Category Archives: Reviews

School for Love by Olivia Manning

This short novel has been on the Older Women in Fiction list for some time, years. On holiday in Sussex recently I spotted a copy in a second-hand bookshop, supporting the Roman Archaeology at Fishbourne. And, because I associate Olivia Manning with the rather fearful idea of double trilogies, I was surprised and pleased at how accessible it was. It cost me all of £2.

This is the 59th novel in the series of older women in fiction which I promote to make older women in fiction more visible. You can find the link at the end of the post to the complete list of 100+ suggested books in the series with links to those I have reviewed on Bookword Blog.

School for Love

At one level School for Love is a coming-of-age novel, as the central character is a 14- or 15-year-old boy. We are never told his exact age. His family was living in Iraq, but his father was killed in fighting there in the war, and soon after his mother died of dysentery. Felix has to travel from Baghdad to Jerusalem in the early days of 1945, where it has been arranged for him to stay with Miss Bohun until he can get a passage from Palestine (as it then was) to England. Miss Bohun is loosely related to his father by adoption.

The pension where he is accommodated has a very varied set of people living there. This reflects the movement of people through the Middle East during the war years. Frau Leszno and her handsome son Nikky are from Poland. They had been running the pension but got into financial difficulties. Miss Bohun arranged for them to stay on as servants, while she took over. There is old Mr Jewel in the attic, and later Mrs Ellis, a pregnant young widow, who take rooms. One room in the house is always kept empty, but ready.

Very much on his own in this adult household, Felix grieves for his mother and learns to think about a life without her. He observes the behaviour of the adults and is inclined at first to credit them with good motives. Gradually he learns that they mostly have mixed motives. He develops a kind of puppy love for Mrs Ellis, which at first she indulges, but then tires of. And he learns about how sex is viewed. And he learns to love the Siamese cat, Faro, who seems to be the only creature who pays any attention to him in all the world. 

It is thanks to the scheming and comings and goings at Miss Bohun’s house that Felix gradually learns something that is encapsulated in the title of the novel: The School of Love. Mrs Ellis quotes Blake to him:

And we are put on earth a little space,
That we may learn to bear the beams of love … (166)

Felix asks her what the lines mean.

‘I suppose it means that life is a sort of school for love.’ (166)

Another major theme of the novel is that of the time and place: Jerusalem at the end of the Second World War. The hostilities end in Europe in the summer months that Felix spends in the city. People are on the move. And the young Palestinians are waiting to regain their country from the British Protectorate. Israel does not yet exist. The novel captures the sense of a year of change, and a year after which things will become very different in Jerusalem. There is a quiet theme of the destructiveness of British colonial power, and the uncaring behaviour of the administrators. 

Miss Bohun

My interest was in the characterisation of Miss Bohun. She is almost a comedy villain, but not quite. For she does hurt people. As we see her through the eyes of Felix, we are at first inclined to treat her as slightly eccentric, but basically kind, as she has provided a home for him when no one else would. But a conversation about the rent and her treatment of Frau Leszno are early warnings for the reader. 

When Felix first meets her he is struck by how tiny this woman is. He has arrived just after a snowfall and expresses his pleasure at the snow.

‘You wouldn’t think so if you had to do the housework.’ Miss Bohun moved ahead with irritable quickness so Felix could not keep up with her. She paused on the stairs. Her face – featureless, like a long egg, in the gloom: her hair the same colour as her skin – was turned towards him but Felix was sure she was not looking at him.
‘I’m so busy,’ she said. (10)

And she leaves him abruptly. 

It emerges that Miss Bohun has many schemes for apparently doing kindnesses to people, but then exploiting them and kicking them out. She appears to be something of a miser, but generous when there is an advantage to her. 

She teaches English to adults, while getting them to do jobs for her, like harvesting the mulberries. These scenes are among the most comedic in the book.

Among her most arcane occupations are the ‘Ever-Readies’. This is something of a cult that flourished in the Middle East, a cult that expected the second coming any day. It is for this purpose that Miss Bohun keeps her empty room. She holds some kind of office and is often just off to preach to the group she calls ‘my Ever-Readies.’

Gradually the reader, and then Felix, come to see that Miss Bohun is not a nice character. But as Felix gets ready to leave, she is prepared to let him take the cat and she is about to take in Mr Jewel again. Felix has managed to track down the old man’s inheritance, but Miss Bohun is taking the credit for this. Miss Bohun’s behaviour towards the very young Mrs Ellis, pregnant and alone, is quite terrible. 

One explanation for Miss Bohun’s monstrous character is provided by Mr Jewel: no-one has ever loved her.

Olivia Manning

Born in 1908, Olivia Manning spent her childhood in Portsmouth and Ireland. In 1939 she was introduced to her husband, and they married and immediately left for Romania where he worked in the British Council. She spent the war years moving from Romania to Greece, on to Egypt and finally to Jerusalem where she spent three years. Their itinerant life was determined by the advances of the German and the Axis armies in the area. She fictionalised her experiences in the six volumes that make up The Fortunes of War.

