Tag Archives: Granta

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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Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

Last month, February, I wrote a themed post about outsiders in fiction (here is the link). I listed some books about outsiders and invited readers to make other suggestions, which they did. Many thanks. One comment in particular drew my attention – the suggestion that all books about women are books about outsiders (Thanks @Kaggsy59). This observation is at the heart of reading for so many women, especially those of us who were active in the Second Wave of feminism. Reading was often a political act.

The additional suggestions included books by Anita Brookner, Veronique Olmi, Carson McCullers and Shirley Jackson among others. A suggestion on twitter also drew my attention as I was intending to get a copy of this novel and read it soon based on reviews I had read: Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata. I found it in WH Smith on Paddington Station, as a ‘staff pick’ which seems fitting.

Convenience Store Woman

The protagonist, Keiko Furukara, is 34, a virgin and she has worked part-time for 18 years in the same convenience store. Like many young people in Japan she began this work while at University, continued it after she graduated, and unlike her contemporaries she has never left. It is soon clear that she is on some kind of spectrum, having few emotions and only able to pass in limited social settings by using some interesting strategies: excuses, white lies and by copying behaviour, speech patterns and clothing. But it is also clear that she understands the rituals and routines of the store, the service it provides in the neighbourhood and that this deep understanding provides meaning to her outsider life. This is not considered acceptable by her friends and family.

Into her life, at the store, comes Shiraha. He too is an outsider, but he is lazy, prepared to sponge off people, and he blames everyone else for his lack of attractiveness. He is not a sympathetic character as he often expresses ill-thought out reductionist cave man theories. For a while he convinces Keiko that if she takes him in (he owes money on his rent) and feeds him, this will get people off her back. She is indeed troubled by people who try to make her behave more like other women. At first her friends are delighted when she takes Shiraha in, but eventually even Keiko sees that this man is sleazy. She rejects him and reasserts her right to work in a convenience store. She wants to return to the simple demands the work makes on her and to a life which is familiar.

Reading this novel

I often find that reading fiction in translation shows me the world in a very different way. It is true with this book too. There is an element of strangeness about it, but it is also an appeal to allow people to determine their own paths in life. It was an easy read even a bit of a page turner. Simply written, in a deadpan style as a first person narrative, this quirky narration exactly matches Keiko’s character. It is also very funny in places.

At one level this short novel is a critique of the social pressure to conform in modern Japan. Her friends and family seem to believe that Keiko should be made to follow the normal patterns for a young woman.  

I am not quite sure why Granta decided to issue this paperback in several different colours with the purchaser receiving any one of them randomly. Mine is blue. It seems like a marketing gimmick, but I can’t see how it links to the novel’s content.

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata (2016) published by Granta. 163pp

Translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori

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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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Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss

I was right. This was the ideal book to take on a train journey. Sadly my return journey was delayed by four hours, and I had finished the book before my train finally arrived. For anyone who is interested in train services, I had been walking with a very good friend in the woods and along the escarpment north of Pewsey. Trains from Pewsey back to the South West were all either severely delayed or, more alarmingly, cancelled. A lovely walk, a great book, but waiting for hours on Pewsey station was not good.

Ghost Wallby Sarah Moss

It is the 80s. A family is spending their summer holiday re-enacting an Iron Age camp in Northumberland, along with a professor and three students. The story is narrated by 17-year-old Silvie (also called Sil). The holiday is the idea of Sil’s father, an autodidact and Iron Age enthusiast. It emerges that he has a rather simplistic idea of ancient history, seeing any invaders from the Romans onwards as pollutants of the pure British race. In other words he is more than a little xenophobic. Her father is a bus driver, and a very controlling man with a filthy temper if he thinks he is being mocked or patronised for his lack of formal education. He beats both wife and daughter. 

The re-enactors must consider what is authentic and how to manage an authentic Iron Age life in the 1980s.For example, they must forage for their food but can take a book with them to check for possible nourishment. They also catch skin and eat rabbits and fish. The local Spar store secretly provides more alluring foods.

Sylvia, the narrator, has a healthy response to the idea of authenticity and how history is created in the interests of those who retell it, such as her father. She is aware that history will always reflect the power structures and the concerns of the present. How, she wonders, did Iron Age women and girls manage their periods. 

The professor and Silvie’s father seek what they believe to be ever more authentic experiences and come up with the idea of the ghost wall. This is thought to have been a defensive wall with skulls of enemies on top to put fear into the hearts of any attackers. They make their own wall and use skulls they have found, such as from a cow or sheep, and the rabbit skulls.

