Featuring a lot more snow, a great deal of lockdown walks, and the first blooms of the year.
Music: ‘Owl Waltz’ by Seabear
I read about Barbara Newhall Follett’s The House Without Windows in a Waterstones newsletter, and thought it sounded intriguing. I did a little more research, and discovered that the book was written when the author was just nine years old, and published when she was twelve, in 1927. The twenty five-year-old Newhall Follett later disappeared in 1939, quite mysteriously, and it is not known what happened to her. I was fascinated by her story, and decided to purchase a copy of The House Without Windows – my first book purchase of 2020, in the month of May.
The House Without Windows follows a young and ‘rather lonely’ female protagonist, who goes by the odd but sweet name of Eepersip Eigleen. She has spent years creating the perfect garden with the help of her parents, but soon tires of it; she is, comments Newhall Follett, ‘not a child who could be contented easily’. Eepersip decides that she has had enough of her family life, and that she is old enough to run away. She plans to live outside, in the company of various creatures, for the rest of her life. In Jackie Morris’ preface, Eepersip is described as a ‘heroine, a runaway seeker’.
As soon as Eepersip steals away from home in the early morning and begins to walk, her mood changes: ‘The farther she went the more her heart began to loop within her for joy of the life she was finding for herself. Her loneliness decreased, and she was as free and happy as the birds or butterflies.’ Everything which she comes across on her subsequent walk feels quite idyllic, down to her feeding a doe a sugarcube, which she just happens to have lying in the wicker basket which she has brought along with her.
As one might expect with such a young author, there is little realism here. On the second day, Eepersip – ‘determined to get her feet toughened so as to go barefoot all the time’ – decides to discard her shoes and socks. She wears none for the duration of her time outside, not even in the snow, and faces no medical problems as a result. She also eats a great deal of roots and berries, all of which are, of course, delicious morsels, and not filled to the brim with poison.
Eepersip’s parents only begin to worry about her after three days have passed, and then randomly decide to give up their house to another couple who are not much liked by others in their village. They then go to hunt for Eepersip; they hatch a plan to hide behind some trees in the forest, and plan to ‘”catch her when she goes past.”‘ What ensues is a cat and mouse-esque game, where Eepersip continually outwits the adults: ‘For hours every day she practiced running, leaping, dancing, and prowling, until she was as fleet as a deer and as soft on her feet as a lynx.’ She can also, apparently, vault a large male deer…
Newhall Follett’s descriptions are both perceptive and beautiful, and it is sometimes difficult to believe that they were written by someone so young. A corner of Eepersip’s garden, for instance, is ‘carpeted with tender anemones, all snow-white’, and ‘the paths through the garden had gracefully bending ferns on each side.’ Eepersip’s asides are quite lovely, too: ‘”Dawn comes to earth sometimes,” she thought, “bringing her flower-clouds and clasping them with pearl seeds.”‘ The prose is often filled with whimsy in this way.
The New York Times comments that the novel is ‘a mirror on the child mind’, and I have to agree. It is fanciful and filled with imagination, and runs along at pace. I found it quite lovely that the edition which I read is presented exactly as it was written by the ‘American child prodigy novelist’. The novel is entirely absorbing, and whilst the modern reader will surely be surprised by some of the events which occur, it is quite a delightful read. Newhall Follett’s prose is old-fashioned, and quite charming, and she demonstrates well how glorious the outside world is. She has a lot of insight, too, about the way in which many people take nature for granted.
The House Without Windows is highly fanciful, and I have not read anything quite like it before. Eepersip proves herself to be a resourceful child, with a wonderful imagination: ‘She could imagine miniature cities in the air, and saw little butterflies and birds constantly going and coming from them. There were cities on the ground, too, where orchestras of grasshoppers and crickets played in the grass.’ Whilst the prose and descriptions here are elevated far above what I would expect a nine-year-old’s writing to be, the plot is fantastical and quite unrealistic throughout; this, I admit, I was expecting. Time passes so quickly in The House Without Windows, and we barrel from one season to the next in a single sentence. In some ways, it must be said that this book is quite remarkable, and it is certainly a worthwhile piece of juvenilia to pick up.
