Category Archives: Libraries

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was published during the Second World War (1943) and was an instant success in the US. It sold many copies, especially as it was published in an edition suitable for the pockets of uniforms. A film was made of it, directed by Elia Kazan in 1944 – his first. It’s been adapted for radio (1947), as a musical (1951), and again as a film in 1974. 

But this was Betty Smith’s one-hit wonder. Although she wrote other novels and plays none of her subsequent work achieved the popularity of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Thank you to Jennifer for recommending it to me, even if it was several years ago and she may not remember.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

The success of this novel is due to the main character, Francie. She is 11, going on 12, at the start of the novel in 1912, and we follow her life until 1917, when the US became involved in the First World War. The character of Francie is very well realised, and she matures gradually throughout the events of the novel. 

Her parents are the children of immigrants. Her father is from an Irish family, and her mother’s family have come from the Austro-Hungarian empire. The immigrant experience is a constant theme, with the hardship of newly arriving in New York being mitigated eventually by the second generation. But the struggles of both families in the promised land are harsh and enduring: language (Francie’s maternal grandmother never learns English); access to education (seen by the same grandmother as the key to their successful settlement, but a struggle for Francie in the local school); cultural differences in clothes, rituals, religion, employment, attitudes to foreigners, and marriage. Francie wins through, a kind of delayed success for the American Dream.

We can infer that Francie’s experiences are drawn to a greater extent from Betty Smith’s own life. She was the daughter of parents of similar origins as Francie’s, and she too struggled to find a decent education, inveigling herself into a better school at a young age. Her father also died from alcohol-related illness and left the family struggling to survive and needing the two older children to leave school early.

Francie’s mother had three sisters who lived nearby, although the one who took orders is only briefly mentioned. The other two make lives for themselves and their children, support their sisters’ families as best they can, and provide more colour in the lively but poverty-stricken immigrant life in Brooklyn. One of them is Sissy, who loves men, marries (but does not divorce) frequently, and is illiterate but manages to provide essential support for Francie more than once. They had no access to telephones, so the family depended on the insurance money collector to take messages between them.

Francie has loving parents. Her mother is harsh, and at pains to avoid showing that her son Neeley is her favourite but determined to help Francie be a strong young woman. Her relationship with her father is touching. He has a beautiful voice and a very loving nature, but he is unable to support his family in his work as a waiter, a singing waiter, because of his alcoholism. His early death affects the family in different ways. Francie’s grief is hard, but she eventually comes to see that her father is present in her siblings, and even in herself.

The novel opens in the summer of 1912 with a typical Saturday in Francie’s life. She has chores, some of which provide a meagre contribution to the Nolan family’s finances, collecting and selling scrap, for example. She must bargain and outwit the shopkeepers when running errands for her mother. In the afternoon she visits the public library, where she can borrow books and read them for no cost. Sadly the librarian is impervious to her young customer, and when Francie asks her for a recommendation a ritual is played out.

“Could you recommend a good book for a girl?”
“How old?”
“She is eleven.”
Each week Francie made the same request and each week the librarian asked the same question. A name on a card meant nothing to her and since she never looked up into a child’s face, she never did get to know the little girl who took a book out every day and two on Saturday. […]
Francie trembled in anticipation as the woman reached under the desk. She saw the title as the book came up: If I Were King by McCarthy. Wonderful! Last week it had been Beverly of Graustark and the same the two weeks before that. She had had the McCarthy book only twice. (22)

Francie sits on the fire escape in the sun and spends the afternoon reading about the 15th century French poet, François Villon, in If I Were King. The only vegetation she can see is the umbrella tree that survives despite everything in their back yard of the house. Its persistence provides the metaphor and the title for the novel.

Much of the first half of the novel is a series of vignettes from Brooklyn in the first 15 years of the twentieth century, eg shops, customs, transport, poverty, rituals and so forth. In particular we observe Francie struggling in the overcrowded public school, where her flair for reading and writing are treated with the same indifference as the librarian treated her love of books. 

In her new school Francie, now aged 14, usually got As for her compositions, but she wrote three stories about her father, because she missed him so much, which the teacher graded as Cs. She explained that it was the subject matter that caused her to lower Francie’s grades.

“Poverty, starvation and drunkenness are ugly subjects to choose. We all admit that these things exist. But one doesn’t write about them.”
“What does one write about?” Unconsciously, Francie picked up the teacher’s phraseology.
“One delves into the imagination and finds beauty there. The writer, like the artist, must strive for beauty always.”
“What is beauty?” asked the child.
“I can think of no better definition than Keats’: ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty.’”
Francie took her courage into her two hands and said, “Those stories are the truth.”
“Nonsense!” exploded Mrs Garnder. Then softening her tone, she continued. “By truth we mean things like stars always being there and the sun always rising and the true nobility of man and mother-love and love for one’s country,” she ended anticlimactically.
“I see,” said Francie. (315)

A dialogue follows between the insensitive teacher and Francie’s silent replies. One could say that A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is Betty Smith’s response to the original version of Mrs Garnder.