She and her husband returned to London after the war where she continued to be a very prolific writer. She was always rather a diffident person and envied the recognition given to other writers. She died in 1980.

School for Love by Olivia Manning, first published in 1951. I used the Penguin edition from 1982. 192pp

A new edition was published by NYRB in 2009 which has a very lovely and fitting cover.

Related posts

The Bookword page about the series older women in fiction can be found here.

JacquiWine’s blog review can be read here. She describes Miss Bohun as ‘a manipulative monster’.

HeavenAli’s review refers to Miss Bohun’s behaviour as ‘monstrous’. You can find that review here.

Stuck In a Book blog also reviews this novel, here.

These three bloggers were contributing to the 1951 Club, featuring books published that year.

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The Book of Form & Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki

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

The Book of Form & Emptiness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now a word about one of the narrators

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ruth Ozeki

Ruth Ozeki: WikiCommons LMU Library: 2016

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

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

Shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2022.

Related post

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

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Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout 

The title of this novel is like a sigh of exasperation, borne out of familiarity. The sigh is repeated many times by Lucy Barton, the narrator of this novel. Lucy is a novelist, and Elizabeth Strout has already presented two novels narrated by her: My Name is Lucy Barton and Anything is Possible. Both these have been reviewed on Bookword (see below).

Elizabeth Strout enjoys revisiting her characters, developing their stories forwards or backwards to reflect further on their lives. She has also done it with Olive Kitteridge. However, knowledge of the previous two novels ‘by Lucy Barton’ is not necessary to enjoy Oh William! In this novel she is primarily focused on William Gerhardt, Lucy’s first husband.

Oh William!

William and Lucy were once married, and since their divorce both have remarried, William twice. At the time of the story, they are almost 70 years old. They have two daughters, now grown up, and remain on cordial terms. The action of this novel begins when William’s third wife leaves him unexpectedly, and when he discovers that his mother had hidden a family secret from him. He discovers this through a heredity website soon after Estelle left. The discovery leads William and Lucy on a road trip to Maine to check it out.

Before we get to this point in the novel, we have learned quite a bit about their back stories, in particular their married life, and their subsequent marriages. Both have been profoundly influenced by their childhood experiences: Lucy by the poverty of her home and the distance from her parents; William by his relationship with his mother, and her marriage to his father. There are some interesting contrasts: Lucy’s father experienced PSTD as a result of his experiences in Europe in the Second World War. William’s father was a German pow sent to the US.

The trip to Maine takes us into the decline of rural America; everywhere is closed, towns are deserted, farms abandoned, diners few and far between. The contrast with New York and their lives in the city could hardly be greater. 

We passed a sign that said: Welcome to Friendly Fort Fairfield.
William leaned forward to peer through the windshield. “Jesus Christ,” he said.
I said, “Yeah. My God.”
Everything in the town was closed. There was not a car on the street, and there was a place that said Village Commons – an entire building – with a sign on it: FOR LEASE. There was a big First National Bank with pillars; it had planks nailed across its doors. Store after store had been boarded up. Only a small post office by the end of Main Street seemed open. There was a river that ran behind Main Street. 
“Lucy, what happened?”
“I have no idea.” But it was a really spooky place. Not a coffee shop, not a dress store or drugstore, there was absolutely nothing open in that town, and we drove back up Main Street again where there was not a car in sight, and then we left. (133-4)

The theme of desolation continues. When William finally catches up with his mother’s secret, it is Lucy, not William, who investigates further.

The lives of these two are bound up through shared experiences, their children and a familiarity and affection that has remained. They both must come to terms with the departure of their most recent partners. In Lucy’s case this is her second husband who died, whereas Estelle, the mother of William’s third daughter, has moved in with another man. They are making sense of their lives through their understanding of the past, and their grasp of their parents’ histories too. 

Judgement about their lives will be left to the reader, as the opening sentence makes clear. 

I would like to say a few things about my first husband. (3)

There will be no judgement, it seems. She concludes

But we are all mythologies, mysterious. We are all mysteries, is what I mean.

This may be the only thing in the world I know to be true. (237)

That Lucy is telling William’s story feels right.

Because I am a novelist, I have to write this almost like a novel, but it is true – as true as I can make it. And I want to say – oh, it is difficult to know what to say! But when I report something about William it is because he told it to me or because I saw it with my own eyes. (4-5)

The novel is narrated as if we were sitting next to Lucy on a sofa. The style is conversational, but thoughtful too. One of Elizabeth Strout’s skills is revealed in that long extract: moving the action along through everyday speech. She is also excellent at detail. William peering through the windshield, the large bank now boarded up. We learn about his clothes (trousers that are too short) and his mannerisms (stroking his moustache). These details are again everyday, and they lend the story a certain pathos. 

