Category Archives: short stories

Don’t Look at Me Like That by Diana Athill

Diana Athill is something of a heroine in my eyes. Here are six reasons why:

  1. Her contribution to post-war fiction in the UK was enormous in her role as founding director of Andre Deutsch publishing. She worked with him from 1952 until she retired aged 75 in 1993.
  2. During that time she edited (among others) the works of Molly Keane, VS Naipaul and Jean Rhys, and without Diana Athill’s patience and care we would probably never have been able to read Wide Sargasso Sea.
  3. She wrote about all this in Stet (2000), and it is an essential insight into editorial work. Also into her relationships with some of the writers she had to deal with.
  4. She wrote about ageing in an interesting way, and in life managed her final years with dignity and generosity. Read Somewhere Towards the End (2008)
  5. Her short stories are highly enjoyable. Midsummer Night in the Workhouse was published in 1962 and republished by Persephone Books in 2011.

And the sixth reason is this novel Don’t Look at Me Like That which was published in 1967 and has been reissued by Granta.

Don’t Look at Me Like That

The novel is set in the early ‘60s, and mostly in London. Meg is the main character and the narrator of this novel. She is a clergyman’s daughter and up until the point she comes to London Meg’s life has been directed by her parents and by social expectations, reinforced by school. There she had had few friends, and it was only Roxane, who lives in Oxford with her widowed mother, who is willing to be close to her. Roxane’s mother invites Meg to live in her house while she attends art college in Oxford. Mrs Weaver, is a complete contrast to Meg’s mother. She directs Roxane’s life to the extent of picking out and grooming her husband Dick.

The novel is partly about how Meg from childhood feels out of place, a misfit, unable to consider marriage, unable to make friends easily, unable to find her way in the world. But by the end of the novel she found her own friends, living independently and in some poverty in a succession of rented rooms. She has come to belong within her own circle. But she has also carried on an affair with Dick and therefore comes into conflict with her own family and with Mrs Weaver. Eventually she makes a decision knowing that it will shock her family and people’s ideas about young women.

So this novel notes the changing expectations for generations during this time, and especially for young women. It reflects the different pace of social change in rural areas and London at the time. And it is about making good relationships, and the difficulties of doing this whether you reject the traditional social patterns or accept them.

The character of Mrs Weaver is carefully observed and built up. She is a shocker. Much of Meg’s reflections seemed to me to expose the dilemmas and tensions that develop for any young women at any time; the importance, or not, of marriage and relationships with men and with women; clothes; independence; having children; fidelity and loyalty; managing on limited resources; parental influence and so on. 

Diana Athill

Diana Athill was born in 1917 and died aged nearly 102 in January 2019. Her death was the occasion for obituaries, and the republication of this novel for reviews. For example John Self in the Guardian in December 2019 called it a ‘reissued gem’. Here is the link.

And this is from an obituary by Lena Dunham, which cacptures the spirit in which to read this novel and the other works of Diana Athill.

Perhaps her greatest legacy was her refusal to cede to societal expectations as she carved out a persistently unusual world for herself in which the demands of femininity — marriage and children, specifically — were rethought and redefined. (Lena Dunham in the New York Times. January 2019)

Other reviews can be found by bloggers: for example JacquiWine’s Journal in February; and A Life in Books in January.

Don’t Look at Me Like That by Diana Athill, first published in 1967 and reissued by Granta in 2019. 187pp

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A writer’s anthology of words and other writerly things

Collecting words

Some time ago I wrote a post about collecting words, creating word hoards, and what a good activity it is for writers. Recently I haven’t been very disciplined about recording them, but here are a few from my collection:

  • Tincture
  • Manciple
  • A murder of rooks
  • Smoocher
  • Swingle 
  • Sontagsleere  (from the German, Sunday emptiness or melancholy)

I like the sound or the feel in the mouth of these words, or in the case of the German word, how it captures a particular feeling.

I love being introduced to derivations and connections of words and that’s why  on train journeys I often listen to  the podcast Something Rhymes with Purple in which Susie Dent and Gyles Brandreth talk about words and language.

And here is a book in which the stories demonstrate over and over again the power of the word, the author’s inventiveness, her creativity with individual words. 

Public Library and other stories by Ali Smith (2015) published by Hamish Hamilton

Here is another book which will delight lovers of words. Robert Macfarlane has burrowed into the languages of the natural world to give us eleven glossaries of landscape. Many of these words of are in danger of being lost. The final list is a ‘gift glossary’ of words sent to him since the publication of the first edition in 2015.

Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane, published by Penguin. The 2016 edition has the additional glossary.

And I hope you have not missed the wonder that is The Lost Words. This collection aims to reinstate words that are being lost from children’s lives and dictionaries. And the illustrations make real the preciousness of the things and their words.

The Lost Words by Jackie Morris and Robert Macfarlane. Hamish Hamilton (2017).

Collecting titles

Here are titles of five unwritten short stories I have collected. 

  • Singing without knowing the words
  • Hunted by Cows
  • Don’t Poke the Bear
  • Stumbling
  • A Plain, Motherly kind of Woman

I have no story in mind for any of these titles, I just like the possibilities created by them.

Collecting phrases

And from rock music I note these:

‘I gave up my life of crime. 

I gave it to a friend of mine.’

Two lines from a song by Josh Ritter I think.

My current favourite is from Terry Allen, from a song called I Left Myself Today

There is a wonderful rhyme: smear/mirror. And a great list of things he didn’t do (float, fly, transcend). And then comes the punchline: ‘I just walked out on me, again’.

Sentiment resonates and word play delights. Great combination.