There is so much more in this detailed and endearing novel; a horse that pees on its handler; generous Sissy who frequently rescues the family; the downtrodden grandmother who encourages reading a page a day of Shakespeare and the Protestant Bible; the story of the would-be rapist; how Francie’s heart is broken; the effect of the US’s entry into the First World War on the neighbourhood and so on. There is love and persistence, heartbreak and struggle. Just what one wants from a long read.

Betty Smith

Betty Smith in 1943

Born in Brooklyn in 1896, Betty Smith lived to be 76 years old, dying in 1972. She was involved in community drama from her teenage years but later began writing fiction. She wrote four novels altogether but had success only with her first. Like her protagonist Francie, Betty Smith struggled to complete her education. 

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, first published in 1943. I used the edition from Arrow Books. 483pp

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Reading Palladian again by Elizabeth Taylor

Some days only reading Elizabeth Taylor will do. I am sad to have read all her fiction – and reviewed it here on Bookword. But I am rereading them again when that mood takes me. I first read Palladian for a post in May 2013. I enjoy rereading her novels and find that I can concentrate more on her superb writing and less on the plot when I do so. In rereading Palladian, I am impressed by how she has conceptualised a large number of characters and how the story is narrated in her precise and elegant prose.

Palladian

The novel was published in 1946 and was her second novel after At Mrs Lippincote’s. This novel has the feel of a small section of society, very much engaging with the post-war austerity. The decaying Palladian house is perhaps the most obvious example of this. 

Cassandra Dashwood is an orphan and as she finishes school her headteacher finds her a place as a governess for a young girl, daughter of a widower and the owner of a grand house, Cropthorne Manor. She leaves what she has known to work in a strange household: Marion Vanbrugh is the widower, his cousins Tom and Margaret are also staying there with their mother, Tinty Vanbrugh. In the house also is Sophy, a precocious and wilful child and Nanny who acts as cook and housekeeper and is poisonous in her speech.

It has been suggested that this is Elizabeth Taylor’s homage to Jane Eyre, and while there are some surface parallels, and literature permeates the novel, I think this is only meant as a nod. There is no mad woman in the attic and Cassandra is not asked to join in a bigamous marriage. Cassandra is, however, quite ready to fall for the widower and does. 

Daphne du Maurier published Rebecca in 1938, and the story of Palladium has some similarities with it: the handsome but distracted leading man; a beautiful house, an innocent, naïve girl and an older woman servant who remembers the first wife. Nanny is no Mrs Danvers, however. She is not threatening, merely small-minded and a bully.

Nanny had disapproved of Violet, but she disapproved of Cassandra even more. She had always loved her boys and was not above setting the girls against one another; whether dead or alive. It delighted her to bring Cassandra to the edge of despair about Violet.

Readers discover that Nanny is frequently wrong, for example when she gossips about Cassandra pilfering money (it’s Tom) and food (it’s Margaret) and a brooch (it’s a gift from Marion). 

The members of the household are all lonely – this is Elizabeth Taylor, after all. No-one does loneliness quite as well as she does. Marion lost his wife; Tom (his cousin) also loved Violet and has not, after ten years, recovered; Margaret is married to an absent sailor, but will eventually leave the house to give birth to her child; Sophy has no one of her age to play or socialise with; Nanny is poison. 

Cassandra observes the others in the household. Tom is an alcoholic and frequently visits the Blacksmith’s Arms, where he has been carrying on with Mrs Veal. Margaret has no friends and is a bit of a bully. Nanny makes difficulties for everyone. And then a disaster strikes, and everyone has to reassess their situation. Only Tom is still adrift after the accident.

Names in the novel

Look at the names she gives her characters. First: Marion. Mrs Turner, the headteacher, explains to Cassandra that despite a name usually given to women Marion is a man:

‘I discovered that it was one of those names like Evelyn or Hilary or Lindsay that can be either. With an “o”, you see. But “o” or not, I think it rather girlish for a grown man.’ (9)

And it is true that Marion Vanbrugh is delicate and not at all aggressive as many of the men of the time were required to be.

Cassandra Dashwood: Cassandra was famously the Trojan princess who made true prophecies but was never believed. Rather a portentous first name to saddle someone with. And it was the Dashwood family that were the subject of Sense and Sensibility, Marianne the impetuous sister, and Eleanor the more circumspect. Like Cassandra, they lost their father and had to live at the mercy of others.  