Like all her novels, this is a very readable book, and one which respects the reader, and appeals to our imaginations. 

A word about the cover: I have the paperback edition, and I am charmed by the image on the front cover, especially the addition of gold and red to enhance the details. The inside cover is also very charming and a contrast of a rural scene to the Manhattan skyline of the front cover. No credit is given to the designer. 

Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout, first published in 2021. I used the Penguin paperback edition. 240pp

Related posts:

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout (March 2017)

Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout (February 2018)

Also

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (June 2016)

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout (August 2020)

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Tirra Lirra by the River by Jessica Anderson

Tirra Lirra by the River has been on the list of novels about older women for several years, recommended by Whispering Gums, an Australian blog. It was first published in 1978. I think that the strange title put me off exploring it, but what a shame that was because this is a very interesting novel, and one which many Australian school children have had as a set book in the past. And that title is a reference to The Lady of Shalott, that long ballad by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

This is the 58th in the series of older women in fiction which I promote to make older women in fiction more visible. You can find the links at the end of the post to the complete list of 100+ suggested books in the series with links to those I have reviewed.

Tirra Lirra by the River

The novel is narrated by Nora Porteous. She begins her story with her return to her childhood home in Brisbane. Nora is in her late 70s and describes herself as old. 

Through the long mirror in the big black hall stand I see a shape pass. It is the shape of an old woman who began to call herself old before she really was, partly to get in first and partly out of a fastidiousness about the word ‘elderly’, but who is now really old. She has allowed her shoulders to slump. I press back my shoulders and make first for the living room. (4)

Nora Porteous has returned from several decades spent in England, because she has run out of options, of places to escape to, and this house was the bequest of her sister, to her nephew, not to be sold in Nora’s lifetime. In fact, Nora also has pneumonia and spends the first weeks of her return in bed recovering. During this time, she considers and revisits her past.

This is not so much the story of her life retold, but more her attempt to understand her life, the decisions she made and the influences upon her. She finds the courage and energy to examine some of the seminal episodes and people in her life, some of which she has hidden from herself: her marriage, the fate of her friends, some adolescent dalliance with a young lad and so forth. 

The title refers to the Lady of Shallot, who wove tapestries under a curse that she should never stop. She can only see the world through a mirror, and in it she must watch people passing her tower. One day Sir Lancelot rides by. The Tirra Lirra of the title is what Lancelot sings as he approaches.

As he rode down from Camelot.
From the bank and from the river
He flash’d into the crystal mirror,
‘Tirra lirra, tirra lirra:’
            Sang Sir Lancelot.

She left the web, she left the loom 
She made three paces thro’ the room 
She saw the water-flower bloom, 
She saw the helmet and the plume, 
She look’d down to Camelot. 
Out flew the web and floated wide; 
The mirror crack’d from side to side; 
‘The curse is come upon me,’ cried 
The Lady of Shalott. 

Nora has been sewing tapestries as a young woman. She comes to see that her only skill is in needlework, but it is not well developed. On her return she is shown some of those early tapestries, and is impressed by them, as were the recipients who kept them.

For Nora the allure of Camelot was a longing to live in Sydney. Her Sir Lancelot is Colin Porteous, not a very convincing stand-in. But they marry and move to Sydney. Collin will not allow her to work. While she likes the city, and meets new artistic people there, when Colin moves them to live with his mother, Nora’s life shrivels to nothing.

After several years Nora eventually makes another escape when Colin seeks a divorce to marry Pearl. This time she sails to Southampton. The voyage took six weeks, and when she landed she was pregnant.

In London, she found a doctor who performed an abortion, 

But the bleeding stopped at last, and never again did I have any sexual contact, of any kind, with anyone. (94)

 She tries various jobs always planning to return to Sydney but the war intervenes, and she finds work she enjoys, making costumes. And she makes friends and lives with them in West London for many years in a shared house. The ending of that arrangement sends her back to Brisbane.

In returning to Brisbane she is able to explore incidents in her life which she has previously hidden from herself, like on a globe where she keeps the dark side away from her gaze. And she catches up with the lives of people she had known and who had been important to her in her childhood. She describes how her time in London, in Fred’s house with Hilda and Liza was full of storytelling. In Brisbane she misses her fellow storytellers.

I am often lonely for that audience, and yet, if it were possible to return and regain it, I would not go. An audience, especially so sympathetic an audience, imposes restrictions I now wish to do without. 
… I have made things, concocted things, all my life. Perhaps I shall do so again (and indeed there are times when I do prefigure some small hand-made object), but at present my concern is to find things. My globe of memory is in free spin, with no obscure side, and although at times it is swelling and spinning it offers the queer suggestion that imagination is only memory at one, or two, or twenty removes, my interest now is in repudiating, or trying to repudiate, those removes, even if it ends by my finding something only as small as a stone lying on pale grass. (160)

Nora is engaged in a frank exploration of her past, her creation, finding the obscured memories to look at them full in the face. We can only admire this effort. She will not die in a barge on the river like the Lady of Shallot.