I love walking through graveyards, and have been lucky enough to do so all over the world. Although creepy to some, for me, it is a very peaceful environment. Whilst living in central Glasgow, I would regularly walk up to the Necropolis, where enormous and grand mausoleums wound their way up the hill, and more modern graves filled the slopes. In fact, Akylina and I took a lovely long walk there when she visited the city for a conference.
Graveyards all over the United Kingdom are the focus of poet and non-fiction author Jean Sprackland’s These Silent Mansions: A Life in Graveyards. Her memoir of sorts has been split into eight different sections; these include loose musings on topics like ‘The Graveyard in Spring’, ‘The Graveyard at Dawn’, and ‘The Drowned Graveyard’.
In her prologue, Sprackland comments: ‘I can remember my life by the graveyards I have known… Wherever I have lived, I have found them – some like cities, others like gardens, or forests of stone – and they have become the counterparts of those lived places: the otherworlds which have helped make sense of this world.’ She goes on to write about her decision to ‘revisit all my old hometowns, to make a journey into the physical fabric of my own past.’
In beautiful prose, Sprackland takes us around the country. The first stop on each trip is the graveyard, the place where she believes ‘the stories are kept’. Her descriptions are gorgeously poetic; of a grave in Stoke Newington, for instance, she writes: ‘A breeze ripples the roof of the tomb with shadow. The lower branches of a holly tree languish exhaustedly over its surface, like the thin arms of a girl over her books.’
For Sprackland, too, graveyards are a place filled with peace: ‘Sorrow is present, but age and weather have tempered it.’ She writes at length about her infatuations with individuals buried in the various graveyards which she visits – Elizabeth Pickett, for instance, who died in 1781 ‘in consequence of her Cloaths taking Fire the preceding Evening’, and a smuggler and ‘sometime leader of a notorious gang’ in Devon, quite wonderfully named Hanibal Richards. Alongside these individual stories, she seamlessly integrates a wider sense of place, and discusses the avoidance of, and discomfort felt toward, the notion of death in many modern day societies. She also writes about the history of each graveyard which she visits.
Sprackland writes with such insight. She informs her reader: ‘I am accustomed to thinking of the graveyard as a kind of archive, a source of information which is not available elsewhere.’ She is also honest about the little she knows regarding her own family: ‘What does it mean, anyway, to belong somewhere?… No place owns me, and I like staying free, staying lost. But I don’t know where the bones of my ancestors lie, and I have never seen a monument bearing my family name.’
These Silent Mansions is both absorbing and moving, and infused with such beauty. Sprackland’s journey, around both her past and the pasts of so many who lie beneath the ground, is a quiet and absorbing one. The author writes so tenderly about the natural decay of both gravestones, and the bodies which lie beneath them: ‘Words blur and lose their definition, or the stone recedes and the leading stands proud on its pegs like long teeth before loosening and falling out.’ These Silent Mansions is utterly transporting, and so thoughtful.
I had not heard of Jane Miller’s In My Own Time: Thoughts and Afterthoughts, but I could not resist picking up a brand new Virago hardcover online for just a couple of pounds when placing a remaindered books order in the late autumn of 2020. Imagine my surprise when I found that this lovely collection of articles, written by a British author for an American magazine, had just five ratings and two reviews on Goodreads! I felt that it would be a title of interest to a lot of my friends and fellow readers, and had no choice but to add my own review to the very small pool in existence.
In My Own Time follows Miller’s memoir Crazy Age, which Diana Athill commented came from ‘a mind so subtle and well furnished.’ Interestingly, Miller, who has worked for many years as a teacher and Professor in London, writes that she only became a journalist when she was almost eighty years old. The columns collected here were all first published in the Chicago-based proudly Socialist magazine entitled In These Times. They have been published together here for the first time, specifically for British readers. However, I feel that a lot of the topics which Miller writes about and comments upon are relatively universal, particularly within the Western world. There is, of course, a lot of emphasis upon Britain and its politics, but the subjects here are wide-ranging. In My Own Time surely has a great appeal for a wide range of readers.