Related post

In praise of … word hoards (December 2016)

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A Nail, A Rose by Madeleine Bourdouxhe

Her name has been linked to Jean Rhys and Katherine Mansfield; she has been compared to Marcel Proust and Virginia Woolf; she was admired by Simone de Beauvoir; and yet I hadn’t heard of her. Then Pushkin Press invited me to review a copy of her short stories, and I noticed that Heaven Ali is reading a novel by her called Marie

She is Madeleine Bourdouxhe, born in Belgium in 1906, who lived in both the French and Belgian capitals. Her first novel, La Femme de Gilles, was published in 1937 and Marie appeared in 1943. Her short stories were published in literary magazines in the late ‘40s. They were collected and published in Paris in 1985. Madeleine Bourdouxhe died in 1996. 

The Women’s Press published her translated stories in 1989. Pushkin Press published the English translations by Faith Evans in June 2019. My copy was provided by Pushkin Press, and I am most grateful.

A Nail, A Rose

The collection contains seven short stories and a novella. Her stories were mostly written after the war, in that period of economic depression and reconstruction and before French culture really flowered with the existentialists. France had much to consider in the post war years, some parts had been occupied for 5 years.

The writer’s style is spare and, at times, abrupt. The author assumes that the reader will do some work: for example, notice that the objects or people mentioned early in a story will be of significance later. 

Each story features a woman, sometimes giving her name to the story, sometime anonymous. She might be the narrator, or the focus of the third person narration. In every story there is considerable pain, often physical, sometime of love that has disappeared, or of relationships strained and in tension. She does not shrink from the visceral. The female body is ever present with its smells, leakages and lusts. ‘Anna’, for example, is a story about a woman who loves to dance, but her jealous husband uses violence to contain her spirit. 

Very little is explained, for example why the man hit the woman in the title story and why she then was calm with him and met him again. Precisely located in the story’s present, explanations are short or omitted. Sometimes flashbacks move the story on, as in ‘Leah’, where they refer to the woman’s earlier political activism.

I found myself responding strongly to the story called ‘Louise’ where a single mother works as a maid for Madame. Madame lends Louise her blue coat and Louise goes out to meet the man she wants to attract. As she waits for Bob to appear she begins to doubt herself.

Minutes passed, more and more slowly, and time began to drag. It must be lovely to wait when you know that someone is going to turn up, Louise thought to herself. Lowering her head, she went off into a sort of dream. She felt very pretty and very alone. (76)

In this way the author reveals much about Louise, and about her loneliness. The relationship with Bob proves to be an empty and unsatisfying one-night stand. But the experience of wearing Madame’s coat is much more significant and satisfying to Louise.

The novella, ‘Sous le pont Mirabeau’, follows a new mother who has to evacuate from the hospital immediately her baby is born as the Germans invade, and mother and child leave with the convoys to go to free France. She appears to only go a little further than the Loire, but eventually meets the Germans. This story is based on Madeleine Bourdouxhe’s experiences. As in her other stories, the people who appear are ordinary folk, and the mother with her baby experiences many small acts of kindness and care. She sees the soldiers as the people they are, first those in retreat and later the victorious ones.

I loved her writing, with its bare starkness. I was pleased to have been given a copy to review, because I would not have noticed her otherwise. Thanks to Pushkin Press. I might follow @Heaven_Ali soon by reading one of her two novels.

A Nail, A Rose by Madeleine Bourdouxhe (2019) Pushkin Press

Translated from French by Faith Evans

Copy provided by Pushkin Press. 224 pp

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The Second Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

The first line jolts the reader:

Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the gloves herself. (146)

Gloves? Surely that should be flowers

Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself. (5)

The gloves are from Virginia Woolf’s short story Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street  (1923)The flowers are from the opening line of the novel Mrs Dalloway, published later in 1925.

Wednesday 19thJune is Dalloway Day. I contribute this post (somewhat revised from its earlier connection to #Woolfalong in 2016) which has been popular since it first appeared. 

Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street  by Virginia Woolf

Mrs Dalloway appears in Virginia Woolf’s fiction on several occasions. First in The Voyage Out  (1915), then in the short story, then in the novel and finally in several short stories written after Mrs Dalloway. We can conclude that Virginia Woolf found her useful to her writing.

Mrs Dalloway does indeed buy some gloves right at the end of this story, which is less than 8 pages long. The gloves are French, white, half an inch over the elbow with pearl buttons. As in the novel we follow Clarissa through the streets from her home in Westminster. 

The story is an early experiment in stream of consciousness, a technique to convey the layers, textures, and loops of consciousness experienced by Clarissa.  She leaves her house, meets an old friend, remembers the death of another, notices the other people in Bond Street and enters the glove shop. Virginia Woolf records the variety of thoughts in Clarissa’s head, memories, impressions, things she observes and muses upon, including the feeling of familiarity about the other customer in the glove shop. And then …

There was a violent explosion in the street outside. The shop-woman cowered behind the counters. But Clarissa, sitting very upright, smiled at the other lady. ‘Miss Anstruther!’ she exclaimed. (153)

And so the story ends.

The appearances of Mrs Dalloway

We first met Clarissa on the ship sailing to South America in The Voyage Out. She and her husband join the Euphrosyne in the stormy passage from Lisbon to the African coast. Clarissa is portrayed as slight, rather empty-headed but also generous and gracious, a striker of attitudes.

‘It’s so like Whistler!’ she exclaimed, with a wave towards the shore, as she shook Rachel by the hand … (36)

After her departure Mrs Dalloway is described by a more modern woman: 

‘She was quite nice, but a thimble-pated creature.’ Helen continued. ‘I’ve never heard such nonsense! Chitter-chatter-chitter-chatter – fish and the Greek alphabet! – never listened to a word any one said – chock-full of idiotic theories about the way to bring up children. ‘(79)

I love the ‘thimble-pated creature’. 