And then they decide to re-enact the human sacrifice that is known about from the well-preserved remains of people in peat bogs. We have learned about a girl’s sacrifice in the novel’s prologue. According to the professor, the idea is to sacrifice something that is very precious.  Sil is aware of what her father will choose and as things begin to unravel the story moves towards its terrible climax.

Family Relationships

Sil’s family is toxic. Her father is abusive and violent, and both mother and child suffer from his whims and from his reaction to being humiliated or defied. The outcomes of his patriarchal attitudes are dark and dangerous.

Sil’s mother should make an effort to protect her, but she has given up any resistance. It is one of the students, Molly, who befriends and stands up for Sil. Molly represents the freedom that Sil anticipates when she leaves home. 

Silvie herself has all the self-consciousness of a young girl who has been kept apart from the world. In this passage she is explaining her name to the students on the first day.

So, said Dan, Silvie, what, short for Sylvia? Sulevia, I said. I was about to say, as I had been doing since I first started school, she was an Ancient British goddess, my dad chose it, but they were already exchanging glances. Sulevia’s a local deity, said Dan. Jim was talking about her the other day. Northumbrian goddess of springs and pools, co-opted by the Romans, said Molly.  […] Yeah, she said, OK but your dad’s not a historian, right, how did he know about her if you’re not local? I could feel myself turning red. He’s a bus driver, I said, history’s just a hobby, he wanted me to have a proper native British name. I saw glances again.  (18-9)

Reading this book

As I say, it is a short book, but written powerfully. The quotation above illustrates the momentum of the prose, uninterrupted by speech marks or line gaps. Maggie O’Farrell refers to this forward drive and is quoted on the front cover saying,

Ghost Wall  requires you to put your life on hold while you finish it. 

Sarah Moss has already shown her ability to tell the story of a young woman frightened from her own imagination and trapped where she can see no escape. I’m referring to Night Waking, published in 2011. A young woman spends the summer on an island with her two small children and finds herself deprived of sleep and immersed in the story of a dead baby and its mother. You can find my review of that novel here. Also recommended. 

Sarah Moss writes so well. Ghost Wall  made the long-list for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, but many readers were disappointed that it did not appear on the short-list. You can find both lists (and all previous winners) here.

I recommend it highly. 

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

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All for Nothing by Walter Kempowski

This is a novel of accumulating tension, yet the tension is set alongside the everyday concerns of people, even when they are afraid, or needing to flee.

The Georgenhof estate was not far from Mitkau, a small town in East Prussia, and now, in winter, the Georgenhof, surrounded by old oaks, lay in the landscape like a black island in a white sea. (Opening paragraph 1)

From the outset, the reader sees a bigger picture: this estate is quiet and sheltered, largely passed by, muffled in winter. But it is January 1945 and history is about to intrude. Europe is in the final stages of war. The Russians are coming. The Red Army will soon arrive.

The Story

The residents of the Georgenhof estate have not been much troubled by the war. The family had already disposed of most of the land they once owned, relying on foreign investments to support them.

Eberhard von Globig, the estate’s owner, is away at an army desk job in Italy. His wife Katherina remains on the estate, with their son Peter, an old retainer called Auntie and several foreign workers who manage the farm and the kitchen. Katherina has several admirers, and many family members come to Georgenhof for supplies. Dr Wagner comes to tutor Peter from the nearby town. Across the road there is a new estate of houses, controlled by the local Nazi puffed up self-important Drygalski.

Despite being somewhat cut off more and more people come to the Georgenhof, for a night or two or because they are billeted there. Gradually it becomes obvious that everyone is leaving, a great westward trek is in progress. Katherina is persuaded to hide a man on the run, at the request of the local pastor. She is imprisoned. Everyone leaves and she joins the trek under guard. The second half of the novel recounts Auntie and Peter’s trek West and the gradual disintegration of their group, Auntie’s death by an enemy bomber and Peter’s transformation into a near-feral child. We see what happens to the visitors to Georgenhof. Each person in turn abandons something very precious that they brought with them.

There is a tension between the large and growing trek west with the casual deaths, abandonment, dead ends, thefts and so forth and the occasional highly organised rest centres.

Some reflections

I have never read anything by Walter Kempowski before, there is not a great deal that has been published in English. What struck me immediately was the number of characters he introduces very quickly, and how more and more people arrive on the page, gathered in to this great exodus. The details of their lives remind the reader that people have to be concerned with their own safety, hunger and chances before everything. And that humans may in retrospect think that the wrong priorities were chosen. The von Globig family, for example, take forever to decide to leave, wondering about their silver plate and crockery, and which pictures and what else will be left behind.