Jessica Anderson

Photo credit: Via Wikipedia: Photograph by Robert McFarlane, Kings Cross Sydney, 1984

Jessica Anderson was born in Brisbane in 1916. She lived until 2010. She was a late starter to writing. Her first novel was published in 1963, when she had remarried and she was able to spend time devoted to writing. She lived most of her life in Australia, in Sydney. 

Many have believed that Tirra Lirra in the River was autobiographical, but Nora was born about 16 years before the author and spent many more years in the UK. The novel was published in 1978 and was very successful in Australia, winning the Miles Franklin Literary Award, among others.

You can find The Lady of Shalott by Alfred, Lord Tennyson here, on the Poetry Foundation website.

Tirra Lirra by the River by Jessica Anderson first published in 1978. Reissued by Melville House in 2014. 181pp

The Bookword page about the series older women in fiction can be found here.

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Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell 

Many readers will remember the 2007 BBC TV series called Cranford. It adapted the novel along with some of Elizabeth Gaskell’s other writing into a short series. Judy Dench as Miss Matty is a strong memory. The book at the core of the series is this month’s choice for my reading group. We like to read classics from time to time, and I must admit that I had not previously read this novel. My only connection was with one episode of the TV series. But I am so pleased to have read it now for it is very enjoyable in its quiet and detailed way.

Cranford

The novel began its life as a piece in Household Words, edited by Charles Dickens in 1851. Our Society at Cranford, as it was called, painted a quaint picture of a mainly female population, genteel but not wealthy, proud of its conservatism, and hostile to outsiders and change. Dickens rightly saw the potential in this first piece and encouraged Mrs Gaskell to write more.

A dozen more sections followed at irregular intervals in subsequent editions of Household Words. The whole was gathered together and published in 1853 as a novel. The manner in which Cranford was created determined its structure and its lack of narrative drive. 

Change is a big theme of Cranford. The changes brought from outside the town include the railway, which sadly claims a victim in an early episode: Captain Brown saved a child which had wandered on to the track but was himself crushed by the engine. The railway brought closer connection to the nearest city: Drumble, standing in for Manchester, which was expanding fast, and bringing new practices such as the joint stock bank which holds Miss Matty’s meagre fortune. Travel allows brings other visitors to Cranford including the magician Signor Brunoni, actually a soldier called Samuel Brown, Lady Glenmire, and finally a brother returning from India.

Cranford ladies have their routines and traditions, and do not like them to be upset. The imperious Miss Jenkyns determines matters of protocol; after her death the task falls to Mrs Jamieson. She is thrilled when her widowed but titled sister-in-law, Lady Glenmire, comes to stay. But the lady’s engagement and marriage to the local doctor are deemed by Mrs Jamieson to be a great coming down for a titled lady. But this episode marks the beginning of a loosening of the rigid attention to status that has ruled the lives of these ladies.

When Miss Matty is plunged into poverty, her friends rally and make a secret arrangement to keep her more or less in the style to which they believed she was entitled. The loyalty, friendship and mutual support of the women is shown as a very positive aspect of Cranford.

In contrast, the ladies are quite able to whip themselves up into a false panic. They are convinced that foreigners or gypsies are haunting the dark streets of Cranford at night-time, just waiting to knock the unprotected women on their heads and to steal their belongings. It is quite clear that there is no such gang, and it is also evident that the presence of some strangers set off the panic.

The episodic nature of the plotline is a little confusing. The narrator, Mary Smith, is a woman who never quite comes into the light. She is younger than Miss Matty and her friends, but not a young woman. She has connections with Cranford, but lives with her father in Drumble, while making extended visits to stay with the Cranford ladies, in particular with Miss Matty. She knows them all intimately, their different foibles and qualities and busies herself with their affairs, but we never see her for herself.

Cranford is a quiet book, respectful of the foibles of the main participants, but strongly on the side of kindness, patience, and forbearing. It also chronicles changes to the urban settings even as the big cities of the industrial revolution were undergoing complete transformations. We are left in no doubt that those who adjust to the new in Cranford are the more open-minded and accepting. 

Elizabeth Gaskell

Born in 1810 Mrs Gaskell grew up in Knutsford in Cheshire, the original town of Cranford. In her other novels she explored the effects of the industrial expansion of the 19th century on the people of the great northern cities. Mary Barton: a tale of Manchester Life (1848) and North and South (1854) were two such novels. She also wrote a biography of Charlotte Brontë, and many other short stories and novels. She died in 1865.

The BBC tv adaptation of 2007 starred many well-known actors: Judy Dench, Imelda Staunton, Eileen Atkins, Julia McKenzie, Julia Sawalha for example

Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell, 1851-3. I read the edition from the Oxford World’s Classic series. 216pp

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Bookword in Naples

For months and months now I have been feeling restless, wanting to get away, away from Covid, from daily life, from staying at home and making soup (as a friend said). Since March 2020 I had spent just 4 nights from home, when I visited my sister in Cumbria. I enjoyed that very much, but by the New Year I wanted more. I am not claiming any specialness in these feelings. Readers of this blog may well have had similar emotions.

