Category Archives: Libraries

My Bookish August

This has been a rather mad month in terms of bookish and writing activities. I know we are barely half way though August but it has been non-stop in the Bookword world. 

Woman’s Hour

For readers outside the UK who may not know it, Woman’s Hour is a long-running magazine programme on BBC Radio 4. As the title suggests, it focuses on issues from the female perspective, and covers a very wide range of topics. It has a large audience.

Early in August I was asked to join a discussion on older women and fiction, to be broadcast live. The prompt for this discussion was some recent research into the tastes and disappointments of women readers over 40, commissioned by the website Gransnet.

Our topic took as its starting point that women over 40 are the biggest buyers of fiction, but the survey revealed that readers were dissatisfied with how older women are depicted. They often appear in novels as stereotypes, for example unable to operate a smart phone. I made my points about how everyone needs to read good examples of older women, not just readers over 40. And I recommended three good titles, having plugged my blog. I have been asked to repeat my recommendations – so here they are, with links to the reviews on Bookword.

I was asked to arrive by 9.30am, but was unable to find the studio. Fortunately I have done this kind of thing before, or I would have been completely fazed by arriving late, having followed internet directions to the studios in Exeter that they left four years ago. My smart phone was no help; no one answered my increasingly desperate calls and no one could tell me where I was supposed to be. It took a gasman, a community centre receptionist and a taxi driver to deliver me to the studio. The programme order was rearranged to accommodate my tardiness.

This time I met no chickens as I waited to go on air. For an account of a previous experience in September 2014 in a BBC radio studio to promote a book see the link here: Retiring with Attitude at the BBC.

Guest Blogging on Global Literature in Libraries Initiative website

Karen Van Drie invited me to blog in August about older women in fiction around the world. I hope you have or will take a look. By the end the month there will have been about 25 posts. Sadly only six are translations. This is disappointing because August is Women in Translation Month: #WITMonth.  

You can find the blog here: Global Literature in Libraries Initiative, and for more information about the guestathon see my post on Bookword for 3rdAugust.

Planning for the Writing Festival

But most of my energies in August have gone on my contribution to planning a writing festival. WRITE NOW TOTNES will be held on Saturday 21stSeptember, organised by the Totnes Library Writing Group. We have pulled together an exciting range of workshops and other events designed to appeal to participants with a range of experience and of confidence. 

We are proud that it is a local event, ie all workshop leaders and performers are from the area around Totnes, and it is held in the centre of Totnes in the community buildings known as the Mansion. We are thrilled to have attracted funding, including from the Arts Council Lottery Fund. 

There is so much to organise and get right. I have volunteered to do a workshop on blogging of course.

For more details see our Facebook page.

And …

Just three things to keep me busy? Did I mention the dog, or writing or  …? Enough!

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Filed under Books, Learning, Libraries, Older women in fiction, Publishing our book, Reading, Reviews, The Craft of Blogging, Women in Translation, words, Writing

Older women in fiction around the world

So this month I am guest blogging on Global Literature in Libraries Initiative, thanks to an invitation from Karen Van Drie. Karen had seen the series on Older Women in fiction on Bookword and suggested I did a version of older women in translation. 

A blogger’s dream invitation

It’s a blogger’s dream, my blogging dream – an invitation to blog almost daily for a month about older women in fiction in translation. Regular readers will know that I have been writing about older women in fiction almost from the start of this blog. And I have also been supporting initiatives to publicise women in translation such as Women in Translation Month, which is August: #WITMonth.  

Why Older women in Fiction?

A common complaint of older women is that they become invisible. My blog series is in part a challenge to that invisibility in fiction.

More urgently, we need to change how people see older women. James Baldwin said,

The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you alter, even but a millimetre the way people look at reality, then you can change it. [quoted in the TLS by Sarah Ladipo Manyika* 28.5.19}

When I began looking for my own examples of older women who were not sweet, eccentric or death-fixated I was underwhelmed. I decided to collect readers’ ideas about better models of older women in fiction and now I have reviewed 40 titles and have a list of another 40 on my blog page about the older women in fiction series.

Not enough older women in translation

But there was a problem with Karen’s invitation. As far as I have discovered there are not many books in translation into English about older women in fiction. On Bookword to date there are only four (about 10%):

The Summer Book by Tove Jansson (Finland)

The Door by Magda Szabo (Hungary)

The Woman of Tantoura by Radwa Ashour (Egypt)

The Lady and the Little Fox Fur by Violette Leduc (France)

The shortage of older women in translation is an amplification of the failure of publishers to include fiction by women in translation on their lists. Some of the smaller independent publishers do great work it must be said. To some extent the market will develop as the population of older women increases, as it is worldwide. But for now I am just being eagle-eyed and watching the initiatives for promoting fiction in translation. You can help by making suggestions. There is the excellent Biblibio blogwhich hosts Women in translation month; The Global Literature blog; and the PEN organisation. 