In the short story she is more fleshed out, has more of an interior life, and indeed her inner life is the point of the story. 

She mounted the little hill lightly. The air stirred with energy. Messages were passing from the Fleet to the Admiralty. Piccadilly and Arlington Street and the Mall seemed to chafe the very air in the Park and lift its leaves hotly, brilliantly, upon waves of that divine vitality which Clarissa loved. To ride; to dance; she had adored all that. Or going [for] long walks in the country, talking about books, what to do with one’s life, for young people were amazingly priggish – Oh the things one had said! But one had conviction. Middle age is the devil. People like Jack will never know that, she thought; for he never once thought of death, never, they said, knowing he was dying. And now can never mourn – how did it go? – a head grown grey . . . From the contagion of the world’s slow stain . . . have drunk their cup a round or two before. . . . From the contagion of the world’s slow stain! She held herself upright. (148)

She has moved from thinking about the Admiralty, to the park, her youthful self, and the death of her friend Jack to quoting Shelley’s poem Adonais. (Also quoted by her in The Voyage Out, where she exclaims ‘I feel there’s almost everything one wants in “Adonais”.’ (40) The short story touches upon genealogy, the social changes brought by the war, the possibility of generosity to the shop woman, class; in short many of the themes of Mrs Dalloway.

The most significant later addition found in the novel is Septimus, a damaged victim of the war who brings a sense of tragedy and inhumanity to Mrs Dalloway. However the damage inflicted by the war was present in Mrs Dalloway’s expedition to buy gloves. It is a lesser, more sketchy idea that Mrs Dalloway expresses as she makes her purchase: 

Thousands of young men had died that things might go on. (153)

The story grew as Virginia Woolf noted in her diary. ‘Mrs Dalloway has branched into a book; and I adumbrate here a study of insanity and suicide,’ (October 1922, 52).

Through writing Mrs DallowayVirginia Woolf developed what she called her ‘tunnelling process, by which I tell the past by instalments, as I have need of it.’ Not surprisingly Mrs Dalloway was turning out to be a richer character than her earlier appearances in The Voyage Out or Bond Street.

The doubtful point is, I think, the character of Mrs Dalloway. It may be too stiff, too glittering, too tinsely. But then I can bring innumerable other characters to her support.  (October 1923. 61)

And as she worked on the novel she reflected on her writing processes, what she was achieving. After returning from Charleston one evening in August 1924 she recorded:

I don’t often trouble now to describe cornfields and groups of harvesting women in loose blues and reds, and little staring yellow frocked girls. …All my nerves stood upright, flushed, electrified (what’s the word?) with the sheer beauty – beauty surrounding and superabounding. So that one almost resents it, not being capable of catching it all and holding it all at the moment. One’s progress through life is made immensely interesting by trying to grasp all these developments as one passes. I feel as if I were putting out my fingers tentatively on (here is Leonard, …) August 1924. 65)

One can make the argument that Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street is an early exercise in grasping all of that and in Mrs Dalloway she demonstrates her confident use of it.

Clarissa has walk-on parts in some of the stories written after the novel. In her diaries Virginia Woolf noted that Mrs D  ‘ushers in a host of others, I begin to perceive’ (August 1922, 48). Clarissa’s party was a device for Virginia Woolf to explore the responses of a number of people in social situations. She wrote these while she was mulling over To The Lighthouse. Readers of that novel will be familiar with the extended evening meal in the first section of the book. By the time she wrote To The Lighthouse she could write of the inner world of several characters in the Ramsay household.

In The New Dress, I especially like the awkwardness experienced by Mabel Waring. Already lacking confidence and with a husband who has no interest in her, her social isolation is explored in the context of the wrong dress at Clarissa’s party. And I notice the disdain with which Mr Serle treats Miss Anning when they are introduced in Together and Apart. The interaction between the two is painfully observed.

There is so much to gain from reading these stories, especially in tracking the development of Virginia Woolf’s writing. 

Virginia Woolf c 1912 by Vanessa Bell

More Mrs Dalloway

The character was also drawn on by Michael Cunningham in The Hours, which was an early title for Mrs Dalloway

There are still the flowers to buy. Clarissa feigns exasperation (though she loves doing errands like this), leaves Sally cleaning the bathroom, and runs out, promising to be back in half an hour. 

It is New York City. It is the end of the twentieth century. (9)


So, New York, twenty years ago, not the effects of the Great War on London, but of HIV/Aids on the US.

As Clarissa works so well for writers, perhaps you have written a Mrs Dalloway story? Perhaps you will now?

Texts

A Haunted House, the complete shorter fiction by Virginia Woolf. Introduction by Helen Simpson, Edited by Susan Dick Published by Vintage in 2003. 314pp

The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf, first published in 1915

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, first published in 1925

The Hours by Michael Cunningham published in 1998. Paperback edition by 4thEstate. 226pp

Related posts

To the Lighthouseby Virginia Woolf

The Voyage Outby Virginia Woolf

Mrs Dalloway is ageing

There are 7 more posts on this blog that explore Virginia Woolf, in words, in dance and in art. Click on her name in the wordcloud to find more.

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My New Bookish Project

It is with some trepidation that I go public with my new writing project. I am a publisher or rather Bookword is a new publisher. I am very conscious of the idea of vanity publishing. On the other hand I am enthusiastic about the possibilities for citizen publishing on a small scale. If technology makes it possible for more of us to publish, to rely less on the big 5 publishing commercially motivated companies, to spread the idea of independent publishing, then I am happy to give it a go.

