3

‘Flight Behaviour’ by Barbara Kingsolver ****

I have really enjoyed the books of Kingsolver’s which I’ve read in the past – The Lacuna and The Poisonwood Bible are excellent – but although she is an author on my radar, I somehow rarely get around to picking up any of her other titles. I changed this when I purchased a remainder copy of her 2012 novel, Flight Behaviour, which blends a fictional story with real concerns about climate change, and ecology.

Dellarobia Turnbow is a young woman living on a ‘failing farm’ in the Appalachian region of Tennessee. She lives in a small house with her husband, Cub, and two young children, six-year-old Preston and two-year-old Cordelia, on the Turnbow family’s land. Bored of her life, and the constant struggle to provide for her family, Dellarobia ‘impulsively seeks out an affair’ with a man living in the local town. The novel’s opening immediately caught my attention. Kingsolver writes: ‘A certain feeling comes from throwing your good life away, and it is one part rapture. Or so it seemed for now, to a woman with flame-coloured hair who marched uphill to meet her demise.’

On the day she finally walks out, and heads up the closest mountain peak to meet him, she finds something far more remarkable: ‘a beautiful and terrible marvel of nature’. On the trees all around, which her husband’s family have been considering logging for some time, are enormous clusters of monarch butterflies.

Dellarobia’s world is a small one: she has ‘not slept outside’ her home in more than a decade of marriage, the local town is one which she rarely visits, and she has not had a meal out in over two years. That is, until she discovers the butterflies. At first, she cannot understand what she is seeing. When she mentions the phenomenon, and takes her husband and his mother a couple of days afterwards, we are told: ‘They rounded the bend to the overlook and came into the full sight of it. Then golden darts filled the whole of the air, swirling like leaves in a massive storm. Wings… Butterflies… The density of the butterflies in the air now gave her a sense of being underwater, plunged into a deep pond among bright fishes. They filled the sky. Every tree on the far mountainside was covered with trembling flame, and that, of course, was butterflies… The fire was alive, and incomprehensibly immense, an unbounded, uncountable congregation of flame-coloured insects.’

The town soon becomes obsessed with the butterflies, and many come to believe that ‘saint’ Dellarobia had a religious vision of the ‘miracle’. The monarchs present an opportunity for tourism, something which had been previously unknown in the area. After a television crew comes to film Dellarobia and the butterflies, a scientist – the rather wonderfully named Ovid Byron, lepidopterist and lecturer – arrives, intent on studying why the monarchs have moved, en masse, to Tennessee instead of their usual wintering grounds in Mexico, and the implications this may have for the species. He returns with a team of researchers from his University, to look into the ‘alarming question’ of this changing migration. In a way, these scientists open Dellarobia’s eyes to more, and better, possibilities: ‘Her life was unfolding into something larger by the day, like one of those rectangular gas-station maps that open out to the size of a windshield.’

The setting is one of the real strengths of this novel. Kingsolver herself lives on a farm in southern Appalachia, and understands the region’s geography, and the concerns of its inhabitants, many of which seem insular and uncaring to a reader on the outside. She is highly aware of small-town life; in the first paragraph, Kingsolver reflects that if Dellarobia did choose to run away from her family, her ‘decision would infect her children too, that was the worst of it, in a town where everyone knew them.’ One is immediately aware of how constrained Dellarobia feels, and how stifling the community around her: ‘They would say the same thing she’d heard her mother-in-law tell Cub: that Dellarobia was a piece of work. As if she were lying on pieces on a table, pins stuck here and there, half assembled from a Simplicity pattern that was flawed at the manufacturer’s. Which piece had been left out?’

Flight Behaviour is an immersive novel from the start. Throughout, Kingsolver is highly insightful about her protagonist, and what she chooses to hide from others: ‘She felt out of control in some new way, unfixable, unless she could fold her life back into its former shape; pre-Turnbow family Sideshow, premarriage, back to being just one kid trying to blaze her own trail. It was exhausting, to keep being sorry for everything.’ The portrait of Dellarobia is intricate and thoughtful, and her character arc is a believable one, particularly with regard to her growing education. Kingsolver knows Dellarobia intimately; her innermost thoughts and feelings come to the fore throughout. When she begins to understand that climate change is happening, and may well be irreversible, she begins to worry, constantly, about the future, especially with regard to her children: ‘[She] felt an entirely new form of panic as she watched her son love nature so expectantly, wondering if he might be racing toward a future like some complicated sand castle that was crumbling under the tide. She didn’t know how scientists bore such knowledge. People had to manage terrible truths.’

Kingsolver trained as a biologist, and worked as a scientist; as one would therefore expect, the scientific detail contained within Flight Behaviour is impeccable, and impressively thorough. I have not read a novel as involved with environmental issues in such a long time, and this effort has made me want to seek more out in the near future. I especially liked the way in which its focus is placed on one single ecological event, with tendrils of consequences which stretch out from it as the novel goes on.

I am also pleased that I have so much of Kingsolver’s oeuvre left to read. Whilst she focuses on stories driven by her characters, and the geography in which they live, the books which I have read to date all feel very different. I will admit that Flight Behaviour, at around 600 pages, did take a relatively long time to read, but it forces one to contemplate so many enormous concepts that this felt necessary. It feels very up to date, despite being almost ten years old; this is perhaps due to the real urgency in the prose. Given the themes, this is a really serious, and sometimes scary, novel to read, but it is one which I would highly recommend.

