative way in which abusive behaviour is revealed and gets its comeuppance.’ 

Angela Carter

Angela Carter (1940 – 1992) was born in Eastbourne, UK. She spent some of her childhood with her grandmother in Yorkshire as an evacuee. After school she followed her father into journalism, and then to Bristol University. She wrote novels, short stories, articles, as an editor and translator and in TV, film and radio. 

Her biographer Edmund Gordon refers to her ‘subversive intelligence’ which  contrasted with the sober social realists who dominated fiction in the ‘60s in the UK. 

If you have stuck with me this far, I will reveal the reason I missed the online session about The Bloody Chamber. I am discomforted by the prolonged effects of the pandemic, and this manifests in missing appointments and muddling up times – which I have done a few times recently. No bloody chambers here!

See also the post on The Magic Toyshop (1967) which was included in the Decades Project in 2020 on this blog.

The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter, published in 1979. I read the edition from Vintage, 1995. 126pp

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Celebrating Margaret Busby

This is a post in celebration of Margaret Busby and her work in promoting Black female writers.

Margaret Busby is a ‘cultural activist’. This is how the Booker Prize described this year’s chair, Margaret Busby, in its short bio on the website. I suppose this is meant to describe the relentless efforts she has made to promote good Black writing throughout her career. Culture works as a code word for Black. But such a narrow description belies her contribution to culture, and literary culture more generally. Sure, she has a deserved reputation for supporting Black female writers, but she supports good writing including, but not limited to, Black or female writers. 

So what has this ‘cultural activist’ done that deserves so much praise?

Publisher

Born in Ghana in 1944 into a family that believed strongly in education, Margaret Busby was sent to England to boarding school at 6 years old. She was a member of a very diverse school community and she boasted that she could ‘count in Farsi, swear in Mandarin and sing in Spanish’ as a result. She grew up amongst book lovers and writers. She stood out, but as ‘one of the little black girls’.

While still an undergraduate at London University she met Clive Allison and on finding that they shared a taste in all kinds of literature they agreed to set up a publishing firm. Allison & Busby was established in 1967. They published writers from all kinds of backgrounds, which included Black writers. Many famous names were on their list: Rosa Guy, Buchi Emecheta, Nuruddin Farrah, JG Ballard, Jill Murphy are some names you might know. After twenty years the company was bought by WH Allen, and although Allison was given a post there was none for Margaret Busby.

Journalism and other activities

Since that time she worked as a freelance editor and critic, and also as a journalist in theatre and the world of books. She was also included on judging panels for various prizes. She has been called ‘the doyenne of Black British publishing’ and a ‘literary supernova’. You could take her inclusion and appointment as chair of the most prestigious literary prize as a recognition of her significance and influence. She also has many awards in recognition of this, including an OBE 

Black writers appreciated her support and have acknowledged it. For example: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who won the accolade of winner of winners of the Women’s Prize for Fiction a couple of months ago, said this recently:

And Aunty Margaret – thank you for your grace and for everything you have done for Black writing. 
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie answering a question from Margaret Busby about prizes [Guardian 4thDecember 2020]

Aunty is a respectful, intimate and loving term, and I imagine that it does not come lightly or disparagingly from the pen of the author of We Should all be Feminists.

And Zadie Smith acknowledged what Margaret Busby had done for her by saying

[She] helped change the landscape of both UK publishing and arts coverage and so many black British artists owe her a debt. I know I do. [Zadie Smith, quoted in Guardian piece check]

Her connections in the Black cultural and creative community are extensive to this day. 

Daughters of Africa

Perhaps her most impressive achievements are the two collections of writing by Black women. The first was called Daughters of Africa and was published in 1992. It included 200 or more Black women writers with African ancestry.

In 1992: If anyone talked about black women writers, you would think there were just three of them, maybe four: Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, maybe Maya Angelou or Terry McMillan. (These days that list tends to be Morrison, Smith and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.) Daughters of Africa is a 1,089-page rebuttal.