And because my novel needs yet another revision it isn’t my first venture. Instead, and in time to give a copy to everyone I know over the age of 12 for Christmas, it’s a collection of 15 of my short stories written over the last 10 years and called Better Fetch A Chair.

Better Fetch A Chair

I published Better Fetch A Chair in early December 2018. The title is an old African saying. And I have taken the name of my blog as the name of the publishing venture Bookword. My main purpose is to have a physical book, containing my fiction, and I do not expect to make money from it. My other purpose is to learn about book production from start to finish. So this is what I did.

Bookword as Publisher

To set up my enterprise I did the following:

  1. ISBNs are useful because an ISBN will ensure that my book will be entered on various databases, including those used by booksellers and libraries. This will guarantee it a better profile. I bought 10 ISBNs from https://www.nielsenisbnstore.com. You can buy one for £89 or ten for £159. As I expect to publish more than one book in due time the choice was obvious. I also learned about making a legal deposit with the British Library.
  2. My collection of short stories needed a proofreader to check them through. I commissioned @Juliaproofreader aka Julia Gibbs to check my stories for accuracy and get them ready for printing. Important learnings here: I am not as accurate as I think I am and I do not know as much about correct capitalisation and presentation as I thought I did. Julia was thorough and I am grateful to her. She helped ensure the professional appearance of the book.
  3. Looking professional is important in such a small-scale project. I searched for someone to design a cover and found Simon Avery of Idobookcovers. I was attracted by the designs on his website, and by his deign process. I had to provide information about my book, Simon did four preliminary designs, I considered these and asked around – my friends, family and writing group all gave their opinions. Finally I asked for some variations to one of the original designs and Simon obliged. It was not cheap, in fact it was the most expensive aspect of the whole thing. But a cover carries so much about the book, its tone, its genre, it is worth getting it right.
  4. Each copy of the book cost more than £10 to produce. As I was not primarily concerned with making a living I decided on a lower cover price.Decisions about theprint run have been guesswork based on my Christmas present list and the other possible destinations for copies. I settled on 100 at £8.99 each.
  5. Another writer I know had used a local printer, Nick Walker of Kingsbridge, and the people there were very patient and helpful as I got my copy ready for print. I found it hard to set up the pages correctly, and the pagination I really wanted eluded me to the end. I hope to improve on that aspect of publishing next time. The printing process seemed like magic: it would take my imaginary book and turn it into a concrete thing. I have chosen not to produce an ebook, partly because I don’t read them myself, but mostly because what I wanted from this process was to hold a book of my fiction in my hand.
  6. I haven’t yet entered the world of promotion, publicity and marketing. That’s my next step.

I fully expect not to recoup my costs, and although it is a business I expect it to remain small, and the losses to be manageable.

And who knows where this will take me? I may decide to publish my novel, books by writers and poets I know, or even launch out and take submissions. But not yet. I’m starting small. Please don’t inundate me with manuscript submissions.

The Conchie Road

I recently posted an article on this blog called The Story of The Conchie Road. It described the writing of a short story called The Conchie Road, which took me to local history meetings, and to the Dartmoor Prison Museum at Princetown, and to reading aloud to cows in the rain on Dartmoor. You can read the story in Better Fetch A Chair.

And if you want to obtain a copy for the reduced price of £5 (p&p included) you can either email me (lodgecm@gmail.com) or DM me on twitter @lodge_c and I will send you details.

Better Fetch A Chair  by Caroline Lodge, published by Bookword in 2018. 142pp. Cover price is £8.99 but available for £5.

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Please note that in future I shall be posting every five days (instead of four) to give myself a little more time for my other bookish projects. I hope you’ll continue to enjoy the mixture of posts.

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Elizabeth Taylor – still neglected?

Elizabeth Taylor was included in a list of underappreciated lady authors. I’m not so sure that she should be there, for she has a loyal and vigorous following among readers, writers and book bloggers. Among the writers are Kingsley Amis, Anita Brookner, Anne Tyler, David Baddiel, Antonia Fraser, Hilary Mantel and Philip Henscher.

When he accepted the Whitbread Prize, posthumously awarded in 1976 for outstanding achievement over her lifetime, her husband remarked

I just can’t help thinking how nice it would have been if my wife could have received this recognition while she was still alive.

In her lifetime she was dismissed as a rather chintzy lady writer from the drawing-room tradition. Those who know her writing believe that she should be celebrated for her wit, delicacy, carefully wrought sentences as she ‘made it her business to explore the quirky underside of so-called civilisation’ (according to Anne Tyler, who inhabits similar territory).

My recommended first read of Elizabeth Taylor? Why not start with her first novel At Mrs Lippincote’s(1945). In this story Julia Davenport and her son seem out of kilter with the changes the war has brought to their family life. She makes an unlikely connection with the Wing commander (who knits) through literature. Her son is also a reder. When I reviewed it I pointed to its connections with Elizabeth Bowen’s first novel The Hotelin a post called Two Elizabeths, two first novels.

Happy Birthday Elizabeth Taylor.

7 Things I like about Elizabeth Taylor’s writing

Loneliness

The theme of loneliness can be found over and over again in the novels and stories of Elizabeth Taylor – the newly married, the couples who drift apart, the old and abandoned, those who have lost their loved ones, or never had them, or who suffer at the hands of others.

In Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, the residents are all in the last years of their lives, and parked in the Cromwell Road hotel to be out of the way of their close family and relatives. Some have described these residents as eccentric, but I think that Elizabeth Taylor knew how people behave when they are lonely.

All six characters featured in A Wreath of Rosesare suffering from loneliness. It’s one of her darkest novels and one of her most interesting.

