Category Archives: Reading

Reading on time

My mind has been on the passing of time as the lockdown continued. At some point I decided to stop viewing the confinement as some kind of hiatus and accept that it was just how we are living at this time. It helped. But I think a lot about how many days, what we did this time last year, when will we be able to do some things again. It is a theme in fiction as well.

Here’s a celebration to enjoy of days, weeks, months and even years in fiction and memoir.

  • The Hours by Michael Cunningham (1998)
  • The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen (1948)
  • The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro (1989)
  • The Fortnight in September by RC Sherriff (1931)
  • A Month in the Country by JL Carr (1980)
  • The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion (2005)
  • The Years by Virginia Woolf (1937)
  • The Years by Annie Ernaux (2008, in English translation 2019)

The Hours by Michael Cunningham

This is a kind of riff on Mrs Dalloway. The title was Virginia Woolf’s own first idea for her novel. Set in three different times and locations The Hours examines society and its difficulties. As someone who has loved reading and rereading Virginia Woolf, I find it adds a new perspective to the original without detracting from it. We have a version featuring Virginia Woolf herself, another with an American suburban housewife from the 1950s and the third set in recent decades in New York, when HIV/AIDS was rampant. 

It won a Pulitzer Prize and was made into a film (2002), largely successful. 

The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen

When I reviewed this thriller six years ago, I noted that rereading it had allowed me to appreciate more its admirable features. You can find that review here.  

It is set in London during the Second World War, and follows a couple of lovers, Stella and Robert, and a creepy man who appears to be a stalker. But the dilemma this man Harrison, presents to Stella is at the heart of the tension. Sometimes Elizabeth Bowen’s writing forces the reader to slow down and pay attention. Overall it is an excellent and highly recommended novel.

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

This is another book that is worth rereading. I find it hard to get Anthony Hopkins out of mind as the butler, Stevens, who narrates the novel. He remembers his experiences in the years leading up to the Second World War. We see that he was in love with the housekeeper, but let the opportunity to be with her slip away. He also places loyalty to his employer over everything and fails to see what he is up to. What remains of his day for Stevens is being in service to a new American employer.

The Fortnight in September

I reviewed this in a recent post, enjoying the lack of exciting plot events or twists and noting that the annual family holiday gave pleasure to the Stevens family because everything was so familiar and a repetition of previous years.

Set between the wars as the family go on holiday to Bognor, it becomes clear that it will be their last fortnight. Everything is changing, as it does.

A Month in the Country by JL Carr 

This short novel is much loved by book bloggers and reading groups. My own extended comments can be found here

Set in the 1920s, in the north of England, a young man comes to recover from his failed marriage and his wartime experiences. He works as a restorer of church murals and finds much to help him recover in the village: the mural, the vicar’s wife, his friends the archaeologist and the teenage nonconformist Kathy, the villagers and the countryside. It’s a very beautiful novel about acceptance of damage and variation among people.

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

I am tempted to use the word forensic about Joan Dideron’s analysis of the year following the sudden death of her husband and the seriously illness of their daughter. 

This is my attempt to make sense of the period that followed, weeks and then months that cut loose any fixed idea I had ever had about death, about illness, about probability and luck, about good fortune and bad, about marriage and children and memory, about grief, about life itself. (7)

She writes compellingly with sparseness and great precision. She provides the voice of reason commenting on her ‘magical thinking’ and with a complete focus on herself, her husband and her daughter.

You can read my expanded thought on her account here

The Years by Virginia Woolf

As we near the end of this collection, we return to Virginia Woolf and her last published novel, The Years, which looks at the Pargiter family from 1880s to the 1930s in eleven episodes. This is the only novel of hers that I have not yet read. It gave her great pain in the writing, according to her diary. 

I wonder if anyone has ever suffered so much from a book as I have from The Years. Once out I will never look at it again. It’s like a long childbirth. Think of that summer, every morning a headache, and forcing myself into that room in my nightgown, and lying down after a page: and always with the certainty of failure. Now that certainty is mercifully removed to some extent. But now I feel I don’t care what anyone says so long as I am rid of it. [Tuesday 10th November 1936]

She began it in 1933 and only finished it three years later. It was well received when it published. I look forward to tackling it myself.

The Years by Annie Ernaux

This book is a kind of collective memoir, covering the years of Annie Ernaux’s life (1940 to 2006) up to the point it was published in France. It was very extraordinary to read it, quite unsettling really. But also one of the most original and interesting books I have read recently.

When I think of my life, I see my story since childhood until today, but I cannot separate it from the world in which I lived; my story is mixed with that of my generation and the events that happened to us. [Annie Ernaux: I was so ashamed for Catherine Deneuve … by Kim Willsher. 6.4.19 Guardian]

The main character of this collective memoir is time itself. She notes that ‘we vanish into the vast anonymity of a distant generation’. (20)

Translated from the French by Alison L Strayer

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Two Good Reads (in Lockdown)

As I write this (early May) no one has any idea how long the lockdown will continue. But one thing is sure: people will still want good books to read. And book groups will also still want recommendations. These two books, reviewed here, are both fairly long, and have been on my tbr pule for some months. And on my radar for longer, recommended by bloggers and others. So I bought one last year and found the second one in a second-hand book shop in February. 

  • The Fortnight in September by RC Sherriff
  • A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles 

Both are recommended as longish and relaxing reads for book groups and for lockdowns.

The Fortnight in September

Set between the wars, the novel is about a suburban family as they go on their annual holiday to Bognor. As the title suggests it is THE fortnight in September, and they have been many times before. Not much out of the ordinary happens. 