And then last year she edited a new collection. New Daughters of Africa is an international anthology by more than 200 other women writers of African descent.  It’s a door stop of a book, but very interesting to dip into. Some contributions were specifically written for this volume, other writers have provided extracts from existing work. No fees were charged. Proceeds from the sale of this volume will go to fund a bursary to study an MA in Literature or Translation at SOAS, London. 

Not only does the size and scope of the achievements included in the second volume provide evidence of the quality of Black female writers at this time, but it is also a volume to be dipped into and read with great pleasure and appreciation. 

New Daughters of Africa: Edited by Margaret Busby, published in 2019 by Myriad Editions. 934pp.

Sources and further reading:

On Meeting Margaret Busby by Sarah Ladipo Manyika (Granta, October 2020)

Margaret Busby: how Britain’s first black female publisher revolutionised literature – and never gave up by Aida Edemariam  (The Guardian, October 2020)

Booker Prize 2020 Chair: short biography of Margaret Busby

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The Decades Project 2020 and its future

When you have had enough of something, it’s time to stop. I don’t mean to sound like public warnings issued by betting sites in their advertisements. But I can’t see the point of continuing with a series on my blog when I am feeling tired of it. 

So it’s goodbye to the Decades Project, which I have run on different themes for several years.

  • Novels by women (2017)
  • Non-fiction by women (2018)
  • Children’s fiction (2019)
  • Women’s fiction published by Virago (2020)

Every year I picked eleven books, one chosen from each decade since 1900, reviewed each month from January. I often think like a historian and I am interested in change and how books relate to the times in which they were written. The project allowed me to notice how things changed over the century and to follow themes that emerged.

Brilliant Careers

In 2020 all the choices were written by women, most published by Virago and ten were featured in the Virago collection: Brilliant Careers: The Virago Book of 20th Century Fiction, edited by Ali Smith, Kasia Boddy and Sarah Wood.

The collection Brilliant Careers reproduces an extract from one hundred books, one published in each year of the century and reissued by Virago. I own copies of and had previously read many of the books featured. Others I had heard of but was not familiar with. The choices were easy, given the extracts and my desire to extend my familiarity with the Virago back catalogue.

The most obvious theme was of protagonists struggling to control their own lives, especially in the early years. The world wars changed women’s ability to become independent. No longer struggling against their families or against society’s expectations, they began to find opportunities such as entry to higher education and the professions.

The eleven books of 2020 (with links)

My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin (1901)

Mary Olivier: A Life by May Sinclair (1919)

Passing by Nella Larsen (1929)

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (1937) 

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)

The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard (1980)

In a Country of Mothers by AM Homes (1994)

Wave me Goodbye: stories of the Second World War, Edited by Anne Boston (1988)

Highlights

Three books were especially significant for me. 

A Stricken Field by Martha Gellhorn (1940) was new to me. The novel was written out of the great pain and suffering of the Czechs in 1938-9, and their betrayal by the Allies, especially the French but also Chamberlain with his ’kid-glove fascism’. Martha Gellhorn was writing from her first-hand experience as a journalist in Europe. It’s a novel raw and stricken.

The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter (1967) was not the first book by her that I had read, but it made a big impression on me for its boldness, its ability to shock with teenage sexuality, and for the quality of the prose. I promised myself to read more of her work, and have done. Watch out for a post about The Bloody Chamber

Wave me Goodbye: stories of the Second World War, Edited by Anne Boston (1988) was a collection that impressed me greatly. After I had posted in November I discovered I had previously bought and read the earlier version. So good I read it twice! The stories reveal the multitude of ways in which war was experienced and written about by women. 

Perhaps it’s a result of reading that collection, Wave me Goodbye, that I feel inclined to read more books from the first half of the Twentieth Century. Not only was it a time of great change for women, but also a time when excellent women were writing. 

In the last few decades publishers have reintroduced readers to some of the most distinguished writers of that time: for example Rose Macaulay by the Handheld Press. Persephone Books continues to publish books by neglected writers from the middle years of the century. Virago’s back catalogue will continue to delight for years.