Peter’s journey is an example of how humans can be neglected: his mother is a prisoner, the Polish man who has been helping them abandoned Peter and Auntie, when Auntie is killed a pastor takes Peter in, but is himself about to leave. The child is alone. It seems as if there is no future for him but it is Drygalski, the local Nazi, who in an act of self-sacrifice gives up his place on the last crowded boat to leave.

Each person is a rounded character. Their motives are often nugatory, venal, self-serving, but they come across as human. The people who visit or who are billeted at Georgenhof are passing through, but one has a sense of their experiences up to this point, and that their lives will continue elsewhere. This accords with Kempowski’s work, chronicling the experiences of people during the war. He was a major figure in German literature after the war.

The novel considers what happens when a very controlled society begins to act in an anarchic way, but not all at the same time. The question implicit in the title remains over the entire story. With its insistence upon the significance of each individual the novel asserts the importance of humanity over ideology.

Walter Kempowski

Walter Kempowski’s work (1929-2007) is not well known in English. Born in Rostock, in the war he was unhappily enrolled into the Hitler Youth and then the Flakhelfer, the youth auxiliary of the Luftwaffe. His father was killed in the last months of the war. Walter Kempowski was imprisoned in East Germany for 8 years. He was accused of spying for the US.

He was a prolific writer. His work included 10 volumes of Das Escholot, a collage of German voices and their experiences of the Second World War. He was a writer who helped Germany come to terms with its Nazi past. This was his last book.

All for Nothing by Walter Kempowski, published in English by Granta in 2015, first appeared in 2006 with the title Alles Umsont. 343pp

Translated from the German by Anthea Bell

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Some Tough Reading

I have chosen to read some pretty tough books recently. They all concern the large-scale political events of the 20th and 21st centuries, and all concern wilful and intentional policy of inhumane treatment towards others. Depressing indeed!

The books refer to Russia in the time of Stalin’s great purges, Paris and Auschwitz in the 1940s, China from the 1930s through to Tiananmen Square and the plight of refugees in Europe today. Books take you to places you have never been, but can profoundly depress you while you are there. What follows is a kind of inhumanity Mash-up.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

I put off reading this novel, and then I had to restart it. It was difficult to read. With brilliant story-telling gifts Madeleine Thien retells the history of China through its effects on several generations of one family and their friends. At the centre of her narrative is Sparrow, a Chinese composer, and Lai his friend and a brilliant concert pianist. But the story stretches back from the wanderings of Sparrow’s mother in the 1930s and forward from the starting point of the novel when Sparrow’s daughter meets Kai’s daughter in Toronto. The fathers have both died.

What links them through this terrible period of Chinese history is music and literature in the face of oppression and mob enforce repression.. Music and literature forge family loyalties, even in the face of violent opposition to Western culture, or any artistic expression.

The stories of the family members over time merge, as they wander off, surface again in distant provinces, often in exile or in terrible prison camps. They suffer enforced re-education, the mob mentality of the Cultural Revolution and the Red Guards, the demonstrations and repression of Tiananmen Square. The willingness of the people to try to do as bidden in order to make China better is heartrending in the face of so much brutality. One asks: and today?

It’s a captivating book and one that I have frequently seen read on train journeys.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien (2016) Published by Granta 473pp

Short-listed for the Man Booker Prize 2016 and short-listed for Bailey’s Women’s Fiction prize 2017

Into the Whirlwind by Eugenia Ginzburg

Endpaper for Into The Whirlwind

This book is a memoir, beginning with an account of the author’s arrest in 1937, accused of betraying the Revolution. Sentenced to 10 years in solitary, she endures two in the company of Julia before being sent on to a labour camp in East Russia.

From the moment she is sentenced she has no knowledge of her husband, or of their children (seeing only one of her sons in later life). It’s a grim story, beginning with the Kafka-esque accusations that began the great purge, the cult of personality. The conditions under which the first three years of her sentence are served are so appalling both in isolation and in the work camp, that one wonders anyone survived. At each stage the women support each other, learn how to deal with their warders and those who control their lives. This volume (but not her imprisonment) ends in 1940, and she continued her memoirs in another volume, up to the point of her rehabilitation in the 1950s.