The title of the book, Palladian, refers to a popular style of architecture of the 18th century, where the façade was precise and balanced, featuring classical columns and symmetry. The façade is the important thing. All kinds of horrors can hide behind it, as Nanny points out. In any case the house has been badly neglected. But the title might refer to the attributes of those who, like the goddess Pallas Athene, acquire wisdom and knowledge. And it is Cassandra and Marion who gain these qualities.

Literature in literature

As well as a reference to Jane Eyre, I counted no less than eleven novels or other literary works that are quoted or referred to in Palladian. In addition, the setting of the library is a key location for some of the action.

A Month in the Country by Turgenev

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

Tom Jones by Henry Fielding

The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster

Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne

Homer, Sappho, Ruskin and Shakespeare are quoted 

Nanny takes Sophy to a showing of the film of Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

I love how Elizabeth Taylor weaves these texts into her novel. She did something similar in her first novel, At Mrs Lippincote’s in which a small boy ‘snuffs up’ novels. Elizabeth Taylor is reminding us that readers are as influenced by their imagination as they are by their physical environments.

Palladian by Elizabeth Taylor, first published in 1946. Republished in the Virago Modern Classics series. 191pp

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The Book of Form & Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki

I loved reading this book. Previously I had read and hugely enjoyed A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki. It was a great pleasure to settle down with her new novel for hours at a time. But I have been puzzled about how to present it on this blog. It is so full of ideas, of writing skill, of adventurousness, of themes that resonate with our predicaments at the moment that I haven’t known where to start. 

The Book of Form & Emptiness

Perhaps a good place to start is with the story, for the narrative drive is strong in this book, despite everything else she gives us. Benny Oh is twelve when his father dies, killed by a rubbish truck in the alley behind his house. Benny lives in a city near the Pacific coast of the US. Locations in this novel are vague, unlike the timeframe: Trump’s election as President features, for example. But we are never given the name of the city Benny inhabits.

Benny’s father was a Korean-Japanese jazz clarinettist. His mother is Annabelle, who works as a scissors woman, clipping newspapers for a media organisation. Benny is mixed race, and one theme of the novel is how he negotiates this in present day America. 

Grief overcomes mother and son. Benny hears voices, or rather voices speak to Benny, things speak to Benny, but he resists them. The scissors that tell him to stab his teacher, for example, he can only resist by stabbing himself. This reaction brings Benny to the attention of his school’s mental health services.

The significance of things, what they mean to us, their existence, their connection to the environmental problems of our world, these are also important themes of this novel. Annabelle becomes something of a hoarder, packing her news clippings in plastic bags, keeping Kenji’s shirts to make a memory quilt, storing her craft materials in the bath until the flat is stuffed with things and the only tidy space is Benny’s bedroom.

Then a little book, Tidy Magic: The Ancient Zen Art of Clearing Your Clutter and Revolutionizing Your Life, jumps into her shopping trolley one day, and leads her, and us, into a different world of ideas about things, especially domestic possessions. Ruth Ozeki is a Zen Buddhist priest. 

Meanwhile Benny’s behaviour having attracted the attention of child psychiatrists, means he spends time in a Pedpsych ward where he meets the Alef (see Jorge Luis Borges’s short story) who is following in the path of the Fluxus avant-garde art movement. I looked that one up too. One of the Alef’s messages takes Benny to the Library, where much of this novel is located. Here he meets the B-Man who is a Slavic poet in a wheelchair, the small librarian, and even Ruth Ozeki who is typing away in a remote corner of the library. 

An older woman sat in the other [carrel], typing very fast on her laptop computer. She looked to be in her fifties or sixties, part Asian like him, maybe, with black-framed glasses and gray-streaked hair. She must have sensed his presence, because she lifted her head and looked at him, and all the while her fingers typed on, never pausing. (141-2)

And now a word about one of the narrators

Some of the story is told by an omniscient narrator, where it concerns Annabelle’s actions, or slips into the concerns of the doctors, or librarians, or retells the life of the Zen Buddhist priest Aikon, who wrote Tidy Magic.

But Benny’s story is told to him by his Book. Benny introduces it:

Shhh … Listen!
That’s my Book, and it’s talking to you. Can you hear it?
It’s okay if you can’t, though. It’s not your fault. Things speak all the time, but if your ears aren’t attuned, you have to learn to listen.
You can start by using your eyes because eyes are easy. Look at all the things around you. What do you see? A book, obviously, and obviously the book is speaking to you, so try something more challenging.  … (3)

And the Book continues to tell Benny’s story, from Kenji’s death to the final pages which are a collaboration between Benny and his narrator some 500 pages later.