So with no shortage of older women, only of translations, I suggested to Karen that I could provide posts on older women around the world.

Blogging about the Older Women in Fiction around the World

On Global Literature in Libraries Initiativeblog the continents will be my organising principle for this month:

  • Week 1 North America
  • Week 2 Europe
  • Week 3 Africa and the Middle East
  • Week 4 fiction from the UK 
  • Week 5 a roundup of those that got missed.

Where are the older women from South America and the Far East and – most surprising to me as there are so many excellent writers – from New Zealand and Australia? 

Not all books with strong examples of older women are written by women, although the large majority of them are. You will find several examples of books by men over the month. 

I have not written all the posts. I asked some other readers/writers to contribute.

Like a Mule bringing Ice Cream by *Sarah Ladipo Manyika will be featured in Week 3.

I am so grateful to Karen Van Drie for this opportunity.

…and on Bookword?

During August I will be blogging as usual on Bookword, posting every five days. Some posts will be edited examples of the more editorial posts from Global Literacies, but I will also be posting the next in the Decades Project on Children’s Literature where we have reached the ‘70s. And I may post some book reviews if my reading prompts me to. 

But it is Women in Translation Month so I hope to keep most of my posts with that theme in mind.

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Book Aid International Changes Lives

Here’s an organisation that in 2018 sent 128 million new and carefully selected books to libraries, schools, universities, refugee camps, prisons and hospitals around the world. 

You can help Book Aid International by making a donation, and/or by buying a ‘reverse book token’. Here’s why it matters.

Child Refugees in Kenya

Boys at a secondary school in Kakuma

24,000 children in Kakuma Refugee Camp in northern Kenya now have books in their schools. The teachers have also been trained in using books in their classrooms.

Before the training I never used to know how to organise books for learners and how to captivate interest among pupils. I now understand the level of children’s understanding. Each of them is different from the other. (Isaac Ubur, headteacher Kalobeyei Early Childhood Centre)

See below for a link to hear Ben Okri say more about the supply of books to the Kakuma Refugee Camp.

Children in South Sudan

18,684 books were sent to South Sudan, where the economy is predominantly rural, but farming needs to improve.

Our farming is quite basic so we need a profound change and this can be gained through books where research has been done on improved farming methods. But there is a lack of books. We have universities, we have schools, but we badly need books. (Professor Dr Jacob Lupai, at the University of Juba)

READ Bhutan 

5106 books were sent to READ Bhutan, a project that aims to offer all children the chance to read. 

The only public library is situated in the capital, Thimphu and most children living in other districts have no access to the public library. READ Bhutan is the only organisation working to build community libraries. We now have nine community libraries. Many children cannot travel outside Bhutan so the books will be an opportunity for them to see a new world, build their creativity and learn about different cultures. (Kezanger, READ Bhutan project manager)

Other 

Donkey mobile library in Zimbabwe

Books have also been sent recently to these destinations:

  • to rebuild the library in the University of Mosul, 
  • to schools in Liberia, 
  • to women in a community garden and for donkey-drawn mobile libraries in Zimbabwe
  • to medical professionals around the world,
  • to displaced children in Cameroon,
  • and to libraries in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. 
Choosing books in a school in Malawi

Ben Okri’s appeal

Ben Okri, the Nobel Prize winning writer from Nigeria, presented the Radio 4 Appeal for Book Aid International on Sunday 31stMarch. You can listen to him talking about the charity’s help given to Yvonne in Kakuma Refugee Camp here.

Reverse Book Tokens

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 Tokenmakes 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.

Boys in a Syrian school

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Bookword goes to the Cote d’Azur – 1

Lured by the possibility of spring, the South of France and exposure to the artists who settled there I set off for Nice in early March. Not for nothing is the coastal area around Nice called the Cote d’Azur, the sea being a deep, deep blue, skies scarcely less rich. 

The area is very built up, and traffic already frequently stationary. In summer Nice must become insufferable, the air oppressive and the hills, in the current season jagged, inhospitable, some snow-capped, desirable for their coolness and comfort. 