The topics of Miller’s articles, of which she has full selective control, vary greatly. She writes, amongst other things, about ‘reading Tolstoy in Russian, on Syrian refugees, on the demise of the NHS and on struggles with technology.’ She discusses class, economic inequality, the monarchy, travelling, the media, the changing use of language, education, Charles Dickens, protests… Each subject is a surprise, and most of them wonderfully feel quite unrelated in content to those which they are sandwiched between. Interviews with historian Eric Hobsbawm and Labour politician Tony Benn, both of whom Miller was greatly fond of, have been included as appendages.
Miller carries rather a charming humility throughout. Of the span of twentieth century history, she comments: ‘We grandparents were there, witnesses to it all; yet I am shaky and uncertain when it comes to change itself and not much good at remembering moments when the world spun on its axis… But more often time is marked for me by the births of babies, the deaths of my elders or the day in 1985 when I stopped smoking.’
In her preface, Miller writes about the difficulties which she sometimes faces in selecting topics for her monthly articles. She says: ‘There is often far too much in the news or in my life, not all of it suitable, though on one or two occasions I could think of nothing at all.’ In her first column for the magazine, which is included here, she reflects: ‘it seems to me now that I was announcing – perhaps a little apologetically – who I was: confessing that I was middle-class, had attended a school where I didn’t learn much, was a bit of a technophobe or technofool, and that I was awash in memories of a sort which might seem dull or incomprehensible to an American readership.’
The pieces here range from May 2011 to the start of 2016, and are arranged chronologically, which I appreciated. It seems a logical way to arrange such a book, and I enjoyed being able to follow threads of idea from one article to another. Alongside recent occurrences, there are some marvellous anecdotes sprinkled through its pages; for instance, when, in 1875, Karl Marx helped Miller’s great aunt Clara with her German homework. There are some very personal troubles here, too; she writes quite candidly about her husband’s death from cancer, and the loss which is left after his passing: ‘When someone you know and love dies you are confronted by the unique, particular shape of the hole they leave, by the utter specificity of their absence. That strange, contradictory, complicated person will never exist again.’
Miller writes with truth, and honesty. On the monarchy, for example, she writes: ‘I wish I knew quite why I should want to watch these strange people at their play and in their hats and uniforms doing what they do. I don’t know them. We’ve got almost nothing in common. They spend their days doing things I’ve never done, just as I spend mine doing things they’ve probably never done.’ Miller is an author who is very to the point, which I admired.
Miller is wonderfully scathing about the Conservative government, their misleading comments, and their utter lack of transparency. She writes the following in a column entitled ‘Bad Language’: ‘We’ve had prime ministers recently “passionately believing” things, and entirely sure that something is “the right thing to do” and “the right ting for our country”. These are weasel words, which bypass the expectation that we might be told exactly why we have gone to war, why the National Health Service will be even better once it has been privatised and reduced, why bankers must be indulged and everyone else must take it on the chin, and so on.’
In My Own Time is an important reflection on the modern world, and an excellent work of social commentary, written by an author with a great deal of wisdom and wit. Miller is an erudite person, in touch with both the modern world and the twentieth-century history which has helped to shape much of it. She also has a marvellously warm sense of humour, and I found myself chuckling at points. The pieces within In My Own Time are relatively brief, covering an average of four pages each, but without exception, they have been so well executed. I am so surprised that this wonderful book has not had a larger readership, and can only hope that more readers come to it in the near future. I also hope that another book of this kind is forthcoming.
I have enjoyed a few of Toni Morrison’s books in the past, but for some reason have not got around to picking up any of her novels in recent years. This all changed when I came across an available copy of her debut, The Bluest Eye, on my library’s app, and settled down with it immediately. The novel, which is deemed a modern classic, was first published in 1970.
The Bluest Eye ‘chronicles the tragic, torn lives of a poor black family in 1940s Ohio’, an era which I am always drawn to. The Breedlove family consists of parents Pauline and Cholly, son Sam, and daughter Pecola. Pecola, rather heartbreakingly, ‘becomes the focus of the mingled love and hatred engendered by her family’s frailty and the world’s cruelty as the novel moves toward a savage but poignant resolution.’