So next year, that’s what I plan to do some of the time on Bookword Blog.

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Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews, short stories, The Decade project

The Lantern Bearers by Rosemary Sutcliff

Rosemary Sutcliff was born 100 years ago today – on 14th December 1920. She died in 1992 having written more than 40 novels, most of them historical fiction for children. Many adults, including me, love to read her books, for the story, the accuracy of the historical setting and for the themes she explores. 

“I would claim that my books are for children of all ages, from nine to ninety.” [Interview in 1986, quoted on Wikipedia]

Does she deserve her reputation as one of the best writers of the post-war period?

The Lantern Bearers

Some of her best known books are set in the period of the Roman occupation of Britain. The Eagle of the Ninth, perhaps her best known work, was set after the Antonine wall had been abandoned, and when Hadrian’s wall was still a barrier. By 410 AD Rome had more or less abandoned Britain, and Saxon warriors were already threatening to plunder eastern Britain, and also to settle on its fertile land. The Lantern Bearers is set in this turbulent time.

Aquila is a young man serving with the cavalry of the last of the Roman troops stationed in present day Rochester in Kent. His family live in Sussex, farming their land peaceably. He is recalled from leave because the last of the troops are being withdrawn (Rome is under attack). At the last minute he fails to board and deserts, feeling loyalty to Britain rather than to Rome. He returns to his family farm. But soon the Saxons come, many in search of good plunder or new homes. The Saxons who destroy his father’s farm come to murder Flavian because he had bonded with the British tribes against Saxon invaders. Aquila’s sister is dragged away, and he is left to the wolves.

He is discovered by another band of marauders who take him as a slave. He spends some winters in Jutland. He worries about his sister, and how to return to Britain. The tribe eventually decide to transfer to Britain so he goes with them and escapes. He does this with the help of his sister who he finds in a large Saxon encampment, but she won’t come with him because she has a son. Since he lost his freedom, to find and liberate Flavia Aquila has been the purpose of his life, but she has rejected him. For a short time seeks vengeance on the messenger who betrayed his father to the Saxons, but discovers that the man was tortured and died. 

Now he is lost and his life is empty, but he makes his way to the hills of North Wales and joins the resistance forces there, a band of British and Anglo-Roman soldiers led by Ambrosius. He joins them as they prepare for battle with the Saxons, and sustain some victories and some defeats. He remains isolated, but a trusted member of Ambrosius’s Companions. The commander asks him to marry a Celtic warrior’s daughter to help bind the allies, which he does. But it takes many years and a son to bring any warmth to his marriage. Ness’s decision to stay with him, because of their son, echoes Flavia’s rejection and it helps the gradual healing of Aquila’s wounds. However, the combined forces are not able to defeat the Saxons decisively, and must learn to live with these new neighbours. 

The story-telling

The story is a quest, at first for revenge for the loss of Aquila’s home and family, but later it becomes the quest of all exiles – to find a home, not just a place, but with people who care for him. It’s a long quest, and he is helped by those he meets: a monk Brother Ninnias , an old physician called Eugenus, Artos (aka Arthur) a brilliant horseman, and his own wife Ness. He even manages a kind of reconciliation with his sister. 

The quest is successful because Aquila has many qualities, shared with other heroes of Rosemary Sutcliffe’s novels: loyalty, integrity, resilience and intelligence. As in all good stories, the path is strewn with failures, near misses and temptations to take the easier path. 

The action of the quest is helped along by splendid descriptive passages. In this extract Aquila is in Jutland and he has brought his dying master to the sea one night for the last time.

The grey sky was hurrying overhead and the high-riding moon showed as a greasy blur of brightness, rimmed with smoky colours behinds the drifting flecks of cloud. The tide was full out, and the brightness fell in bars of tarnished silver on the wet sandbanks beyond the dunes and the cornland, and the oily tumble of the water beyond again. The wind swung blustering in from the south-west and the sea, with the smell if salt in it and that other smell so long delayed, that was the promise of spring, and the whole night was alive with the trickle of melting snow. (60-61)

The title is significant. The period following the withdrawal of Rome used to be called the Dark Ages. Not only does Aquila light the great beacon at Rutupiae (Rochester) after the last Roman troops have left, creating a legend which is repeated to him for time to time, but Eugenus describes their role as the book ends. 

