The Years by Annie Ernaux

This is such an interesting book. It caught my eye because it won the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation this year. I had been hearing and reading about it on twitter and elsewhere. It seemed unusual that this book was gaining popularity and respect but was not a novel. That doesn’t happen very often. Or is it fiction? Is it that strange genre called auto fiction? 

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

The Years

There is a strong thread that follows the chronology of the years, related in the voice of the ‘choral we’. Conversation at family meals, friendships, political involvement, films, books, significant political events, world events and descriptions of photographs – these mark out the passing of time.

The memoir, then, is not of an individual’s life, the events and thoughts of Annie Ernaux from 1940 until 2006. Rather it is a collective memoir of the things we talked about, were involved in, the trends we were caught up in and the receding importance of the war that had absorbed our parents. It becomes a sociological text, but to describe it that way is to omit its literary qualities. For example:

For girls, shame lay in wait at every turn. Excesses in clothing and make-up were always monitored: too short, too long, too low-cut, too flashy etc. The height of their heels, whom they saw, what time they went out and came in, the crotch of their underwear, month after month, were subject to all-pervasive surveillance by society. (71-2)

Reading The Years

I found reading this book quite disorienting. To start with she had insights into stuff that I thought was particularly mine: books, attitudes, relationships and ambitions. She noticed things that I thought other people had not picked up on.

She noted major shifts in attitudes and political trends which I had thought were unique to me, but it turns out were widely shared. Furthermore her analysis was good and added to my understanding of my own passage through the same years.

I found that much of what she was reporting had a French and perhaps even European dimension, but yet applied to my life too. Her experience of Paris in 1968 was more acute (I was safely in the university rebellion at Warwick). In the UK active women could hardly avoid the Greenham Common protests (1981 – 2000) and their significance. But mostly the engagements were broadly similar, despite country and despite a decade’s difference in age.

It was an unsettling experience to read The Years. It was a little like those endless, cyclical debates of adolescence about free will and determinism. What is my life, like hers, like all who are included in the collective voice, what is our life but something to live through in a crowd of other people?

And in the end my individuality was lost. I was not surprised to read these comments by Annie Ernaux in a Guardian interview in April 2019:

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

But she is also provocative when she proposes the idea that all this will change as the generations replace us and ‘we vanish into the vast anonymity of a distant generation’. (20)

The writing of The Years

Annie Ernaux has said that the main character of The Years is time itself, as indicated by the title. 

There is chronology in the passage of the reader and author through the years since 1940. The war is left behind, we read through the climax of the 1968 uprisings and the comfortable years that follow. In passing she remarks that they had no fear of the future in 1968, but now they fear it, despite a short resurgence of optimism with Mitterand in 1981.

We see all this through non-judgmental descriptions of family meals, films, books, homes, work, political changes, Algeria, the Gulf War and so on. I could read my own history as part of a whole, the well-off left-wing, public sector workers sharing so much of this with France.

Descriptions of photos appear periodically in the text, and they mark the passing of time. They are all, it is implied, of the author as she grows from infancy, through childhood to adulthood. Occasionally her own story intrudes, and both serve to provide some individuality to a text mostly told by the choral ‘we’.

Annie Ernaux

Annie Ernaux was born in 1940 and brought up in Normandy in a working class family. She became a school teacher, her subject was literature until she retired in 2000. She was able to find time to write The Years after she retired, although this work had been in her mind for much longer. She already had several novels published, all apparently based on the same close observation of real things and events.

The Guardian describes her as France’s great truth teller. The book has received many awards, including the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation in 2019, and the Francois Mauriac Prize from the French Académie and Marguerite Duras Prize for her life’s work. 

The Lonesome Reader blog reviewed The Years after it was placed on the longlist for the Man Booker Prize International. 

The Years by Annie Ernaux, first published in 2008. I read the English version published by Fitzcarraldo in 2019. Translated from the French by Alison L Strayer 227pp

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Maidens’ Trip by Emma Smith

I’ve been reading novels, memoirs and other texts from the Second World War recently. It was a time when social norms were upended, and people were called upon to take up activities that they would not have dreamed of a few years before. And they hoped would never be required to again. Such upheaval is fertile background for novels and other writings. 

I published a post called Novels from the Home Front in WW2 in November. You can find some interesting fictional choices there. I particularly enjoyed Blitz Writing: Night Shift & It was Different at the Time by Inez Holden (1941/5), republished by Handheld Press 2019. The second half of this book is extracts from her wartime diaries. I am working on a short story set during the war so it was also research for me.

Originally published in 1948, Maidens’ Trip has the subtitle A wartime adventure on the Grand Union Canal. I read several reviews of Maidens’ Trip and I thought I would be interested to read about more wartime experiences. It finally got to the top of my tbr pile. I was looking forward to more wartime research.