The personal cost of Stalin’s monstrous campaign to ensure his own rule is vividly revealed. Remaining human was a constant struggle, to do with clothes, footwear, keeping warm, eating and acts of generosity towards others.

Into the Whirlwind by Eugenia Ginzburg (1967) Published by Persephone Books 344pp

Translated from the Russian by Paul Stevenson and Manya Harari

A Train in Winter: A story of Resistance, Friendship and Survival in Auschwitz by Caroline Moorehead

While this book is a story of courage generosity and hope (cover blurb) it is also a depressing account of barbarity, inhumanity and the infliction of suffering. It focuses on the 230 French women sent to Auschwitz in January 1943, arrested for anti-German activities. It leaves us to imagine what happened to their menfolk, friends, children and the others who died in huge numbers even before the women arrived in Auschwitz.

The culpability of the Vichy government, the French police, the German occupiers of France, the many who betrayed the communists and members of the Resistance, the guards and commanders of the camps, the medical staff, the Kapos is overwhelming. And so is the disappointment of the women who were largely ignored on their return to France.

What kept the 49 women who survived alive? Friendship, care for each other, courage, hope and a determination to tell the story of what they had experienced and seen.

I included my reflections on this book in a post about visiting Auschwitz, Bookword in Poland.

A Train in Winter: A story of Resistance, Friendship and Survival in Auschwitz by Caroline Moorehead (2011) Published by Vintage 374pp

And just in case you think that this kind of inhumanity doesn’t happen any more in Europe, I refer you to the recent post reviewing a novel about refugees in Germany: Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck.

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Bookword in Iceland

Reading and travelling are both experiences of visiting new worlds. I like combining them and set about finding bookish connections when I’m on the move. I went to Iceland in February. Not my idea, but my brother is celebrating what people call a ‘big birthday’ and I said I would go with him. He hoped to see the Northern Lights. I’m up for such things, especially when I get to visit a new place. Here are some bookish reflections on my brief time in Iceland.

Strangers in Iceland

In 2009 Sarah Moss went to live in Iceland with her partner and children. She had a contract for a year with the University of Reykjavik. 2009 was the year following Kreppa, the Icelandic term for the financial crash. Kreppa ended the years of silly and false money-making in Iceland. People were suffering.

Sarah Moss is a novelist, author of Night Waking (2011) and The Tidal Zone (2016), both excellent novels published by Granta. The book she wrote about her time in Iceland is categorized as ‘travel’. It is not like any travel book I have read. It is more of a what-I-noticed-when-we-lived-in-Iceland-for-a-year kind of book. It is called Names for the Sea: strangers in Iceland. I recommend it even if you are not planning a visit.

From Names for the Sea I got the impression that Icelandic people may look and behave like other Western people, but actually they are very different. Icelandic people have sense of themselves as distinct, and what it means to be Icelandic, and a pride in their country and culture. They like the perception that theirs is the safest country in the world (1.1 murders a year are committed on average. Sadly, the week before we visited, Birna, a young girl was murdered. There were searches and a vigil and a man from Greenland has been arrested.)

Our sense of Iceland, as tourists, was that we should not be stressed. They had everything covered. Coaches and minibuses crisscrossed Reykjavik, fetching tourists from hotels and taking them on tours, information always provided about the arrangements. Even when our minibus broke down on the way back to the airport, a substitute was quickly fetched, and we proceeded with very little problem, delay or stress.

During her residence Sarah Moss found food banks, half finished blocks of flats and a poor exchange rate. We did not see the first two, but it was not cheap if you kept calculating the cost of things in £££s.

‘Icelanders knit everywhere,’ said Sarah Moss (281). The only person I saw knitting was a woman in the wool shop I visited, who demonstrated the way in which they hold their needles and wool. Icelandic sweaters and other necessary warm garments are widely available. I bought some yarn – how could I not?

I also learned from Sarah Moss that Icelanders take a coat with them all year round. In February this was not really in doubt. But in Reykjavik, we had rain and wind and the worst combination of these I have experienced this winter. But the temperature during the day never dropped below freezing. Out of the city it was another story.

Independent People

And now I am wading through Halldor Laxness’s novel Independent People. It’s a long story (more than 500 pages), an epic, about Bjartur a farmer in the desolate countryside, who is determined to become independent, who sees independence as the ultimate goal of all his labours. And labour he does, against the elements, bad fortune, hapless neighbours, the death of his first wife and a determined child. And Bjartur pays the price for his stubbornness.

