Tag Archives: Penguin Books

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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The Juniper Tree by Barbara Comyns

The Juniper Tree was published in 1985 when Barbara Comyns was 78. It was the ninth of her eleven novels. Her early work had involved magical or mystical aspects, such as a strange plague and levitation. For The Juniper Tree Barbara Comyns retold the Grimm tale of the same name. In the original Grimm story the stepmother deliberately kills her stepson and is messily punished by magpies. In the story told by Barbara Comyns it is not the stepmother who is culpable. She retells it with a feminist slant.

The Juniper Tree

Bella is young, rather messed up, scarred and good at letting other people make decisions for her. When the story begins she is drifting after the end of a relationship with a mean young man who was driving when she received the injuries that resulted in her scars.  She has a little money in the bank. 

For a time this money seemed a curse to me, yet I wouldn’t share it with Stephen. It was the insurance money paid for my damaged face. … For some reason Stephen thought we should share it, although he was responsible for the damage. (18)

Bella seems very susceptible to this kind of treatment by people and not to be very decisive herself. She has a daughter by a man whose name she can’t remember. The child, Marline also called Tommy, is mixed race and very attractive. Bella and her daughter are taken up by a couple called Gertrude and Bernard Forbes. They are a well off couple who long for a child

Bella finds a job running a second hand shop and enjoys herself for the first time, but she becomes more and more absorbed into the Forbes’ life especially after Gertrude becomes unexpectedly pregnant. Gertrude dies having given birth to a son. Now Bella is roped in more and more to the housekeeping chores and childcare and eventually Bernard marries her. You probably can guess what is coming.

Bernard takes up another young girl and Bella realises that she has left behind a life that she really loved. Then the little boy is killed accidentally, in a storage chest for some apples. Bdelieving she was responsible Bella tries to hide the death from Bernard. She has a breakdown.

Magpies do appear in this story, together with some details from the Grimm tale, such as the juniper tree, a red slipper and stolen jewellery. But there is no bloody revenge, only some soul searching, including an emerging understanding that because Bella was susceptible Bernard persuaded her to do things against her better judgement. Bella, though malleable, is also a trooper and she learns to trust her own judgement and ends up happily married to someone else.

The most destructive person in Barbara Comyns’s version is Bella’s mother who treats her very badly when she is a child, although they are later reconciled. It turns out that she too has been badly treated by a man.  

The writing style is very even. The sentences follow one from another, regardless of the many mishaps in Bella’s life. Sometimes there are little warning bells hidden inside this evenness. 

… I told him the truth that I was quiet because I felt so happy, and he [Bernard] said, “How extraordinary, people so seldom admit they are happy. Gertrude did and look what happened to her. Take care, dear Bella. Happiness is a very fragile thing, but no one deserves it more than you.” (103)

It was published in the 80s but it felt more like the 60s. Although there is a trademark Comyns surreal feel to everything.

The Juniper Tree by Barbara Comyns, published in 1985 by New York Review Books. 177pp

You can find the Grimm’s version of the story in Grimm Tales for young and old  by Philip Pullman, published by Penguin Books in 2012. 420pp

Books by Barbara Comyns reviewed on Bookword:

Who was Changed and Who was Dead by Barbara Comyns (April 2018)

The Vet’s Daughter by Barbara Comyns (March 2019)

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A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K Le Guin

I cannot remember how I came across this tale of wizards and dragons. It must have been soon after it was published, and it made a great impression on me. I was already an adult, but I found the metaphor of naming to be very powerful. In the ancient lore, Ursula Le Guin tells us, being able to speak someone’s true name means having power over them. Giving your true name is an indication of trust.

A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin was published in 1968. It is the seventh post in the Bookword 2019 Decades Project. 

This story concerns a young lad growing up, confronting his own weaknesses and learning how to deal with them. It is also full of adventure, friendship, ingeniousness, acts of courage and mystery. It was very popular and two more novels featuring Sparrowhawk, the great wizard, were published and collected as a trilogy by 1979. There were yet more Earthsea stories later.