Bookish things in the Nice area

Public art is big here, and inescapable. One of the more noticeable is La Tete Caree, site of Nice’s library, or at least the administration of the library. It is recent, monumental and sits in the park next to the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MOMAC). We have forgotten, in our Age of Austerity, what it is to have imaginative public art projects in Britain. Nice has a left-wing civic history.

La tete caree by Sacha Sosno

Art and literature are closely associated in this place, as everywhere. The same qualities that brought Matisse, Chagall, Picasso, bring writers. They follow, they are in the same social groups, they even, like Cocteau, mix in each other’s art forms. 

Here are some of the writers (in English) I have noted who have been lured here:

Tobias Smollett

Louisa May Alcott

Agatha Christie

Zelda and Scott FitzGerald

James Joyce (apparently the opening lines of Finnegan’s Wake might describe the Mediterranean)

Sylvia Plath

Evelyn Waugh

HG Wells

Robert Louis Stevenson (Remember travels with my Donkey?)

Aubrey Beardsley

Thomas Carlyle

Katherine Mansfield,

WB Yeats – who died here.

And here are three novels with locations in the Cote d’Azur 

Swimming Home by Deborah Levy

This short novel is set in the hills above Nice, in a sweltering summer in the 1990s. A family takes their holiday in a villa. The scene is set for tensions to boil over. The poet Jo, his wife Isabel (a war correspondent) and their daughter Nina have rented the villa in the hills above Nice. They bring along another couple, Mitchell who collects guns and Laura, a long-time friend of Isobel’s.

Into this not very happy group intrudes Kitty, a mature teenager with severe mental problems, very attractive. She is the catalyst to a whole range of troubles and fallings out. Kitty wants acknowledgement from Jo for her poem Swimming Home. He wants her. Isobel is dismayed that her husband will be unfaithful yet again. Nina is coming into puberty and afraid for both her parents. And so on. In the end one of the party is shot and found in the villa’s pool. Any one of them could have done it, including the victim.

Beautifully written to evoke the summer in the South of France, in Nice as well as on the hills. Reading it one has to remind oneself that there are good and nice people in the world. Deborah Levy wrote Hot Milk, also set in a liminal location, southern Spain, and concerning a young woman struggling with her identity.

Looking for novels located in Nice I found this book on Trip Fiction.

Swimming Homeby Deborah Levy, published in 2011 by And Other Stories. 160pp

Un Sac de Billes by Joseph Joffo

Two Jewish brothers (12 and 9) escape from occupied Paris to Free France, and spend time in Menton and Nice, having to flee again when the German army extended its occupation. For a while the boys are imprisoned in the Hotel de Ville, Nice, on suspicion of being Jewish. The book is written by the younger boy and has twice been made into a film.

Le pouce by Cesar, outside the Hotel de Ville, Nice

Un Sac de Billes by Joseph Joffo, published in 1973 by Le Livre de Poche. 285pp

Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan

A strange melancholy pervades me to which I hesitate to give the grave and beautiful name of sadness. In the past the idea of sadness always appealed to me, now I am almost ashamed of its complete egoism. (9)

These are the opening words (in translation) of the novel that is probably responsible for my love of France, and many illusions about growing up cool in the 60s. You can read my review here, including references to the issue of translations.

Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan (1954) Penguin. 108pp. Original translation from the French by Irene Ash.

In a future post I will consider the reading experiences of the people in the group with whom I went to the south of France. And look out too for Marie Bashkirtseff  (diaries and letters)

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Writers and Soundart

I love being a member of the Totnes Library Writing Group because it is full of people who are creative, imaginative and playful. Carole Ellis and Wendy Watkins are both stunning writers, and for some time they have also been creating programmes for Soundart the local community radio, as a kind of local podcast. I enjoy listening to their programmes, and so can you.

I asked them to write about their activities for Bookword, and here is their conversation.

Some practical details

Carole and Wendy: We have a monthly programme on Soundart Community Radio – 102.5 FM within a 7 mile radius of Dartington in South Devon, or online: http://www.soundartradio.org.uk. We’ve uploaded our 15 programmes to https://www.mixcloud.com where you can search for “Life with a Literary Slant”. 

You can also contact us by email: lifewithaliteraryslant@gmail.com

Our two sound artists

Wendy: We’re both volunteers. Amateurs. Which means we love what we do.

Carole: Yes. Payment-free and we do it…  Why do we do it? 

Wendy: (Laughing) Let’s go back to the beginning. What do you remember about how this started?