Much of their pleasure in the holiday comes from everything being the same as all the previous years: their preparations, their timetable, the boarding house, the other customers in the pub, the way they spend their days. Each of these are experienced in loving detail by the family who believe in getting pleasure from each moment.

One of his best ideas was to have a set programme for every other day – leaving the days in between absolutely free for everyone to do what they liked. It was a wise plan from several points of view. The little squabbles you so often saw happening on the sands in the afternoon were not always due to the heat: more often they came from people being too much together, and getting on each other’s nerves. (166)

However, Mr Stevens is getting older and his hair is thinning. Mrs Stevens discovers that their landlady has had no other visitors that year, and frankly the digs are a bit below par. The oldest child Mary has a holiday romance and is a little burned by the experience. Her brother Dick has been depressed all year since leaving school and taking on a job his father found for him. He decides to take matters into his own hands and get a new job. It is clear that it will be their last fortnight.

It is a hymn to nostalgia. But it is also an account of change, its inevitability and the opportunities it brings. This novel was a great success when it was first published. It was one of the first books published by Persephone (no 67) and they have issued it in the Persephone classics series with a lovely beach on the cover: Algernon Talmage: Silver Morning, Alderburgh Beach (1931)

The Fortnight in September by RC Sherriff, first published in 1931; I used the Persephone edition of 2006. 326pp

A Gentleman in Moscow

In 1920 the young Russian Count Alexander Rostov is placed under house arrest in the Metropol Hotel in Moscow. He has been deemed a former person, because he had private wealth, an aristocratic title and does not fit the Bolshevik ideas of a good comrade. He is a cultured man, and had written a poem that caught the mood of revolt in pre-Revolutionary Russia, so he was not executed.

For 34 years, until 1954, he lives in an attic room, befriends the hotel staff, becomes a waiter, adopts a child who becomes a great pianist, befriends a senior member of the Russian communist party and takes a lover. During this time he maintains his courtesy, generosity, culture, good manners and attention to detail.

But in setting upright the cocktail glass in the aftermath of the commotion, didn’t he also exhibit an essential faith that by the smallest of one’s actions one can restore some sense of order to the world? (459)

He manages to create a decent life, despite being confined. The history of the USSR is seen from the interior the Metropol. The story is told with considerable panache and extravagance.

It is charming, witty, funny and a good, well-told story. I was bothered by not knowing how he became a waiter, although I could see that it suited him, with his cultured attentive manner, courtesy and attention to detail. And I was uneasy that he slept in a tiny room with his adopted daughter until she was 25. 

This book was recommended for book groups by fellow travellers last year when I was in Nice. You can find their other recommendations here.

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles (2016) published by Windmill (Penguin Books). 462pp

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A Stricken Field by Martha Gellhorn

My god she was angry. Martha Gellhorn was most angry about Spain, where she had been reporting on the Civil War. But she became angry about the Allies’ betrayal of Czechoslovakia in 1938 which she had visited earlier in the year. She had seen the determination of the Czechs to fight the German ambitions for Sudetenland. On returning after the Munich Agreement in September she found that Germany had taken Sudetenland and more as it increased control over the country.

Annexation of Sudetenland 1938

Martha Gellhorn knew what she was writing about, knew that the expansion of Germany into Czechoslovakia after Munich, would be the start of something terrible in Europe. The book is critical of French and British policy towards Hitler’s ambitions. She called Chamberlain’s approach ‘kid-glove fascism’.

How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas-masks here because of a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing. 
[Chamberlain‘s Speech on Radio on 27th September 1938, before he flew to Munich.

‘Peace in Our Time’ – Munich Agreement 1938

Her book warned of the Gestapo methods, and the despair of the refugee Germans, Jews and other ‘undesirables’ who had found sanctuary in Czechoslovakia, and of the Czechs who opposed Germany’s annexation.

A Stricken Field was the first novel of the American correspondent Martha Gellhorn. It was published in America in 1940, and in London in 1942. With this choice for the Decades Project 2020 (see below) we enter another dark period of the Twentieth Century.

A Stricken Field

By the time Mary [Martha] arrived in Prague the country had become a stricken field, a field that has been the scene of a battle, in this case a battle that had not even been fought.

There were young knights among them who had never been present at a stricken field. Some could not look upon it and some could not speak and they held themselves apart from the others who were cutting down the prisoners at my Lord’s orders, for the prisoners were a body too numerous to be guarded by those who were left. Then Jean de Rye, an aged knight of Burgundy who had been wounded in the battle, rode up to the group of young knights and said, “Are ye maidens with your downcast eyes? Look well upon it. See all of it. Close your eyes to nothing. For a battle is fought to be won. And it is this that happens if you lose.” 
[from a Medieval Chronicle, quoted at the start of the book]

As an American correspondent she was privileged to witness, but also powerless, even when she had information. The novel follow Mary Douglas in Prague as she becomes incensed by the betrayal of the people of Czechoslovakia and the danger to the German refugees there. 

Through her friendship with Rita, a German refugee who has been living in Prague, she sees the worsening situation, the people who have become homeless, stateless, and without protection except for underground organisations such as Rita’s. Peter, Rita’s partner is another Germany activist, part of the communist party and he also assists refugees. He is picked up by the Gestapo. 

Mary tries to obtain a small amount of leeway for the refugees who have been ordered to leave immediately and have nowhere to go. She uses her position to get access to the British Commissioner for Refugees of the Society of Nations, Lord Balham, and a French general who has resigned his commission , shocked by the way in which his country abandoned their Czech allies. They fail in their combined attempts to get the Czech prime minister to grant more time. Despite being the stuff of thrillers this incident is based in real events. The French general comforts Mary:

“There is never one injustice alone, but always many others which follow naturally. If you live, you will see many  more and worse. And if you live long enough, you will see it change.” (197)

But Rita is lost because she has no spirit left after her partner Peter is tortured. Mary prepares to leave and is asked by an unknown woman to take evidence of atrocities with her. 