Set in the early twentieth century, but describing life as it had been lived for many centuries, Laxness spares no detail of the crofters’ lives. Meetings of the men, coffee, rounding up sheep, falling into the Glacier River, the governance, relationships with neighbours … it’s all here. Especially the snow and the coffee.

Pingvellar National Park

What, I wondered, is the value of independence in an environment where cooperation and collaboration are clearly more likely to achieve desired outcomes?

Halldor Laxness, 1906 – 1998, published his novel in 1934-5. He produced other novels and translations, and wrote for the theatre. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955.

Halldor Laxness 1955

Other bookish things

I need to reconnect with the Icelandic Sagas. The shops offered a hefty and attractive Penguin edition, but it seemed crazy to add such an object to our suitcase and to pay the Icelandic price. Iceland was only settled from 870. People had lived there before, but not successfully. The inhospitable landscape and climate would put off most folks. This is the stuff of good stories.

One of the many, many tours offered to tourists was The Game of Thrones Tour. We swam in the Blue Lagoon instead.

Our hotel had a bookshelf for guests. Prominent in the collection was H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald, one of President Obama’s recommendations, and one of mine.

I’m not a fan of Nordic-noir, or whatever genre in which you would include Icelandic thrillers. There are plenty.

Go to Iceland! It’s another country; they do things differently there.

Book details

Names for the Sea: strangers in Iceland by Sarah Moss (2012) Granta 358pp

Independent People by Halldor Laxness (1934-5). Translated from the Icelandic by James Anderson Thompson and first published in 1946, in translation. Available in the Vintage edition. 544pp

And go to TripFiction’s website to find other location-based fiction.

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Women and Fiction

Dispirited? Moi? Well yes, a little. It seems that women’s works will always, always be neglected in favour of men’s. Despite excellent fiction written by women, despite the situation being exposed again and again and despite our best efforts. I am dispirited.

In the lists

200 Middlemarch coverTake the Telegraph’s list of 100 novels everyone should read, for example. Good start – first on the list is Middlemarch by George Eliot. There are, count them, another 18 novels written by women in the list. There is, of course, Charlotte and Emily Bronte. Virginia Woolf, Jane Austen and on through Elizabeth Gaskell, Mary Shelley to Harper Lee. I wouldn’t actually disagree with any of the 100 novels, they should all be read. And more too. People should read. But 19% is not a good representation of women’s writing in a list with that title.

Bit of a girly cover?

Bit of a girly cover?

Same again in the list of 100 best novels written in English from Robert McCrum, published in the Guardian in August 2015. 22% books were by women. Emma by Jane Austen was #7 on the list and the first by a woman. The list was criticised for its lack of diversity (including women, people of colour, the Irish). Readers added another 15, of which 6 were by women.

If the proportion of women rises above 17% in Hollywood crowds people believe that women are in the majority, according to Caroline Criados-Perez author of Do it like a Woman. In lists of fiction the threshold appears to be about about 20-25%.

Perhaps the problem is the lists. The idea of the 100 best in fiction is subjective, and reflects the compilers’ tastes, prejudices, knowledge, experiences. Guess who compiles the lists!

The Vida Count

Research is undertaken annually by VIDA Women in Literary Arts and can now show the picture of women writers in a number of categories in leading literary journals over 5 years.

The 2014 VIDA count tells a vital story about the lack of parity in the literary arts. In addition to surfacing the barriers women face in the literary space, the research shows that the obstacles are compounded for women of color. Women Authors and the Media.

VIDA looks at the journals and counts, by gender, its reviewers, the authors reviewed and the bylines of its journalists. Here are the charts for two UK based journals: Granta, which does comparatively well and the TLS, which does not. The men are in red, the women in blue.

200 Granta Overall1

200 LRB Overall6

And here is a particularly depressing chart if you are a woman author trying to get attention for your books from New York Review of Books. At least it improved at the last count.

200 NYRB Authors-Reviewed6

More than numbers

And it’s more than numbers. Meg Wolitzer wrote about the women’s fiction question in the New York Times in an article called The Second Shelf: on rules of literary fiction for men and women.

She uses the term ‘women’s fiction’ to refer to literature written by women, but acknowledges that it is used to describe

a certain type of fast-reading novel, which sets its sights almost exclusively on women readers and might well find a big, ready-made audience.

All fiction by women gets lumped into this category, especially by some men, as ‘one soft, undifferentiated mass that has little to do with them,’ she argues. She looks at reviewing, Amazon categories, book jackets, book length, the gender of the main characters which all indicate to readers what one might call the gender of the book. And that there are exceptions (prize winning books by women for example) does not indicate an approaching literary idyll. As poet and literary critic Katha Pollitt says

For every one woman, there’s room for three men.