A Wizard of Earthsea

Note the title, which, like the story itself, makes it possible for the reader to see themselves here. 

Sparrowhawk, true name Ged, is born on the island of Gont in the north east of the Archipelago. 

The island of Gont, a single mountain that lifts its peak a mile above the storm-racked Northeast Sea, is a land famous for wizards. From the towns on its high valleys and the ports on its dark narrow bays many a Gontishman has gone forth to serve the Lords of the Archipelago in their cities as wizard or mage, or, looking for adventure, to wander working magic from isle to isle of all Earthsea. (13)

Sparrowhawk’s mother died soon after his birth and his father had little interest in him. The boy had no special features until he stumbled upon a form of words that summoned goats to him, a spell.  A local witch showed him a number of other spells and he was able to confuse and confound an invading horde of Kargad warriors and so save the village. Now his powers were noticed by the local wizard who provided him with an apprenticeship until the boy decided to go to the wizard training centre far away on the island of Roke.

[There is a great deal of sailing about the seas in this novel, and I made frequent use of the map of Earthsea. It was drawn by Ruth Robbins who also designed the first cover reproduced above.]

Sparrowhawk is ambitious and proud and during his training comes to resent another high achiever called Jasper. In an effort to outdo his rival Sparrowhawk unwisely initiates a forbidden spell, calling from the depths of the earth one who has long been dead. A dreadful evil is released into the world by this act and the rest of this first story is an account of how the shadowy evil tries to hunt Sparrowhawk down, and how the young lad learns to turn and become the hunter himself and how he eventually defeats his nemesis.

No wonder that adults also enjoy this story. It celebrates what we know to be good: determination, hard work, patience, friendship and doing right by others. It identifies what we know will unbalance us, that is ourselves. For Sparrowhawk it is his pride. 

Some Themes

There are few female characters in this first story, but in other respects Ursula Le Guin promotes the importance of diversity among peoples: their languages, appearances, beliefs and rituals. Her parents were anthropologists and she had absorbed their interest in how different societies work, where their fault lines are, how communities explain human actions. Difference is not a matter for aggression. In this novel aggression and violence arise from individual human failings.  

The love of the natural world also shines through this novel. There are invented animals, vast seascapes, and islands of great beauty. Everywhere people make the best of what they find to enhance their lives. 

Wizards, witches and mages are largely beneficent people. Those who help Sparrowhawk are modest, generous, and loving. Their wisdom has a great deal in common with the philosophy of Lao Tzu: playful, apparently contradictory, and thought-provoking. The importance of balance or equilibrium features too in this story.

Only in silence the word,

only in dark the light,

only in dying life:

bright the hawk’s flight

on the empty sky.

 – The Creation of Ea  (12)

See Ursula Le Guin’s version of Lao Tzu’s philosophy.

Ursula Le Guin and the imagination

Fantasy novels did not attract me much as a child, nor yet as an adult. The same can be said of science fiction. But in her novels I have learned to enjoy the best of both, mostly because she uses imagination to explore different worlds, different, places, different ways of being and shows us a way to proceed. I recommend this book and The Left-Hand of Darkness to any adult reader. 

The conceit of naming seems to me to be very important. We need to be able to speak our fears, our hopes, our failures to deal with them. The power to name, to write, is therefore essential for a civilised world.

And it comes to me that spells are magic words, so spelling is the act of magicking words, or simply put writing is magic. 

A Wizard of Earthsea  by Ursula K Le Guin, first published in 1968. I read it in my copy of the Earthsea Trilogy published by Penguin in 1979.

Other Bookword posts on Ursula Le Guin

The Left Hand of Darkness  by Ursula Le Guin

A Tribute to Ursula le Guin, on her death in January 2018

Imagination and the Writer, on the necessity of training the imagination

The Decade Project in 2019

In 2019, the third year of my Decades Project, I am exploring children’s fiction from the start of the 20thcentury through my monthly choices of a book from successive decades. Next month it will be a book from 1970-79. 