It is not just a bundle of papers that I am going to have an awful time hiding. It is the proof that everyone is not beaten yet. (285)

She considers her role. Should she carry these papers out to Paris? What good will it do? We already know that she does, because we are reading the novel. But the question that lingers is – so what difference did it make? What difference can truth-telling make? Events moved on. The Munich Agreement was consigned to critical history, Germany took over Europe and millions died. No wonder she was angry. And although we know that it is important that truth is spoken, that people do not give up, we are also reminded that there will be dark and terrible days.

Martha Gellhorn

She was an extraordinary woman, and a brave one. She was the only correspondent to land on D Day in Normandy, having hidden herself in a hospital ship. She had been in Spain, Czechoslovakia, Paris and London and reported on the war from all these places.

The novel shifts points of view, and is not entirely satisfactory in its construction. But the burning fury of author is evident. Peter, Rita and Czechoslovakia succumb, but the foreign correspondent flies out to Paris. She can still write. I found it very powerful. 

A Stricken Field by Martha Gellhorn (1940) Chicago University edition. 314 pp. It was published in the Virago Modern Classics series in 1986.

The Decades Project 2020

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

The first four choices for the project were

My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin (1901)

Mary Olivier: A Life by May Sinclair (1919)

Passing by Nella Larsen (1929)

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

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The House on the Strand by Daphne du Maurier

Daphne du Maurier is a highly respected writer. Her novels are much enjoyed by readers whose opinions I admire. Her reputation rests largely on Rebecca, a novel she published in 1938. Through the brooding good looks of Laurence Olivier and the happy fortune of Hitchcock’s film (1940) this writer has remained very popular. I think her reputation today is based on that film, and especially upon the creepy character of Mrs Danvers. The novel has a slightly different plot denouement from the film. I find it difficult to enjoy a book that depends on the reader’s sympathy for a murderer. I wrote about this here.

So what to choose for the Daphne du Maurier reading week, organised by HeavenAli for 11-17th May? I had a choice of four novels which had been on my mother’s shelves. I asked for help from book-tweeters and back came the recommendation for The House on the Strand. 

My choice for the Daphne du Maurier Reading Week 2020

I experienced nostalgia as I read it, a nostalgia based on the smell of the pages, and the appearance of the browning pages. This was one of those regular arrivals from the World Book Club. Sight, feel and smell all brought back my teens, reading from among these books in the school holidays. Katherine by Anya Seton (1954) was another, as was Dr Zhivago by Boris Pasternak (1957) and Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (1961). The House on the Strand fits right in, published in 1969.

The House on the Strand

Richard Young, our hero and narrator, is staying in a house in Cornwall near Par. He is on his own, the house having been lent by his great friend the biophysicist Professor Magnus Lane. But his American wife and two stepsons will join him in a few days.

Dick has agreed to undergo an experiment for Magnus, which pitches him back in time to the early 1300s amongst the families of the district, and particularly beside one man, Roger, who is steward to one of the rich women. Dick returns several times to this world, coming to see it as more interesting. Gradually he becomes obsessed with it and would rather be in that world than with his wife in the present day. 

The reader follows Dick in his first experience of taking the drug. He finds himself in a vivid medieval world, full of politics, passion and underhand doings centred on the local gentry. The setting of the novel is vividly realised, the place names link old and current names, the tides and other topographical details are exploited. For example, a man is killed because in his consciousness he is on an empty hillside, but physically he is on a railway track still in the current day.

At each visit to the past Dick finds himself a little further on with the story he has been witnessing, especially as it concerns the beautiful and adulterous Isolde. There is a suspicious death, a brutal murder, community events and eventually a visit by the Black Death. 

As for Dick, he has severely endangered his own marriage, and put his health in jeopardy too. The doctor who treats him suggests that there is a Freudian explanation for what he has experienced, but aspects of it are not accounted for by this theory. 

Daphne du Maurier

Born in 1907 Daphne du Maurier lived a long and productive life, writing many novels as well as short stories and plays. Most of her life was spent in Cornwall, where she died in 1989 at Fowey. From 1965 she lived in Kilmarth, the house on the strand. 

She is usually characterised as a romantic novelist and there are often dark shadows of the paranormal in her plots. Although there is a fair amount of pseudo-science to explain the drug and its time-travelling effects, enough for one reviewer to claim it falls into the science fiction genre, the drug’s effects are more mystical especially as the traveller is not physically present in the medieval world, and experiences bad reactions when he touches a person from the past, including being catapulted back into the present. She is also famed for her ambiguous endings, the calculated irresolution. In this novel it is unclear what the lasting physical effects of Dick’s misadventures will be.

What are we to make of this book? She seems to be implying that drugs that mess with your brain are damaging. This was the time when LSD was becoming widely known and used. Or was she suggesting that science was getting out of hand? There is an eccentric professor to create the drug complete with a basement laboratory where monkeys’ heads are kept in jars along with phials labelled A, B and C.

Any ideas of class are completely ignored. Apart from Mrs Collins the benevolent housekeeper (an antidote to Mrs Danvers) all the characters are firmly in the well-to-do bracket. Dick’s wife is a widowed American who brings two step-sons and ambitious plans for Dick to emigrate to a job in the USA. And in the medieval period all the main players are people of substance, engaged in local and national battles for power.