Maidens’ Trip 

The account of the ‘wartime adventure’ is partly fictional but based on Emma Smith’s years as a boater. She describes it as ‘part fact, and part fiction’.

When, fairly soon after leaving the ‘cut’, I began to write the book, it seemed to me that the best method of describing the couple of years I had spent working narrow-boats on the Grand Union Canal towards the end of the Second World War would be to condense them into a single trip. For this imaginary portmanteau trip I invented as my two companions Nanette and Charity. I also, for the sake of balance and objectivity, exercised the novelist’s right by largely inventing the third member of the trio, named as myself, (sixty years on I deny ever having been so bossy). (vii Preface)

She assures the reader that everything that happened in the book took place. She reinforces this authenticity by frequently referring to ‘we’ but always referring to herself as Emma.

In 1943 three young women (18 years old) become crew of a motor longboat and its butty on the canals, plying their cargo of steel from London to Birmingham and returning via Coventry with coal. 

While the work was hard and at the beginning unfamiliar, it also provided freedom for these young women. And their enjoyment of their outdoor adventure is a recurring theme. We read no references to ‘home’. Their companions become the boating families and as they adopted the boaters’ life they developed friendships and affection for some of the families.

The work was dirty, hard and wet and twice one of their crew was nearly killed. It’s hard to imagine now but their conditions were pretty awful, sleeping in wet beds, always dirty and oily, and outsiders in the world of the boaters and the working men in the docks and locks. But with a heartiness and good grace they put up with terrible working and living conditions. Today we might assume that they felt obliged to do their bit for the war effort. But this was not their chief motivation according to Maidens’ Trip.

The war hardly intrudes, in fact. There is the mention of the blackout and occasional news shouted down to them by lock keepers. By and large they were not there  ‘because of the war’ although their cargoes of steel and coal were no doubt important. 

Recommended

I enjoyed the book for its references to some canals I used to know: Braunston and its tunnel, the Coventry and Birmingham canals and the London Docks. More than the familiarity of those canals I was attracted by the qualities of the young women who volunteered for this work. I think one appropriate word of the time is pluck.

It’s well-written too, despite the author’s claim to have written it very quickly. The decision to create one journey out of her experiences pays off. The rhythm of the journey, the flurry of working the  locks followed by the calmer more deserted stretches of canal, the tying up at night, the early starts with tea from water boiled on the primus, the days move by.

Immediately outside Leamington we passed by acres of allotments, the neat parcelling out of bean-sticks and cabbages on that flat unhedged and seeming, more especially in the failing light, a very attar of depression. One or two blurred figures, grey moth-like creatures surely with every spark of passion ground out of them, bent over spades or shambled down the nondescript paths. Yet behind them flared the giant sky, a citron yellow, massed with magnificent clouds which crowded together round the going sun, snatching up its dying heart to deck their black and purple edges. We passed them, these humble ghosts, like life rejecting death, and turned the bows of the Venus and Ariadne directly into the sunset, strong but tired, tired but still triumphant, and with several more miles to go and two more locks. (103)

The Silvers arrived. … The three old ladies all wore black hats of felt or crumpled straw, the sort of hats that grow on a head as naturally as an eyebrow above an eye. All three wore black button boots going high up round their ankles, and two of them had long black skirts with a motley of pinafores and jersies above. But the third, the one in the straw hat, wore a pair of men’s blue dungarees. She looked about fifty-five, but was probably short of forty, and her apparel was even more surprising in that trousers were seldom worn by the boating women – except the very bold or the very young – being considered unseemly. (104-5)

And reading her account of working as a team, managing the motorboat and its butty on a flight of locks – the bicycle, the windlasses, the pulling or pushing, the leaping, the tying, the shouting – leaves one informed and breathless.

I am ashamed when I think of how my generation told our predecessors they were so square, had made the world a mess for us, and we were going to do it better. Now I think we had everything to learn from these plucky young women. 

Maidens’ Trip: A wartime adventure on the Grand Union Canal by Emma Smith was first published in 1948. It has been reissued in paperback by Bloomsbury in 2011. 225pp

Related blog post

Tripping Over is a post on Stuck in a Book blog from 2009, but still valid and includes enthusiasm for Emma Smith’s book about growing up in Cornwall, The Great Western Beach. I liked his word ‘energetic’ for the writing in Maidens’ Trip.

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Books on the theme of Archaeology

I am lucky enough to live within a mile of an important archaeological dig that the University of Exeter has been exploring for several years. Detectorists discovered Roman coins and the dig began. The received wisdom – that the Romans did not establish themselves west of Exeter – was overturned. There is evidence of iron age living, of a Roman road (where was it going from and to?) and of occupation up to the early middle ages. And then the settlement moved. The village was abandoned and a new settlement established where our village now stands. 