The eminent historian Mary Beard has shown how women in public spaces have always been silenced by men, from Penelope in Homer’s Odyssey onwards. Her LRB lecture was called The Public Voice of Women.

Here are more exposes of how women writers are treated.

16 things sexist male writers say by Christine Stoddard in Huffington Post 29.7.15

Gendered travel writing How not to be Elizabeth Gilbert by Jessa Crispin in Boston Review 20.7.15 ‘Men go on adventures, women on journeys of self-discovery’

Women know your place by Tracy Kuhn on Women Writers, Women’s Books 3.7.15

Women in Translation Month Biblibio 21.5.15 who followed up the introductory post with 31 daily posts in August.

What to do?

189 Do it coverCaroline Criados-Perez (Do it like a Woman) ascribes male domination to the male default. This is the attitude that women are the exceptions, men the norm. Only exceptional novels make the lists, are reviewed, are published. We must expose it, show it up for what it is and for how it deprives everyone.

Go on counting, and go on publishing the figures. Go VIDA!

Follow the example of #Readwomen, not necessarily to read women only but to be conscious of the proportion of women writers and take some corrective action if necessary. I posted about #Readwomen in June 2014. It was my 100th post on Bookword.

159 BWPFF 2015 logoTake account of the long and short lists from the Bailey’s Prize for Women’s Fiction. It is likely that we will need a women’s prize for the foreseeable future. I wrote a post about the need for such a prize in 2013 called Who or what are literary prizes for?

Promote specific initiatives, such as Women in Translation Month. This twitter focus -#WITmonth – brought many great translated works of fiction to readers’ attention. My contribution was The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke

Bookword includes a series that highlights older women in fiction, nearly all written by women. I believe that we need to see images, read books, watch plays and films about those who are less visible in our world than white, middle-aged, males or beautiful young people.

Talk about the obstacles, and praise the breakthroughs and advances. Publishers, editors, list compilers, bookstore buyers, judges panels – they all need to be aware of the bias towards male writers, and be prepared to justify it when they continue it. And they need to know about all the great novels by women and how we want to read them.

And it matters because …?

Because the job of fiction is to take people to worlds that are other than their own, worlds elsewhere, show different perspectives, understandings, experiences. Reducing access to the 51%’s other worlds makes no sense.

175 Womenppower symbolThis is my 200th blog post. It matters to me and it should matter to everyone who enjoys great fiction (which should be everyone, but that’s for another post!). So I shall stop focusing on the dispiritedness and go forth again, into the struggle.

Is there some action you can propose to promote women’s fiction?

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Four more Good Reads

Here are four more books I have recently read and enjoyed:

  • The Meursault Investigation Kamel Daoud
  • The Good Son by Paul McVeigh
  • Wrinkles by Paco Roca
  • The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane
  1. The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud

197 Mersault coverThis novel is both homage and challenge to L’Etranger by Albert Camus, through its content and it s prose. It tells the story of the Arab, killed almost in passing by Meursault, the anti-hero of Camus ‘s novel. It references L’Etranger directly from its opening to its ending, as the victim’s brother tells his story in a series of late night meetings with an admirer of Camus’s novel in a bar. This framing recalls The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid, perhaps intentionally. Both place the reader within the novel.

At one level the novel is about a family’s grief, and what it means to define your life against an absent older brother. His disappearance was complete – no body was found and he was not even given a name by Camus. Daoud calls him Musa.

The Meursault Investigation is also a novel about colonial rule (of Algeria by the French) and the disappointment of Algeria since Independence. It is a story of betrayal and loss, of questioning and regrets.

At times the narrator elides Camus and Mersault, reminding us that Camus came from a French background. Other books by Camus are also referenced. He reserves particular bitterness for to the accolades given his brother’s murderer and ‘his’ book.

75 2 more CamusThe Meursault Investigation does not diminish Camus’s novel, rather provides a new perspective, and allows the reader/listener to bring Algerian experiences into the present day. (Daoud is a journalist who lives in Oran).

Annecdotalist liked much about this novel as she writes on her blog here.

Winner of several prizes including EnglishPEN award – see EnglishPEN’s World Bookshelf.

The Meursault Investigation Kamel Daoud (2014), published by Oneworld 143pp

Translated from the French by John Cullen.