It was hard to have sympathy for any character. Dick is weak and manipulatable; Vita is too energetic and has beastly friends; Magnus creates the concoction that initiates the whole mess and then disappears; and the bloodletting among the medieval characters, the jockeying for positions, the unpleasant relationships, none of these characters are sympathetic. Roger, a steward, who is the main character that Dick always follows has the redeeming feature of loyalty to his employer. But even he switches employer.

So …?

I am not much impressed by this book. It seems dated to me in its class assumptions, its focus and the narrative was hard to follow with all the place names (the all begin with Tre-) and the family names. Unless another blogger in this reading week manages to convince me, I think I shall leave the rest of Daphne Du Maurier’s oeuvre on the shelves.

What did you think of it?

Heavenali loved it and she has a much more positive review on her site than I have posted here. Happy Birthday!

The House on the Strand by Daphne du Maurier (1969) I read my mother’s hardback edition from World Book Club. 285pp. Virago Modern Classics published an edition in 2003

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The Best Books for … a lockdown

I am thoroughly fed up with newspapers, booksellers even book tweeters assuming that they know what I want to read during the lockdown. By the time this post appears it will be more than 50 days into the restrictions, and although we may still be finding them hard, we will know more about how we cope than pop psychologists with their routines of resilience. I am dubious about the idea of reading being some kind of antidote to boredom and loneliness.

We are being recommended to read long books, or comfort reads, or books about restrictions and the plague, or books that offer escapism. But we may not want this. What everyone seems to agree on is that readers are reading more, and readers have more time for more reading. But I don’t want to work through a list of long books I’ve been meaning to read forever; I don’t want books to cheer me up; or to match any low mood; or books that pander to a reduced ability to concentrate. 

During the lockdown I have enjoyed a good mixture. So here’s my list of Best Books and I invite you to add your choices too. 

Quiet books

If you haven’t read Stoner by John Williams this might be a good opportunity. The main character leads an unremarkable life, which can be described as an accumulation of failure and disappointment. But it is a life worth reading about. You can read my review here.

Barbara Pym is another writer, but very different, who writes about the small things of life, the quiet people, everyday events. I really enjoyed rereading Excellent Women, and highly recommend it to you. It was the subject of the previous post. And for a book by her in the older women in fiction series you could read Quartet in Autumn.

A thoughtful writer

An early casualty of the cancellation of all my activities was an event in Bristol at which Rebecca Solnit was due to speak. What made it even more frustrating was that this was the second time she had cancelled a visit to Bristol. I’m not taking it personally. But I want to read more from Call them by their True Names by Rebecca Solnit. This was a gift from my daughter at Christmas, being a collection of essays. And in anticipation of that cancelled event I had obtained a copy of her memoir: Recollections of My Non-Existence. I have scheduled a post on this blog on her writing for the near future.

She always provides a wider perspective on events, allowing one to understand the world in which we live in more breadth and depth. You will find several posts featuring her writing (all non-fiction).

Comfort Reading

I don’t usually go in for comfort reading, but there is one book that I have read in the past during times of great personal difficulty. It absorbs my attention and flatters my focus as a reader, for I know the plot so well. I enjoy reading new details, of style, comment, interaction and so forth. It is Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. And if the moments of personal difficulty follow too close together I will replace it with Persuasion. Neither novel comforts me because they end well for the heroine, but because they are so well crafted, such a treat for the reader.

Books I started and want to finish now

One book in this category has to be Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo, which won the Booker Prize. I started it a few months ago, but it was called back to the library and so now I have my own copy I can continue to read it without the threat of being parted from it. I relished Mr Loverman, partly because it is set in Hackney, a part of London which I know well. And also because the people in that novel were, as it were, known to me. I had lived among them. In addition I attended a day course at the British Museum on which Bernardine Evaristo tutored. It was a good experience. That woman has serious talent.

And another book to finish is RC Sherriff’s A Fortnight in September. This is another book that I read a chapter of and now want to get back to. It regularly receives praise on social media, and I feel I should know it. 

Poetry

I am dipping into various collections and enjoying the work of a range of poets: Kathleen Jamie and Helen Dunmore for example. 

Novels on the theme of pandemic:

Maybe I will try one or more of these:

Lockdown by Peter May 

La Peste by Albert Camus

A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe

The Stand by Stephen King

But probably not.

And …

I am enjoying listening to Podcasts, for the discussions about books or words. And I’m pleased that Backlisted Podcast is now in production again. These podcasts feature, as the name implies, books that are on publishers’ backlists but still deserve attention. They restarted the series in April with a look at Barbara Pym.

And I continue to read chosen books for the blog, especially the series, my book clubs and because I have them on my shelves. 

Recommended by others

Five Comfort Reads from A Life in Books blog

Lockdown Reading by Anne Goodwin on Inspired Quill

Comfort Reading on the Guardian, chosen by various writers

There are lots of good suggestions there for people who like lists of recommendations.

Best Books for …

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

The Best Books for … changing my life in December 2019

The Best Books for … giving in January 2020.

Over to you

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

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Excellent Women and A Glass of Blessings by Barbara Pym

Prompted by praise on a Backlisted podcast, I revisited Barbara Pym and read two of her novels in succession. She is an excellent observer of small social groups, and her main characters are curious about other characters in their circles. This makes for lively rather than dramatic scenes in her novels. It is probably for this kind of social observation she has been compared with Jane Austen. If you haven’t experienced her writing yet I recommend you start with Excellent Women or Quartet in Autumn.