Carole:  I remember a meeting at the Totnes Library Writing Space. Fiona Green, a group member, organised a guest speaker, Chris Mockridge. He talked to us about the use of radio in writing. We had great fun sitting outside in the sunshine and came away thinking ‘we could do that’. 

Wendy:  Chris showed us all how to use a handheld recorder and recorded one of our writers – Mavis Riddel – reading her own short work, “A Highland Story”.

It’s included in our “Winter Stories” episode.  I think you can hear seagulls in the background. 

Carole: We’re based in Totnes – a small market town in the South Hams area of South Devon, unofficially twinned with Narnia – which gives an impression which isn’t strictly true. But it’s a wonderful centre for art, music, writing and some amazing people are based here.

Wendy:  There’s also the legacy of the Elmhirsts who re-built Dartington Hall in the 1930s.They’re long gone and much of their ethos has been submerged, but something of that adventurous spirit lives on. “Soundart” is also a reference to the fact that we’re on the River Dart. 

Carole: Hence the seagulls.

Wendy: The studio itself is based in one of the buildings on that estate. Some do their programmes live, but we chose to pre-record ours.

Starting out with Audacity

Carole:  Lucinda, one of the founding members of Soundart showed us some very basic skills in the use of Audacity, the free software available for sound editing…

Wendy:  …and that led onto a quite amusing period in our explorations trying to do things. But what do you remember about why we started?  

Carole: (laughing) I don’t know why we wanted to do this. I think it was partly to broaden the number of people who hear our group’s writing. And a love of language and communicating and storytelling… We can cover whatever we want so we just tap into whatever interests us at the time. 

Wendy: That’s what a community radio like Soundart gives  – freedom to create and explore. There’s an engaged listening that happens in a writing group…

Carole: …and by replicating it on the radio we’re able to share that experience with a wider audience. 

Wendy: You’ve been writing for some time. I know you were making a killing at one stage, sending letters to newspapers and also writing short stories. So there’s that dimension – and other things about you, like your identity as a teacher. How does that connect with what we’re doing now with Soundart? 

Carole: Yes, I taught adults to read and write for many years. And this programme enables me to continue sharing a love of reading and enabling other people to express themselves. 

Wendy: You often do background research on subjects you enjoy. I’m thinking of the programme on dialect, or the one about the history of coffee shops and writing. 

Carole: You also have a background which gives you an interest in another field 

Wendy: I taught for a couple of years in my early twenties, but I become a clinical psychologist. That involves listening very closely and deeply to other people’s experience. I have an interest in hypnotherapy where you use language, symbols and metaphor in creative ways. A light trance is a natural state so I suppose you could say we’re all in a light trance while listening to a story. 

Although we may choose a serious topic there’s also an element of play in creating a programme. Spoken language has its own musicality and the fact that we can incorporate music is something I find very special.

Carole:  It’s one element that I enjoy a lot… And finding something that we both like, instantly sometimes, we just know that that’s going to be the bit… that it’ll fit. Also the interviewing and bringing in other people. Some are people we know from the writing group but we do find others, don’t we, from out and about? 

Wendy: I really appreciate the generosity with which people do this. Sometimes there’s a particular person I have in mind, like Dr Stephan Harding the ecologist at Schumacher College, who agreed to talk about imagination. Totnes café owners were happy to be included, bookshop owners, and because of the nature of the community it’s easy to find people. 

Carole: Yes and the Totnes librarians and others have been enormously generous with their time and with their ideas and thoughts. We’re really lucky.

Learning to avoid the orphans

Wendy: What do you remember about the first experiences of putting a programme together? 

Carole: I suppose getting the hang of the Audacity software – that was quite challenging. I mean we’ve had programs where we’ve got everything exactly the way we want it and then it’s just disappeared… 

Wendy: Or it tells you that there are 3056 “orphans”…

Carole: Yes. (laughing) I love the “orphans”. I always feel sorry for them but I don’t want them…

Wendy: We’ve never quite worked out where they come from or where they are being held…

Carole: But there’s a lot of them. That’s always been a challenge – but we’re getting the hang of it and also we know how we work best, which in the early days – it was never a challenge exactly – but it was just us getting comfortable with the working arrangement…

Wendy: It’s more relaxed. I remember that in the early stages it was very clear that you were much more technologically skilled than I am. But what’s transpired over time is that you actually like doing that part. We make decisions together and we sit together selecting music, putting the programme together, but you’re faster and more technologically literate.

Carole: You make a much better interviewer than I do so I’m quite happy for you to go out with the Tascam recorder and make those connections while I can sit in my little room pushing buttons taking out the excess stuff that we don’t need… so yeah it works… 

Wendy: We have different perspectives and life experience, but if you have some shared values it makes collaboration work. It’s the same with what programme to do next. We seem to move quite easily into different ideas. 