Every year I go and visit the dig site, peer at the variations in soil colours, notice the markers, sometimes orange buckets, sometimes slips of paper, and try to picture people living on the site.

Sutton Hoo

Occasionally I read about archaeology. Next to our own dig I think the Anglo Saxon finds at Sutton Hoo ship burial (Suffolk) are the most engaging. A long time ago, before the National Curriculum, I used to teach my school students about Sutton Hoo, not least for its links with Beowulf. The finds are spectacular and the shadow of the ship in the mound is compelling. I have visited the displays at the British Museum more times than I can recall and plan to revisit the site of the curious mounds next to the river Deben next summer.

Here are two books related to Sutton Hoo, the first of which is a novel.

The Dig by John Preston 

The story follows the progress of the dig at Sutton Hoo in 1939. It is told in the first person by several key players: Mrs Pretty who owned the site, the first archaeologist Basil Brown, one of the professional archaeologists Mrs Piggott, and the boy Robert Pretty.

This structure of the novel mirrors a dig, as we slice through the incomplete telling of the stories of all their lives and find clues, some of which are never followed up. The gradual uncovering of the finds is well told through Basil Brown, an amateur employed by Mrs Pretty who is shoved aside by men with more class and education.

The novel reminds us that knowledge is always mediated through the time of its uncovering, in this case an Anglo Saxon king’s burial is seen in the context of the imminent outbreak of war. And we see how everyone’s story is partial, incomplete and above all unknown to others – especially the women’s. Mrs Pretty is mourning her husband, attending a medium for consultation, and Peggy Piggott is on her unsatisfactory honeymoon (sexless one imagines) and attracted to the photographer who happens to be Mrs Pretty’s nephew.

I enjoyed this book, but I wonder if I would have got so much out of it if I hadn’t known the story of the discovery and wasn’t so familiar with the artefacts.

The Dig by John Preston, published in 2007 by Penguin 230pp.

The Sutton Hoo Story: encounters with early England by Martin Carver

This is the account of the evidence and research into the site by the man who directed the most recent dig, published in 2017. All the mounds have been explored, all the evidence described, and all the theories examined. The context for the finds in England, but also in relation to Europe, is laid out. The author reminds us that no account can be final as archaeology is a dynamic study.

The Sutton Hoo Story: encounters with early England by Martin Carver, published by Boydell Press in 2017. 240pp

Essays

Archaeology has inspired creative non-fiction and none more exhilarating than this poet’s view. I was very pleased to come across this book earlier in the year. You can find the full review on Bookword (October 2019), here.

Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie

This is a collection of essays by a Scottish poet. Her themes include time and archaeology. Among other meditations she takes us on two digs, first in Alaska where a 500 year old village is being washed into the ocean. The Yup’iq people live in the village and still live off the land and sea. The dig links the people with their history and the finds extend beyond mere knowledge to influence young people in the village, and the villagers’ understanding of themselves and their past.

A second dig on Orkney also features a site under threat. At the Links of Noltland a large community created in stone is being uncovered, but funds will run out before they are able to  explore the full extent of the remains. Successive generations built on the foundations of the earlier settlements but the elements will take anything that the archaeologists cannot recover.

Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie, published by Sort of books in 2019. 247pp

Archaeology and more fiction

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss 

Set in the 1980s, Silvie’s self-taught father has dragged his family on a holiday to re-enact an iron age camp. The possibility of authentically living as our ancestors did is challenged, not just because living off the land proves difficult and is food supplemented by crisps and cola from the local garage. The beliefs and attitudes of the enthusiasts take on a very threatening aspect reminding the reader of our primitive origins. 

It is a short book, but written powerfully, and the prose develops a momentum, uninterrupted by speech marks or line gaps. There is a full post about this novel on Bookword (June 2019): here.

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss, published in 2018 by Granta. 152pp

Agatha Christie

And of course the famous crime writer Agatha Christie was married to an archaeologist, Sir Max Mallowan and accompanied him on his digs in Nineveh and Syria and Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East. Wikipedia refers to these novels, influenced by her archaeological experiences:

  • Murder in Mesopotamia (1936)
  • Death on the Nile (1937)
  • Appointment with Death (set in Jerusalem) (1938)
  • They came to Baghdad (1951)

Can you add any other books, fiction or nonfiction, that link to the theme of archaeology? 

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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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Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

I have heard it said that Northanger Abbey is Jane Austen’s least good novel, not their favourite. Such readers suggest that it has a soggy middle as Catherine Morland is carried away by her novel-inspired imagination. Northanger Abbey has the reputation of being a satire on the contemporary popularity of the gothic novel, such as Mrs Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (mentioned in the text). 