Excellent Women

Written immediately after the Second World War and published in 1952, Excellent Women was Pym’s second novel. The drabness, the greyness of that time, especially of food, clothing and décor are well captured. But people went on behaving in interesting and sometimes unexpected ways. This is observed by the narrator Mildred Lathbury. Although she appears to be a repressed spinster, we soon realise that she is more than she seems for she had been in censorship during the war

Mildred Lathbury is 31, single, and lives on her own after the death of her parents (father a clergyman), and her school friend Dora’s decision to leave their shared rooms to pursue a career in teaching. Mildred’s days are spent working in a charity for impoverished gentlewomen in the morning and attending to church matters, jumble sales, flower arranging, and such matters in the afternoon. She is one of those excellent dependable women, whose lives are considered to be at everyone’s disposal because they are single. 

Into this settled life come Rocky and Helena, moving into the flat below her. Helena is an anthropologist and Rocky has recently come out of the navy where his job seemed to be to manage an admiral’s social life by being nice to Wrens in Italy. Rocky is attractive and charming but the couple are not happy. Also unsettling is the news that, Allegra Grey has moved into the spare rooms in the rectory and has quickly becomes engaged to the priest, Father Malory. 

All these people make demands upon Mildred, and they all make assumptions about her. She navigates through, keeping as far as possible to the morally right path as well as trying to correct false assumptions. It is assumed that Mildred has always wanted to marry Julian Malory. They all assume that they can make demands upon her. Mildred is clearly an excellent woman, so she will undertake these tasks efficiently: writing letters, dealing with tradesmen, comforting the bereaved and so forth.

Even as Mildred is being put upon it is clear that she has trouble saying no, and towards the end one wishes she would. But her observations about the behaviour of others are precise and frequently amusing and depend on them treating her as an ‘excellent’ woman. 

I suppose an unmarried woman just over thirty, who lives alone and has no apparent ties, must expect to find herself involved or interested in other people’s business, and if she is also a clergyman’s daughter then one might really say that there is no hope for her. (1)

‘This may sound a cynical thing to say, but don’t you think men sometimes leave difficulties to be solved by other people or to solve themselves?’ (231) 

I wondered that she should waste so much energy fighting over a little matter like wearing a hat in chapel, but then I told myself that, after all, life was like that for most of us – the small unpleasantnesses rather than the great tragedies, the little useless longings rather than the great renunciations and dramatic love affairs of history or fiction. (123)

There are many good comic scenes and characterfs, perhaps the best is the awful Mrs Bone with her hatred of birds, which she devours with the enthusiasm of vengeance achieved, and her silent companion.

A Glass of Blessings

This was Barbara Pym’s fifth novel, published in 1958. For some it is their favourite, but I found it much less interesting than Excellent Women. This probably has a lot to do with the main characters. Wilmet is very different from Mildred. She is about 30, was a Wren in the Italy and married a major, now a Civil Servant. She does not work, or occupy herself with household matters (they live with their mother in law) and nor does she have any interests beyond herself and nosiness about others. She does share with Mildred an interest in the Church, Catholic but not Roman.

With no paid work, hobbies, occupations or housework Wilmet is attentive to what goes on in the clergy house, with the new priest who is in danger of going over to Rome, and with their housekeeping arrangements. She also becomes preoccupied with her best friend’s brother, Piers, and she fancies that he is in love with her. Also the same friend’s husband pays her improper attention. These minor flirtations are about self-regard, and (a bit like Emma) Wilmet is rather surprised to find that Piers is gay and the handsome new priest will marry the very dowdy Mary and her mother-in-law will remarry and want the house they currently share for herself and the professor. 

The title indicates that Barbara Pym wants the reader to see that whatever one’s circumstances life is full of interest and ‘blessings’. Wilmet thinks that, ‘perhaps it always had been without my realising it.’ (p277)  The title comes from a line in a  George Herbert poem, The Pulley. The blessings of the poem are strength, beauty, wisdom, honour, pleasure and, left in the bottom of the glass, rest.

Barbara Pym

She lived from 1913-1980 and was successful with her early fiction, such as these two novels. But her publisher dropped her in 1963 because she wasn’t modern enough and her reputation languished. It was revived when Philip Larkin and Lord David Cecil both nominated her as the most under-rated author in 1977 in the TLS

She knew much of what she wrote about, for example she had been a Wren in Italy in the war. She never married or had children, so perhaps she knew what it was to be seen as an excellent woman. She observed closely small lives, noted important and telling details, and could communicate the gap between what was said and what was meant with sympathy. 

Today she is considered one of the great English novelists of the post-war period. A podcast by Backlisted team was released soon after I completed this post about this book and Barbara Pym. It is very enjoyable and the knowledge that it was on its way was the stimulus to my rereading of Excellent Women. . 

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym, first published in 1952 and reissued as a Virago Modern Classics in 2008. 288pp

A Glass of Blessings by Barbara Pym first published in 1958 and reissued by Virago Modern Classics in 2009. 277pp

Related posts

Three reviews of Excellent Women can be found on these blogs.

JacquiWine’s Journal

Tredynas Days

Vulpes Libris

Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym from the older women in fiction series on Bookword.

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Business as Usual by Jane Oliver & Ann Stafford

It’s a phrase we might all be contemplating at the moment, when will it be ‘business as usual’? In this book, first published in 1933, it refers to commercial business, in this case an Oxford Street store that resembles Selfridges, and also to the business of being young and finding one’s way in London and in love. It’s a very satisfying novel with some especially attractive features.

Business as Usual 

Hilary Fane has decided to earn her own living for a year before she marries her Edinburgh fiancé, Basil. She goes to London, finds digs in the Minerva Hotel (very seedy) and sets out to find a job. Both employment and accommodation are difficult for single girls in the inter-war years. She is pleased to get a post as a lowly clerk in the Library section of Everyman’s Store.