‘I sometimes think we stand at sunset,’ Eugenus said after a pause. ‘It may be that night will close over us in the end, but I believe that morning will come again. Morning always comes again out of the darkness, though maybe not for the people who saw the sun go down. We are the Lantern Bearers, my friend; for us to keep something burning, to carry what light we can forward into the darkness and the wind.’ (246)

I was conscious that Rosemary Sutcliff had lived through the threat in the Second World War of invasion from Europe, of loss of freedom and self-determination. The novel was published in 1959, just 14 years after peace was established in Europe. 

Exile and home

The theme of exile and belonging runs through this novel, which makes it of interest to adults as well as young people. For Aquila it meant an existential challenge. For the two women, Flavia and Ness, both of whom were absorbed into alien tribes, it meant dilemmas that were almost impossible to resolve. We are left in no doubt that the warring bands will not resolve the issues of who will rule Britain. These continued for another half millennium and were not resolved until after the Norman conquest.

But the individual finds a home by making connections, through family, through shared endeavours, through commitment to community, through honest relationships. These themes are as relevant today as they were after the Romans left, after the end of the Second World War, and are difficult for people of all ages.

I salute Rosemary Sutcliff on her centenary and for her achievements.

The Lantern Bearers by Rosemary Sutcliff first published in 1959 by Oxford University Press. I used an edition published in 1972. 248pp

Related posts

The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff on Bookword in June 2019.

Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Lantern Bearers on Kate Macdonald’s blog in 2016. She is interested in how Artos in particular is portrayed, but also admires the psychological insights into Aquila’s character.

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My bookish Christmas list

Christmas is an opportunity to give bookish gifts to friends and loved ones, and to help make small but important changes in the world. Here’s how.

Books as Presents

I’m not rushing out to do any Christmas shopping this year, but I have chosen books for several people. It’s always a pleasure giving books one has enjoyed, or one can borrow later.

Book tokens

And if you don’t know or are not sure whether Aunty Ethel will like Girl, Woman, Other, for example, you can always give her a book token. Children in other families often grow up faster than one can believe, so you lose track of what they might like. Again a book token can be the answer.

Books from Bookshops

Help independent bookshops this year by buying your book presents from them. They need your help. Many of them deliver. And to avoid lining the pockets of the uber rich on-line delivery firms you can use good on-line alternatives. I have been using bookshop.org which supports local independent booksellers. We may not have much political power, but we do have some economic power, and so spending our money on important things in the good places is something we can do.

Book Trust Christmas Appeal

Some of us want to support those working to get all children to become readers. Book Trust exists to get children reading. For a donation of £10 Book Trust will send a book to a vulnerable child for Christmas. This year there are 14,250 vulnerable children and children in care (1,800 more than last year) who can benefit from this scheme. Books to be sent this year include:

The Gruffalo Sound Book,
Elmer: A Classic Collection,
Through the Animal Kingdom,
Our Planet
Wild Lives and 
Guinness World Records 2021
.

Book Aid International and Reverse Book Tokens

This an organisation that in 2019 sent 1.2 million books to 19.5 million people in 26 countries. New and carefully selected books went to libraries, schools, universities, refugee camps, prisons and hospitals around the world. They should be celebrated for innovative ideas, such as the creation of libraries from disused shipping containers, a project in Rwanda. 

Here’s where the books went:

Children and primary schools      493,209
Leisure                                               225,568
Medicine and health                        141,270
Reference and secondary schs      146,877
Higher education                              91,275
Vocational, technical education     45,599
Development                                       47,475
English language skills                    20,190
[Statistics from the Annual Review]

You can support Book Aid International by making a donation, and/or by buying a ‘reverse book token’.