I have heard people say that Henry Tilney is the perfect hero, deserving of the love of a good woman because of his patience and tact. And I have read that it is a novel about novels and novel readers. Do any of these views capture the value of Northanger Abbey? Are these the reasons to reread it yet again?

Northanger Abbey

Catherine Morland is seventeen, unworldly and from a large family of adequate means who live quietly in Wiltshire. She is taken to stay in Bath by a friend of the family. The scene is set for Catherine’s adventures to show up some truths about Bath and the world. 

Under the care Mr and Mrs Allen she experiences the fashionable life of Bath, at first not knowing anyone, then befriended by the Thorpes. Isabella becomes her best friend. Isabella’s brother John Thorpe sees the world as he wants, and he assumes that Catherine is interested in him, although she is soon bored of his bragging company. 

She prefers Henry Tilney who was introduced to her by the Master of Ceremonies in the Lower Assembly Rooms. He danced with her when she knew no one. She meets his sister and Eleanor quickly becomes a better friend than Isabella. Under the misapprehension that she is an heiress, thanks to John Thorpe’s bragging misinformation, General Tilney encourages his son’s attentions and Catherine is invited to Northanger Abbey.

The General returns from a trip to London where he has been disabused of his ideas about Catherine and turns her out of the house. Henry follows her and declares his love. All are reconciled.

Believing what you want to believe

A number of people in this story believe what they want to believe. Catherine wants some mystery and drama and so mistakes what she finds in the Abbey. The General has expectations for Catherine in Mr Allen’s imaginary fortune. And when he learns her true situation he is unable to admit to his own mistakes and treats her shockingly. While she was wrong about his capacity for murder, she had rightly suspected that he was capable of great cruelty.

Isabella and John Thorpe both believe the best of themselves, larding their conversations with Catherine with obvious untruths and self-flattery. And their selfish and careless behaviour places her in some embarrassing and unwanted situations.

Of all the people that Catherine meets it is only the Tilneys, Henry and Eleanor, who do not use her to flatter themselves or to fulfil their wishes. And Catherine herself, when she relies on her feelings rather than her wild imagination has good judgement. She also learns from her own hot-headedness and from the betrayal of her ‘friend’ Isabella Thorpe.

And the writing tells us …

Much of the book is written in the negative: what you shouldn’t think about the heroine or her story, how her origins are not mean, her experiences not dire, and how the story does not end. It is an achievement to have made a novel about a heroine who is hardly remarkable, indeed has many faults. The first page is a teasing account of all the reasons why Catherine does not make a good heroine. She has attractions however, which we finally learn on p 41, with a light twist in the final line.

…her heart was affectionate, her disposition cheerful and open, without conceit or affectation of any kind – her manners just removed from the awkwardness and shyness of a girl; her person pleasing, and when in good looks, pretty – and her mind about as ignorant and uninformed as the female mind at seventeen usually is. (41)

And this teasing continues throughout the book, especially when Catherine’s imagination gets the better of her. 

And throughout, Jane Austen reminds us that in novels we are often invited to expect the unreasonable and the heroic. When General Tilney sends Catherine away, without even a servant to accompany her on a complicated journey, it will look to the world as if she is in disgrace. The author takes a moment to remind us that Catherine is not a romantic heroine.

A heroine returning, at the close of her career, to her native village, in all triumph of recovered reputation and all the dignity of a countess, with a long train of noble relations in their several phaetons, and three waiting-maids in a travelling chaise-and-four, behind her is an event on which the pen of the contriver may well delight to dwell: it gives credit to every conclusion, and the author must share in the glory she so liberally bestows. – But my affair is widely different: I bring back my heroine to her home in solitude and disgrace; and no sweet elation of sprits can lead me into minuteness. A heroine in a hack post-chaise is such a blow upon sentiment, as no attempt at grandeur or pathos can withstand. Swiftly therefore shall her post-boy drive through the village, amid the gaze of Sunday groups, speedy shall be her descent from it. (230)

There is a great deal in Northanger Abbey about books and reading and Catherine’s excitement at the latest sensational novel and at the prospect of visiting a real Abbey is evidence of her lack of judgement. 

The author herself has a short rant about how novels and novel-reading are disrespected by reviewers and readers and aspirational society. Towards the end of Northanger Abbey Henry contradicts Catherine’s suggestion that reading novels is not undertaken by gentlemen …

‘… because they are not clever enough for you. Gentlemen read better books.’

‘The person, be it a gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.’ (121)

And I might just draw your attention to Jane Austen’s very post-modern device of drawing attention to the novel’s structure and devices as you read, in other words, adding a little meta-fiction.