The novel is full of ideas about books, quotations from Walter Benjamin, including the story of his final, lost book as he fled from the Nazis to Spain; about the physicality of ‘real’ books; about writing and the writer (think the woman in the carrel in the library) and the reader; and about finding one’s feet in a shifting and dangerous world.

For example, Slavoj, the Slavic bottle-man ,who is writing an epic poem called Earth, tells Benny about writing poetry:

“Let me tell you something about poetry, young schoolboy. Poetry is a problem of form and emptiness. Ze moment I put one word onto an empty page, I haf created a problem for myself. Ze poem that emerges is form, trying to find a solution to my problem.”: He sighed. “In ze end, of course, there are no solutions. Only more problems, but this is a good thing. Without problems, there would be no poems.” (276-7)

We have taken in some jazz, some theories of poetry, the randomness of Fluxus, ideas about connectedness, and the ecological dangers we have created for ourselves. And I haven’t even mentioned the crows.

Ruth Ozeki has explained her title by reference to impermanence and interconnection in this interview extract:

The phrase “form and emptiness” comes from the Heart Sutra, one of the core Mahayana Buddhist texts. The line we chant is “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.” Emptiness, in this sense, refers to impermanence, and the way all things, all beings, are impermanent and exist in a perpetual state of interdependent flux, or dependent co-arising. None of us—human beings, animals, insects, books, stones, trees—has a fixed, essential self or identity independent of everything and everyone else, and this sense of interconnectedness is, I think, what Benny comes to appreciate in the novel. His relationship with his mother. His relationships with his friends. His relationship with his book. [From the Lion’s Roar, Buddhist Wisdom for our Time, an interview with Nancy Chu. September 2021]

There is so much in this book, so many ideas, such a call for the recognition and importance of difference and connection that I would like to encourage readers to pick it up and enjoy it as I did. This generous novel seems to be bursting out of its pages. 

Ruth Ozeki

Ruth Ozeki: WikiCommons LMU Library: 2016

Born in 1956, Ruth Ozeki was brought up in Connecticut. Like Benny she has mixed parentage. She has worked in film and has now published four award-winning novels and a short memoir. Since 2010 has been a Zen Buddhist priest. She teaches creative writing at Smith College.

The Book of Form & Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki published in 2021, by Canongate. 546pp

Shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2022.

Related post

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki (November 2013)

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The Silence of Bystanders – Auschwitz

Auschwitz did not fall from the sky. [Marion Tunki, survivor]

Anyone who has visited Auschwitz-Birkenau must ask themselves, how was this allowed to happen? You view the piles of suitcases, shoes, hair, glasses, gas canisters and ask how could it happen that 1 million people died in this camp?

Anyone who follows the tweets of @AuschwitzMuseum sees family photographs of ordinary people, children, women, men, and reads the brief account of what happened to them. They too will wonder how it was possible. Here’s an example from Sunday 30th January 2022:

30 January 1937 | A French Jewish girl Nicole Blausztajn was born in Paris. She arrived at #Auschwitzon 19 August 1942 in a transport of 997 Jews deported from Drancy. She was murdered in a gas chamber together with 896 people.

Nicole Blausztajn

I asked such questions when I visited Auschwitz in September 2017. Similar questions are posed by Piotr Cywiński, the Director of the Auschwitz Museum, reported in an article in the Guardian on the 77th Holocaust Memorial Day on 27th January. You can read the article ‘The biggest task is to combat indifference’: Auschwitz Museum turns visitors’ eyes to current eventsby Shaun Walker by following the link.

Is the world becoming [more?] indifferent to the suffering of others, and the mass horrors imposed by regimes on minorities? In Yemen? The Uyghurs? LGBT+ peoples? People of Colour? Refugees? 

Auschwitz

The Silence of the Bystanders

I am a historian and seek to understand the events of the past. I was a history teacher, believing that it was my responsibility to help young people understand events in the past and be able to speak out about them as they should. I am a citizen of the world and of Europe and I believe that it is our duty as citizens to keep our mouths open (a maxim ascribed to both Aristotle and Gunter Grass).

One of the most poignant sights of the final months of the war was of local people, at Belsen-Bergen I think, being required to visit the camp, situated in Germany, unlike Auschwitz, and to bury the many, many corpses of those who had died there and been left unburied. At Belsen camp nurses were required to wash patients at the camp after it had been liberated. No doubt they were reluctant to carry out these tasks, but someone was thinking that they needed to know what had happened to the victims. Bystanders must confront their participation.

Doris Clare Zinkeisen 1945, Human Laundry IWM Art.LD5468

The BBC radio broadcast by Richard Dimbleby, his account of driving into Belsen with the Allied troops on 19th April 1945, is still powerful every time you hear it. You can still listen here.