So earlier this year I booked myself onto a cultural tour of the ancient world around Naples. I imagined that it would either be cancelled or postponed, but in the event neither happened, and at the end of April, I took my Covid Pass, my clothes for warmer places and my masks and flew to Naples.

The tour focused on Greek and Roman archaeology around the Bay of Naples: Pompeii, Herculaneum, Paestum and its temples, Pozzuoli Amphitheatre, and, where Pliny the elder died, Castellammare dell Stabia. Dominating the bay was Mount Vesuvius. 

Forum, Pompeii with Vesuvius in the background

For as long as I knew about it, I had wanted to visit Pompeii, and was in awe of the volcano and its eruptions. The one that buried Pompeii in ash and pumice happened in AD79. More recently it erupted during the Second World War. We were assured that it always gave warnings of any impending eruption, but it is acknowledged to be active. So, we climbed up it and looked into its crater, and found a steaming vent, which was a little alarming, but the worst that we experienced.

For this post on Bookword I present some books and poems that relate to Naples.

Pompeii: the life of a Roman town by Mary Beard

Told with her trademark verve and questioning style, she reveals the daily life of those who lived in the town before the eruption, casting a critical eye on the archaeological evidence and what people have made of it. It’s a very readable guide. It’s very much more than a guidebook, more an introduction for an intelligent reader who doesn’t want to be fobbed off with the myths that surround the ruins. 

Pompeii: the life of a Roman town by Mary Beard, published by Profile Books in 2008. 360pp

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

This is a novel about two girls growing up in the poorest district of Naples in the ‘50s, narrated by one of them. The Neapolitan Quartet, of which this is the first volume, has been very successful. The attraction, I believe, is in part the attraction of soaps: family drama, struggle against circumstances, many characters, the development of the limited cast of characters, and several vivid and violent scenes.

Readers of the post on this novel in December 2021 will know that I am not a huge fan and you can see my original comments in full here.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, published in English in 2012 by Europa Editions. 331pp. Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein

The Volcano Lover by Susan Sontag

Another novel, this one by the renowned intellectual Susan Sontag, published in 1962. It is a long time since I read it, possibly more than 20 years, and my copy seems to have disappeared from my shelves, probably in a ruthless cull to send it on to other readers through Oxfam.

I remember that it concerned the triangle, possibly the ménage à trois, of William Hamilton, Ambassador to the Kingdom of Naples, his beautiful wife Emma, and her lover Admiral Lord Nelson. William Hamilton studied volcanoes, and perhaps is one of those few men whose is famous because of his wife.

Although praised by eminent critics for its literary qualities, I’m afraid that my memory of this book has largely escaped.

The Volcano Lover by Susan Sontag, available as a Penguin Modern Classic.

Pompeii by Robert Harris

And this third novel I might read following my visit. It’s set in the town if its title at the time of the eruption and was recommended by Richard E Grant in his BBC programme Write around the World.

The story follows a water engineer, Marcus Attilius Primus, who has arrived in Pompeii to deal with the problem of the failing water supply. He gets caught up in a corrupt plot, an assassination attempt, love for Corelia, and of course the eruption. 

Pompeii by Robert Harris, published in 2003, and available in paperback.

In the footsteps of Shelley:

It is said that Percy Bysshe Shelley loved this area, but he wrote Stanzas Written in Dejection, near Naples. Poor man, his dejection outweighed the wonders of the place:


Alas! I have nor hope nor health,
Nor peace within nor calm around,

You can find the full poem here.

And Primo Levi made connections to other deadly events:

Primo Levi was imprisoned in Auschwitz as an Italian Jew during the Second World War. He survived the Holocaust, but his writings reveal the damage done. A poem he wrote is translated from the Italian as Girl of Pompeii or Girl-child of Pompeii. The poem links the plaster cast body of a fleeing child at Pompeii with the Holocaust, through Anne Frank and the Atom Bomb, through a schoolgirl in Hiroshima. 

Since the anguish of each belongs to us all
We’re still living yours, scrawny little girl …

You can find several translations of this poem on the internet.

A fresco in Castellammare

I feel restored by my trip to Italy and by the literary connections made there. I might even reread Virgil’s Aeneid. 

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Filed under Books, poetry, Reading, Reviews, translation, Travel with Books, Travelling with books, Women in Translation

Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus

This was a good read for a recent journey, all that waiting in airport lounges, on trains and planes, and on buses. I was thoroughly absorbed in this spikey novel, which I bought at the airport. It’s a paperback edition, but why do they make airport publications so hefty, by the way? 