A British film adaptation was made in 2007, screenplay by Andrew Davies and directed by Jon Jones. I have not seen it. 

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen first published in 1818. I read the Penguin English Library edition from 1972. 252pp

Related posts

Lady Susan by Jane Austen (April 2015)

Pursuing Jane Austen (June 2019)

In the society of Jane Austen (December 2019)

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Decades Projects 2019 and 2020

Eleven books, one chosen from each decade since 1900, reviewed each month from January, all children’s fiction, all by women – that’s what the Decades Project has meant in 2019. I have so much enjoyed choosing, revisiting or discovering the books for 2019. In previous years I have looked at fiction and nonfiction by women in the same way, enjoying the historical perspective. Here is a review of the eleven choices of children’s fiction and a preview of the theme for 2020. 

The Decade Project in 2019

Some book choices were treats as I revisited pleasures and treasures from my childhood. I so much enjoyed Ballet Shoes, for example. And then had the pleasure of finding my original copy, now coverless, when later in the year I inherited my mother’s books. The Eagle of the Ninth is a book I have enjoyed as a child, a young history teacher and again in my mature years.

I had never read The Little White Horse, but it turned out to be a favourite read of many of Bookword’s followers. Goodnight Mr Tom was another book I was pleased to read for the first time.

From 2013

All these books were written by women. It is a very special kind of closeness to read to a young person, and I was reminded of my pleasure at reading to my daughter and more recently to my two grandsons. That one of my grandsons helped with the final post for 2019 was a happy bonus.

An early theme to emerge was the number of children in these stories who lacked parents. They were dead (The Secret Garden) or absent (Five Children and It) or plain incompetent (Goodnight, Mr Tom). The young people found themselves adopted (Ballet Shoes), or in boarding school (Joan’s Best Chum), or in care (The Story of Tracy Beaker), or in magical lands (The Little White HorseA Wizard of Earthsea).

The absence of parents allowed for freedom, discovery, growing up, the exercise of imagination and the development of a certain amount of self-confidence. Some children began as spoilt brats but all ended as reasonable human beings. Some children learned early to face hardships in life, being orphaned, being black in a racist society, physical abuse, abandonment, mortal danger.

And the young people in these stories met some very interesting characters: the Psammead, the archaeologist, a unicorn, wizards, old people, dragons.

The virtues that are encouraged by these stories have not changed much since 1900: resourcefulness, imagination, empathy, resilience, risk-taking. These are all good things and long may children’s fiction encourage them. 

Here are the links to the posts for the 11 choices in this year’s Decades Project:

How to Train Your Dragon by Cressida Cowell (2003)

The Story of Tracy Beaker by Jacqueline Wilson (1991)

Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian (1983)

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry  by Mildred D Taylor (1976)

A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K Le Guin (1968)

The Eagle of the Ninth  by Rosemary Sutcliff (1954)

The Little White Horse  by Elizabeth Goudge (1946)

Ballet Shoes  by Noel Streatfeild (1936)

Joan’s Best Chum  by Angela Brazil (1926)

The Secret Garden  by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1911) 

Five Children and It  by E Nesbit (1902)

The Decades Project in 2020: 

I have enjoyed each of the three historical projects so far undertaken, so I will continue with a new project in 2020. This year I will return to fiction and to my pleasures at rereading and discovering previously published novels. To shape my choices I am going to use the Virago collection: Brilliant Careers: The Virago Book of 20th Century Fiction, edited by Ali Smith, Kasia Boddy and Sarah Wood. This collection reproduces an extract from one hundred books published in each year of the century and reissued by Virago.

And I will start, as that collection does, with My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin (1901).

Suggestions for this new series are always welcome.

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The Best Books for … changing my life

So us book-bloggers, we are always saying that books are very significant. So are librarians, publishers and writers. And that’s because books change lives. This post is stuffed full of books that have changed lives (with links to Bookword reviews). Which books changed your life? 

This is the first in an ad hoc series of posts which will all begin The best book for …  Some other ideas are … presents for my birthday; … reading in translation; … recommending to book groups; … taking on holiday; … when I am ill in bed; and so on.

The top 10 most influential books in the Baileys’s poll:

Back in November 2014 I found a list of  books that had ‘impacted, shaped or changed readers lives’ organised by Bailey’s (who at that time sponsored the Women’s Prize for Fiction). I doubt whether it would be much different if they surveyed readers again today.

To Kill a Mocking Bird by Harper Lee

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

Harry Potter by JK Rowling

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

I Captured the Castle by Dodie Smith

Life-changing political books by women 

And in February last year the Guardian Review asked several influential women for their choices of life-changing political books by women. 