Carole: I don’t think there’s ever one of us left thinking, ‘Oh, I wouldn’t have done that’. It’s very much a collaboration.

Wendy: Talking of this makes me think again about how much fun creating the programme can be. And the good feeling when we’re in agreement that a programme’s now the right shape, and simply let go of it. Like closing a book, pausing, and moving on to the next.

You can find the programmes in the Life with a Literary Slant series created by Carole and Wendy on Soundart: go to www.mixcloud.com where you can search for “Life with a Literary Slant”.

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The Librarian by Salley Vickers

No sooner the word than the deed. Recently, somewhere in response to my blog and this year’s Decades Project, focusing on children’s literature, my friend Jennifer mentioned The Librarian by Salley Vickers. She had not read it herself but she has children’s librarians in the family. She thought it would fit my project. Almost immediately I found a copy on the shelves of the local RSPCA charity shop. Rather strangely when I bought it for a pound the person on duty asked me if I wanted change for the car park, implying, I think, that one would only buy one item for £1 to get change.

The Librarian by Salley Vickers 

You may have read other novels by Salley Vickers: Miss Garnet’s Angel and The Cleaner of Chartres come to mind. If you have you will know that her style is very readable. Her protagonists appeal to many women readers of my age group and are popular with many other readers as well. The current book is a Sunday Times Top 10 bestseller.

The story of The Librarian is set in 1958 and young Sylvia Blackwell has taken on the job as children’s librarian in a market town in Wiltshire called East Mole. She has high ambitions for the children of the town, of engaging them with her love of literature. It is that time after the war when publishing was taking off. Many of the books for children featured in The Librarian will be familiar: Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce, George MacDonald’s At the Back of the North Wind, the Narnia series and so on.

Sylvia is naïve but things initially go well. She befriends many of the local children and some of their teachers and parents but she lives in dread of a neighbour, the Librarian and the Library Steering Committee. Many of the children do gain from reading; one, Lizzie, gains entry to the Grammar School with help from Sylvia’s coaching for the 11+. From the children Sylvia learns about the local wildlife and from their parents she sees the difficulties of bringing up children at any time.

Trouble soon begins as some of the children behave badly, and Sylvia’s informal manner with them is implicated and soon leads to blame. Sylvia starts an unwise affair with the married GP, and some of her neighbours are spiteful (no reason for this is ever discovered) while others remain kind.

The Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller is discovered in the possession of one of the children when it was supposed to be locked away safely in the Restricted Access collection. Now the restricted and prejudiced attitudes of many people in the town have free reign and Sylvia looses her job while other also suffer.

In a brief second part of the story, set in the 21stcentury, we learn of the fates of all the main characters, including Lizzie who has become a children’s writer. Attitudes to literature have become freer and for some people all ended happily.

Children’s Literature 

While I enjoyed the nostalgia of returning to the books of my past, this novel did not reawaken the sense of wonder that reading brought me (and so many others). For that I think I would revisit Bookworm: a Memoir of childhood reading (2018) by Lucy Mangan, which I reviewed on this blog in the summer. You can find my comments on it here. In The Librarian books appear as objects, like the stolen book, or the piles of late returns that arrive periodically. The children respond with enthusiasm when the choice is right, but they do not appear to enter the worlds created by the novels they read. And I think I must remark that Sylvia herself, an enthusiastic reader of children’s literature, has not gained a great deal of wisdom from her literary experiences. 

But there were pleasures to be had, especially in being reminded of such a wealth of experience to be had in children’s fiction. So do join in the Decades Project for 2019 on Bookword to be reminded of your early reading.

The Librarianby Salley Vickers (2018) Penguin, 385pp

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Imagine a Society of Readers

Reading is good for you. We know this. But imagine if it were national policy to promote reading with the aim of creating a Society of Readers. What would it look like? What are the policy implications of such a vision?

A Society of Readers (2018)

The Reading Agency commissioned the report A Society of Readers from Demos. You can find the full document on the DEMOS site or on the Reading Agency site here.

What are the major social challenges facing our society in the future and how can reading help? These are the questions that the report sets out to investigate and using research (you know, experts) has provided some interesting and inexpensive policy proposals.