  1. The Good Son by Paul McVeigh

9781784630232frcvr.inddI think this is a seriously good novel, told in a strong voice, and with plenty of tension and tenderness. The story unfolds in Belfast over the long weeks of the summer holidays, following eleven-year old Mickey Donnelly. It is the time of the Troubles. Written in the present tense, in Mickey’s voice, we are able to see the world from the perspective of a boy with much to be frightened of: big school, his brother and father, the Prods, the local bullies (girls and boys). He shows us the damaging wash of the Troubles – visits from IRA, fathers being in prison, mysterious visitors, no-go areas of the divided city – and to see the damage wrought by the culture of violence on families, children and communities.

Mickey is intelligent and not keen to be a big tough boy like his older brother. Much of the tension relates to the place he gained at the grammar school and his parents’ decision to send him to the tough local school for lack of money. He has the holidays to figure out how to survive despite the fearsome reputation of St Gabriel’s. He likes to play with Wee Maggie his younger sister and his dog Killer. He loves his Ma. His Da is a drunk and life is better without him, except that Ma loves him. His elder brother Paddy is involved with the IRA, hiding guns in the dog’s sleeping place.

During the summer holidays Mickey takes some family responsibility, learns a thing or two about growing up, and witnesses the worst of life in Belfast in the Troubles. The climax sees him deal with his drunken father and he finds himself ready for senior school.

The Good Son celebrates one boy, a misfit, and the strength of a mother’s determination to protect her family and her good son.

The Good Son by Paul McVeigh (2015), published by Salt 234pp

Shortlisted for the Guardian’s prize Not the Booker Prize (you can vote 6th October).

  1. Wrinkles by Paco Roca

197 Wrinkles coverWrinkles is a graphic novel, what the French call bandes dessinees. Following a review in The Guardian I requested a copy from the local library for research for my new book on ageing.

Wrinkles tells the story of Ernest, a retired bank manager who is increasingly disoriented and so is placed in a care home. He is befriended by his lightfingered roommate who shows him the ropes. The place none of them want to go is upstairs, according to Emile:

‘the upstairs floor is where you find the helpless. Those who can’t manage on their own anymore finish up there. Those who have lost their minds, dementia, schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s. Better to die than end up there.’ (20)

Ernest is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and in a bid to avoid an eventual move upstairs Emile encourages him to outwit the doctor’s tests and eventually Emile and Ernest make a bid for freedom, a Thelma and Louise kind of thing. But it ends badly, and the ‘big one’ marches on, until Emile is left alone and the story peters out … What endures are the strong emotions and ties between the old people.

The format lends itself to recreating sudden shifts in consciousness; for example showing Ernest’s introduction to the home as his first day at school; the interminable game of bingo, where no one can hear the number called and it has to be repeated ten times; and the stories people are telling themselves like being on a train to Istanbul, being afraid of kidnap by Martians.

Wrinkles by Paco Roca (2007), published by Knockabout 100pp.

Translated from the French by Nora Goldberg.

  1. The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane

197 Wild Places coverI loved this profoundly moving, engaging and erudite tour of the wild places of Britain. Robert Macfarlane is sometimes on his own, sometimes with friends, and occasionally his experience is enlivened by chance encounters.

Structured round a series of visits to different kinds of places – island, valley, moor, forest and so on – The Wild Places follows a year’s journey, as Robert Macfarlane reflects on friendship, humans’ relationship to the earth, history, cruelty, what is known about certain animals or birds, grief, and above all a love of the wild places. He learns more about what makes them wild, and what wild means (not the absence of people’s influence, as he thought when he set out, like the untouched wildernesses of New Zealand) but a kind of ascendancy of nature’s processes: like the work of the sea on the shingle beaches of East Anglia, or the wind shaping the peaks of the mountains.

He introduces us to animals (wild hares), birds (peregrines), and people (his friend Roger Deakin who died while Macfarlane was making his journeys, but had accompanied him on one or two), as well as giving us his descriptions of landscape, presenting researched information about phenomenon, and all in an assured and erudite prose. Writing about the experiences that people have of encounters with the wild places – people brought to sudden states of awe … ‘encounters whose power to move us was beyond expression but also beyond denial’. ‘It is hard to put language to such experiences,’ (236) he explains, but reading this made me see Macfarlane’s talent with language as well as wild sleeping.

Also recommended is The Wild Ways by Robert Macfarlane which I mentioned in my very first post Reading in 2012.

And another supreme writer about the natural world appears in this book briefly and drew the map: Helen Macdonald who wrote H is for Hawk.