Harriet Harman and Mary Beard: The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer

Nicola Sturgeon: The Abbess of Crewe by Muriel Spark and The Second Sex by Simone De Beauvoir

Diane Abbott: Why I’m no longer talking to White People about Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge

Gina Miller: Women & Power: A Manifesto by Mary Beard

Jess Phillips: How to be a Woman by Caitlin Moran

Caroline Lucas: Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver

Natasha Walter: The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin

The Best Books for … changing my life

I have chosen just three books, or I would have had to mention 300. Each of these I think about a great deal still.

Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy (1976): a novel that suggested it was possible not to organised society around gender. (See also, Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin.)

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (1961): when asked why he had  never written another book as good as Catch-22 , Joseph Heller replied ‘Who has?’ That story may not be true, but it is good. This book told me you cannot expect rational behaviour in policy, politics or war. 

The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff (1954): in which the author showed that history has real meaning when understood through people’s lives. It is the source of my enduring love of history and the reason history was the focus of my first degree.

What would be on your list of influential or life-changing books? What I like about framing the topic in this way is that it bypasses any notion of favourites. Writing this post has made me think about some books I would like to reread. I’ll get on to that.

A related post

Ursula K. LeGuin by Gorthian reading from Lavinia at Rakestraw Books, Danville, California June 2008. Via WikiMedia

You might also look at A Book that Changed my Life by Ursula Le Guin, a post in June 2015 on Book View Café Blog. It is only fair that the writer who has the most references in this post gets to say something herself. And basically she says it’s an impossible task, but here is one list. It’s a good one. I was pleased to see it includes Thomas Berger’s novel Little Big Man. Our hero tells a great story the punchline of which is ‘it’s a great day to die!’ Go visit Ursula Le Guin’s list!

Over to you

So what would you add to the unlimitable list of best books for changing your life?

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Drive Your Plow over the Dead Bones by Olga Tokarczuk

Even if you can’t say her name (and I can’t) you cannot have missed the presence of Olga Tokarczuk on the literary scene. Flights won the Man Booker International Prize in 2018 and she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for 2018. (It came a year late due to some politicking which is irrelevant.) Many of her compatriots celebrate her creativity. Most pleasing, passengers on public transport in the city of Wroclaw were allowed to travel free if they were carrying one of her books on the weekend that the award was announced. Jacek Dehnel, poet and translator, says ‘she is the greatest writer in my language today’. 

There are others in Poland who see her as anti-Catholic, unpatriotic, leftist and suggest that she has promoted eco-terrorism. This last charge probably relates to Drive Your Plow over the Dead Bones in which hunters in the narrator’s village are being picked off. Does she deserve the criticism or the accolades?

Many readers of the blog will know that I am championing fiction containing older women. This will be the 44th in the series. I am trying to read more novels in translation since I was guest host on Global Literatures in August, looking at older women around the world. This novel was suggested to me by Emma Wallace the producer of the BBC radio programme Women’s Hour. It featured a discussion of  fiction by, for and about older women in which I took part in August.

Drive Your Plow over the Dead Bones

From the start this novel presents itself as a bit of a mystery. There is the title, a quotation from the unorthodox English poet and visionary William Blake. His work features at the head of each chapter and in the subject matter of the novel as the protagonist is helping her former pupil and Blake-enthusiast to translate Blake into Polish. I do not understand the title.

The mystery is also in the subject matter. Who is killing the hunters in this border village? The narrator, Janina Duszejko (or Mrs Duszejko as she prefers) lost her two precious dogs to hunters and she spreads the idea that it is the animals taking their revenge. But the story also has the qualities of a fable in that animals have magical qualities. 

The story is located in a village on the border between Poland and the Czech Republic, on the margins of two countries. Like the narrator, the village is out of kilter. Poland is compared unfavourably to the country across the border where all is perfect. The village empties every winter. Events often take place at night when it is hard to see clearly. The murders occur periodically and the police are confused by the evidence. The narrator is drawn into the search to identify the murderer. 

Mrs Duszejko has some friends, also outsiders: Oddball her neighbour, Good News a friendly woman who keeps a secondhand clothes shop, Dizzy a former pupil, and Boros the etymologist. They help each other and form a loose social group.

The themes of the novel concern the treatment of animals, ageism, being outsiders and it has a definite political edge. 

The older woman

The narrator Mrs Duszejko is in her 60s and something of an oddity, considered so by the authorities, partly because she is old and lives on her own and is a vegetarian. She does not live as an older woman is expected to. She doesn’t know she should sing at a funeral, remove herself from the scene of a hunting when instructed by the hunters, wears what she likes, is single. She finds herself treated as older women are, that is ignored most of the time, patronised at other times. Her behaviour frequently confuses those who question her, and the reader. She writes weirdly, with capital letters for many but not all nouns. She also suffers from Ailments, which are never clarified or defined, nor do they appear to limit her activities a great deal.