Children

The children in her novels are authentically drawn. Here, from A View of the Harbourshe notes the physicality of young boys as a mother visits her son at boarding school:

Every boy who passed surreptitiously lunged at Edward, dug an elbow at him, crooked a knee at his behind. (142)

The monstrous author, the main character in Angeloutsmarted her teacher by knowing the meaning of the word empyreanand having great timing.

“It means,” Angel said. Her tongue moistened her lips. She glanced out of the classroom window at the sky beyond the bare trees. “It means ’the highest heavens’.”

“Yes, the sky,” Miss Dawson said suspiciously. (7)

And I recommend to you the children in At Mrs Lippincotes, Mossy Trotter, and in her many short stories.

The craft of her sentences

Elizabeth Taylor writes with great precision, and her reader is led into deeper understanding by her prose. Here is an extract from A Wreath of Roses, set on a sleepy country train station.

She issues a warning to the reader with this short sentence.

Then, with a collapsing sound, the signal dropped. (2)

Then comes this:

All at once, the man on the footbridge swung himself up on the parapet and, just as Camilla was putting out her arms in a ridiculous gesture as if to stop him, he clumsily jumped, a sprawling jump, an ill-devised death, since he fell wide of the express train. (3)

The reader and the three people on the platform, at the same moment understand the intentions of the man. As if this wasn’t enough for one sentence to carry she adds Camilla’s futile but understandable gesture (the reader almost makes the same gesture herself). And further, she includes the bathetic details of ‘an ill-devised death’.

Close observation of everyday life

Note how she conveys complex relationships in this scene of children returning to boarding school at the start of term from In a Summer Season.

All over Waterloo Station groups of schoolgirls flocked together – their cries, their movements birdlike, as was their way of keeping to their own kind. Other uniforms drew only glances of scorn. Schoolboys, returning too, were less gregarious. They stood alone at the bookstalls or thoughtfully put pennies into slot-machines, unimpressed by so much feminine gaiety. (206)

The plots of her novels are all different

Her short stories are a feast

The Virago green covers of her books were the best

12 things you should know about Elizabeth Taylor.

She was born 3rd July 1912 in Reading.

She wrote 12 novels for adults between 1945 and 1976, another one for children – Mossy Totter(1967) – and innumerable short stories, many of which were published in The New Yorker.

Her novels and short stories have all been published by Virago Books.

She was a friend of Elizabeth Bowen, but was not drawn to the London literary circle.

Nicola Beauman wrote a biography called The Other Elizabeth Taylor, published by Persephone Books in 2009.

Her husband owned a sweet factory. She had two children.

She was not a film star.

She had a long affair, 10 years, with Ray Russell. He was a pow during some of that time, and she wrote him many letters.

She was a member of the Communist Party for a while.

She died of cancer in November 1975.

Many of her heroines are called Elizabeth, Betty, Bess, Beth and other variations on her own name.

I have read all her books and reviewed each of them on this blog.

Neglected?

Her books are all in print. Bloggers I follow enjoy her work. SlightlyFoxedfeatured A Game of Hide and Seekin their most recent edition. BBC Radio4 extra dramatized In a Summer Season. Films have been made of Angeland Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont. If she is less well known than she deserves it is not the fault of her many champions.

Jane on beyondedenrock blog posted A Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authorswhich caught my eye. She included Elizabeth Taylor.

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Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout

It sometimes seems that everyone else has known about a great writer long before I discover her. This was true of Elizabeth Strout. When Olive Kitteridge was recommended to me for the older women in fiction series on Bookword it seemed that everyone else had already read the book. Everybody who hadn’t read it had seen the tv series, and vice versa and some had absorbed both. I was just catching up.

I did read Olive Kitteridge and included it in the older women in fiction series in June 2016, and then I read My Name is Lucy Barton in March 2017, also reviewed on the blog. Now I am catching up again.

Anything is Possible

As with Olive Kitteridge, Anything is Possible is a series of connected short stories. Such a structure makes possible details from a variety of perspectives, and unexpected connections between incidents and characters. In this novel, the connection is the town of Amgash, Illinois. Lucy Barton grew up here, in utter poverty.

Anything is Possible references her previous book, My Name is Lucy Barton, but it also stands alone. Lucy Barton is a character in one story, Sister, and is mentioned by several characters in others. Her brother Pete is featured in two stories.

What emerges from these stories is pain, hidden and overt: pain from extreme poverty in childhood, from experiences in Vietnam, from hiding homosexuality, from maintaining a veneer or trying to escape.

Anything is Possible requires the reader to look into what is not said, to the silences, the gaps. As the New Yorker reviewer Ariel Levy observed, ‘withholding is important to Strout.’ Her characters find it almost impossible to express their emotions.

Here’s a passage from the story Sister, about Lucy Barton’s return to Amgash, to see her brother Pete. Their sister Vicky joins them. Each of the three has prepared their appearance, and each of the three feel that they got it wrong. I notice that the concrete details – the couch, the attempt to cross her legs, the lipstick, the lack of lipstick – show the reader the awkwardness of this reunion, within each character but also between the three of them. Just before this point Pete has noticed that Vicky has become fat (‘He had known this without knowing it’ 160). We are looking through his eyes.

Vicky dropped her pocketbook onto the floor and then sat down on the couch as far away from Lucy as she could. But Vicky was big so she couldn’t get that far away, the couch was not very large. Vicky sat, her almost-all-white hair cut short, with a fringe around it, as though it had been cut with a bowl on her head; she tried to hoist a knee up over the other, but she was too big, and so she sat on the end of the couch, and to Pete she looked like someone in a wheelchair he had seen in Carlisle when he went to get his hair cut, an older woman, huge, who was sitting in a motorized wheelchair that she drove around.

But then he saw: Vicky had on lipstick.