Here are the links to the books in this year’s Decades Project so far:

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)

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The Librarian by Salley Vickers

No sooner the word than the deed. Recently, somewhere in response to my blog and this year’s Decades Project, focusing on children’s literature, my friend Jennifer mentioned The Librarian by Salley Vickers. She had not read it herself but she has children’s librarians in the family. She thought it would fit my project. Almost immediately I found a copy on the shelves of the local RSPCA charity shop. Rather strangely when I bought it for a pound the person on duty asked me if I wanted change for the car park, implying, I think, that one would only buy one item for £1 to get change.

The Librarian by Salley Vickers 

You may have read other novels by Salley Vickers: Miss Garnet’s Angel and The Cleaner of Chartres come to mind. If you have you will know that her style is very readable. Her protagonists appeal to many women readers of my age group and are popular with many other readers as well. The current book is a Sunday Times Top 10 bestseller.

The story of The Librarian is set in 1958 and young Sylvia Blackwell has taken on the job as children’s librarian in a market town in Wiltshire called East Mole. She has high ambitions for the children of the town, of engaging them with her love of literature. It is that time after the war when publishing was taking off. Many of the books for children featured in The Librarian will be familiar: Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce, George MacDonald’s At the Back of the North Wind, the Narnia series and so on.

Sylvia is naïve but things initially go well. She befriends many of the local children and some of their teachers and parents but she lives in dread of a neighbour, the Librarian and the Library Steering Committee. Many of the children do gain from reading; one, Lizzie, gains entry to the Grammar School with help from Sylvia’s coaching for the 11+. From the children Sylvia learns about the local wildlife and from their parents she sees the difficulties of bringing up children at any time.

Trouble soon begins as some of the children behave badly, and Sylvia’s informal manner with them is implicated and soon leads to blame. Sylvia starts an unwise affair with the married GP, and some of her neighbours are spiteful (no reason for this is ever discovered) while others remain kind.

The Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller is discovered in the possession of one of the children when it was supposed to be locked away safely in the Restricted Access collection. Now the restricted and prejudiced attitudes of many people in the town have free reign and Sylvia looses her job while other also suffer.

In a brief second part of the story, set in the 21stcentury, we learn of the fates of all the main characters, including Lizzie who has become a children’s writer. Attitudes to literature have become freer and for some people all ended happily.

Children’s Literature 

While I enjoyed the nostalgia of returning to the books of my past, this novel did not reawaken the sense of wonder that reading brought me (and so many others). For that I think I would revisit Bookworm: a Memoir of childhood reading (2018) by Lucy Mangan, which I reviewed on this blog in the summer. You can find my comments on it here. In The Librarian books appear as objects, like the stolen book, or the piles of late returns that arrive periodically. The children respond with enthusiasm when the choice is right, but they do not appear to enter the worlds created by the novels they read. And I think I must remark that Sylvia herself, an enthusiastic reader of children’s literature, has not gained a great deal of wisdom from her literary experiences. 

But there were pleasures to be had, especially in being reminded of such a wealth of experience to be had in children’s fiction. So do join in the Decades Project for 2019 on Bookword to be reminded of your early reading.

The Librarianby Salley Vickers (2018) Penguin, 385pp

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Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper

Moments of fumbling confusion contrasted with moments of startling clarity. A striking presence.This is how Etta (the Etta in old age) is described by The Canadian National newspaper as she walks across the eastern half of Canada towards the sea. What is this old woman doing?

Etta and Otto and Russell and Jamesis the 37thin the series on Bookword blog about older women in fiction. You can find a list of all the previous posts with links, together with more recommendations from readers on the page About The Older Women in Fiction Series.

Etta and Otto and Russell and James

The story of this novel is set in two time frames, one before and during the Second World War and the second in the present day. Its centre, as Canada’s, is the prairie province of Saskatchewan. Etta is a young school teacher and Otto and Russell among her pupils. Otto is one of a very large family who live on a farm. Russell comes from the city when he is orphaned to live with his aunt and uncle on a nearby farm. He quickly becomes absorbed in Otto’s family, even when he damages his leg in a farming accident. Otto goes off to war, while Etta and Russell become close and enjoy themselves as dancing partners. When Otto returns after terrible experiences fighting in Europe he and Etta marry.