5

‘Best Children’s Books Most People Have Never Heard Of’

Even if you’ve only been around here for a few months, I’m sure you will be aware that I am a huge fan of the humble book list. I scour them relatively regularly, although this is by no means a good idea, as I end up adding lots of titles which I’ll probably never get to onto my already very long to-read list.

Regardless, Goodreads is one of the resources which I use when seeking these lists out. A list entitled ‘Best Children’s Books Most People Have Never Heard Of’ piqued my interest. I was a huge reader as a child, going to my local library every single Saturday morning to switch over the big stack of books which I had borrowed the week before. I still enjoy reading the odd children’s book now, as an adult.

Although this book list is, of course, highly subjective, and even a little suspicious – I would think that most readers have heard of Pippi Longstocking and the Moomins – I have chosen ten books which really take my fancy, and which I never got to as a child. If you wish to peruse the whole list, you can find it here.

1. The Saturdays by Elizabeth Enright

‘Meet the Melendys! The four Melendy children live with their father and Cuffy, their beloved housekeeper, in a worn but comfortable brownstone in New York City. There’s thirteen-year-old Mona, who has decided to become an actress; twelve-year-old mischievous Rush; ten-and-a-half-year-old Randy, who loves to dance and paint; and thoughtful Oliver, who is just six. Tired of wasting Saturdays doing nothing but wishing for larger allowances, the four Melendys jump at Randy’s idea to start the Independent Saturday Afternoon Adventure Club (I.S.A.A.C.). If they pool their resources and take turns spending the whole amount, they can each have at least one memorable Saturday afternoon of their own. Before long, I.S.A.A.C. is in operation and every Saturday is definitely one to remember.

Written more than half a century ago, The Saturdays unfolds with all the ripe details of a specific place and period but remains, just the same, a winning, timeless tale. The Saturdays is the first installment of Enright’s Melendy Quartet, an engaging and warm series about the close-knit Melendy family and their surprising adventures.’

2. The Enchanted Castle by E. Nesbit

‘When Jerry, Jimmy and Cathy discover a tunnel that leads to a castle, they pretend that it is enchanted. But when they discover a Sleeping Princess at the centre of a maze, astonishing things begin to happen. Amongst a horde of jewels they discover a ring that grants wishes. But wishes granted are not always wishes wanted, so the children find themselves grappling with invisibility, dinosaurs, a ghost and the fearsome Ugli-Wuglies before it is all resolved.’

3. Linnets and Valerians by Elizabeth Goudge

‘The four Linnet children: Nan, Robert, Timothy and Betsy are sent to live with their strict grandmother while their father travels to Egypt. Locked away in separate rooms as punishment by their ruthless grandmother, the Linnets feel at once that their new life is unbearable—and decide to make their escape—out of the house, out of the garden and into the village. Commandeering a pony and trap, the children and their dog are led away as the pony makes his way nonchalantly home. The pony’s destination happens to be a house that belongs to their gruff but loveable uncle Ambrose. The kindly uncle Ambrose agrees to take them under his wing, he educates them and encourages them to explore Dartmoor, letting the children have free rein in his sprawling manor house and surrounding countryside.

Befriending the collection of house guests, including an owl, a giant cat, and a gardener, Ezra, who converses with bees, and getting to know the miscellaneous inhabitants of the village, the four siblings discover a life in which magic and reality are curiously intermingled and evil and tragedy lurk never far away. Then stumble upon the eccentric Lady Alicia Valerian, who seems to have lost her family. And then the real fun begins! The Linnets start their search for the missing Valerians. But the village is under a spell of the witch Emma Cobley. Can the children lift the spell and restore happiness to the villagers? Or will they be thwarted by evil Emma Cobley and her magic cat?

This charming story beautifully depicts early twentieth century English country life while conjuring an air of magical adventure. It is full of vivid characters, battles between good and evil and wonderful spell-binding moments.’

4. The Velvet Room by Zilpha Keatley Snyder

‘Robin was always wandering off (her mother’s words) to get away from the confusion she felt inside her. It was not until Robin’s father found a permanent job at the McCurdy ranch, after three years as a migrant worker, that Robin had a place to wander to. As time went by the Velvet Room became more and more of a haven for her — a place to read and dream, a place to bury one’s fears and doubts, a place to count on. The Velvet Room, first published in 1965, was a Junior Library Guild selection, and part of Scholastic Books’ Arrow Book Club.’

5. The Wonderful Adventures of Nils by Selma Lagerlöf

‘Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1909  — the first woman to be so honored — Swedish novelist Selma Lagerlöf (1858–1940) was a gifted storyteller whose writings were often tinged with the supernatural and rooted in the sagas and legends of her homeland.
She secured her reputation as a children’s-book author with  The Wonderful Adventures of Nils, long considered a masterpiece of children’s literature.

Written at the request of Swedish school authorities and first published in 1906, it is the enchanting and remarkably original tale of Nils Holgersson, a mischievous boy of 14 who is changed by an elf into a tiny being able to understand the speech of birds and animals. Brilliantly weaving fact and fiction into a breathtaking and beautiful fable, the story recounts Nils’s adventures as he is transported over the countryside on the back of a goose. From this vantage point, Nils witnesses a host of events that provide young readers with an abundance of information about nature, geography, folklore, animal life, and more.’

6. The Singing Tree by Kate Seredy

‘Life on the Hungarian plains is changing quickly for Jancsi and his cousin Kate. Father has given Jancsi permission to be in charge of his own herd, and Kate has begun to think about going to dances. Jancsi hardly even recognizes Kate when she appears at Peter and Mari’s wedding wearing nearly as many petticoats as the older girls wear. And Jancsi himself, astride his prized horse, doesn’t seem to Kate to be quite so boyish anymore. Then, when Hungary must send troops to fight in the Great War and Jancsi’s father is called to battle, the two cousins must grow up all the sooner in order to take care of the farm and all the relatives, Russian soldiers, and German war orphans who take refuge there.’