The challenges: 

loneliness, especially amongst the growing number of old people

mental health problems

dementia

lack of social mobility

The research findings:

There is evidence on which to build the knowledge that reading has an important part to play in tackling each of these challenges. Reading wards off loneliness, especially where it is accompanied by opportunities for discussion of books, in groups or with reading buddies. The report celebrates book-based social contact.

It is possible to assist someone suffering from mental health difficulties, especially among the young, through reading material. Shelf Help in schools and libraries is becoming more common. You may have heard of poetry pharmacies, prescriptions for reading as aspects of non-medical interventions. You might be familiar with the handbook The Novel Cure: an A-Z of Literary Remedies by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin.

Reading promotes empathy and is an excellent reason for encouraging reading in schools, and a love of reading among the young. It is the basis of Neil Gaiman’s eloquent plea for libraries to the Reading Agency in 2013.

There is evidence that reading helps boost performance on tests, and increases a young person’s opportunities to proceed to higher levels of education. 

The recommendations: 

It’s no exaggeration to say that reading can transform British society. (cover)

The report provides 12 recommendations for the government, all based in the research evidence and successful practices that already promote reading.

What would a society of readers look like? 

That is what we mean by a ‘society of readers’ – a society that values reading, and which is in turn sustained by the benefits that reading brings. A society that saturates itself with books for everyone at every point of life. A state that marks significant life events with the gift of reading – especially to its children. A school system where children, by and large, arrive with a love of reading that was handed down to them by their parents who were supported at various points in their life to turn to books themselves. A school system where learning continues throughout the year ensuring that disadvantaged children can engage with reading groups – surrounding themselves with books even and especially if their home environment lacks them. A society whose clinicians understand that reading can have a medicinal quality when it comes to illnesses such as anxiety, ADHD, depression and even dementia. A society where a well-resourced retraining and further education systemencourages reading beyond the classroom too. A society where workplacesmay even carve out the time to allow their employees the time to attend further reading classes and reading groups. And a society that does not forget that its ill and ill-informed not only have cognitive needs but imaginations that can still light a fire too – and where we encourage them to share these imaginations by bonding with their contemporaries over the written word. (p41)

(Note: to make this paragraph easier to navigate I put the main policy locations in bold.)

And so why …?

Why are libraries suffering so badly from the policies of austerity?  The latest figures reported by CIPFA (Chartered Institute of Public Finance & Accountancy) can be found in a press release from December 2018 here. The only figures that have gone up relate to volunteers and to their hours. 127 libraries closed. Spending was down by £30m and 712 full-time jobs were lost. That is in one year.

So while research and reading charities show that there are some inexpensive and beneficial policies to be promoted to help society, councils and government continue to strangle libraries. That’s why we need to imagine a Reading Society. And readers are good imaginers.

A Society of Readersby Sacha Hilhorst, Alan Lockey, Tom Speight published in 2018 by DEMOS for the Reading Agency. 

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Six ways to choose books to read

Recently I collected a novel from the library that I had reserved about a month ago. It was Who will look after the Frog Hospital? by Lorrie Moore. I couldn’t remember why I had made a note about this book and subsequently reserved it. Perhaps it was the title, or the main character is over 60 (she isn’t) or … what? I can’t remember, and it doesn’t really matter. I’ll take my chances with it.

Last summer Kate Vane posted on her blog: The mysterious world of book discovery. She considered how she identified books she wanted to read, including overhearing a recommendation in a bookshop. Recently, as I was listening to the podcast of some writing friends I found myself reaching for a pen to make a note of a recommendation by a guest on their show. These events made me think about all the occasions when I note down the title and author of a book that sounds interesting.

My sources: 1 Bloggers and blog readers

I often read books that have been recommended by fellow bookbloggers. Recently I enjoyed The Girl on the Via Flaminia  byAlfred Hayes, recommended on JacquiWine’s Journal. I rediscovered Barbara Comyns through bloggers’ enthusiasms too.

And on my blog I encourage readers to leave recommendations on the various themes I explore: older women in fiction, children’s literature, on books and trains, books with Miss or Mrs in the title, and so on. 

Some of the books that I have enjoyed most were recommended through comments on the blog: for example All Passion Spentby Vita Sackville-West, or The Stone Angelby Margaret Laurence were both recommended for the Older Women in Fiction series.

My sources: 2 Reviewers

Reviewers can be professional as in the quality papers. Kate Vane was unenthusiastic about them as they cover a restricted range of authors and they operate within the same social circle.

I agree that they are limited, but I like to see what is being reviewed, and what is being said. 