In the present Etta walks away from Otto (and Russell their neighbour) to go to the sea. 

Otto,

the letter began in blue ink.

I’ve gone. I’ve never seen the water, so I’ve gone there. Don’t worry. I’ve left you the truck. I can walk. I will try to remember to come back.

Yours (always)

Etta. (1)

As she walks we revisit her history: her love of a sister who died in childbirth, her training as a teacher, her first job, and her growing affection for Otto and Russell. These two exchange places at school so they can take turns to attend and both take advantage of learning. We see the difficulties when the trio, Etta, Otto and Russell are separated. Otto joins the army and is sent to Europe. He and Etta keep up a correspondence. 

She travels eastwards and becomes something of a celebrity as she walks. Mostly she is alone, but James a coyote who talks, joins her for the mid-section and Bryony a journalist for the final section. The journey takes many weeks and presents many challenges to the old woman.

Etta

Etta in old age, the reader quickly finds, is tough and strong-willed. She is excellent at improvising, and resourceful, contriving to catch fish in a plastic bottle. And she is good with people and coyotes. These are excellent qualities for any person of any age and it is rare and laudable to find an older female character who embodies them. 

She is also forgetful and carries a list of people to remember, such as might be given to someone suffering from Alzheimer’s. 

There is a gap in their history after Otto’s return and the moment that Etta sets out to visit the sea. What happened in all those years? Does marriage represent the last time anything significant happens?

The writing

The book breezes along in very short sections, jumping between the three human characters and time zones. The story is told through a range of media, including lists. There are letters, recipes, internal monologues, newspaper reports and 3rdperson narration. The lists include a packing list, known people list, uses of newspapers list.

There are some magical, fantastical aspects to the plot: the talking coyote; the inter-changeability of Otto and Etta in the final pages; the telepathic communication of the three friends.

What I liked and didn’t like

Photo credit: Trevor Pritchard on Visual Hunt / CC BY-SA

Some of the story is vivid and other parts charming. The vivid parts included Otto in Europe, life on the prairie in the 1930s, Otto’s father’s illness. And some of the descriptions of the landscape lived in or visited by Etta are beautifully done.

But Etta appears to be described as somewhat eccentric. Older women with spirit often appear that way in novels. Eccentricity is certainly found in older people, older women, but it can be something of a caricature or cliché. This book does not escape the trap. There are several more in the older women in fiction reviews that I have noted.

And the absence of any sense of their lives from the end of the war to now is very frustrating.

But most of all I could not work out why Etta’s walk was important. I kept thinking of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry  by Rachel Joyce (2012). Harold set off to post a letter, but carried on across England to deliver it in person.

This novel ends with the separation of all three main characters Etta, Otto and Russell. What supports the blurb claim that this is ‘a tale of love over 50 years’? 

Have you read this novel? What did you think?

Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper, published in 2015 by Penguin. 278pp

Recent posts in this series:

The Book of Eve by Constance Beresford-Howe 

Three Things about Elsie by Joanna Cannon

Great Granny Webster by Caroline Blackwood

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A themed post about books and trains

From time to time I like to consider books linked by titles or themes or in some other way. Today the link is trains. Trains take people away from loved ones, and towards others. The cast of characters is random and usually constant, at least while the train is moving. These features make trains ideal settings for murder mysteries: think Murder on the Orient Expressby Agatha Christie (1934), or Strangers on a Trainby Patricia Highsmith (1950). And a station obscured by steam is a perfect setting for dramatic events: Anna Karenina by Tolstoy (1877) is an example.

My list of train books is slightly quirky. It includes two novels, two wartime accounts and the events on a station that led to the most significant publishing revolution of the last century.