7. A Candle in Her Room by Ruth M. Arthur

‘“I suppose if we had not come to live in Pembrokeshire, Judith, Briony, and I, this story would never have been written, for in another set of circumstances our lives might have run very differently. There would have been no Dido.”

So begins A Candle in Her Room, the story of three generations of haunted people, and of the doll Dido, whose compelling smile and enticing hint of evil changed even the lives of those who were repelled by her. The book begins at about the turn of the century and comes almost up to the present. In it some people mature, grow old, and some die; others are born and begin to live their lives in the shadow of those who have gone before. And through it all the events of the outside world and the strange hidden fascination of Dido impinge almost equally on plans and dreams and personalities. This is a book about many things—evil, the dimensions of reality, the flow of generations and most of all the power of love.’

8. The Tale of Tsar Saltan by Alexander Pushkin

‘Betrayed by her sisters, a tsarina and her infant son are marooned on a barren island until a magical swan helps them regain their rightful heritage.’

9. White Snow, Bright Snow by Alvin Tresselt

‘When the first flakes fell from the grey sky, the postman and the farmer and the policeman and his wife scurried about doing all the practical things grownups do when a snowstorm comes. But the children laughed and danced, and caught the lacy snowflakes on their tongues. All the wonder and delight a child feels in a snowfall is caught in the pages of this book — the frost ferns on the window sill, the snow man in the yard and the mystery and magic of a new white world. Roger Duvoisin’s pictures in soft blue half-tones with briliant splashes of yellow and red emphasize the gaiety and humor as well as the poetic quality of the text.’

10. The Plant Sitter by Gene Zion

‘Everyone has heard of baby sitters, and some people have had jobs as dog sitters. Even flagpole sitters are more usual than the type of sitter Tommy became – a plant sitter!

When his family decided not to go away for the summer, young Tommy got a job. He collected all the neighbors’ plants, promising to care for them throughout the summer. Soon Tommy’s house was unrecognizable. Watching television was like watching an outdoor movie deep in the jungle, and taking a bath was like swimming in a small lake in the middle of a forest. Tommy’s parents were not particularly enthusiastic about their son’s career, but the plants flourished.

One night Tommy had a dream that the plants had grown too big to fit in the house. The next day some research at the library revealed his worries. When the neighbors returned they were delighted to see their healthy plants. And Tommy was delighted when his father suggested a vacation for the plant sitter and his family.

Margaret Bloy Graham has painted a garland of gay and verdant pictures for this utterly enchanting story.’

Have you read any of these books? Do any on this list appeal to you? What is your favourite children’s book?

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Books for Wintertime

I have always been a seasonal reader to an extent – particularly, it must be said, when it comes to Christmas-themed books – but I feel that my reading choices have been aligned more with the seasons in the last tumultuous year. Connecting my reading with the natural world around me has given me a sense of calm whilst the world has reached such a point of crisis, and picking up a seasonally themed book has become rather a soothing task. With this in mind, I wanted to collect together eight books which I feel will be perfect picks for winter, and which I hope you will want to include in your own reading journeys.

These books are best enjoyed with a big mug of cocoa, a light dusting of snowfall outside your window, and a cosy blanket

1. A Winter Book by Tove Jansson

‘Following the widely acclaimed and bestselling The Summer Book, here is a Winter Book collection of some of Tove Jansson’s best loved and most famous stories. Drawn from youth and older age, and spanning most of the twentieth century, this newly translated selection provides a thrilling showcase of the great Finnish writer’s prose, scattered with insights and home truths. It has been selected and is introduced by Ali Smith, and there are afterwords by Philip Pullman, Esther Freud and Frank Cottrell Boyce. The Winter Book features thirteen stories from Tove Jansson’s first book for adults, The Sculptor’s Daughter (1968) along with seven of her most cherished later stories (from 1971 to 1996), translated into English and published here for the first time.’

2. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis

‘Narnia… the land beyond the wardrobe door, a secret place frozen in eternal winter, a magical country waiting to be set free. Lucy is the first to find the secret of the wardrobe in the professor’s mysterious old house. At first her brothers and sister don’t believe her when she tells of her visit to the land of Narnia. But soon Edmund, then Peter and Susan step through the wardrobe themselves. In Narnia they find a country buried under the evil enchantment of the White Witch. When they meet the Lion Aslan, they realize they’ve been called to a great adventure and bravely join the battle to free Narnia from the Witch’s sinister spell.’

3. Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak

‘This epic tale about the effects of the Russian Revolution and its aftermath on a bourgeois family was not published in the Soviet Union until 1987. One of the results of its publication in the West was Pasternak’s complete rejection by Soviet authorities; when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958 he was compelled to decline it. The book quickly became an international bestseller. Dr. Yury Zhivago, Pasternak’s alter ego, is a poet, philosopher, and physician whose life is disrupted by the war and by his love for Lara, the wife of a revolutionary. His artistic nature makes him vulnerable to the brutality and harshness of the Bolsheviks. The poems he writes constitute some of the most beautiful writing featured in the novel.’

4. Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

‘The classic novel of despair, forbidden emotions, and sexual undercurrents set against the austere New England countryside Ethan Frome works his unproductive farm and struggles to maintain a bearable existence with his difficult, suspicious and hypochondriac wife, Zeena. But when Zeena’s vivacious cousin enters their household as a hired girl, Ethan finds himself obsessed with her and with the possibilities for happiness she comes to represent. In one of American fiction’s finest and most intense narratives, Edith Wharton moves this ill-starred trio toward their tragic destinies. Different in both tone and theme from Wharton’s other works, Ethan Frome has become perhaps her most enduring and most widely read book.’

5. Winter Trees by Sylvia Plath (my own review)

I have read Sylvia Plath’s beautiful Winter Trees several times, and find fresh beauty on every reread. These poems were all written within the last nine months of her life. As always with poetry collections, I have collected together a few of my favourite excerpts or fragments from some of these stunning poems.

– From ‘The Rabbit Catcher’:
‘I tasted the malignity of the gorse,
Its black spikes,
The extreme unction of its yellow candle-flowers.
They had an efficiency, a great beauty,
And were extravagant, like torture.’

– From ‘By Candlelight’:
‘This is winter, this is night, small love -‘

– From ‘Lesbos’:
‘We should meet in another life, we should meet in air,
Me and you.’

– From ‘Three Women’:
‘What did my fingers do before they held him?
What did my heart do, with its love?’

6. The Palace of the Snow Queen: Winter Travels in Lapland by Barbara Sjoholm (my own review)

‘I was incredibly excited to read Barbara Sjoholm’s The Palace of the Snow Queen, in which she spends several winters in the Arctic Circle. Sjoholm’s entire account is vivid and fascinating; she brings to light so many elements of life in the far north, always with the utmost sensitivity for those who live there.

Throughout, Sjoholm writes about the Sami, tourism, custom and tradition, the Icehotel in Sweden, and ways to travel around, amongst a plethora of other things. She strongly demonstrates just how quickly times change, and how some centuries-old traditions are being dropped in favour of the necessity of tourism.

Everything has been so well researched here, not only with regard to her own experiences, but with insight by others who have explored the region in years past. Her narrative voice is incredibly engaging, and I learnt so much from her account. It was the perfect tome to read over the Christmas period, and has extended my wanderlust even further. The Palace of the Snow Queen is undoubtedly one of the best travelogues which I have ever read, and is a sheer transportative joy to settle down with during long winters’ nights.’

7. Wintering: How I Learned to Flourish When Life Became Frozen by Katherine May

‘Wintering is a poignant and comforting meditation on the fallow periods of life, times when we must retreat to care for and repair ourselves. Katherine May thoughtfully shows us how to come through these times with the wisdom of knowing that, like the seasons, our winters and summers are the ebb and flow of life.’

8. Wintering: A Season with Geese by Stephen Rutt (my full review can be found here)

‘The arrival of huge flocks of geese in the UK is one of the most evocative and powerful harbingers of winter; a vast natural phenomenon to capture the imagination. So Stephen Rutt found when he moved to Dumfries in the autumn of 2018, coinciding with the migration of thousands of pink-footed geese who spend their winter in the Firth. Thus begins an extraordinary odyssey. From his new surroundings in the north to the wide open spaces of his childhood home in the south, Stephen traces the lives and habits of the most common species of goose in the UK and explores the place they have in our culture, our history and, occasionally, on our festive table. Wintering takes you on a vivid tour of the in-between landscapes the geese inhabit, celebrating the short days, varied weathers and long nights of the season during which we share our home with these large, startling, garrulous and cooperative birds.’

I hope you have enjoyed my seasonal recommendations throughout the year. Also, let me know if you have any seasonal reads to recommend!

2

Non-Fiction November: ‘Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay and a Mother’s Will to Survive’ by Stephanie Land ***

As far back as I can remember, I have always tried to read the book before I watch the adaptation. Sometimes, though, this just doesn’t happen – as in the case of Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay and a Mother’s Will to Survive by Stephanie Land. The book has been somewhere on my to-read list since I heard about it, but I only picked up a copy after watching the excellent Netflix adaptation, ‘Maid’.

Maid is a memoir which details Land’s life as a struggling single mother, working long hours as a housekeeper in order to give her daughter some stability, and at the mercy of the often ridiculous grants and benefits in Washington state. Alongside her work, Land wrote; she noted down stories of the people she cleaned for, alongside her own experiences of welfare, from a perspective which was difficult to find elsewhere. This is an individual memoir, yes, but in writing about herself, Land also writes about so many voiceless people in the United States.

Maid is told in retrospect, written from a position of emotional and financial security. Land continually asserts that her incredibly hard work, and the many hoops which she had to jump through, were the only things which allowed her to leave her life of poverty behind. At the end of the memoir, we see her move to Missoula to attend a Fine Arts college, and to study Creative Writing. She had planned to do so just before she found out she was pregnant, at the age of twenty-eight, with her daughter, Mia, and had to give up her place.

Land escaped from a violent relationship with Mia’s father in 2008, when her daughter was just seven months old. The pair moved into several unsuitable homes in the town of Port Townsend, sometimes damp, and sometimes dirty, and had to learn to rely on a dizzying series of handouts from their local authority. At the outset, Land and Mia are moving from a temporary home in a rundown cabin, into transitional housing. Half of the residents are moving out of homeless shelters, and the other half have just been released from jail.

Able to work a certain number of hours per week, Land soon found a job as a housekeeper, earning barely anything by working for a series of people who ‘had financial cushions beneath them’. She also worked part-time as a landscaper for a family friend. However, nothing was set in stone, and no hours were guaranteed. Port Townsend, around two hours from state capital Seattle, is a small city which appeals to tourists; therefore, much of its employment is seasonal, and is often difficult to come by.