These special Book Tokens are a great idea for presents to support Book Aid International: you pay the money and someone else gets the books. For only £6 Book Aid International can send out three books. So a Reverse Book Token makes an excellent present and it supports Book Aid International. You can also join the Reverse Book Club to send a regular donation to the charity. A reader will thank you.

Happy Christmas and good reading to you all!

Photo credit for book pile: KJGarbutt on VisualHunt.com / CC BY

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Mr Skeffington by Elizabeth von Arnim

To begin with I thought Mr Skeffington was about ageing. It was recommended as an addition to the older women in fiction series. Then I thought it was about how pre-war society calculated a woman’s value by her looks and how losing her beauty meant losing her status. Then this book turned very dark, with a denouement suitable for the time of publication – 1940. It is about all these things, moving from one theme to another, sometimes in a rather schematic way.

Mr Skeffington

At the start of the novel Fanny Skeffington is rich, approaching 50 and recovering from a bout of Diphtheria. She was rich because of the generous settlement of her husband at their divorce following his infidelities. As she recovers, she finds herself thinking of him a great deal, even imagining him in her house, behind the fish-dish.

Fanny, who had married Mr Skeffington, and long ago, for reasons she considered compelling, divorced him, after not having given him a thought for years, began, to her surprise to think of him a great deal. If she shut her eyes, she could see him behind the fish-dish at breakfast; and presently, even if she didn’t shut her eyes, she could see him behind almost anything. (1)

Up until this point she has been beautiful and men have loved her for it and she basked in their admiration. Fanny enjoyed her independence, which meant being rich and therefore not obliged to remarry.

She seeks the advice of her former admirers in order to set her life right again, which means no longer seeing Mr Skeffington in her house and regaining the admiration of admirers. Here is the formulaic aspect of the novel. She meets her admirers in turn and each one thinks how her beauty is ruined and they no longer wish to put themselves out for her. They recognize no qualities in her, only that she is no longer a beauty. 

Fanny comes to realise that she has lost her looks, and that her beauty was an empty commodity.

Beauty; beauty. What was the good of beauty, once it was over? It left nothing behind it but acid regrets, and no heart at all to start fresh. Nearly everything else left something. Husbands, for instance, left, or ought to leave children, and then one could be busy with them, and with their children. It was, she felt, one of her most just grievances against Job [her former husband] that she was childless. (57)

She finds it hard to know what she can do with her life, her beauty gone, no children or grandchildren to be interested in and her cousins wanting to provide her with a quiet party to celebrate her half century. 

The novel follows Fanny as she is gradually disabused of her value to society, of her beauty and she begins to take account of her advancing years as she meets strangers and former acquaintances and admirers. These meetings are the occasion for a great deal of gentle and comic writing. For example the sister of Miles, an especially eloquent admirer who has become an inspirational preacher in Bethnal Green, is led to believe she is a fallen woman – a prostitute, which in some senses she has been. Then there is the leerily disgusting colonial, a man used to getting his way at all times, who has come back to reclaim and marry the Fanny he remembers, only to fail to recognise her. As they disabuse her of her former powers, she comes to more fully appreciate her strengths. 

Job Skeffington is Jewish. In the early part of the novel we learn that he found it easy to attract money, and her marriage to him helped Fanny to secure her own family’s financial stability. There are also many references to the European Situation, which we learn is bad and getting worse. Finally Fanny learns from George that Mr Skeffington had been in Vienna

Vienna wasn’t exactly a healthy place for a Jew, and he was soon in serious trouble – for a moment George didn’t seem able to go on, seemed to be staring, with horror in his eyes, at something he could hardly credit, – such serious trouble that he was lucky to get away with his bare life, if bare life, said George, his eyes full of that incredulous horror, could be called lucky, and was now in London, and on the rocks. (221) 

By the time her friend and cousin George brings Mr Skeffington to her in person she finds herself able to understand how her life might have more meaning in the future than she had feared. She wants a future being of use to him.