Lessons in Chemistry

Elizabeth Zott is a heroine for our times; in particular, she won’t put up with being fobbed off as a mere woman. But Elizabeth Zott, the heroine of this fast-paced novel, lives in the US in the 1950s and 1960s. She has worked hard to achieve a master’s degree in chemistry, but her career keeps getting knocked back by men. At best they don’t believe that women can have jobs in science, or that they only want to find a clever husband. At worst they undermine their confidence and steal their research and sexually assault them when they object.

Although blocked in her career by this kind of behaviour, Elizabeth does find a job in a research company in California. It is the same company as the brilliant Calvin Evans. Their first meeting is not good. He assumes she is a secretary, rather than a lab worker. But although he has assumed wrongly, he is able to see her talents as a scientist when she reveals them. 

Elizabeth and Calvin fall in love and set up house together (shocking). Circumstances force her to bring up their child on her own (shocking). Her work is stolen, but she persists in bringing up her daughter, and in pursuing her chemistry projects. The odds are very much against her, and she is dismissed and shut out of employment in chemistry for a while.

Then, because she is resourceful and determined, and because she has great presence, she lands a job presenting a cooking programme on late afternoon television. Her particular slant is to introduce chemistry to the women viewers, by treating them as intelligent and hard-working people. In her programme she encourages women to take charge of their lives. Chemistry is about change. The underlying message of her afternoon shows becomes – it starts now and with you Her programme becomes very popular. 

The story is told in multiple timeframes, beginning with the episode in which the tv station producer persuades her to take on the presenter’s role. The story is told to reveal the multiple ways in which women in the ‘50s and ’60s experienced the patriarchal attitudes of society at that time. There are numerous episodes that highlight this, mostly through Elizabeth’s refusal to accept the limitations she meets.

This means that we visit some cherished ideas from US post-war culture: about the role of women, marriage, illegitimacy, women’s education, defining identity through genetic families, lying, treatment of animals, child-rearing, religion, research funding and celebrity. She demonstrates that women are powerful, capable of change, not second to men.

There are many great characters in Lessons in Chemistry: Madeline, Elizabeth’s precocious daughter; Six-Thirty, her dog; Phil Lebensmal, the tv channel’s boss, and just about every scientist Elizabeth comes across.

Pacey, sparky and with a mystery at its heart, it was just the thing to entertain me for the duration of my journey. This is the first novel by Bonnie Garmus to be published. Her attractive dry wit will no doubt appeal again when she publishes her second novel. I am not surprised that it is already reported that there are plans to adapt it for the screen, even before the paperback is out in the UK (except at airports)

Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus, published in 2022, by Doubleday. 391pp

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Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan

In today’s world, where largescale and terrible things are happening (yes, Covid pandemic and Russian invasion of Ukraine) and where morality and honesty appear to have deserted the government (yes, sending refugees to Rwanda, lying about Brexit and partygate), it’s important to celebrate decent behaviour. There is not a great deal us little people can do, but we can behave with decency and sympathy, even if it risks local condemnation. So it is, in this short novel: a celebration of decent behaviour.

I originally gave it as a birthday present to a reader-friend, and she lent it to me having greatly enjoyed it first.

Small Things Like These

Set in 1985 in the small costal town of New Ross, in Wexford, Ireland. Christmas approaches and Bill Furlong is busy with fulfilling the winter orders for fuel. He runs a successful business supplying coal, wood and anthracite to the town, despite starting out as the illegitimate son of a single woman, now dead, and an unknown father. When she became pregnant, his mother was not thrown out by her employer, or sent in shame to a mother and baby home. Instead, Furlong grew up in Mrs Wilson’s house and was well treated.

He married Eileen and they have five girls. They are a loving family and are just about able to afford to have a decent Christmas, getting the presents that the girls have requested. Some of the most satisfying scenes are those spent with his family, for example when Eileen and the girls make the Christmas cake, and the girls write their letters to Santa. Such scenes, however, remind Furlong of the disappointments and poverty of his youth.

One of his deliveries is to the local convent. Furlong makes an early start and discovers a girl locked in the coal shed. Although the nuns treat her as if she has accidentally spent the night there, Furlong is uncertain.

As the days pass, he is increasingly uneasy. He must face the truth of his own origins, the silence of the town about the inhabitants and purpose of the convent, and the warnings that the convent nuns have power that could compromise Furlong in New Ross. Finally, he takes action.

The small things of the title include his marriage and daughters, their preparations for Christmas, his decency towards his workforce and generosity to his customers. It also includes the townsfolk turning their backs on whatever is happening in the convent, and generally ‘minding their own business’. Expectations and tradition keep everything in its place, and he is warned off tangling with the Convent. He defies this tradition.

Moral, moving, very quiet and short.

Claire Keegan

Although she has lived in other places, Claire Keegan was born in Ireland in 1968. She has previously published 3 collections of short stories, winning prizes and accolades for them: Antarctica (1999); Walk the Blue Fields (2007); Foster (2010)

Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan, published in 2021 by Faber & Faber. 166pp

Related Posts

In her review Kate Vane is frustrated that the story did not include the implications of Furlong’s action for his family and business. But she has strong praise for the novella. Kate Vane Blog October 2021.