The Underground Railroadby Colson Whitehead (2016)

The underground railroad was a means by which slaves from the American Southern States were helped to escape and find freedom in the North. Making the railroad a concrete thing, with stations, tracks, engines, engineers and boxcars, was a daring move by Colson Whitehead. It had the effect of emphasising the hard work of building the network, maintaining it and it also exposed the vulnerability of the routes to freedom and the many ways to disrupt it. This is hard and important read. Here’s a link to the reviewof this book on Bookword in October 2017. 

A Wreath of Rosesby Elizabeth Taylor (1949)

This novel is not primarily about trains or train journeys, but the train is significant in the scene that opens the novel and announces the changes that Elizabeth Taylor will explore. 

Afternoons seem unending on branch-line stations in England in summer time. The spiked shelter prints an unmoving shadow on the platform, geraniums blaze, whitewashed stones assault the eye. Such trains as come only add to the air of fantasy, to the idea of the scene being symbolic, or encountered at one level while suggesting another even more alienating. (1)

We have been warned. The scene seems unchanging, stultifying. We encounter something else after this wonderful sentence.

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

Three people on the platform, Camilla, another traveller and the stationmaster, observe the approach of the through train.

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

This happening broke the afternoon in two. The feeling of eternity had vanished. (3)


The opening scene introduces us to the idea of impermanence and transition. Camilla and Richard are both on journeys. She is travelling to Abingford to spend August with her friends. He is in flight from his past, looking for respite. This is a dark novel exploring loneliness as so many of Elizabeth Taylor’s novels do. You can find the full review here.

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

Trains played an infamous role in the Holocaust. 230 French women were sent to Auschwitz in January 1943, arrested for anti-German activities. This book is a depressing account of their experience of barbarity, inhumanity and suffering.

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. 

Train to Nowhereby Anita Leslie (1948)

The title of this book could be considered misleading, as no train appears in it. The title refers to the journey being over. This train is going nowhere.

Another wartime book, this time the account of a well-connected young woman who joined the MTC as a mechanic and was sent to the Middle East during the Second World War. She drove ambulances, until the war moved away. Then she became a journalist, chasing stories and promoting circulation of the newspaper for the troops. When she could see that there was no prospect for action, she transferred to Italy, and followed the Allies up through Italy, pausing for the last days of the Battle of Cassino. As the British Army and Red Cross would not allow ambulance drivers near the front line she transferred to the French army and supported the battles in Alsace and then into Germany.

Her account is especially sparkling when it refers to the people she worked with, met on her travels, the lunches she was invited to (including by Churchill as she was his cousin) and several ranking army personnel. But the strongest impression is of the bravery as her division went into battle and the drivers ferried the wounded to hastily set up, often fast moving, medical facilities.

Exeter Station and a publishing revolution

The story goes that in 1934 returning from a weekend with Agatha Christie, at Greenway above the River Dart, Allen Lane had to wait on the Exeter St David’s station platform. Already working for Bodley Head, frustrated by the shortage of cheap and portable books, and no doubt influenced by recent contact with a popular author he conceived the idea for the Penguin paperback. 

The original format was soon expanded to Pelicans (non-fiction and blue) and Puffins (for children). The original orange covers of the Penguins later diversified into green for detective novels, black for classics, and other colours, such as purple for essays. Allen Lane’s intentions were anti-elitist. In All About Penguin Books in The BooksellerMay 1935 he said the project would be a success if

these Penguins are the means of converting book borrowers in to book-buyers. 

He was, he said, aiming at nothing less than

the popularisation of the bookshop and the increased sale of books.

You can find the full story here.

Please suggest more books with train links.

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Elizabeth David’s books in the Kitchen

We have reached the 1950s in the Decades Project featuring non-fiction by women from each decade of the 20thCentury. In the 1950s the effects of the Second World War still dominated women’s lives. In peacetime they were encouraged to return to the domestic sphere, give back their jobs to the men, and to have babies – this was the time of the Baby Boom. But this was also a time of austerity, rationing and recovery.

Into this drab, domestic world came Elizabeth David with A Book of Mediterranean Food  (1950) followed by French Country Cooking (1951) and then many, many more books that helped change eating and shopping habits up to today.