Although evidently a piece of historical fiction, there are many parallels which can be drawn with today’s society, the majority of which are sadly negative. The edition which I read contained an enlightening foreword written by Morrison, in which she comments: ‘There can’t be anyone, I am sure, who doesn’t know what it feels like to be disliked, even rejected, momentarily or for sustained periods of time.’ She goes on to say that when she began to write The Bluest Eye, she was most interested in the ‘tragic and disabling consequences of accepting rejection as legitimate, as self-evident.’ Morrison also wished to acknowledge standards of beauty within society, which she says ‘was not simply something to behold; it was something one could do.’ She focused on ‘how something as grotesque as the demonization of an entire race could take root inside the most delicate member of society: a child; the most vulnerable member: a female.’
The novel’s beginning is both striking and shocking: ‘Quiet as it’s kept, there were no marigolds in the fall of 1941. We thought, at the time, that it was because Pecola was having her father’s baby that the marigolds did not grow.’ Pecola is a young girl when the story begins, and she often tries to make herself disappear. She is cruel about her own appearance, and is taught constantly by those around her that white beauty counts for more than black, and that only the utmost beauty can be attained by those who have blue eyes. This, naively, is what Pecola begins to wish for: ‘Each night without fail, she prayed for blue eyes… To have something as wonderful as that happen would take a long, long time.’
Pecola is at a great disadvantage; not only is she a vulnerable black girl, who has to contend with racism and violence in her day to day life, she also lives in abject poverty. This sadly makes her an easy target for a lot of different people. Using Pecola as a focus, Morrison is able to reveal the myriad prejudices of everyone around her. Aside from Pecola, very few of the other characters in The Bluest Eye deserve the reader’s sympathy.
We learn of Pecola’s tumultuous and unsettled upbringing, with parents who rarely got on: ‘Cholly and Mrs. Breedlove fought each other with a darkly brutal formalism that was paralleled only by their lovemaking. Tacitly they had agreed not to kill each other… They did not talk, groan, or curse during these beatings. There was only the muted sound of falling things, and flesh on unsurprised flesh.’ This physical instability also carried into the family’s physical home. For a time, the Breedloves had lived in an abandoned shopfront, which ‘foists itself on the eye of the passerby in a manner that is both irritating and melancholy.’
Morrison uses multiple perspectives in The Bluest Eye, which built to create a novel with a great deal of depth. The first part of the story is narrated by Claudia. Pecola was sent to stay with her family by ‘the county’ when the Breedloves became homeless, and her father, Cholly, was taken to prison.
Morrison captures scenes and characters deftly, and has written a highly memorable coming of age story in The Bluest Eye. The novel is suffused with sadness and violence, and reveals so much about humankind. Morrison discusses the futility which can exist within relationships, the difficulties which Pecola faces, and the spiral of poverty which never allows her to escape.
From reading the comments of others, I was fully prepared that reading The Bluest Eye might put me through the emotional wringer. It certainly did. Although written in prose which was quite often beautiful, some scenes were very difficult to read due to their content. Pecola is terribly hurt on several occasions, and the way in which this is relayed to the reader is sometimes a little emotionless; Morrison focuses upon the actions and the raw feelings which they create. The Bluest Eye is so vivid, and it feels so real. The story, and its scenes, are almost entirely troubling, but the novel itself soars.
Like many readers, I very much enjoy Bill Bryson’s non-fiction work. I picked up his newest publication, The Body: A Guide for Occupants having not read any of his writing for such a long time, and was so pleased that I did. I was reminded once more of how warm his prose is, and how fascinating his subjects.
Many of Bryson’s books are essentially travel writing, in which he writes about countries and regions which he has lived or travelled within – the United States, United Kingdom, and Africa are just three examples. The Body is something a little different to these personal geographies, though. It is far more science-based than much of his work, and does not include many personal stories, something which his books tend to be built upon. It looks inward, trying to decipher what really makes a human being.