Across her mouth, curving on her upper lip and across her plump bottom lip, was an orangey–red coating of lipstick. Pete could not remember seeing Vicky wear any lipstick before. When Pete looked at Lucy, he saw that she had no lipstick on and he felt a tiny shudder go through him, as though his soul had toothache. (161-2)

Each of the stories reveals the conflicts between people and within people, and does it through their dialogue, the details of their actions or their observations and through strong imagery, like the soul with toothache. Another reviewer, Elizabeth Day in the Guardian, referred to Elizabeth Strout’s skill at understatement and how well she shows the reader the conflict between ‘private desire and public obligation’.

This is the lot of small towns. There is deep loneliness for the characters in the small town, and for some an irresistible urge to leave, as Lucy Barton did, as Elizabeth Strout herself did. She grew up in a small town, Brunswick, Maine, and is now able to return with insight. Lucy Barton told the story of her ache to leave Amgash in My Name is Lucy Barton. Anything is Possible tells the stories of the inhabitants who know there is something beyond the town, something other that Lucy found, but are not able to escape.

Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout, published by Penguin in 2017. 254 pp

 

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Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

We have reached the 2000s and my choice for this decade is Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi. In the previous 10 posts I have reviewed a variety of novels. This choice is a memoir in graphic form. The graphic form was new to me in the 2000s. And the book came out of Iran, which had seemed very mysterious since the revolution in 1979. Persepolis reminds the reader/viewer that real people live through such historical events and their lives can be shaped by them.

Persepolis: the story of a childhood

Marji’s family are connected to a former ruler of what had been called Persia and her parents are Marxists with a liberal attitude towards their only child. The memoir follows her life through the time of the revolt against the Shah when she was 10 years old, the Islamic revolution and the long war with Iraq. What did it mean to live in Tehran in those days? For some of the time the borders were closed, and for much of the time Iran was besieged by Iraq. There were extreme dangers for those who supported the old regime, for those who did not embrace the Islamic revolution and for anyone who broke the rules on the streets.

Even as a child Marji is not sheltered from the tumultuous events. Her family are implicated in the early struggles of the 20th century. She is on the streets when many are killed in a demonstration against the Shah: Black Friday. And she hears all the stories about the friends and relatives of the family as the Islamic Revolution takes hold. Always there is talk, especially after the clamp down, borders are shut and the long war with Iraq is on.

We Iranians are Olympic champions when it comes to gossip, says Marji (135) as the family discuss Iraq’s military range.

We follow Marji growing up challenging and defiant, wanting jeans, posters of western pop idols, and willing to take risks. Finally her parents decide she must leave in order to continue her education in Europe.

Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi was published at the same time and also revealed the horrors of being a young woman, a reader of western literature, during the Islamic revolution. The young women readers come to understand their situation through the books they choose.

Reading Persepolis

The black and white graphics, the simple drawings of Persepolis are distinctive and effective. They allow us to see through the eyes and assumptions of a child, and to cut through much of the posturing to identify hypocrisy, weak arguments, the use of force and so forth. For example, when very young she is convinced that she will grow up to become a prophet and so has a relationship with God, whom she realises resembles Karl Marx.

The simple drawings, the avoidance of colour suggest that Marjane Satrapi is reproducing the regime’s desire for conformity. In fact it also emphasises the individuality of her characters. Marji, at the beginning, has the features of a young child but she matures over the course of her memoir. I am impressed by how the artist manages to convey so many different faces and emotions in a space the size of a 5p coin.

For many western readers, especially in the UK, Persepolis was our introduction to the graphic form. It is still not as embedded in our reading culture as, say, in France where bandes dessinees have been popular for decades and have acquired accepted cultural status. In the UK they are regarded as ‘comics’ and therefore an inferior cultural form. Perhaps graphic fiction is gaining ground. The graphic short story has had its own prize in the UK for ten years, as was reported recently in this Guardian article: ‘I was in shock!’.

Marji lives on

Marji’s further adventures were recorded in Persepolis 2. Marjane Satrapi also made a movie from the original. She now lives in Paris.

Persepolis: the story of a childhood by Marjane Satrapi Published in 2003 by Pantheon 153pp

Translated from the French by Mattias Ripa and Blake Ferris.

  • ALA Alex Award WINNER 2004
  • Booklist Editor’s Choice for Young Adults WINNER
  • New York Public Library Books for the Teen Age WINNER
  • School Library Journal Adult Books for Young Adults WINNER
  • YALSA Best Books for Young Adults WINNER

The Decades Project

For the Decades Project I selected a book from each decade from 1900 onwards, reading one a month, and reviewing it here. The idea came from my library’s Reading Passport scheme.

Previous posts in the Project

The Shipping News by E Annie Proulx, 1993

Hotel Du Lac by Anita Brookner, from 1984

Woman at Point Zero by Nawal el Saadawi, published in 1975

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin, published in 1969

The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing, published in 1950

They were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple, published in 1943

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, published in 1938

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie, published in 1926

O Pioneers by Willa Cather, published in 1913

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, published in 1905

And now …?

In December, at the end of my first year of The Decades Project, I will reflect on the experience of blogging on this topic and reveal the theme for next year’s Decade Project.

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6 Things I learned from my Freedom from Torture Challenge

So that’s it! The challenge is over, the last walk walked, the last post posted and you can still donate.

  • I have walked 129km (about 75 miles)
  • I written 9 posts on this blog for the challenge
  • I have raised a total of £1779.58
  • I have learned six things.

All this was in aid of Freedom from Torture a British charity that works to support people who have been tortured. And in particular it was to support Freedom from Torture’s writing group, the Write to Life group.