The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane (2007), published by Granta 321pp

 

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Four Good Reads

Here are some recommended reads from the last six months. There are so many books around at the moment that deserve to be read I’ve put together four for today’s post (and will recommend another four very soon).

  1. All my Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews

193 ALl my puny cover This is a novel that holds you tight, makes sure you don’t escape. Look, it says, look! What do you do when someone you love really, really wants to end her life? Someone like your sister? Do you help her?

Elfreda is a famous pianist and the sister of Yolande, the narrator. She tells us how Elfreda wants to commit suicide, and the novel begins as she is hospitalised after her most recent attempt. We find out that their father also found death in front of a train. The novel concerns the attempts by Yolande and other close to Elf, to keep her alive. But then Yolande has to consider the request ‘to take me to Switzerland’, to Dignitas, because she sees her sister’s unhappiness.

Miriam Toews is a Canadian novelist, who draws from her Menonite background. She knows how to create sparky characters, with lives full of the stuff of living. And she knows how to portray sisters and adult relationships. Yolande is sparky and flawed. The emotional content of the novel is crafted so that the reader cares what happens to both sisters, and yet the material never becomes mawkish. It’s very moving and very challenging.

The novel explores a person’s right to die; whether another person should help them; the pain of knowing your loved one wants to die; the pain when loved ones do die; and how families support each other. I couldn’t help comparing this book to Me Before You by Jojo Moyes in which Will’s disability made the questions less tricky than for Efl, the successful concert pianist and in which the theme of assisted suicide notched up the tension rather than encouraging reflection on the dilemmas of assisted suicide.

Miriam Toews (2014) All my Puny Sorrows, published by faber 321 pp

  1. The Bees by Laline Paull

193 Bees coverThis novel was short-listed for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2015. It is certainly a sustained tour de force. The main character, Flora 717, is a bee and the action of this novel takes place in a hive.

Laline Paull has done her research, and the mysterious and rather alien functions of the hive, in particular its hierarchies and the brutal way in which these hierarchies are enforced, is reimagined in a story of the triumph of the humble bee. It is the author’s challenge to present a great deal of close observation of bee behaviour in a convincing way: how bees communicate, the function of smell in their lives, group communication through humming, dancing and chemical means. The world of bees is sustained to the end.

Flora attracts attention by being a little different at birth. She is taken to the nursery, and later to the Queen. Fiercely loyal to the Queen – as are all bees – she learns the geography and culture of the hive as she takes on the roles of nurse, sanitation worker, forager and finally a definitive role in the hives future after it disintegrates through internal conflict.

The Bees by Laline Paull (2014), published by 4th Estate 344 pp

  1. The Dig by Cynan Jones

193 Dig coverThis novel featured as a book of the year for several people in Guardian Review of 2014. I mentioned it in brief post because one character, an older woman, seemed to me to be so beautifully portrayed, albeit very briefly. You can find my comments about her here. There is more to this novel than that one character, of course.

The dig refers to digging badgers out of their setts, and so the novel is about cruelty and loss. The big man is a loner, who hunts badgers for sport, but must evade the law to do so. The practice seems rooted in the traditions of the countryside, in this case in Wales. It may be traditional but the badger dig is gruesome, and the baiting that follows worse. Dennis is also a loner, a sheep farmer grieving for his wife, recently killed by the kick of a horse. The paths of the two men cross with tragic consequences.

The story unfolds in the Welsh countryside, and Cynan Jones has a great feel for place, evoked especially through sound, but also through the taciturn communications of the people in the rural communities, and of the skill and knowledge that both men develop of their crafts. The two main characters, and the others, such as the boy who goes on a dig, and Dennis’s mother, all are evoked through a sparse but powerful style. It’s short, brutal and difficult to read.

The Dig by Cynan Jones (2014), published by Granta 156 pp

  1. This Boy by Alan Johnson

193 This Boy coverOur book group decided to read this autobiography. We enjoyed it, partly because Johnson has such respect for women, and especially for his mother and sister. He was brought up by them in post-war London slums, where poverty was shockingly present. Deserted by his father, much of his story details the family’s struggle with money, ill-health and the expectations of their neighbours. Told with humour as well as shocking detail, we read because we know our boy came good.

It’s as much a social history, including a reminder of the role of popular music in a boy’s life in the late 50s and early 60s. (This Boy is the title of a Beatles song). It is written with passion, humour and generosity.

This Boy by Alan Johnson (2013), published by Corgi Books 284pp

 

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