Land is incredibly frank and forthright from the outset. Her memoir begins: ‘My daughter learned to walk in a homeless shelter.’ When she goes on to discuss her money troubles, and how exhausting the process of applying for welfare and proving your need is, she writes: ‘I had looked under every stone, peered through the window of every government assistance building, and joined the long lines of people who carried haphazard folders of paperwork to prove they didn’t have money. I was overwhelmed by how much work it took to prove I was poor.’ Later, she says: ‘I was on government assistance, having regular anxiety attacks, still unable to process much of the emotional abuse I’d just experienced or know the depths to which it had affected me. My life was at some sort of standstill in its new identity; in being consumed with motherhood, which I wasn’t sure I really even liked.’

Land is clear that she had very little support at this time; whilst she hears from her parents occasionally, she acknowledges very early on that they left her ’emotionally orphaned’ during her childhood. Her slip into poverty was something unseen, though: ‘… after one kid and a breakup, I was smack in the middle of a reality that I didn’t know how to get out of.’ She writes about the societal stigma attached to welfare, particularly the use of food stamps: ‘It felt like a weighted vest I couldn’t take off, or like someone had hidden cameras on me all the time… When people think of food stamps, they don’t envision someone like me: someone plain-faced and white. Someone like the girl they’d known in high school who’d been quiet but nice. Someone like a neighbor. Someone like them.’ She is humiliated throughout by no fault of her own when using these stamps in the supermarket, and also in other situations – for instance, when her mother and her husband fly over from France to help her move into the transitional accommodation, they expect her to pay for a dinner out for them. Land can barely afford the $10.59 which her own burger cost.

The author details the start of her relationship with Mia’s father, Jamie, and the way in which she moved into his trailer so quickly. She was wooed to do so by the copies of ‘Bukowski and Jean-Paul Sartre in a line of books above the table.’ She falls pregnant just four months into their relationship, and Jamie tries to force her to get an abortion. It is from this point that the relationship starts to become emotionally abusive, and later, physically. At this point, she reveals: ‘In spite of all my hopes for a different path, I softened in the days that followed and began to fall in love with motherhood, with the idea of me as a mother.’ As her confidence in motherhood, and her own ability, grows, she still questions whether she is a good enough mother, and whether she is making enough effort for Mia.

Land writes extensively about the particularly grants and programmes which she applied for, and the differences which these made to her life. She says: ‘We were expected to live off minimum wage, to work several jobs at varying hours, to afford basic needs while fighting for safe places to leave our children. Somehow nobody saw the work; they saw only the results of living a life that constantly crushed you with its impossibility.’ Land found no opportunities to lift herself out of poverty, or away from the welfare state which she was forced to rely on. She tells us: ‘There was no incentive or opportunity to save money. The system kept me locked down, scraping the bottom of the barrel, without a plan to climb out of it.’

The book includes a foreword written by Barbara Ehrenreich, an investigative journalist who worked undercover in low-paid jobs, including housekeeping, and then wrote about doing so. She writes that maid ‘is a dainty word, redolent of tea trays, starched uniforms, Downton Abbey. But in reality, the maid’s world is encrusted with grime and shit stains.’ She goes on to remark that although such workers are invaluable to the middle- and upper-classes, ‘they remain invisible – overlooked in our nation’s politics and policies, looked down upon at our front doors.’ A short critique of class prejudice follows, before she focuses on what Land reveals in her memoir. Ehrenreich comments: ‘When confronted with an obstacle, she figures out how to move forward. But the onslaught of obstacles sometimes reaches levels of overload. All that keeps her together is her bottomless love for her daughter, which is the clear bright light that illuminates the entire book.’

Maid is readable, but it is very matter-of-fact. Land has chosen to discuss a lot of often repetitive cleaning processes in detail, and I did tire of reading these after a while. However, this is an incredibly important and eye-opening memoir, which exposes the faulty welfare system, and the unreliable work which so many people have no choice but to use.

4

Non-Fiction November: ‘Letters from Tove’ by Tove Jansson *****

Tove Jansson is one of my all-time favourite authors, from her charming Moomin stories which I have adored from my earliest childhood, to her beautiful and assertive short stories. I had so looked forward to reading the edited collection, Letters from Tove, and although I did not receive a copy for Christmas (despite it being right at the top of my list!), I managed to reserve a copy from my local library.

Letters from Tove has been edited by Boel Westin – the author of a fantastic Jansson biography, which I reviewed here – and Helen Svensson, and is translated from the original Swedish by Sarah Death. This is the first time that the selected letters have been published in a single edition, along with commentary.

I wholeheartedly agree with Ali Smith – another of my absolute favourite authors – who writes: ‘It’s hard to describe the astonishing achievement of Jansson’s artistry’. I have loved every single piece of work of Jansson’s which I have read, and reading her letters, addressed to a number of varied recipients, proved a real privilege. In the introduction, Westin and Svensson write that Jansson ‘was a great correspondent, writing frequently and at length…’. They also comment about how important the letter is in Jansson’s fiction, from messages found in bottles in the Moomin books, to the epistolatory form which she sometimes used in her short stories.

Letters from Tove has been arranged chronologically by recipient. There are letters here to her friends, family, and lovers of both genders, spanning a vast period between 1933 and 1988. The collection includes letters written to her parents and brothers; the photographer Eva Konikoff, who was one of Jansson’s best friends; the director Vivica Bandler; the graphic artist Tuulikki Pietilä, with whom Jansson lived for many years; the translator Maya Vanni; and Jansson’s publisher, Åke Runnquist. Although every single year during this period has not been included, an exceptional portrait of a remarkable life is shown to us.