The Body has been split into many chapters, each of which focuses upon a distinctive part of the human body. These range from ‘The Immune System’ and ‘The Brain’ to ‘Into the Nether Regions’. These chapters are incredibly thorough; there is not an element of the body which has not been explored in some way. He moves seamlessly from one topic to another. With his chapter on the skin, for instance, he moves from bacteria found on the skin to the phenomenon of itching, and then the reasons as to why we lose hair as we age, all in less than two pages.
Bryson writes about so many things here, including the beginning of forensic science; microbes and proteins, and their functions and uses within the body; viruses; advances in medicine; evolutionary changes within human anatomy; how different parts of us age, and the consequences felt; the myriad benefits of exercise; and the wonder found within the structure of our bones. He writes about so many things that are known about the human body, and also the surprising number of elements which remain a mystery. Bryson introduces several medical conundrums, interesting cases which cannot be solved.
Bryson has chosen to begin The Body with rather a fascinating chapter, entitled ‘How to Build a Human’, which calculates how expensive it would be to procure all of the elements which make up the human body – clue: a lot. This memorable prologue, as it were, sets the tone for the book, and feels perfectly placed.
As ever, Bryson’s writing in The Body is both absorbing and accessible. He grapples with complex ideas throughout the book, but presents everything in a way which can be read and understood by newcomers to this subject. He introduces myriad facts in marvellous ways, which really make one think; for instance, ‘In the second or so since you started this sentence, your body has made a million red blood cells.’ One can see from the outset that Bryson clearly has quite a passion for this subject, and this shines throughout, as does his humour. Throughout, Bryson consults experts in different fields, and also mentions a lot of books which focus upon biology along the way.
The Body is a book which one can learn, unsurprisingly, a great deal from. I have always been fascinated by biology and the human body, and have read a few books on the subject before, but I found myself learning new facts throughout. Although there is such a great deal packed into the pages of The Body, and a great deal of impeccable research has clearly been done, it never feels saturated with information, and can easily be read from cover to cover. The Body is, all in all, a fact-lover’s dream, which demonstrates how wonderful the human body is, in all of its strangeness.
I will end this review with a passage which I, personally, found fascinating: ‘The most remarkable part of all is your DNA. You have a metre of it packed into every cell, and so many cells that if you formed all the DNA in your body into a single fine strand it would stretch ten billion miles, to beyond Pluto. Think of it: there is enough of you to leave the solar system. You are in the most literal sense cosmic.’
My boyfriend and I had planned to travel to South Korea last year; evidently it did not happen. Like almost everyone else, the majority of my travelling since March 2020 has been through the medium of books. I am so keen to go to South Korea – I am obsessed by its food, its films, its fashion – but until I can safely step on a plane and explore properly, I thought I would gather together some books in case anyone wishes to join me in armchair travelling. I have read the first of these, and count it as one of my favourite novels, but the others are high on my wishlist.