My sources: 3 Literary Prizes

As with the broadsheet reviews I keep an eye on prizes to see what’s around. I especially take note of the Women’s Prize, and usually read the winner and several others from the long and short lists. This year’s winner of the Man Booker prize is Milkman by Anna Burns. It is the choice of my reading group for January, so I am pleased to be trying to finish this at the moment.

My sources: 4 Word of Mouth

I often exchange ideas about reading, with writer friends, with others in my social circle, and I often take note of books recommended on podcasts, on the radio, and I love reading those cards in libraries and bookshops: staff picks. These personal notes reveal what the readers responded to. I might disagree, but I’m always pleased to have books pointed out to me.

On holiday recently I asked the others in my walking group what they were reading, and this led me to one of the most beautiful novels I know: That they may face the rising sun by John McGahern.

My sources: 5 Subscriptions

In order to introduce a little serendipity into my reading I receive books chosen by others. There is Peirene Press, whose lovely editions of European novellas frequently find their way onto my review pages. The most recent was And the Wind Sees All by Gudmundur Andi Thorsson in December 2018.

Then there’s the Asymptote Club. This aims to bring books from across the world to the attention of members. I have reviewed these too from time to time. For example Brother in Ice by Alicia Kopf in July 2018.

You will notice that both these subscriptions promote books in translation. I take advantage of this because I have few ways to know what is rewarding to read in translation. Prizewinners and bloggers’ lists are good for this too.

My sources: 6 Accidental

Books picked up while staying in in other people’s houses, or in cottages or bookish hotels; books found in charity shops and second hand shops; books with alluring covers or intriguing titles; books I have been given; books I come across at the library on the recommended shelf … 

Your sources?

What are the ways in which you find books that you want to read?

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Devon Voices in World War One

There has been an abundance of tributes to those who made sacrifices during the First World War to coincide with the centenary of the Armistice on 11thNovember. In this post I draw attention to a local project that focuses on the everyday impact of that war upon Devon; and acknowledges the 11,000 local people who died in the hostilities.

There is a bookish connection.

Devon Remembers Heritage Project

We honour and remember the fallen soldiers, airmen, seamen and medical staff who gave their lives in the First World War. Our dominant image of the war is of the infantryman, in the trenches on the Western Front, with his round helmet. Somewhere in this picture there will be poppies.

We must also remember the effects of the war on other people. I have been admiring the Devon Remembers Heritage Project. It has involved ordinary people (that is, not historians), supporting their research into how the war affected life in Devon 1914-18. There have been about 30 projects. In addition there has been an arts programme, some events and other notable outcomes, such as an exhibition and a book. I like the idea of citizen history

Devon During the First World War

Many of the projects have been written up in the book Devon During the First World War. Sadly this book will only have a single print run, but it is available from Devon Libraries.

Devon is predominately rural and projects have explored farming and food production, including in-shore fisheries. The German blockade made it important for Britain to develop more home grown produce, and Devon people responded by finding all kinds of nooks and crannies for their allotments. In-shore fisheries were affected immediately by restrictions but Stephen Reynolds, who had come to live in Devon, worked tirelessly to ensure the work continued and the fish were harvested and fishermen did not loose their livelihood.

Exeter became a hospital centre for the South, taking wounded men from the trains via Southampton, who were cared for in no less than eight hospitals in the city. Some of those affected by shell shock were cared for at Seale-Hayne. Ordinary households in Exeter provided accommodation for the sick and wounded and they received treatment at the local clinics.

Plymouth has always had a central role in defending the country and in maintaining the naval fleet. Some very young midshipmen from Dartmouth were involved in action, sometimes fatally.

Industries all over Devon were affected by the shortage of labour and materials, and filling the gap meant that women and young people were recruited into new roles. An addition the refugee population, especially from Belgium, was welcomed by local people.

In Ottery St Mary, for example, the Verschoren family arrived with three children. The father had suffered a gas attack on the Front and been sent to Britain for treatment. Mrs Verschoren led the three children to safety, and they were settled in Devon. They were liked and well known in the area, and the whole family stayed on after the war. (see p43-44 Ciaran Stoker: Belgian Refugees in Devon)

Women took up roles previously denied them, and I especially warmed to the ambulance driver who was responsible for the transport of patients in Devon, as well as the maintenance of her vehicle. Sometimes her task was to return an injured soldier to his home when no more could be done to help him. (Devon Voices exhibition at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter).

Devon writers, workers, the Jewish community and Canadian lumberjacks also made a substantial contribution to the war effort in Devon and have been researched by the citizen historians.

Here is an account of a notable act of bravery by 20-year old Ella Trout in September 1917.