I cannot remember when I first learned about the Holocaust. I grew up after the war, in fear of what men could do to other people, in the shadow of Hiroshima and the Holocaust. Our generation wanted to be sure such things would never happen again. ‘Lest we forget’ say the war memorials. But it appears that we do forget. Some of us forget.

Let us use whatever means we have to remind ourselves and others, to be sure that we do not allow bystanders to be silent or ignorant of such atrocities in the future. Some will respond to films, such as Schindler’s List, or Sophie’s Choice. I have read criticism of the Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and its use in schools because it distorts young people’s understanding of concentration camps and the reactions of local people to the camps.

Twitter accounts may capture the attention by featuring the individuals, the 6 million individuals who lost their lives.

Permanent memorials, as well as special days, can also draw attention to what must not be forgotten. I have visited the memorials in Vienna and in Berlin.

Vienna
Holocaust Memorial, Berlin, May 2014

And, of course, books.

And here are some non-fiction books. 

If this is a man by Primo Levi (1947). The Italian writer was a chemist, and this enabled him to survive the camp in Auschwitz, but he died in 1987, possibly by suicide.

Man’s search for meaning by Viktor Frankl (1959 English edition). Another survivor, a psychiatrist, who wrote about his response to being in the Auschwitz and other camps.

A Train in Winter: A story of Resistance, Friendship and Survival in Auschwitz by Caroline Moorehead (2011). 230 French women who were active against the German Occupation of France were sent to Auschwitz. Some of them survived, but many did not.

After such Knowledge by Eva Hoffman (2004). The daughter of survivors, a Jewish writer considers the effects on her contemporaries of the Holocaust.

The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank (1952 English edition), which revealed a life so brutally cut short, a childhood in Amsterdam and hiding as a young woman.

On not being silent bystanders

Auschwitz did not fall out of the sky. Bergen-Belsen did not fall out of the sky. The Holocaust did not fall out of the sky. They were the ideas of people who believed that it was ok to kill off ‘othered’ ethnic groups. And people stood by, in silence, and allowed them to do this.

We must speak out, reject silence, even if that is all we can do when people are oppressed.

Related Posts

Judenplatz, Vienna (March 2013)

Tales from the Vienna Streets (The Hare with Amber Eyes) (July 2013)

The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank (May 2018)

Bookword in Poland (Sept 2017)

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A Bookish Christmas post on Bookword

It happens every year: just before the last weekend in November hard hats and hi-viz jackets appear at the war memorial. They have a cherry picker with them, and they hoist a tree upright, and place a star on top and then adorn it with lights. Christmas in our village starts here. Tomorrow will be the annual lantern parade, and off we go.

My list of bookish Christmas present

I love books and if I can please more than one person on my list with bookish presents I am very happy. I also like to benefit others, bookish charities and so forth, at the same time. Here is this year’s list.

Book Aid International and Reverse Book Tokens

This an organisation that deserves support for the excellent work it does. Based on the principle that BOOKS CHANGE LIVES, Book Aid International helps people overseas, and because our government has slashed the international aid budget, this kind of activity is needed all the more. They send new books to school and university libraries, to support young people and health professionals. They donate books to refugee camps, and other places where they are much needed which may have difficulty providing books. 

For example, the University of Mosul was destroyed by ISIS, but Book Aid International committed to restoring the library. To date, it has provided 50,000 new books to replace those that were destroyed. 

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. For only £6 Book Aid International can send out three books. So, a Reverse Book Token  makes an excellent present. You can also join the Reverse Book Club to send a regular donation to the charity. A reader will thank you.

Book Trust Christmas Appeal

Some of us want to support those working to get all children to become readers here in the UK. Book Trust exists to get children reading. For a donation of £10 the Book Trust will send a book to a vulnerable child for Christmas. They support reading by children all year round and make recommendations for what to read next.

As a result of the Christmas appeal each vulnerable child will receive one of six hardback books, appropriate to their age. This year’s books include:

  • Tales from Acorn Wood,
  • Paddington Treasury,
  • My Encyclopedia of Very Important Adventures,
  • Weird but True 2022,
  • The Mysteries of the Universe,
  • Guinness World Records 2022

Each child will also receive a special letter and a festive poster and bookmark designed and written by author-illustrator Ed Vere.

Prison Reading Groups

This year I have also supported Prison Reading Groups. This charity aims to support reading and reading groups in prison and the charity runs programmes to support prisoners reading with their families. You can make a donation here.

Book tokens

And if you don’t know or are not sure whether Aunty Ethel will like the latest Sarah Rooney or a replacement for that classic novel you borrowed ten years ago, you can always give her a book token. Children in other families often grow up faster than one can believe, and you lose track of what they might like. Again, a book token can be the answer.