Given that this volume provides just an edited selection of Jansson’s letters, one can conclude that she was both prolific and patient – particularly given that every single letter she sent was written by hand! Added to this is the way in which Jansson responded to almost every single fan letter or question which she received, which amounted to almost 2,000 each year. Westin and Svensson estimate that Jansson would have answered around 92,000 such letters between 1954 – when the Moomins became a global success- and 2001, the year in which she died.

‘Jansson’s letters ‘tell us all about herself,’ write Westin and Svensson in their introduction. ‘They deal with love and friendship, loneliness and solidarity, and also with politics, art, literature and society. But a letter also documents a juncture in time, stops the clock an tells us about things that otherwise get forgotten or sink into the depths of memory.’ Whatever she writes about, or however the mood in these letters sits, Westin and Svensson say that ‘they rarely leave us unmoved’. The editors have included relatively thorough biographical and contextual information throughout.

The familial scenes which Jansson describes are lively, as are depictions of her extensive travels, and her studies before the Second World War. In one of the earliest letters, written to her ‘Beloved Ham’ – the affectionate name which she gave her mother – when she was an art student in Stockholm in 1933, Jansson says: ‘I am a part of you. More so than the boys… how can I care one jot about Sweden when you’re not here?… I’m coming home, and soon. I’m coming home, just the way I was when I left… it may well be that I can now understand you better, help you better, and painstakingly start to appreciate how lucky I am to have you and the rest.’ Even in these earliest letters, an alluring philosophical wisdom shines through.

Through reading her letters, I was swept into Jansson’s world. I was helped to understand, so acutely, what mattered to her, and the efforts she would go to for those she loved. As in her fiction, the writing in her letters is unsurprisingly rich, nuanced, and astonishingly beautiful. Jansson is searingly honest throughout, and we are given the ability to really see her grow as time goes on. Her letters are open and revealing, and are sometimes startlingly modern. There is much seriousness here, but a great deal of light and hope, too. Letters from Tove provided me with a great deal of joy; it felt like I was reading the words of a dear friend. I really love to read one-sided correspondence like this, and it is certainly a volume which I hope to come back to many more times in future.

I shall close this review with a quote from the volume, which really spoke to me. In 1941, in the midst of a discussion about the Second World War and the tumult which it created in her home of Finland, she writes to Eva Konikoff: ‘Strange that it will all just go on, we will paint, travel, love, grieve, collect money, buy things, grow old… whether we want to or not.’

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Non-Fiction November: ‘From Here to Eternity: Travelling the World to Find a Good Death’ by Caitlin Doughty ****

I will begin this review by pointing out that Caitlin Doughty’s rather niche work will not be for everyone. I thoroughly enjoyed her debut, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, which collects together her memories and thoughts from working in a crematorium. Doughty has made her living as a mortician, and owns a funeral home in Los Angeles. She writes about such serious elements – the majority of which revolve around death – with a lot of snarky and sarcastic humour, and one cannot help but be entirely entranced by her stories and experiences. Her second book, From Here to Eternity: Travelling the World to Find a Good Death also very much interested me as a reader.

She argues, in both of her books, that death is a topic which should be spoken about more, but is something which many in the Western world particularly shy away from. In From Here to Eternity, Doughty begins by signposting her fascination of our ‘pervasive terror of dead bodies’. She writes in her introduction: ‘One of the chief questions in my work has always been why my own culture is so squeamish around death… Our avoidance is self-defeating. By dodging the talk about our inevitable end, we put… our ability to mourn at risk.’

Her aim in this book was to visit different places around the world to see how other cultures are not scared of the process of death, but rather embrace it, and make it a part of their own living. She travels all over the world – from three locations in the United States, to Indonesia, Mexico, Spain, Japan, and Bolivia.

Early on, Doughty sets out that in the United States, death has become an incredibly big business since the advent of the twentieth century. Everything has long been associated with cost, and with upselling – a better graveyard plot, a more superior wood used for the coffin, many ‘extras’ sold by different funeral homes. She believes that we need to reform funeral practices in the West, moving permanently away from profit-oriented practices, to ones which ‘do more to include the family’. These family-focused death practices are common around the world, and it is this which she keeps coming back to. Doughty writes, with a great deal of sensitivity, about the ways in which confronting death can bring peace, particularly for those in Western cultures, where such an attitude is generally suppressed.

Some of the practices which Doughty writes about are rare for foreigners or tourists to be able to attend. Others have really embraced the onlooker, though. At a Torajan funeral in Indonesia, for instance, the body is ‘transferred in a replica of a traditional Torajan home. These houses, known as Tongkonan, resemble no residence you’ve ever seen, standing high on stilts with a roof that sweeps up to two points in the sky. This corpse, inside his mini-house, was carried atop the shoulders of thirty-five young men.’ A ‘death tourism industry’ has sprung up around the Torajan funeral, with visitors coming from far afield to watch.

Of course, Doughty attends a ‘Day of the Dead’ parade in Mexico, which was rather strangely inspired by James Bond. In Mexico, at the beginning of November, families invite their dead back to visit. Of one young man, who had passed away in the small city of Santa Fe de la Laguna, she writes: ‘He will continue to return as long as his family continues to show up, inviting him to come back among the living.’