What I learned from the Challenge

Another purpose of the challenge was to raise awareness of the plight of refugees, people who have been subjected to torture, and of the work of Freedom from Torture to support these refugees.

  1. People care about refugees and their treatment

People walked with me, sponsored the cause, retweeted the links to the posts, liked and shared the facebook announcements, and asked me how it was going. Some people went out of their way to give support, like Paul, who led the Dartmoor Walk in the New Year; and Marianne who organised a walk in Hertfordshire. The donations came from friends, family, colleagues, other supporters, and two writers I know from Canada and America (I think they and currency exchanges are responsible for the 58p.)

Thank you for your support, one and all.

Refugees from Kabul

Refugees from Kabul receiving winter clothes from ISAF Photo credit: ResoluteSupportMedia via Visualhunt.com / CC BY

  1. People are horrified by torture

I have seen members of the Write to Life group perform two plays Souvenirs and Lost and Found. The souvenirs of torture are physical and mental. Recovery is slow and perhaps incomplete. Writing can help. Exile is like being cut in half. At both performances the audience was moved.

  1. Narrative is a good way to enable insights about the lives of refugees

Many of the posts for the challenge featured fiction. All narratives were rooted in the authenticity of people’s lived experiences. Many posts featured short stories, an appropriate way to retell the varieties of experiences. These nuggets, even those relating to experiences over 30 years ago, such as the Vietnamese experiences, are still powerful.

  1. People migrate

It seems baffling to me that migration has been as fundamental to human history and as pervasive as language, agriculture, and relationships. Yet in our current world, the policies enacted appear to be based on the idea that political boundaries can stop people migrating. The stark truth is that birth is all. In this world where you are born decides whether you will need to risk the crossing of the Mediterranean or not.

And with their policies of exclusion in place, governments do not respond to the reality of migration, the movement of people, to the fact of migration and the causes behind it: war, realpolitik, climate change, exploitation, religious and ethnic hatred, sexual exploitation …

Having exposed the exclusionary and neglectful policies of the EU, Wolfgang Bauer’s final words in Crossing the Sea resonate: Have mercy!

  1. Writing can open people’s eyes

Writing by the Write to Life Group, telling the story of their lives, before, during and after has opened people’s eyes as well as helped the writers.

All the works referred to in the posts, fictional, semi-fictional, journalistic, historic, these draw attention to what needs attention. And provide insights into experiences we would rather ignore.

  1. There is more I could tell you

When I planned the challenge and what I would post on the blog, I intended to explore more non-bookish topics.

I wanted to tell readers about my experiences with a young lad, unaccompanied, whom I befriended through Freedom from Torture.

I wanted to post a short story I wrote called Seeking Asylum.

I wanted to inform readers of the schools I worked in that helped youngsters to understand what had happened in their lives and how to move onwards. We pioneered exemplary practice, sometimes very challenging, to help youngster take up education as quickly as possible, and to help them integrate their own stories.

I wanted to shock readers with a post on the statistics of migration, refugees and torture. 71,000 people have entered Europe from the sea in 2017. An estimated 1778 are missing. (Figures at 2nd June from UNHCR data portal.)

And I still can do all these things, of course.

What I achieved

My target was £1600 and I raised a total of £1779.58: £1458.33 plus Gift Aid £321.25.

My walk target was 10km (about 6.2 miles) per month, 80km, and I achieved 129km. Sometimes I walked alone, often with a friend or brother and sometimes in a group, with about 40 different people. You can see where I walked on the Page about the challenge.

I posted every month, on a refugee-related topic, mostly bookish, and included a brief description of the nominated walk, nine posts in all (two in December).

And finally …

You can still donate, through my Just Giving Page.

Here are the texts I referred to in these posts

Breach by Olumide Popoola & Annie Holmes. Commissioned and published by Peirene in 2016. 155 pp.

The Optician of Lampedusa by Emma Jane Kirby. Published in 2016 by Allen Lane (Penguin) 116pp

A Country of Refuge Edited by Lucy Popescu. Published by Unbound in 2016. 231pp

Refugee Tales, edited by David Herd and Anna Pincus. Published by Comma Press in 2016. 150pp

The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen, published in hardback in 2017, by Corsair 209pp

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid. Published in 2017 by Hamish Hamilton 228pp

Crossing the Sea with Syrians on the Exodus to Europe by Wolfgang Bauer, first published in German in 2014. English translation with update published by And Other Stories in 2016. 122pp Translated from the German by Sarah Pybus. Photographs by Stanislav Krupar.

Souvenirs, the play written and performed by members of the Write to Life group, is available to buy from Freedom from Torture.

And here are links to the posts and related websites

The Challenge page on this website

Crossing the Sea with Syrians by Wolfgang Bauer, 9th walk along the shore.

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid, 8th walk in Italy.

The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen, walk 7 in Hertfordshire in March

Refugee Tales Ed David Herd and Anita Pincus, walk 6 in February

A Country of Refuge Ed by Lucy Popescu, walk number 5 in January 2017.

Dartmoor, Hay Tor and Freedom from Torture, an extra walk in December, supported by about 20 walkers.

The Optician of Lampedusa by Emma Jane Kirby. My fourth walk in December

Do Refugees need holidays? My third walk in November

Breach by Olumide Popoola & Annie Holmes, the second walk in October

Lost and Found, the first walk in September 2016

Write to Life at Freedom from Torture

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Photo credit: <a href=”https://www.flickr.com/photos/isafmedia/8440318774/”>ResoluteSupportMedia</a> via <a href=”https://visualhunt.com/re/1bed96″>Visualhunt.com</a> / <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”> CC BY</a>

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The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen

We called him Tran. Apart from being tall he had Vietnamese characteristics: thin, dark haired, dark eyed, quiet. He held himself aloof from the other young people in his Year 9 class. He caused no trouble until one day I was summoned as his Head of Year to an incident in which he had turned on another boy. ‘All I did, Miss, was this.’ The other boy mimicked holding an automatic weapon, aiming at me. ‘He just flipped.’