The novel is epistolary in form, which means it’s made up of letters, memos and other paper communications sent to each other by the characters. Most of the letters are by Hilary to Basil or to her parents in Edinburgh. They include long descriptions of what she does, eats, how she budgets, changes digs, and her issues and challenges at work. She illustrates them with line drawings which I found very apt. 

There are also memos from store employees about Hilary or other details that help the story along, such as complaints by some of the more dyed in the wool colleagues in the face of Hilary’s innovations. The most significant, and unexplained document, is a certificate for a registered package sent from Hilary to Basil.

p121

The letters, memos and drawings all add to the charm of this novel. I most enjoyed the episode when Hilary is required to respond to a letter of complaint about an unsuitable book that has been sent to an established subscriber. The letter is brought by a senior member of staff who is very grand and Hilary gives him an appropriate nickname.

‘Mrs Pillington-Smythe’ (it said) ‘is amazed that any firm of your standing should encourage the sale of books which can undermine the morals of our country. If certain people choose to demand such literature (save the mark) that is their own affair. But surely, even in these degenerate days, youth is sacred.’ […]

‘She ought to have a very careful letter,’ I suggested. ‘We might say that these books are kept solely for a small clientele with advanced – I mean peculiar – views. And while we may deplore their tastes …’ (The Minor Prophet finished the sentence as I’d hoped.) ‘We are nevertheless obliged to satisfy their requirements.’ His voice wobbled a little, but when I looked hopefully up at him, his face was grimmer than ever. ‘And then,’ I said, ‘We’d send a much more expensive and extra pure book in exchange – no further charge, of course.’ (74-5)

Hilary’s breathless and upbeat attitude carry her through the difficulties of having very little money in Londonand through the love story that emerges in these pages. We are speedily disappointed in Basil’s response to his fiancée’s adventures. And we can see a new love interest coming over the horizon long before Hilary does. Along the way we have learned much about the life of the working girl and what went on behind the scenes in big stores and subscription libraries in the ‘30s. The book is dedicated to The people who work from nine to six.

Jane Oliver & Ann Stafford

Another feature of this book that I found fascinating was that it was written by two people. I have co-written and published books (all non-fiction) myself, and the arrangements have been varied. One book was written by one person after extensive discussions; for another the sections were written by different people; yet a third method was to sit side by side, sometimes literally sometimes metaphorically, and write each bit together. There is no clue how Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford wrote together. I wonder how these two experienced writers managed the process. And they did manage it for between them and together they wrote an astounding total of 97 books, many of them for Mills & Boon.

Finally, a word about the independent publisher, Handheld PressBusiness as Usual is one of their Classics, which they say 

present forgotten fiction and authors who need to be rediscovered, with introductions by experts and astonishingly useful notes.

The books themselves are beautifully produced, nice paper, good design, well-supported by notes and they are interesting choices. I have previously read and admired Blitz Writing by Inez Holden.

Business as Usual by Jane Oliver & Ann Stafford first published in 1933 and reissued by Handheld Press in 2020. 242pp

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Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

It was the title that I had first noticed, although I can’t remember when. It took up residence in my consciousness as a book that I should read. Had I read anything else by the author Zora Neale Hurston? Nothing at all. But I was aware that she was a woman, black and American. And I was aware that this book in particular was recommended by readers I admire. So this was an obvious choice for the Decades Project.

Their Eyes Were Watching God was published in 1937 and is the third book in the Decades Project for 2020 (see below for more details), from the decade 1930-1939 highlighted in the Virago collection called Brilliant Careers.

Their Eyes Were Watching God

At the start of Their Eyes Were Watching God Janie returns home to Eatonville, Florida, and the town is agog to hear what has happened to her third marriage, this time to Tea Cake. Everyone assumes that he has dumped her because she is older than him. But this is not the case as we find out. The novel is framed as the story that Janie tells her best friend Pheoby about her life and three marriages.

As a child she was brought up by her grandmother, who had been born a slave. Like other women who had been slaves, she had a child by a white man and she has brought the child up on her own. The daughter, Janie’s mother had her own child, Janie, by Lord knows who. She disappeared leaving the grandmother to raise Janie. The grandmother decides when Janie is in her teens that it is time for her to marry and packs her off to her first husband, Logan, who is a farmer who simply wants her to work for him.

She is rescued by the smart-talking Joe Starks who is determined to make something of himself and has been doing well in Georgia. Now he is on his way to a town in Florida.

But he was making money where he was. But when he heard all about ‘em makin’ a town all outa colored folks, he knowed dat was de place he wanted to be. He had always wanted to be a big voice, but de white folks had all de sayso where he come from and everywhere else, exceptin’ dis place dat colored folk was buildin’ theirselves. (37-8)

The two leave Logan’s farm, get married and travel to Eatonville, where Joe sets up a store and becomes its first mayor and becomes rich. Although Joe treats Janie better than Logan had, he stifles her, wanting to possess her, to make of her what he wants. In the end she finds it oppressive.

But Joe dies, too stubborn to seek medical help and after his death Janie becomes a woman of substance. She meets and falls for sweet-talking, kind Tea Cake. They can’t quite believe they love each other. He treats her right, and she loves him. They marry and move to the Glades, and for the first time Janie feels valued and loved and is able to feel she can do what she wishes. But their lives are disrupted by a Hurricane. This is a vivid episode, and the title is taken from the moment when the wind begins to blow.

The wind came back with triple fury, and put out the light for the last time. They sat in company with the others in their shanties, their eyes straining against crude walls and their souls asking if He meant to measure their puny weight against His. They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God. (211-212)

The friendly community is destroyed and Tea Cake dies. This too is vividly described, as is Janie’s anguish. She returns home with her story.