On the other side of the world, at a Buddhist temple in Japan, technology has been used to enhance longstanding religious practices: ‘After the family keys in at the entrance,’ with a smart card, ‘the walls light up blue, except for one single Buddha shimmering white: no need to squint through names trying to find Mom – the white light will guide you straight to her.’ This white light leads to the ashes of a loved one, which can be kept in the temple for a long time. Also in Japan, a company called I-Can Corp has married together death and technology: ‘presents a Sims-like experience in which your ancestor’s virtual gravestone appears on screen in a green field. The user can, according to taste, light a virtual incense stick, place flowers, sprinkle water on the stone, and leave fruit and glasses of beer.’

Perhaps one of the most interesting elements of From Here to Eternity is the focus which Doughty places on the United States, and the way in which just a few individuals – for now, at least – are challenging the status quo. In Colorado, there is a single town which promotes the outdoor cremation, using a movable wooden pyre. In North Carolina, a group of medics and research scientists toe the line between ‘death-innovation and the deranged’, with a plan to “turn corpses into compost”, as the New York Times put it. Behind this is something called the ‘Urban Death Project’, an architectural blueprint for being able to compost human bodies in built-up urban areas, which have little – or no – space to bury their recent dead.

Throughout, Doughty poses many questions about how the individual would wish to be treated after their death, and the many options which are available to them – even in the reserved Western world. In Barcelona, for instance, stands an enormous funeral home which handles almost a quarter of all deaths in the city. They display dead ones behind glass, akin to something out of Snow White, which allows families to stay with them all day. A Spanish-style ‘viewing’ displays ‘a loved one in their coffin, surrounded by flowers, behind one large pane of glass, akin to a department store window.’ A Catalan-style viewing moves the open coffin into a glass display case in the centre of the room.

I haven’t read anything quite like From Here to Eternity before, but it reminded me somewhat of the rather funny Netflix travel series, ‘Dark Tourist’. The series, too, shows a Torajan funeral – rather squeamish to the Western viewer, perhaps, but fascinating nonetheless. Throughout, Doughty’s prose is clear and informative, and one can see that she is both passionate about her subject, and keen to impart her wisdom. I must admit that I did find From Here to Eternity a little gross in places, as Doughty certainly does not shy away from discussing fluids and the like, but it is ultimately fascinating, and eye-opening.

This is a great volume to dip in and out of, and to learn from. Some of the rituals which Doughty writes about are really quite beautiful, and I for one feel more comfortable discussing death as a result of reading this. It is perhaps an odd volume to choose during a pandemic, but what Doughty writes here is important – particularly as we face death on such a large and upsetting global scale.

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Non-Fiction November: ‘Lizzie Siddal: The Tragedy of a Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel’ by Lucinda Hawksley ****

Aside from being my favourite art movement, I have always been fascinated by those who began the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and the muses who so inspired them. Lizzie Siddal is perhaps the most iconic of these, serving as the model for such well-known figures as Ophelia and Beatrice, with her pale skin and cascading auburn hair.

Even as a history nerd, I must admit that I’ve not picked up one of Lucinda Hawksley’s books before. This seems odd, considering that whilst looking through her oeuvre, I wrote down almost every single title on my sprawling TBR list. Hawksley’s books and areas of research really appeal to me, and after my extremely positive experience reading Lizzie Siddal: The Tragedy of a Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel, I am keen to pick up more of her work soon.

Lizzie Siddal, born Elizabeth Siddall in Southwark, London, worked first for a milliner, modelling different styles of hats for wealthy clients. She was ‘discovered’ by the Irish poet William Allingham, who found that she almost perfectly fitted the criteria for a model his friend, Walter Howell Deverell, was seeking for a painting. Deverell was ‘despairing of finding a woman without prominent curves; he had also hoped to find a red-haired model’ for his depiction of Shakespeare’s Viola.

At first, Siddal was flattered but sceptical of Deverell’s approach, and it took his kindly mother to finally convince her to accept. Her scepticism was wound up with the fact that during the 1840s, ‘modelling for an artist was perceived as being synonymous with prostitution’. Her introduction to modelling for the group of artists, however, was a pleasurable one, and throughout, she demonstrated her fervent respectability. She had a desperation to be accepted.

Siddal went on to become one of the most famous faces in Victorian Britain, sitting for the likes of John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the latter of whom she eventually married after a tumultuous relationship. As Hawksley puts it, this brought with it ‘nine years of emotional agony’. She writes of their nervous inclination, and the clash of their personalities: ‘… both were headstrong and wilful; they were also depressive; prone to wild mood swings… [They] had a tendency to addiction and shared a destructively jealous need to be the most important figure in their – or, indeed, any – relationship.’

At the point of her marriage to Rossetti, Siddal had an addiction to laudanum, and was suffering from a debilitating, and quite mysterious, illness. Her illness was misdiagnosed by specialists as consumption and curvature of the spine in her lifetime. As Hawksley notes, it ‘has long baffled medics and scholars’. It is thought that she may have suffered from an eating disorder, or that ‘she was simply “neurotic” – a vague description that can encompass myriad symptoms and mental illnesses.’ The majority of the symptoms which she manifested, including nausea, dizziness, and a constant cough, can indicate a laudanum addiction. After giving birth to a stillborn daughter, and suffering much heartache, Siddal eventually committed suicide at the age of 32.

Of course, the primary focus here is on Siddal. However, Hawksley gives a lot of valuable context about the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and its aims. They wished, she writes, ‘to paint vibrantly coloured works that would mean something to the viewer, subjects that would provoke the imagination and cause discussion.’ The Pre-Raphaelites wanted to return to the artistic ideals which existed before Italian painter and artist of the High Renaissance period, Raphael (1483-1520), the point at which they believed art had “gone wrong”.