Elizabeth David

Elizabeth David lived a rather racy life in her youth. Born into a wealthy English family in 1913, she grew up as something of a rebel. She studied art in Paris in the 1930s and spent some time as an actress. When war came she left Paris in a boat with a married man, narrowly escaping capture by the Germans. She spent most of the war in Cairo, running an information library, and met her husband there.

After the war she returned to England, and to her husband, and began her distinguished publishing career. Her innovations included a rather loose style for her recipes, indeed someone has said you should read her cookery books as you read short stories. Although criticised for presenting impossible recipes she claimed to have tested every one herself.

She is chiefly remembered today for introducing some colourful, flavoursome but unknown or uncommon foods into the drab and dreary kitchen of her readers. Ignoring austerity and rationing and the scarcity of some of her ingredients she recommended Mediterranean vegetables and fruit, new methods of cooking, and wove stories of markets, her experiences of the cuisines of families with whom she stayed, and brief explanations of cooking processes.

Her ideas benefited from the end of rationing and the growing habit of taking holidays on the continent, experiencing the French markets (see below) and restaurants for example. While she initially influenced those with money, eventually the foods she advocated found their way into supermarkets and high streets.

La Roche-Posay, July 2009

Some examples from her books

Rouen market:

Outside the vegetable stalls are piled high with Breton artichokes, perfectly round with tightly closed leaves; long, clean, shining leeks; and fluffy green-white cauliflowers. At the next stall an old country woman is displaying carefully bunched salad herbs, chives, chervil, sorrel, radishes and lettuces. So far, it could well be the central market of any one of a score of French towns. But when you get to the dairy stalls, then you know you could only be in the astonishingly productive province of Normandy, where you buy the butter of Isigny and of Gournay carved off a great block, where bowls of thick white cream and the cheeses of Camembert, Livarot, Neufchatel, Pont l’Eveque, Rouy, Isigny, and a dozen other districts ooze with all the richness of the Norman pastures. (31, French Provincial Cooking  – 1960)

I know this scene. I was in Rouen market in early June. This passage was written in the late 1950s. I was visiting sixty years later in 2018.

Rice

I wish I knew who was the genius who first grasped the fact that Piedmontese rice was ideally suited to slow cooking and that its particular qualities would be best appreciated in what has become the famous Milanese risotto. (123, Italian Food  – 1954)

PETITS SOUFFLES AUX COURGETTES Miniature Courgette Soufflés

… I first had these little soufflés at a lorry drivers’ restaurant about three miles from the Pont du Gard. NB Bookword recommends these as ideal for gardeners suffering those courgettes gluts.(234-5 French Provincial Cooking)

POTAGE BONNE FEMME

This old-fashioned French soup is the cheapest and one of the nicest of all vegetable soups. 1 lb potatoes, 3 carrots, 2 large leeks, 1.5 oz butter, 2 pints water, seasoning. To finish a little cream, parsley, or chervil when available. (198, French Provincial Cooking)

Although she died in 1992 her recipes and descriptions are still valued. My copy of French Provincial Cooking  (1960) needs a stout elastic band to keep the pages together. My first copy was given away as a duplicate when I was married. The current one is in fact my second copy. In 2013 the Guardian ran a feature in which chefs and food writers chose their favourite Elizabeth David recipes,  and explained how they worked. Her books are still in print.

There are currently nine books by Elizabeth David published by Penguin Books, including all the ones mentioned in this post.

The Decades project on Bookword

In 2018 I am featuring non-fiction by women for each decade in the project having focused on novels in 2017. I select one book each month from successive decades (January 1900-1909; February 1910-1919 etc). Suggestions are always welcome.