Susan, on A Life in Books blog also praises this short book, and expects to delve into more writing by Claire Keegan, November 2021.

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The Old Woman with the Knife by Gu Byeong-mo

I have not reviewed a book in the older woman in fiction series for some months. I correct this here with a thriller from Korea, specifically put my way by Global Literature in Libraries Initiative.

What I liked about The Old Woman with the Knife was the serious way it undermined common ideas about how older women should behave, and how they decline physically. Older women often say that they have become invisible, meaning that they are not noticed, do not stand out from other people. The main character exploits this in order to carry out her trade: contract killing.

This is the 57th in the series of older women in fiction which I promote to make older women in fiction more visible. You can find the links at the end of the post to the complete list of 100+ suggested books in the series with links to those I have reviewed.

The Old Woman with the Knife

Hornclaw is 65 and has managed to survive as a contract killer in Korea. We meet her on the subway, when she is very deliberately not standing out from the crowd.

…she is a model senior citizen, wholesome and refined and respectable. Rather than making a show of how deserving she is of a seat, she stands by the full senior section at the end of the car and doesn’t complain. Her clothing is appropriate for a middle-class senior citizen, perfectly aligned with the standard of old age: off-brand but decent clothes, down to her hat and shoes, purchased at Dongdaermun Market or on sale at a department store. Unlike some, she doesn’t bellow songs, her face ruddy with drink, taking up space with various kinds of sporting equipment. She exists like an extra in a movie, woven seamlessly into a scene, behaving as if she had always been there, a retiree thrilled to take care of her grandchildren in her golden years, living the rest of her days with a frugality baked into her bones. People stare at their phones, headphones in their ears, shrinking from and swaying with the unending wave of humanity, quickly forgetting an old person has entered their midst. They excise her from their consciousness as if she’s unimportant, recyclable. Or they never even saw her to begin with. (13)

Many older women readers will recognise the idea of being ‘like an extra in a movie’, being passed over or not seen to begin with. Perhaps it happens to men too.

She has bought her survival as a contract killer at the cost of loneliness, close only to her dog, Deadweight. She has lost everyone she cared for along the way. She began life in a poor family, was sent to live as an unpaid servant in a distant cousin‘s household and abandoned there by her family. She had to find her own way and was helped and then more or less adopted by the mysterious Ryu. It was Ryu who rescued her, taught her the trade of murder and set up a company in which she was the chief worker. Even after many decades it is his voice that she hears guiding her to remain unremarked in a crowd.

In the opening chapter Hornclaw kills a commuter. He was behaving in an obnoxious way towards a young female passenger on the subway. There is, I admit, a small satisfaction in such a man being despatched. On leaving the cloakroom where Hornclaw cleans her poisoned knife she nearly collides with the emergency service workers who are rushing to the scene. 

When completing a job in a busy place and turning the corner …
Didn’t I tell you to slow down or stick to the edges but to make a big loop? What if you bump into someone and drop something? You would be announcing, here’s all the evidence, to the whole world.
She can recall Ryu’s expression when he told her that as if it were yesterday, and so she will trace the most complicated route home possible. (20)

But as she had grown older things have changed. In the agency for whom she works a younger male colleague seems bent on ruining her reputation and her effectiveness. A small mistake takes her to the doctor at the clinic, and she develops affection for Dr Kang and his family. This weakness is exploited by her rival and there is a violent showdown.

While I loved the feminist and anti-ageist stance of the story, I also found myself disconcerted by the lack of questioning of the morality of extra-judicial or contract killing. Perhaps I am asking too much. It’s a fantasy after all. But I find it hard to read about such things as though the victims are merely extras in a film, or disposable characters in a video game.

Gu Byeong-mo

Gu Byeong-mo was born in Seoul, South Korea, in 1976. She made her literary debut in 2009 when her novelWizard Bakery won the second Changbi Prize for Young Adult Fiction. Her 2015 short-story collection Geugeosi namaneun anigireul received the Today’s Writer Award and Hwang Sun-won New Writers’ Award. This is her third novel, and the first to be translated into the English language. [From the Canongate website]

The Old Woman with the Knife by Gu Byeong-mo, first published in 2013, and in the English translation by Canongate in 2022. 281pp. The English version was translated from the Korean by Chi-Young Kim

The Bookword page about the series older women in fiction can be found here.

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Under the Net by Iris Murdoch

This novel was Iris Murdoch’s first and I chose it as my contribution to the 1954 Club (see below). I was at first reluctant because I am more than a little intimidated by Iris Murdoch. I think it’s the words ‘moral philosopher’ that are often coupled with her name. I don’t know what that is. And when I began reading about this novel, Under the Net, I came across the name of Wittgenstein, and something about his lectures in Oxford. 