Tran was one of the boat people. We knew very little of his story. He spoke so little. But he told me that his response has been a reflex action to the attack by his class mate when he turned the imaginary weapon on him. PTSD was hardly recognised in the early 1980s. Who knew what horrors he had witnessed? Looking back I do not feel I gave Tran enough support. So Tran, this is for you.

Viet Thanh Nguyen may have had some idea of what Tran had been through. The stories in the collection all concern refugees of Vietnamese origins.

The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen

This is collection of eight short stories, which have in common the effects on families and individuals of the Vietnamese refugee exodus of the 1980s. Published in 2017, they describe the enduring effects of the experiences of migration, and the specific experiences of the characters. Children might be thought to be more capable of adapting to change and new countries and sometimes are ignorant of their parents’ past. But children thread their way through this collection and some have had experiences that will damage them forever. For some refugees the healing will be slow and we come to see their truth – that the new life in America may not be so great.

The stories are written with great care, sympathy and tenderness, yet they are never sentimental or melodramatic. It’s a little like watching wildlife: look, Nguyen seems to say, look quietly and you will see beauty and endeavour and brutality and you will learn.

The sparseness of the title is indicative of the tone of the stories. They are also intense in their depiction of what the experiences of migration can mean for identity, relationship within families, between generations, within the American-Vietnamese community, and with the people who remained in Vietnam.

The narrator of The Black-eyed Woman is a ghost writer, haunted by the brother who exchanged his life for hers when their boat was threatened by pirates:

These fishermen resembled our fathers and brothers, sinewy and brown, except that they wielded machetes and machine guns. (14-15)

Her dead brother has swum across the Pacific to re-join their family, to keep company with the survivors. His sister was destined to retell stories, her own, her mothers, those of famous people.

Others stories also explore the effects upon a family of their migration, not least in the final story, Fatherland, in which the father of a new family are called by the names of the children who were left behind. The American Phuong takes a new name, Vivien, and when she comes to visit her older sister it is clear that despite the presents, the ease of the Americanised identity, Vivien is as adrift as her sister.

Identity is robbed or altered. In a startling story, I’d Love you to Want Me, an old Vietnamese professor with Alzheimer’s begins to call his wife by the name of a another woman. She is distraught at first, but comes to see that she can provide comfort by adopting the identity of this woman.

We read of the former B-52 pilot, whose views are challenged by the new Vietnam and his own half-Vietnamese daughter.

The flat fields behind the homes were mostly devoid of trees and shade, some of the plots growing rice and the others devoted to crops Carver did not recognize, their color the dull muted green of algae bloom, the countryside nowhere near as lush and verdant as the Thai landscape visible from Carver’s cockpit window as his B-52 ascended over the waters of Thale Sap Spngkhla, destined for the enemy cities of the north of the Plain of Jars. There was a reason he loved flying. Almost everything looed more beautiful from a distance, the earth becoming ever more perfect as one ascended and came closer to seeing the world from God’s eyes, man’s hovels and palaces disappearing, the peaks and valleys of geography fading to become strokes of a paintbrush on a divine sphere. But seen up close, from this height,, the countryside was so poor that the poverty was neither picturesque nor pastoral: tin-roofed shacks with dirt floor, a man pulling up the leg on his shorts to urinate on a wall, labourers wearing slippers as they pushed wheelbarrows full of bricks. (136-7)

I like the way that the romantic but destructive view of the landscape is compared to the reality of the poverty. We in the west had Carver’s view from his cockpit in our evening news on tv. This is from the story called The Americans.

A Life in Books considers The Refugees in February, alongside another collection of short stories I have also reviewed, Breach.

There is an excellent review of The Refugees by Joyce Carol Oates in New Yorker in February 2017.

Viet Thanh Nguyen

Viet Thanh Nguyen

Born in Vietnam, living in California his previous novel The Sympathizer won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. This novel also featured transition from Vietnam to the US, but in very different circumstances. 25 Great books by Refugees in America in the New York Times in January includes The Sympathizer.

The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen, published in hardback in 2017, by Corsair 209pp

My walk and challenge.

I am raising money for Freedom from Torture, through sponsorship of a monthly walk and blogpost. This is the eighth post in the series. You can read more about this on the page called My Challenge (click on the page title below the masthead).

At the time of writing I have achieved 75% of my target thanks to readers’ and supporters donations. Please help me reach my full target, which is £1800, by making a donation.

March walk

My good friend Marianne arranged March’s walk near her home north of St Albans. Three of us met on a beautiful day at the end of March, and walked Three Burys Walk in the Ver River Valley, from Harpenden, along the Ver River to Roman St Albans and home. This walk raised about £100. It was about 14.5 km (9 miles).

You can sponsor my walk/blog here, by clicking onto my Just Giving Page.

Related posts and websites

The Challenge page on this website

Refugee Tales Ed David Herd and Anita Pincus, walk 6 in February

A Country of Refuge Ed by Lucy Popescu, walk number 5 in January 2017.

Dartmoor, Hay Tor and Freedom from Torture, an extra walk in December, supported by about 20 walkers.

The Optician of Lampedusa by Emma Jane Kirby. My fourth walk in December

Do Refugees need holidays? My third walk in November

Breach by Olumide Popoola & Annie Holmes, the second walk in October

Lost and Found, the first walk in September

Write to Life at Freedom from Torture

The next post about the challenge will appear on this blog …

… in April

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