Ella was rowing beyond Start Point with her 10-year old nephew, Willie Trout, when she heard a loud explosion from a torpedoed ship. Ignoring the risk of a submarine surfacing, Ella rowed for more than a mile through dangerous cross-currents, arriving in time to rescue a seaman clinging to a piece of wreckage. She hauled him on board, but unable to row back again against the strong current, started to drift further out into the Channel. Fortunately a nearby fishing boat had rescued the eight other seamen from the ship. The skipper took Ella’s rescued seaman onto his boat and towed her boat to safer waters where a naval patrol boat took the crew of the sunken ship to Dartmouth. Ella was awarded the OBE for bravery. (p99-100 Tom Reeves: Lifesaving at sea)

You can find details of the Devon Remembers Heritage Project on their website here: https://www.devonremembersheritage.org

I visited the Devon Voices and the Canadians in Devon War Photographs exhibitions at RAMM, Exeter in October. Both were moving and instructive.

My own choice of object to honour those whose lives were so affected by the war is made by Clare Read, Little Burrow Designs and called We Will Remember Them.

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Bookworm: a Memoir of childhood reading by Lucy Mangan

What is this strange pleasure of reading about people’s reading habits? It’s as good as talking with people about books and reading, and yet it has its own pleasures. In writing about her childhood reading obsession, Lucy Mangan has captured much of what I felt as a child as I escaped again and again into books. She has also given me some new books to read and so provided some new pleasures in anticipation.

Bookworm

Lucy Mangan describes the pleasures of discovering books and being read to, and takes us all the way through her reading historyto her late teenage years. She focuses on book for children, but I am sure she would be as interesting on the subject of adult reading. I hope she will write more.

From the very first, reading was her chief pleasure, shared with her father and indulged in in the public and school libraries of her childhood. Brought up in Catford in the 1980s, she read all the books I read plus those that my daughter read.

She too had an Enid Blyton binge and loved Noel Streatfield and noticed the large output of the Pulleins. My own Enid Blyton binge lasted about two months. I had been sent away to boarding school when I discovered a huge collection of her stories on the shelves of Judy Lovell who had not yet joined us after the holidays because she was ill. Her absence allowed me to wallow. We had a theory about how these books were churned out, and it turns out we were not far off the idea of the Sweet Valley High production line.

She [Francine Pascal] is named as author of the first two of what would become a 143-strong core series plus innumerable spin-offs. The rest were entirely produced by a host of freelance ghostwriters.  … They used a bible (notes on themes, character, settings, and so on, compiled by Pascal) to ensure consistency, and worked to outlines she provided. They were a band of typing postgrad monkeys stretching from sea to shining sea, producing for a fixed fee 140 pages every six to eight weeks. (284)

We believed that that was exactly how Enid Blyton produced so many repetitive books, only I think we believed her writers were elves.

She found some books that I have not read: for example The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster – and spurred on by her I believe it should be read. It was only published in 1961 and I might have thought I was too old for it.

Other delights she refers to I only discovered in my 30s. I came across MacDonalds, Charlotte’s Web and The BFG. My pleasure in finding the chips and the milkshakes has not endured, but my delight in EB White’s classic spider/pig story and all of Roald Dahl has lasted well. Not only did I share it with my daughter but Roald Dahl’s books are a favourite with my grandchildren.

In her assessment of her reading material and habits she explores the importance of reading to children, to develop a sense of change, otherness and other worlds. And, of course, the importance of libraries to support these.

Once a bookworm …

There is so much pleasure to revisit here and with such an accomplished and amusing writer. I’ve wanted to read this since I first saw it announced.

It has reminded me how I want to reread books, many from my childhood. And to reclaim others, such as At the Back of the North Wind by George MacDonald, a book that frightened and enthralled me at the same time. The illustrations (I think they were by Arthur Rackham) terrified me. It was a gift from my grandfather and I treasured it through the first months of my life at boarding school.

And, unlike Lucy Mangan, I loved historical fiction, especially Rosemary Sutcliff and Henry Treece before moving on to Georgette Heyer. Like her, I read every moment I could, especially with a torch under the bedclothes at night, or in the toilet. It was there that I consumed most of Oliver Twist and even today can never contemplate Dickens without thinking of the cold floor and the ridge on my cold bottom.

Perhaps I’ll institute a new series on Bookword: rereading childhood favourites. What do you think? And what would you recommend?

Bookworm: a Memoir of childhood reading by Lucy Mangan. Published in 2018 as a hardback by Square Peg 322pp

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