She is also discounted because she is passionate. For example her letter to the police does not receive an answer, despite asking for explanations of some important aspects of the murders. Like all old women, and many old men, she is ignored and made invisible.

Here is her account of her meeting with the police commander.

I could almost hear his thoughts – in his mind I was definitely a ‘little old lady’, and once my accusatory speech was gathering strength, ‘a silly old bag’, ‘crazy old crone’, or ‘madwoman’. I could sense his disgust as he watched my movements and cast (negative) judgement on my taste. He didn’t like my hairstyle, or my clothes, or my lack of subservience. He scrutinized my face with growing dislike. (35)

And here is another older woman, the Writer, who suggests this with Mrs Duszejko’s agreement.

‘You know what, sometimes it seems to me we’re living in a world that we fabricate for ourselves. We decide what’s good and what isn’t, we draw maps of meanings for ourselves… And then we spend our whole lives struggling with what we have invented for ourselves. The problem is that each of us has our own version of it, so people find it hard to understand each other.’ (221)

Mrs Duszejko studies astrology, and this was an aspect of the novel I found hard to understand. Perhaps it is as good a way of understanding the world as any?

Olga Tokarczuk

She writes novels that are in ‘the continental tradition of the thinking novel’ (Kapka Kassabova in The Guardian). It could be seen as a simple mystery, but identifying the perpetrator of the crimes is not the most important aspect of this book. More significant questions are posed.

The smoother argument made in “Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead” is that conforming to nature is sanity, whereas conforming to humanity is idiocy. To be in constant grief due to the cruelty of man is not misanthropy, it’s pure logic. “What sort of a world is this, where killing and pain are the norm?” Duszejko asks. “What on earth is wrong with us?

From August 2019 New York Times review by Sloane Crosely.

This is an inventive writer, one who changes her approach and who is making a name for herself, and perhaps for Polish fiction. I am on the side of the applause. She does that excellent job in fiction of showing us the world as we do not normally see it, and this time through the eyes of an older, activist woman.

Drive Your Plow over the Dead Bones by Olga Tokarczuk, first published in Polish in 2010 and in English in 2018 by Fitzcarraldo Editions. Translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. 266pp

Flights by Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Jennifer Croft from the Polish and also published by Fitzcarraldo Editions. My review can be found here.

And some blogs I found useful in reading Drive Your Plow are The Lonesome Reader and Translating Women.

Here are some recent additions to the Older Women in Fiction series:

The Little Old Lady by Catharina Ingleman-Sundberg

The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant

Meet Me at the Museum  by Anne Youngson

Eleanor and Abel  by Annette Sanford (guest post)

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

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In the society of Jane Austen

Don’t we all have something that we are very enthusiastic about? I hope so. Enthusiasm is a great thing. For some people it is steam trains; for others its chocolate or wine; I know people who enthuse about football. For me it’s the books of Jane Austen and even Jane Austen herself.

I own copies of all her novels, even those she did not complete. Some in duplicate. And the collection of her letters. And several biographies. And a lovely book called Jane Austen Cover to Cover: 300 years of classic covers by Margaret Sullivan.

I have visited her house at Chawton, looked at her legendary writing table and the patchwork bed quilt she made with her female relatives. I own and use a Penguin Pride and Prejudice mug

I am not a fan of tv or cinema adaptations of the novels. For one thing they focus on the story and must occasionally take liberties by showing details where the text would explain all. For example, some people may be surprised to learn that Mr Darcy did not dive into his pond wearing a loose shirt just before he met Elizabeth Bennett at Pemberley. And adaptations can limit the imagination. It is hard not to see Colin Firth at Mr Darcy, and it even made a jolly good joke when filming Brigit Jones. And the adaptations focus on story, story, story, leaving out so much. 

And I’m not a fan of sequels or finishings off of the unfinished. However much we want to write fan fiction I think it is better left unpublished. Nor am I a fan of some covers. What scene in Pride and Prejudice does this cover depict? 

And is this your view of Captain Wentworth of the red face?

Jane Austen Society

But I do love to talk about her novels. And I like to read them. And I like to hear other people talking about them and about Jane Austen herself. And so I joined the South West branch of the Jane Austen Society. There are more than 80 of us. We meet four times a year, and we listen to two people talking to us about some Jane Austen-related things. 

There are lots of things I enjoy about this group. There are some very well read people, scholars and experts in the group. And the officers arrange for experts from other parts of the country or even from abroad to address us. We learn about such things as dress and its social implications in Bath, her schoolteachers, the seaside, members of Jane Austen’s family, and her interest in music. We enjoy close textual appreciation, or hearing about the fate of the many editions of her books since they came out of copyright. 