All the same, I enjoyed many aspects of this novel, although I am not sure that I will read more of her fiction any time soon.

Under the Net

I believe that it Under the Net is a picaresque novel. The hero, Jake, and his friends certainly dash about London and meet with some very surprising adventures, coincidences and strange characters. Jake tells his own story, and thus provides us with insights into his attitude to life.

We first meet the Jake on his return to London from Paris (he works as a translator) when he finds that he and his side-kick Finn have been kicked out of the flat they were living in – rent free. It belonged to Jake’s girlfriend Marge.  Jake is a writer, not very energetic, and not very successful. Being without accommodation precipitates a series of crazy adventures: Sammy wants to move into Marge’s flat, but it appears that he steals a manuscript from Jake, and is involved in a plot with the sister another of Jake’s ex-girlfriends, Anna, to make a film. Sadie is a well-known film star. The plot becomes crazier as Jake and his friends kidnap a performing dog, Mr Mars, to hold hostage against the return of his manuscript. Jake’s old friend Hugo, with whom Jake fell out some years before and who is extremely rich and big in the film business, gets involved too, as does Lefty …

The scenes include a shop near Charlotte Street, run by Mrs Tinckham, overrun with cats, but a place where Jake can leave his luggage while he chasers Anna, and searches for somewhere to live. Mrs Tinck acts as a poste restante which is useful at a time when there were no mobile phones. Mrs Tinck doesn’t appear to sell anything.

The props room at the mime theatre provides some strong visual images (see the cover of the Penguin edition). The scene where Mr Mars is kidnapped is quite hilarious as they are forced to take the cage as well as the dog, put it in a taxi and then release the dog. Mr Mars becomes a faithful companion to Jake, but not suitable for ransom demands. There’s a riot caused by the police breaking up one of Lefty’s meetings on the set of a film. There is a midnight swim in the Thames when the friends have failed to find Hugo, despite following the note on his door which says, ‘Down the Pub’. Jake takes a job as a hotel porter, and when an injured Hugo comes onto his ward, he hatches a plot to spring him, which involves a great deal of complication. 

Jake is also averse to chance, contingencies, but constantly falls over them. 

There are some parts in London which are necessary and others which are contingent. Everywhere west of Earls Court is contingent, except for a few places along the river. I hate contingency. I want everything in my life to have a sufficient reason. (26)

Everything that happens to Jake is contingent, always seeking someone, rarely finding them and never where he expects them to be. He chases Hugo without success but comes across him unexpectedly at the studio and in the hospital. Perhaps Iris Murdoch is reminding us that whatever theory we use to understand the world, we are at the mercy of whatever life sends our way. 

As he rushes about, we see that not everything is as it appears: the aftermath of the riot on the film set of the Roman city is a good example.

All was changed. The whole of Rome was now horizontal and out of its ruins an immense cloud of dust was rising, thick as a fog in the glare of the lamps. In the arena, like a formal picture of the battle of Waterloo, stood a mass of black figures, some mounted on horses, others standing on top of cars, and others on foot marshalling into neat groups. A voice was saying something blurred through a loudspeaker. The foreground looked more like the moment after the battle. The ground was strewn with legless torsos and halves of men and others cut off at the shoulders, all of whom, however, were lustily engaged in restoring themselves to wholeness by dragging the hidden parts of their anatomy out from under the flat wedges of scenery, which lay now like a big pack of cards, some still showing bricks and marble, while others revealed upon their prostrate backs the names of commercial firms and instructions to the scene shifter. (169)

Even the final explanation for all these misadventures is misunderstood by Jake, who manages to mistake the reference to ‘she’ for a whole page, before he (and us) backtrack and understand that Jake has misread everything. 

I enjoyed the escapades across London, the Holborn Viaduct and the pub crawl, the river at Hammersmith, the Goldhawk Road area. He even chases the elusive Anna in Paris. It’s what Michael Wood called ‘a very sprightly read’ in his LRB article.

Iris Murdoch

Born in 1919 Iris Murdoch pursued a career in philosophy, teaching at St Anne’s College, Oxford from 1948 – 1963. Under the Net was the first of the 26 novels published by Iris Murdoch between 1954 and 1995. She died in 1999.

I have always been a little reluctant to engage with the philosophy in Iris Murdoch’s fiction. This is quite light, but the title refers to notion from Wittgenstein about how we know and describe the world. Apparently, he referred to as net and she challenges this by saying look under the net where real life happens.

Another from my mother’s books from the World Book Club.

Under the Net by Iris Murdoch published in 1954. I used the edition from the World Book Club 286pp. A recent edition has been published by Vintage.

Related posts

Don’t Worry about the Pronouns by Michael Wood on London Review of Books website in January 2019.

JacquiWine’s Journal review of Under the Net from November 2019.

The 1954 Club, organised by Stuck in a Book and Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings Bloggers post their responses to books published in 1954 on their blogs and these are listed on the organisers’ pages.

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