Here are links to the previous three books in the 2018 Decades Project:

Another look at A Room of One’s Ownby Virginia Woolf(1928)

Testament of Youthby Vera Brittain(1933)

The Diary of a Young Girlby Anne Frank(1947)

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The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark

We know we are in for an interesting read when we find this near the start of the novel:

As they realised themselves in varying degrees, few people alive at the time were more delightful, more ingenious, more movingly lovely, and, as it might happen, more savage, than the girls of slender means. (9)

The time is 1945. The ‘savage’ girls live in the May of Teck Club which exists for

The Pecuniary Convenience and Social Protection of Ladies of Slender Means below the age of Thirty Years …(9)

This is my second contribution to #ReadingMuriel2018, hosted by Heavenali. Memento Mori had older people as its subjects while The Girls of Slender Means are young. I plan to reading more of Muriel Spark’s work – she wrote 22 novels – in this anniversary year of her birth.

The story of The Girls of Slender Means

The events in the Club in Kensington occur between VE Day and VJ Day in 1945, but also at a later date. A number of young women live in the Club, on the lower floors in dormitories but increasing in social standing as the accommodation rises to the fourth floor. There are many young women, and our attention is drawn in particular to Selina the beautiful one, Jane the fat one doing ‘brain’ work and Joanna who, having failed in love has come to London and teaches elocution. Joanna recites poetry throughout. There are lesser characters, such as the older women including Greggie who manages the garden and claims there is an UXB buried there.

The young women are obsessed with having a good time now and expect their futures, with suitable young men, to come along in due course.

Love and money were the vital themes in all the bedrooms and dormitories. (26)

Men are attracted to the hostel. Nicholas Farringdon is a poet philosopher ne’er-do-well. We learn that after the events of the novel he converted to Catholicism and martyred in Haiti. This is reported by Jane to one of the other survivors of the disaster at the May of Teck Cub.

Jane is employed by a dodgy publisher to write letters to authors so that he can sell their replies. You know he is dodgy because he changes his name every two years and has abandoned two of his three wives. Jane’s activities are referred to, by her, as brain work. Her employer asks her to investigate Farringdon and so he comes to the Club and falls for Selina. None of the young women really have a handle on the world, and they are too naïve to know it. Jane, for example, naïve in 1945, is really on the make as much as her publisher boss. In the later time frame of the novel, after Farringdon’s death, we find she is collecting material for a feature on him.

There is a role for a Schiaparelli dress, passed around the young women for various activities and stolen by Selina under cover of the chaos of the building as it collapses.

And there is a part for a skylight out onto a flat roof. The girls are forbidden to use it, but some of the most slender are able to slip through the opening, others have to smear their bodies with cold cream or margarine. It is the focus of the climax of the novel.

Some reactions

I really enjoyed Muriel Sparks’s spikey style. Her descriptions of people nearly always include a twist, undercutting what on the surface.

Her description of war-battered London is a marvel of compression. Here is the novel’s opening paragraph:

Long ago in 1945 all the nice people in England were poor, allowing for exceptions. The streets of the cities were lined with buildings in bad repair or in no repair at all, bomb-sites piled with stony rubble, houses like giant teeth in which decay had been drilled out, leaving only the cavity. Some bomb-ripped buildings looked like the ruins of ancient castles until, at a closer view, the wall-papers of various quite normal rooms would be visible, room above room, exposed, as on a stage, with one wall missing; sometimes a lavatory chain would dangle over nothing from a fourth- or fifth-floor ceiling; most of all the staircases survived, like a new art-form, leading up and up to an unspecified destination that made unusual demands on the mind’s eye. All the nice people were poor; at least, that was a general axiom, the best of the rich being poor in spirit. (7)

And the novel ends with the words ‘long ago in 1945’ (142). The focus is on the poverty of spirit of the young women emphasised in those not so far off days.

A review in the New York Times in 1963 by Virgilia Peterson points to the qualities of this novel, at the time of its publication.

A review that captures the social nuances of the May of Teck Club can be found on Jacquiwine’s Journal blog (from July 2017).

The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark (1963) Penguin 142pp

More Muriel Spark

The first of my contributions to #ReadingMuriel2018 was Memento Mori by Muriel Spark first published in 1959. I read the Virago version.