It was with 27 other members of the society that I went to Kent in search of Jane Austen and wrote about it on a post, wondering why we undertake cultural tourism. I’m going on another trip next year. 

The friendliness of the group, mostly women, mostly of my age, all sharing an enthusiasm, is another reason to enjoy this group. 

And it’s a wonderful place to overhear remarks:

I didn’t even know there was a Jane Austen Society until I was having lunch with a friend.

I have a friend who’s very keen on Jane Austen.

I need to belong to the Migraine Society.

And to pick up useful bookish phrases:

… read to bits …

Cheap books lead hard lives.

Smoocher (meaning a borrower but not returner of small things, C19th)

And to gather reading suggestions. 

And following our most recent meeting I have started to reread Northanger Abbey

Does anyone share my enthusiasm for a writer in the same way?

Related Posts on Bookword

Lady Susan by Jane Austen (April 2015)

Pursuing Jane Austen (June 2019)

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I’m just catching up with Bookish Podcasts

So I need your help. I am fairly new to podcasting. Not to making them, I don’t do that. I mean that I have only recently begun listening to them. On the train, while I wash up, or cook or clean my walking boots.

First, I had to discover how to find them – by accessing the podcast app on my ipad. It turned out it was simple.

Then I had to find the ones I wanted to listen to. There are lots of different podcasts, all keen to be listened to. It was a little like investigating apps on my first smart phone. I didn’t know that so many were available. They were simple to download but hard to choose between. The search facility will bring lots to your attention.

And then to be more discerning I began to pay attention to recommendations and emails from organisations that make them, in particular the publishers. And now I am asking you for your recommendations.

So what is a podcast?

Let’s consult the oracle.

podcast is an episodic series of digital, audio or video files that a user can download in order to listen. Alternatively, the word “podcast” may refer to the individual component of such a series or to an individual media file. (Wikipedia)

They often have an automatic facility to download onto your device through a subscription. Subscriptions are usually free, btw. They’ve been going since about 2004. I told you I was late to the party.

How is a podcast different from a radio programme?

The main difference is through the subscription and downloading aspects. But in many ways podcasts are a way of spreading audio content, as radio programmes are.

In practise I think they are often longer than the average radio programme, aimed more at a specific interest group than the general listener, and often presented as a conversation 

I would also point out that radio programmes about books and writing are becoming harder to find. But there are any number of podcasts about books it seems.

Which bookish podcasts have I been enjoying?

You can search for these four that I regularly listen to:

Slightly Foxed: this podcast is recorded in the offices of the magazine of the same name. The magazine features essays by readers who describe books they love. The podcasts take up this theme often with guests on particular topics. I particularly enjoyed the recent discussion about George Mackay the poet from Orkney.

Backlisted: it has been going for about 2 years. Each episode features a guest (usually a writer) who has chosen a book they love and which they think deserves a wider audience. Though sponsored by the crowd-funding publisher Unbound, it isn’t about selling new product: it’s about how and why some books stand the test of time. As their title suggests this is not so much about new books. Each episode is about an hour long.

Virago Books: a monthly podcast featuring writers published by Virago. I always want to read the book they feature. This month it was Between the Stops by Sandi Toksvig. Usually about 30 mins.

Guardian Books: a weekly look at books, poetry and great writing, hosted by Claire Armitstead, Richard Lea and Sian Cain. I have recently listened to an interview with the poet Kathleen Jamie. Each podcast is about 30 minutes.

The podcasts usually feature recommendations and some include episode notes (aka show notes) with details of books discussed or recommended.

And others?

Not so bookish, but interesting and entertaining:

Fortunately features Jane Garvey and Fi Glover who ‘share stories they probably shouldn’t’. Recommended by friends as soon as I said I was trying out podcasting. Weekly. About 45 minutes. 

Something Rhymes with Purple: Susie Dent and Gyles Brandreth talk about words and language. Just right for a train journey I have found. Weekly. About 30 minutes long.

The Verb: hosted by Ian MacMillan. This really is a radio programme, sent out weekly and lasts about 45 minutes and featuring all sorts of writing stuff.

And some lists

Penguin books: 25 of the best literary and book podcasts for book lovers. There are quite a few suggested podcasts on this list to explore.

Sunday Times: has apparently recently published a list of 100 podcasts to love. But it is behind a paywall, so good luck.

How you can help

As you can see, I enjoy listening to people discussing books almost as much as I like talking about books myself. And I like hearing writers’ recommendations of books that are not necessarily new. So you can help me by adding more recommendations of bookish podcasts you think are worth listening to. Happy listening.

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