The Older Women in Fiction series features women over 60, so Fanny does not qualify being about to turn 50. But this novel is about ageing and how women brought up to trade on their looks have little currency if that is all they have. Fanny turns out to be made of more.

Elizabeth von Arnim

This was Elizabeth von Arnim’s final novel. She died in 1941 at the age of 74, having escaped the European war for America. She seems to celebrate independent woman, and then to criticise those who value beauty in a woman above all else. But the novel ends on a note warning against valuing appearances. It is somewhat uneven in its tone, with plenty of gentle humour and also a very sombre tone to end as Mr Skeffington returns.

Mr Skeffington by Elizabeth von Arnim, first published in 1940 and reissued by Virago in 1993. 233pp

Related posts

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim (on Bookword in August 2017)

Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings reviewed Mr Skeffington and remembered the 1944 film starring Bette Davies and Claude Rains.

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Not girls but WOMEN

A post to celebrate women. A new trend in titles began a few years ago when it became fashionable to include the word ‘girl’ in the title of novels, especially mystery or horror novels featuring young women and violence. We are in an age which makes a fetish of youth and devalues maturity, especially in women. I hate the patronising use of the word girl to refer to a young woman. In this themed post I celebrate ten titles that have claimed woman and celebrate maturity.

Of the ten books in this list, 9 are novels and one is an edited diary. They were all reviewed on Bookword and the links are included.

Woman at Point Zero by Nawal el Saadawi (1975)

Translated from the Arabic by Sherif Hetata

Firdaus is awaiting execution for murder, having lived a life of exploitation by a series of men. It was an indictment of gender relations in Egypt at the time.

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata (2016)

Translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori

Keiko lives a very small life serving in a convenience store. Her family try to encourage her into a more normal life, which risks overwhelming her. This is a critique of the pressures to conform in Japan, which can make young women childlike.

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud (2013)

An angry woman lives on the upper floor of a house in Boston, USA. Is she a mad woman in the attic? Loneliness and betrayal are the themes of this novel.

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym (1952)

Mildred also lives above the action, in this case over a flat let to a rather stormy couple. She is a mature woman who understands that most people live with ‘the small unpleasantnesses rather than the great tragedies, the little useless longings rather than the great renunciations and dramatic love affairs of history or fiction’.

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo (2019)

The prize-winning novel celebrates girls and women and never confuses the two. The lives of many women of colour are connected in this novel, mostly set in London. It was the best book I read in 2019.

A Notable Woman: the romantic diaries of Jean Lucey Pratt (2015)

This is the title given to the diaries of Jean Pratt. She kept it for sixty-one years from 1925 carrying on through the war. She lived in Burnham Beeches, outside London and never married. The title explains her life.

Older Women in fiction series

Here are four titles from novels in the older women in fiction series. Of course these are about women in their 60s and over, and such subjects are not usually referred to as girls. I still think it is important to celebrate their titles. I notice that three of them are about Arabic women. None are from Europe or North America. I am not sure what that tells us, but perhaps only that there are different traditions in titles for novels.

The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso (2016)

This is the story of a rivalry between two neighbours, Hortensia and Marion in Cape Town, South Africa and how they manage to argue and become reconciled. 

The Woman from Tantoura by Radwa Ashour (2014)

Translated from the Arabic by Kay Heikkinen

The Palestinian diaspora is retold by an old woman, Ruqayya, who was born into a village taken over at the time of the Nakba. Family life must continue despite living in exile.

The Old Woman and the River by Ismail Fahd Ismail (2016)

Translated from the Arabic by Sophia Vasalou

A mystical story with its origins in real events about an old woman who returns to her village in the military zone on the border of Iraq-Iran during their war. Her simple approach to life and her donkey inspire the soldiers.

An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine (2013)

Set in war-ravaged Beirut a widow is determined to hold on to her apartment. She leads a secret life translating western literature into Arabic.

Over to you

Can you suggest more titles to add to this list?

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Filed under Books, Older women in fiction, Reading, Reviews, Women in Translation