‘Now, dat’s how everything was, Pheoby, jus’ lak Ah told yuh. So Ah’m home again and Ah’m satisfied tuh be heah. Ah done been tuh de horizon and back and now Ah kin set heah in mah house and live by comparisons.’ (256-257)  

Janie imparts her hard-earned wisdom to Pheoby, able to rest in the knowledge that while her three marriages were different, Tea Cake had enabled her to reach the horizon. 

Zora Neale Hurston

The author was born in Alabama in 1891 and raised in Eatonville itself. She died in Florida in 1960. Her grandparents had been slaves, but she was able to make the best of new opportunities becoming available in the 20s and ‘30s. Her name is often associated with the Harlem Renaissance (as was Nella Larsen’s, the subject of the previous choice in this series). She was not able to access higher education in her late teens so later she took ten years off her chronological age and entered college, becoming a noted anthropologist. She was also a teacher as well as a writer.

Their Eyes was her second novel and she had already published short stories. It is told in a mixture of phonetic colloquialisms or dialect and more conventional narrative style as can be seen from the quotations. This allows her to invent some excellent words and use turns of phrase that are enchanting. I thought I might find it difficult to read, but I soon got used to the rhythms and heard some of the voices in a slightly more authentic way. 

Janie’s story can be seen as the triumphant acquisition of a voice by a black woman. In her early years and first two marriages she had no voice, but with Tea Cake and after his death she was able to speak for herself. Its appeal is universal and, as Zadie Smith points out in her introduction, it is a novel of soulfulness.

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, first published in 1937and then as a Virago Modern Classic in 1986. 259pp  The latest edition is introduced by Zadie Smith and has an afterword by Shirley Anne Williams.

The Decades Project 2020

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

The first three choices for the project were

My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin (1901)

Mary Olivier: A Life by May Sinclair (1919)

Passing by Nella Larsen (1929)

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The Old Woman and the River by Ismail Fahd Ismail

Here is another in the series of Older Women in fiction. This is the second novel in the series to have been written in Arabic. It is set beside the River Shatt-al-Arab during the long war between Iraq and Iran (1980-1988). Why did the author explore the experiences of this old woman in this context?  Ismail Fahd Ismail was from Kuwait: and the novel was translated from the Arabic by Sophia Vasalou. It was shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction 2018.

Regular readers of the blog will know that I am championing fiction containing older women in order to make them more visible. This will be the 46th in the series and the 8th to have been written by a man. This novel was suggested to me in August when I was guest blogger on Global Literature in Libraries, looking at older women around the world. Thanks to that reader and I’m sorry I did not keep a record of who recommended what.

The Old Woman and the River

An old woman Um Qasem, lives with her family in a village beside the river Shatt-al-Arab, near Basra in Iraq. It is 1980 and the long war with Iran has begun. The family have been ordered to uproot themselves as they are in a militarised area. On the journey her husband Bu Qasem dies suddenly and they have to bury him where he died and move on. The family resettle and put down roots in Najaf, but after a few years the old woman remains troubled by the abandoned body of her husband and decides to return home with it to Sabiliyat. 

She takes a donkey, the wonderfully named Good Omen with whom she has close understanding. Together they make the return journey, picking up her husband’s bones on the way. She returns to the abandoned village of Sabiliyat where she and the donkey take up residence, using the supplies from the houses. She is troubled by the damage done to the fields and gardens of the village because the rivers have been dammed.

A small group of soldiers is stationed on the banks of the river and although hostile at first they allow her to stay, initially, for the period of a ceasefire. They soon get used to her presence and gradually begin to help her with her projects, especially restoring irrigation channels which bring water to the gardens and cisterns of the village. They also help her to build her husband’s grave. She remains for many months, despite the danger of being killed when shelling resumes and of being sent out of the area by the military.

As in the previous novel, Consider the Lilies by Iain Crichton Smith, an old woman is deployed as the protagonist of this novel because she represents everything that the clearances and war put into danger. Highlighting the experiences of one of the weakest of the population emphasises the inhumane actions of the strong and the aggressive. She reminds the readers, and the soldiers in this novel, of some of the quieter values of human life: nurturing, caring, providing sustenance, fostering nature, caring for animals and so forth. 

The Iraq–Iran War lasted from 1980-1988. 500,000 people were killed and no borders were changed as a result of the hostilities. The novel takes no sides in criticising the long war, but focuses on families and ordinary people. The soldiers too are revealed as individuals. The old woman, by valuing human relations, history and the bountiful gifts of the land and the river, restores some humanity to the village and the soldiers.

The old woman Um Qasem

It is not clear how old Um Qasem is. She and her husband had a good loving relationship and with their family had enjoyed their lives in the village of Sabiliyat. They had children and grandchildren who adapted to their new life in Nasraf. While she loves them all, she has her own life and decisions to make. She is not a frail and dependent old lady. In fact she shows great resourcefulness and courage in the face of the terrible war. And she reminds us too of the permanent pull of our roots.

Her effect on the soldiers is a bit mystical and Ismail Fahd Ismail did not wholly resist giving her special powers. Um Qasem dreams and hold conversations with her husband in her sleep which help her re-establish the water to the village. Her communication with the Donkey, Good Omen, is also from the realm of magic. She is a life-giving force. Indeed this novel has the feel of a folk tale to it. It is also based on real events.

I have noticed that Um Qasem has been likened to other literary figures such as Robinson Crusoe or Don Quixote. However, Good Omen is a complete contrast to Modestine, Robert Louis Stevenson’s companion in the Cevennes. (See my post about their travels here.) 

Ismail Fahd Ismail

Ismail Fahd Ismail was a Kuwaiti writer, born and brought up in Sabiliyat, and he lived from 1940 to 2018. He wrote 27 novels and many short stories and is credited with founding the art of fiction in Kuwait.