In May/June I will read and report on a novel by Muriel Spark from the ‘70s. Any recommendations?

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Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout

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

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

Anything is Possible

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

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

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

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

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

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

But then he saw: Vicky had on lipstick.

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

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

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

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

 

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How it all began by Penelope Lively

Moon Tiger is a brilliant novel that takes a long life and shows the reader how it is seen as it closes. Claudia Hampton was 76 years old and had lived a distinguished and active life. She is dismissed by medical staff and a doctor who ‘glances at his notes and says that yes, she does seem to have been someone’. Moon Tiger was published in 1987.

Nearly a quarter of a century later Penelope Lively gives us another older woman. Charlotte in How it all began is the 31st in the older women in fiction series on Bookword. You can find others through the various links on the blog. Thanks to Susan Kavanagh for recommending this in November last year in a comment left on the Older Women in Fiction page.

The story of How it all began

Charlotte (77) is mugged, and her hip is broken. She goes to stay with her daughter Rose while she mends. This sets in motion several other stories of other people, most of whom live in London. Rose meets Anton, an eastern European immigrant, and falls in love, when he comes to learn to read English with Charlotte. Marion has to step in for Rose taking her esteemed uncle to Manchester to give a lecture. Henry is not up to it and he must seek other ways of feeding his ego. Marion texts her lover to let him know she cannot meet him as arranged and the text is discovered by his wife, who threatens to divorce him. And so on.

The two older characters, Charlotte and Henry, have different views of their lives. Henry, perhaps fuelled by gender, feels entitled to respect and attention in his old age. However he is no longer able to summon up the learning of the past, or to make any impression upon people. He tries hinting at the discovery of a hidden scandal to impress the academic world, and tries his hand at television presentation. Both endeavours fail. He needs to face the fact that the world has moved on without him.

Charlotte, on the other hand, is comfortable with her position, except for her physical difficulties resulting from the mugging. She has had and still has a good full life and feels that her achievements feed into her current occupations. She eventually returns home, a little less steady than previously, but more comfortable in the world than Henry.

Charlotte is home. Grateful to Rose and Gerry; deeply grateful to be once more her own woman. She is mobile, if precarious, and there is Elena from the Czech Republic who comes in daily to minister, to shop, to do the household chores.

Home, alone, she picks up the threads. Pain is contained, corralled, though breaking out from time to time. Friends and neighbours visit – she is not really alone – the world is all around. She lives in an insistent present. But her thoughts are often of the past. That evanescent, pervasive, slippery internal landscape known to no one else, that vast accretion of data on which you depend – without it you would not be yourself. Impossible to share, and no one else could view it anyway. The past is our ultimate privacy; we pile it up, year by year, decade by decade. It stows itself away, with its perverse random recall system. We remember in shreds, the tattered faulty contents of the mind. Life has added up to this: seventy-seven moth-eaten years. (243)

It is common to believe that older people live their lives anticipating death, or lost in memories of the past. But I think Penelope Lively has it about right. Both Charlotte and Claudia are still active people in old age.

Other themes in How it all Began

The novel is not primarily a contrast between the two old people. Rather it is a meditation on causality, chaos theory and how people build lives and take or do not take account of others. Henry and Jeremy (something of an exploiter of women) are both excessively selfish and self absorbed. Anton is somewhat romantic and honourable. The importance of story for understanding lives is well illustrated in this novel.

Penelope Lively’s prose is knowing, somewhat scathing about some language use, but very perceptive about London life.

You can find the post on Moon Tiger here. It was the third in the older women in fiction series. Moon Tiger won the 1987 Booker Prize.

How it all began by Penelope Lively, published by Penguin Books in 2011. 248pp

Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun by Sarah Ladipo Manyika (2016 Cassava Press) will be my choice for April in the older women in fiction series. It features a Nigerian woman of 75 in San Francisco.

Recent posts in the older women in fiction series:

Velma Wallis Two Old Women

Tillie Olsen Tell me a Riddle

Kent Haruf Our Souls at Night

Elizabeth Von Arnim The Enchanted April

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