Books as Presents

The people on my Christmas list are well provided for: they will each get a copy of the latest collection of writing from my writers group: More Gallimaufry

Books from Bookshops

And for those who like to encourage independent bookshops please go there to get your bookish gifts. 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.

Happy Christmas and good reading to one and all!Bookish Christmas post

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More Gallimaufry: another achievement for the writing group

This week we celebrate the publication of More Gallimaufry by presenting a copy to Totnes Library. ‘We’ are the Totnes Library Writers Group. More Gallimaufry is the second published collection of our writing. Everything, even the editing, was collaborative. I asked my fellow editors to say something about their experiences 

Carole Ellis said

Delight came in many forms. There was the huge privilege of reading the work of so many talented writers. So much talent within our group! Being able to discuss the work and consider with them even a tiny part of their final contribution – the placing of a comma – was a true delight. There was also delight and privilege in working with my co-editors. We had a winning blend of determination and humour and it was great to discover how two people I really respect work. There was also the immense satisfaction of seeing an idea – “what about doing another book?” –  become an object of such beauty. Nothing beats holding your own book – fresh off the press. Such a magical moment.

Learning came with the realisation that hard choices had to be made. The whole Covid-19 outbreak gave us time to focus and decide what we wanted – whether we wanted to continue and that really honed our determination. I learned that there comes a point at which one has to say ‘enough’. But that point is moveable! Even with a sales team nipping at your ankles, changes may still be needed in pursuit of perfection but at the same time perfection is not possible. There will always be that one mistake that slips through – and you have to accept that. That’s a learning curve.

From Pat Fletcher

Editing Collaboration

The invitation to be part of the editing team was an open one to the whole group. To be honest, part of me thought the invitation wasn’t for me at all, but somewhere, entwined within was the allure of promise and possibility – and I’m a sucker for both!

The whole process was much more than I could have possibly imagined. The scariest bit though was the thought of editing other writers’ work. There’s me with no editing experience, other than my own work, reviewing, assessing and discussing their art! As it turned out, they were gorgeous and for the most part appreciated someone else taking time over their work. It was through this I was encouraged to contribute some work of my own. I love this group.

Covid hit during the early stages of the process, but we carried on writing. As keeper of the content, I gained early insight into the variety and quality of the work. I was well-impressed. Over six months in, and we decided to meet to assess where we were with it all and where to go from there. That we were going to continue became a no-brainer. The getting together in person sparked something else: requests for more content became more focussed. All systems were go and what had been eleven contributors soon rose to 21.

Then we came to the task of preparing the content for print. I volunteered to have a go at the design, quickly becoming unstuck due to lack of time (and experience) to do the hard yards of putting the content in order, typesetting and pagination. Caroline and Carole rallied round and the decision was made to outsource. Palpable relief! From then on it was all steam ahead as we strove for perfection. Just as one thing was resolved, something else came to the fore – all change! At one point I cringed at the thought of finding something else, but the job had to be done – and well. All anomalies and doubts were aired, shared and cleared – some more comfortably than others (she writes as she remembers both the cringy and sparky ones). The strangest experience happened when it came to sending the final format to the printers. Part of me just didn’t want to let it go! 

Collecting the copies was a dream come true. What began as an idea floated around the group was finally real. And now it’s over to the sales team. 

Printer’s Proof

Caroline writes

And I am very proud of More Gallimaufry for many different reasons.

The cover

The appearance of this collection is very attractive. More than one of our writers are artists. The cover is fittingly called Devon Landscape and is the work of Fiona Green. She also provided the cover for Gallimaufry our first volume. 

Covid-19, lockdowns and the writers’ group

Our group thrives on active participation, this mostly in our fortnightly meetings, some of which are workshops, other involve reading our writing to others for feedback, and sometimes we explore a theme, such as structure, or pick a topic to write on together. 

In September 2019 we had organised a day’s writing festival for writers in Totnes called WRITE NOW TOTNES! It had been very successful and we planned some more activities with the surplus funds we had. 

Lockdown in March 2020 stopped us in our tracks. We managed to get regular meetings going again on zoom after several months, but some writers were not able to join, or chose not to use this method of meeting. 

We had had a schedule planned for the anthology, and the three volunteer editors had started to collect submissions when it all stalled. When we managed to meet again in the autumn of 2020, outdoors, with masks and overlooking the beautiful Dart river we made an important decision.

We had lost more than six months, but by shifting our schedule on a year, replacing all those 2020 dates with 2021, we could still produce a good volume and in time for the Christmas market. 

And that’s what we did. It was a wonderful moment when Pat, who collected all the writing together, informed us that we had work from 21 writers. Not only had we survived lockdown with our regular workshops and meetings, but we had 21 people interested enough to provide short stories, memoir and poems for our second anthology.