The Old Woman and the River by Ismail Fahd Ismail, first published in 2016 and English version by Interlink Books in 2019. 176pp 

Translated from the Arabic by Sophia Vasalou. Shortlisted for International Prize for Arabic Fiction 2018

Here are some related posts in the Older Women in Fiction series:

An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine

The Woman from Tantoura by Radwa Ashour

And the previous post in the series was …

Consider the Lilies by Iain Crichton Smith 

See also a comprehensive list including many recent recommendations by readers, on the page called About the Older Women in Fiction Series.

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The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

The Age of Innocence is my choice for the 1920 Club. Its portrayal of restriction seems very appropriate for our times. Here we read of a narrow society, which curbs its members with invisible rules and customs. Mostly set in Old New York in 1871 the fates of three young people are determined by these outdated codes. In this novel Edith Wharton returns to the theme of love outside society’s boundaries. 

The 1920 Club is hosted by Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at Stuck in a Book. Bloggers read a book from the year and post their thoughts on it, linking to their blogs. Simples, and a great way to choose a book that you might not otherwise read. It suits me perfectly, because I don’t want to chase new books all the time, but read and reread books, especially from the 20th century. 

The Age of Innocence

We are in New York at a precise time, 1871. We follow Newland Archer, a young man who is accomplished and cultured and believes himself a little above the society into which he was born. He will find himself as trapped by the families’ codes as everyone else, especially as he is about to announce his engagement to May Welland.

There is a problem for May’s cousin Ellen Olenska has just returned from Europe where it is known that she has abandoned her marriage to a Polish count. No matter that he is the transgressor, in Old New York  circles it is the woman of a failed marriage who is ostracised. And divorce is not accepted. And no-one in this circle speaks directly about these difficult matters.

Newland Archer agrees to announce his engagement early in order to protect May by accepting the Countess. He also persuades Ellen not to divorce her husband. He gradually falls for Ellen, and the feeling is mutual. Sensing that his attentions are elsewhere, but we are not sure if she is aware of his entanglement with Ellen, May offers to release Archer from the engagement, but he feels obliged by duty to continue to the wedding. As the Archer and Ellen become more involved everybody assumes they are lovers and conspire with May to exclude her. At the point when Archer decides that he will abandon May and follow Ellen to Europe, May reveals that she is pregnant.

Archer assumes he is above the double standards that he can so clearly see operating within their close circle. Early on he announces the revolutionary idea that men and women should be judged by the same standards. He imagines that he will achieve a companionate marriage with May, while at the same time thinking in terms of possessing her, and expecting the impossible innocence (ignorance) and purity that was implied in her virginal appearance. The author early on reveals that he assumes he is not caught by the practices, especially the silences and social estrangements that the families enforce. But he is too weak, or is it too loyal to May, to go directly against the codes. And because he is a man he has less to lose than either woman, and benefits from these codes and double standards. And because he is a man he has been trained to be self-centred.

May has been schooled in the ways of the families. Her appearance is perfect, she has intelligence, but does not use it for cultural ends. Archer quickly comes to see that marriage to her will not bring companionship but perpetuate the relationships of the society into which they were born. She out-manoeuvres Archer at every turn. It is so well done that one is not sure how far she does it consciously, that is until her final conversation with Ellen is revealed when May was deceitful even as she played her trump card.

Ellen is a more sympathetic character. Her appearance especially her interests and clothing are unorthodox, coming as she does from Europe. She challenges the mores of Old New York by the style of her appearance, the décor in her house, her social practices, and especially by her relationship with Newland Archer. She also has a way of escape. Having been persuaded not to divorce her abusive husband, and therefore with no independence or money of her own she takes a stipend from the matriarch of the family and returns to Europe. 

All three characters have suffered from the limitations of New York in the 1870s. The final chapter reveal that within a few decades it has all changed. And of course the massive social upheaval of the First World War had played its part in that.

Edith Wharton in 1920

Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton knew what she was writing about. She had been raised in New York in the 1870s, in the social milieu that she describes in this novel. She had made a bad marriage, and her husband had embezzled her money and they were finally divorced in 1913. From 1908-10 she was involved in a passionate love affair with Morton Fullerton an American journalist.in Paris. The Age of Innocence was her 12th novel and she was recognised as an exceptional writer in America as well as Europe where she now lived.

Reading The Age of Innocence

The Age of Innocence, 1st editiion

The introduction by Sarah Blackwood to the Penguin edition can be found on the Literary Hub website. She draws readers’ attention to the details in the novel. Indeed much of the tightness, restrictions of the world of the Archers and Wellands is achieved by precise details: of the time (details of plays, opera performances, books and so forth); the place (street names, descriptions of the Museum before it became the Metropolitan); physical details of houses, gardens, interiors; and clothing. The details do other work, such as revealing some of the unspoken fracture lines: eg the muddy wedding dress dragging after May across the room (p229). Throughout the novel it is clear that the characters can read every details of each other’s behaviour, and that May can do this best of all. 

The book in the past was been portrayed as costume drama, a historical romance, but that is misleading. The wedding of May and Newland occurs precisely half way through this book and it explores myths and challenges of marriage and notes that social change is on its way. 

Scorcese’s film was made in 1993, and appears to have been a costume drama starring Daniel Day Lewis, Winona Ryder and Michelle Pfeiffer. It was critically acclaimed, but apparently did not do well at the box office. I have not seen it.

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton first published in 1920. I used the edition published by Oxford World’s Classics. 265pp

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1921

No 45 on the Guardian’s List of 100 best novels

Related posts on Bookword

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton (1906) 

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton (1911)

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