Throughout, Hawksley gives a real flavour for the Southwark which Siddal grew up in – highly crowded, with no access to clean running water. Her family, though, was an aspirational one, and she did not grow up in poverty exactly. Siddal exaggerated about her unbringing, leading everyone around her to believe that she grew up in an impoverished slum. This, Hawskley suggests, was a ploy to ‘make Rossetti feel the need to protect her. She preferred to be known as a romantically tragic figure rather than reveal the truth about her family’s shabby working-class respectability.’ Hawksley moves through Siddal’s life with care and sensitivity, and does not simply focus upon her as a muse; she also writes of Siddal’s own artistry, as she was a painter in her own right. Indeed, John Ruskin purchased her entire portfolio of work in 1855, after he became her mentor.

Lizzie Siddal is a thorough and highly readable account of what became an incredibly sad life, marred by tragedy. The research and primary sources have been meticulously examined, and extra information – which tends to give more context, or further explain a brief point Hawksley makes – is often provided in footnotes. Hawksley’s book is relatively slim for a biography, standing at just over 200 pages, but such good use has been made of the original sources, and the whole feels intricately woven. Lizzie Siddal moves along so well, and is an excellent example of historical biography, which I would highly recommend.

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Non-Fiction November: ‘A Notable Woman: The Romantic Journals of Jean Lucey Pratt’, edited by Simon Garfield *****

I remember reading an article about A Notable Woman: The Romantic Journals of Jean Lucey Pratt when it was first released, and have had my eye out for a copy ever since. I ended up finding a gorgeous hardback edition on a remaindered books website, and read its 700 pages over the space of a few days.

I love reading journals; they convey an excellent social history. Jean Lucey Pratt’s are no exception. She began to keep a diary at the age of 15, and continued – in 45 exercise books purchased from Woolworths for sixpence each – until a few weeks before her death in 1986. The output is astonishing, and she wrote over a million words during her lifetime. Most of her journals were personal ones, which her family and friends were unaware of, but she also kept a specific journal during the Second World War. Pratt also contributed to the Mass Observation Project, which began in 1937, and aimed to capture everyday life in Britain.

Pratt was born in Wembley in 1909, and lived for most of her life in a small and ramshackle Buckinghamshire cottage, named Wee Cottage. She looked after her niece, Babs, for some years whilst the girl’s parents were stationed abroad, but largely lived alone, her only company her cats. Pratt had a fascinating life; she trained as an architect, worked as a publicist and journalist, and went on to run a small bookshop in a street in Slough. She specialised in cat books, and continued to send these out to customers for many years after her ‘retirement’. As Garfield notes in his introduction, ‘what she really wanted to do was write and garden and care for her cats.’

In her teenage years, Pratt touchingly addresses portions of her journal to her late mother. She laments over her father’s choice of new wife, in Ethel, a woman of whom she is suspicious from the outset. In 1925, Pratt sweetly kicks off with a list of her ‘beaus’, which have been written in a secret code. One gets a feel for her character, and for what matters the most to her, straight away. She is in touch with herself throughout.

Although Pratt hints at possible publication following her death, she makes it clear that at present, the journals are for her alone: ‘And why have I that feeling at the back of my mind that no one will ever read this? But if anyone does read this – if you ever do – Reader please be kind to me! I am only 16 at present, and just realising life and beginning to think for myself. It’s all very chilling in its strange newness.’ She is candid and honest, and rather frank regarding taboo subjects, like her sex life. She is a very modern woman. In 1927, for instance, she writes: ‘I don’t want to get married – not at least to the struggling domesticated life which seems to belong to every man I know.’ Later, in 1931, she comments: ‘Even to my socialistic mind I think it would be better to be married – more convenient, double rooms being usually cheaper than singles.’

From the earliest entries, too, her writing is gorgeous. In April 1925, on a trip to Torquay, Pratt reflects: ‘We came back along the coast… And I felt tired and sad and a little exhausted, but the level, smooth stretch of sea peeping between the graceful lines of the cliffs seemed to comfort the innermost recesses of my soul. And when we lost sight of it behind high hedgerows I ached for one more sight of it.’ There is a lot of humour in A Notable Woman, too; in 1926, for instance, she writes of a new pair of cream silk stockings that she ‘unfortunately wore them for tennis yesterday and made irrevocable ladders.’

She has all of the usual teenage worries, but discusses them in a manner which is full of wisdom. We really see her grow – and flourish – as time moves on. I loved the way in which she mixes social commentary with what is happening in her own life; this begins far before the Second World War period, which is comprehensively covered. Throughout, Pratt is philosophical; in 1933, she asks herself: ‘What is one to do when one seems possessed of ideas and ideals too big for one’s meagre capabilities?’

Until A Notable Woman was published, nobody had read Pratt’s journals. Their publication is a gift; I dare anyone to not be entirely charmed by Pratt, and her words. They are, as Garfield comments, ‘a revelation and a joy’. Garfield goes on to say that when friends would ask about Pratt’s writing style, he could think of nothing better than ‘Virginia Woolf meets Caitlin Moran’ – two authors whom I very much enjoy. Had I not already been intrigued by learning more about Pratt, this comment certainly would have made me pick up a copy of A Notable Woman.

I would love to read the rest of Pratt’s original journals; this edition contains only around a sixth of what Pratt penned. Her observations throughout are so clear, and I was fascinated to learn about what filled her days. I cannot recommend A Notable Woman highly enough; it is filled with the colourful, descriptive, vivid, and heartfelt reminiscences of a fascinating character, who lives her entire life with hope and warmth.