1. Please Look After Mother by Kyung-Sook Shin ***** (review here)
‘When sixty-nine-year-old So-nyo is separated from her husband among the crowds of the Seoul subway station, her family begins a desperate search to find her. Yet as long-held secrets and private sorrows begin to reveal themselves, they are forced to wonder: how well did they actually know the woman they called Mom? Told through the piercing voices and urgent perspectives of a daughter, son, husband, and mother, Please Look After Mom is at once an authentic picture of contemporary life in Korea and a universal story of family love.‘
2. When My Name Was Keoko by Linda Sue Park
‘Sun-hee and her older brother Tae-yul are proud of their Korean heritage. Yet they live their lives under Japanese occupation. All students must read and write in Japanese and no one can fly the Korean flag. Hardest of all is when the Japanese Emperor forces all Koreans to take Japanese names. Sun-hee and Tae-yul become Keoko and Nobuo. Korea is torn apart by their Japanese invaders during World War II. Everyone must help with war preparations, but it doesn’t mean they are willing to defend Japan. Tae-yul is about to risk his life to help his family, while Sun-hee stays home guarding life-and-death secrets.‘
3. The Calligrapher’s Daughter by Eugenia Kim
‘In early-twentieth-century Korea, Najin Han, the privileged daughter of a calligrapher, longs to choose her own destiny. Smart and headstrong, she is encouraged by her mother—but her stern father is determined to maintain tradition, especially as the Japanese steadily gain control of his beloved country. When he seeks to marry Najin into an aristocratic family, her mother defies generations of obedient wives and instead sends her to serve in the king’s court as a companion to a young princess. But the king is soon assassinated, and the centuries-old dynastic culture comes to its end. In the shadow of the dying monarchy, Najin begins a journey through increasing oppression that will forever change her world. As she desperately seeks to continue her education, will the unexpected love she finds along the way be enough to sustain her through the violence and subjugation her country continues to face? Spanning thirty years, The Calligrapher’s Daughter is a richly drawn novel in the tradition of Lisa See and Amy Tan about a country torn between ancient customs and modern possibilities, a family ultimately united by love, and a woman who never gives up her search for freedom.‘
4. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
‘Pachinko follows one Korean family through the generations, beginning in early 1900s Korea with Sunja, the prized daughter of a poor yet proud family, whose unplanned pregnancy threatens to shame them all. Deserted by her lover, Sunja is saved when a young tubercular minister offers to marry and bring her to Japan. So begins a sweeping saga of an exceptional family in exile from its homeland and caught in the indifferent arc of history. Through desperate struggles and hard-won triumphs, its members are bound together by deep roots as they face enduring questions of faith, family, and identity.‘
5. I Have the Right to Destroy Myself by Young-Ha Kim
‘A spectral, nameless narrator haunts the lost and wounded of big-city Seoul, suggesting solace in suicide. Wandering through the bright lights of their high-urban existence, C and K are brothers who fall in love with the same woman – Se-yeon. As their lives intersect, they tear at each other in a struggle to find connection in their fast-paced, atomized world. Dreamlike and cinematic, I Have the Right to Destroy Myself brilliantly affirms Young-ha Kim as Korea’s leading young literary master.‘
6. My Son’s Girlfriend by Mi-Kyung Jung
‘At once an ironic portrayal of contemporary Korea and an intimate exploration of heartache, alienation, and nostalgia, this collection of seven short stories has earned the author widespread critical acclaim.‘
7. The Guest by Hwang Sok-Yong
‘Based on actual events, The Guest is a profound portrait of a divided people haunted by a painful past, and a generation’s search for reconciliation. During the Korean War, Hwanghae Province in North Korea was the setting of a gruesome fifty-two day massacre. In an act of collective amnesia the atrocities were attributed to American military, but in truth they resulted from malicious battling between Christian and Communist Koreans. Forty years later, Ryu Yosop, a minister living in America returns to his home village, where his older brother once played a notorious role in the bloodshed. Besieged by vivid memories and visited by the troubled spirits of the deceased, Yosop must face the survivors of the tragedy and lay his brother’s soul to rest. Faulkner-like in its intense interweaving narratives, The Guest is a daring and ambitious novel from a major figure in world literature.‘
8. No One Writes Back by Eun-Jin Jang
‘Communication—or the lack thereof—is the subject of this sly update of the picaresque novel. No One Writes Back is the story of a young man who leaves home with only his blind dog, an MP3 player, and a book, traveling aimlessly for three years, from motel to motel, meeting people on the road. Rather than learn the names of his fellow travelers—or even invent nicknames for them—he assigns them numbers. There’s 239, who once dreamed of being a poet, but who now only reads her poems to a friend in a coma; there’s 109, who rides trains endlessly because of a broken heart; and 32, who’s already decided to commit suicide. The narrator writes letters to these men and women in the hope that he can console them in their various miseries, as well as keep a record of his own experiences: “A letter is like a journal entry for me, except that it gets sent to other people.” No one writes back, of course, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t some hope that one of them will, someday…‘
Have you read any of these? Which have piqued your interest? I am also keen to make this ‘Armchair Travelling’ a mini series on the blog, so please let me know if you’d like recommendations from a particular country.