Editing

Pat and Carole have described our labours as we edited More Gallimaufry. We got professional assistance with the design of the cover, proofreading and having already commissioned a designer to work on the cover, she relieved us of the difficulties of typesetting as well

And then we set about chasing the last mistake. It seemed that we were nearing the end when we decided that poems spread over two pages should start on an even page, so that they could be read without turning the page. This required a large amount of reordering, and yet another revision of the contents page. 

Eventually, through our collaborative efforts it was all done, and the printer received instructions to print 200 copies.

Collaboration

This has been a collaborative project: the decision to embark on a second collection; the title; the cover; none of this was the work of one person, and often involved discussion in the meetings. 

A few days ago we collected the boxes of copies from the printers and handed them over to the Sales and Promotion team. This group have arranged the launch at the library, a sales event in the High Street, and promoting and selling the book through many outlets.

For me, the delight has been in the buoyancy of the writers group despite the limitations of the last 20 months. And while I don’t want to read it all again for some time, it was a huge pleasure to participate in the creation of a beautiful volume of excellent writing.

Thanks to Pat and Carole for all the fun, creativity and tolerance and for their contribution to this blog.

Carole, Caroline and Pat, slightly hysterical at the printers

If you are interested in acquiring a copy please contact me by email (lodgecm@gmail.com) or find the details of how on the Totnes Library Writers Facebook page. ISBN: 978 1 9996286 1 11

You can read about our first published volume (2015) Gallimaufry here.

Our first collection

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Manifesto by Bernardine Evaristo

There were people who thought that Bernardine Evaristo had come from nowhere to win the Booker Prize in 2019 with Girl, Woman, Other. These people had not been paying attention for she has been writing and working in theatre, poetry and fiction for many years. She is also a professor of Creative Writing at Brunel University.

And how could any writer produce a work of such creative imagination and with so many characters, and with an assured innovative style from ‘nothing’. As Manifesto reveals, it takes years of writing, of experimenting, of wrestling with words, of making mistakes, of throwing away, of revising before a writer can create a masterpiece of that calibre. What did it take?

Pay attention to the subtitle: On Never Giving Up

Manifesto

Bernardine Evaristo was born with several apparent disadvantages: she comes from a working-class background; she is female; and she has parents of different ethnicities. Her family was large, and she was not indulged as a child. But she found books and then theatre and then knew that her life would be with words.

If you are imagining a pity-me type memoir, look elsewhere. Each of these possible disadvantages became sources of knowledge and strength as she grew up. She made her own way, beginning in a community theatre that she co-founded and continuing to write poetry and later fiction.

Being positive has been a significant part of her development as a writer, a choice she made. My favourite story in the book is this one:

When Lara was published [in 1997], I wrote an affirmation about winning the Booker Prize – a wild fantasy because I was as far away from winning it as a writer can be. Yet I’d seen how winning that prize could improve writers’ careers, bringing their work to mainstream attention, and because I was thinking big, it seemed obvious to envision winning it. (168)

In addition to her relentless positivity, Bernardine Evaristo has always encouraged others in their writing, and promoted work by people of colour. Currently she is curating Black Britain: Writing Back with Hamish Hamilton at Penguin UK. The series aims to ‘reintroduce into circulation overlooked books from the past that deserve a new readership’. (175) There are several books in the series that interest me, including Black Boy at Eton by Dilibe Onyaema and Without Prejudice by Nicola Williams.

I attended a day writing workshop at the British Museum about a decade ago. She is an excellent and encouraging teacher.

The Manifesto

Two sentences from the manifesto chimed with me:

Be wild, disobedient & daring with your creativity, take risks instead of following predictable routes; those who play it safe do not advance our culture or civilization. (189)

The two books by Bernardine Evaristo that I have enjoyed very much, Mr Loverman and Girl, Woman, Otherhave both been risky, and both have advanced our culture. 

Personal success is most meaningful when used to uplift communities otherwise left behind. We are all interconnected & must look after each other. (…) nobody gets anywhere on their own. (189-90)

This endorsement of fr community engagement in writing is very pertinent for me right now. Before lockdown my writing group organised a writing festival in our town, and we have just published our second collection of writing, a collaborative effort which I will write about in the next post.

Manifesto: On Never Giving Up by Bernardine Evaristo, published in 2021 by Hamish Hamilton.

Related posts on Bookword

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo (May 2020)

Mr Loverman by Bernardine Evaristo (August 2014)

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Beowulf – 1

The Anglo-Saxons have never left us: swear words, place names and the foundation of our language. We have some great archaeological Anglo-Saxon finds including several hoards containing jewellery, such as the Staffordshire and Lenborough Hoards – hidden and never reclaimed – and the magnificent Sutton Hoo ship burial in Suffolk. And there is Beowulf. Beowulf’s story has survived for about 1500 years, composed around the 6th or 7th centuries and written down in the 10th or 11th centuries. The manuscript is long, about 3000 lines in Old English, and is kept in the British Library and tells the story of the hero Beowulf and his battles with Grendel, Grendel’s mother and a dragon.

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. Grendel is 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. Many years after his return to his homeland, Beowulf is made king and takes on a fire-breathing dragon in a battle to protect his people that is his last. His body is set alight in a funeral pyre and a barrow made in his honour, high on a cliff to warn ships of the rocks below.

Origially the story would probably have been told in three parts over three evenings, in a great hall, much like the one featured in the story. How and why the manuscript was created is not known. Who composed it is not known. Some of the There is no evidence that anyone called Beowulf ever existed. Except of course he does, in countless translations, adaptations and retellings.

When I taught history in Coventry, many moons ago, I used to love the unit on Anglo-Saxons as it enabled me to retell the story of Beowulf and Grendel, and to explore the Sutton Hoo Ship burial. After the tale of heroic actions, in which Beowulf’s arm was claimed to have the strength of thirty men, he survived almost a day under water and he died fighting a fire-breathing dragon, after retelling his adventures some child would always ask, ‘is it true? Did it really happen?’

The story of Beowulf has been retold many times, in translations, novels, films and other adaptations. In this and further posts I plan to look at the enduring appeal of the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf and its retelling in books. In this post I look at some of the straightforward renditions of the poem. In future posts I’ll consider some more imaginative versions and the attraction of the Anglo-Saxon tale.

Beowulf by Seamus Heaney 

This recent translation was the work of the great Irish poet Seamus Heaney. We get the whole poem including quite a bit of elaborated history, moments of glory, family events, repeated account of the heroic deeds, and interludes. Heaney has concentrated on telling the story, finding many synonyms for the characters and repeating the reminders that all this was done by God’s power.

In off the moors, down through the mist-band
God-cursed Grendel came greedily loping.
The bane of the race of men roamed forth,
hunting for a prey in the high hall.
Under the cloud murk he moved towards it
until it shone above him, a sheer keep
of fortified gold. (24)

Many of the characters are introduced by their reputation before we actually meet them: Beowulf, Grendel and his mother as well as some of the kings that Beowulf serves. The verse story confirms the two children’s versions I read.

Beowulf by Seamus Heaney, published by Faber in 1999106pp

Dragon Slayer: the story of Beowulf by Rosemary Sutcliff 

As you expect from this great writer, this retelling of the story is very accessible and full of the details for which she was famed. It is helped by Charles Keeping’s illustrations, which while being of their time add considerably to imagining this tale of impossible heroics. As in so many of her stories Rosemary Sutcliff stresses the loyalties that tied together the royal houses of the Danes and the Geats, respected by the kings, seafarers and warriors, as well as the debts that must be repaid when demanded. 

In the great hall of Hygelac, King of the Geats, supper was over and the mead horns going round. It was the time of evening, with dusk gathering beyond the firelight, when the warriors called for Angelm the king’s bard to wake his harp for their amusement; but tonight they had something else to listen to than the half-sung, half-told stories of ancient heroes that they knew by heart. Tonight there were strangers in their midst, seafarers with the salt still in their hair, from the first trading ship to reach them since the ice melted and the wild geese came North again. (8)

Illustrated by Charles Keeping

Dragon Slayer: the story of Beowulf by Rosemary Sutcliff, first published in 1961 and reissued by Puffin in 1966. 108pp

Beowulf by Michael Morpurgo 

This is a more recent version than Dragon Slayer, and is written for slightly younger readers. The story is faithfully told, but without all the genealogical detail of the original and its many diversions. I find the illustrations by Michael Foreman to add less to the retelling than those of Charles Keeping. In this retelling again the  emphasis is on loyalty, courage and indebtedness. 

Hear, and listen well, my friends, and I will tell you a tale that has been told for a thousand years and more. It may be an old story, yet, as you will discover, it troubles and terrifies us now as much as ever it did our ancestors, for we still fear the evil that stalks out there in the darkness and beyond. (13)

Michael Morpurgo notes his debt to other translated versions, including Rosemary Sutcliff, Seamus Heaney, Kevin Crossley-Holland and Michael Alexander. 

Beowulf by Michael Morpurgo, published in 2006 by Walker Books. 150pp

See also Beowulf, translated and introduced by Kevin Crossley Holland (1987) Phoebe editions

Beowulf  by Michael Alexander (1973) Penguin Classics

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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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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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