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One From the Archive: ‘Signed, Sealed, Delivered: Celebrating the Joys of Letter Writing’ by Nina Sankovitch ****

First published in April 2014.

Nina Sankovitch, author of the highly acclaimed memoir Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magic Reading, has decided to explore the art of corresponding by letter in her newest book.  She has chosen to go ‘on a quest through the history of letters and her own personal correspondence to discover and celebrate what is special about the handwritten letter’.

It is utterly charming to write a book about something which seems, to the modern world, to be so quaint, particularly in an age when it is far more likely to type a quick email or contact friends through mediums like Facebook and Twitter, than to settle down with a pen and paper and send off the finished result in the more traditional way, envelope et al.  Those who love to read letter collections – and there are, it seems, many of us scattered around the globe – are sure to find much of interest within Signed, Sealed, Delivered: Celebrating the Joys of Letter Writing.

Throughout, Sankovitch moves from letters written in ancient times, focusing upon those within Greece and Egypt, to the correspondence which exists between famous writers.  We as readers are able to see how letter writing has adapted over time, to fit the changing world – from documenting love and expressing sorrow, to solving the most brutal of crimes and passing trivial notes at school.  She begins her book with rather a sweet personal anecdote, of the moment at which her young son sent her his first letter: ‘He quickly covered an index card with blue marker squiggles, then carefully worked the card into an envelope.  His face serious, he turned and handed me the envelope’.  Sankovitch also writes of the importance of saving letters, believing that they are ‘the history of our lives made solid’, which ‘place us firmly within our history’.

Sankovitch’s writing style is lovely, and the warmth of her personality can be found in every page.  The way in which she weaves in her own experiences of writing and receiving letters, and the delicious silence which comes between the two, works marvellously.  An avid letter writer as a child, it seems as though she was spurred on to start writing Signed, Sealed, Delivered after unearthing ‘a trove of old letters’ from members of the Seligman family in the shed of her newly purchased house in New York.  Throughout, she sets out the history of each family or person whom she discovers through the art of their correspondence, describing the ways in which the things that they wrote and sent reveal crucial elements about themselves and their personalities.  She sees the importance in every scrap of letter which she encounters, believing that even the tiniest note has a story to tell.  The structure which Sankovitch uses is not a chronological one, but one segment leads wonderfully to another, and the entirety feels well-rounded in consequence.

Sankovitch also portrays the way in which letter writing through history has been able to cross the boundaries set in place by society – to speak about forbidden relationships, and to converse with those of other races in the United States far before the advent of the Civil Rights Movement, for instance.  The social history has been well written and considered, giving each letter and the story which goes with it a good grounding.  The author brings fascinating people to the fore, and the aforementioned Seligman family are a fabulous example of this.  One of the sons, James, whom Sankovitch is particularly fond of, is ‘a sweet and funny and affectionate correspondent’, who touchingly ‘wrote home almost daily’ when he was away.

Rather than becoming overdone in the stories it relates or its gushing love for letter writing, as could so easily have happened in the putting together of such a book, Sankovitch has created a work which is both far-reaching and concise.  Signed, Sealed, Delivered is a lovely piece of praise for something which should be revived – the simple practice of writing letters, which surely means a lot more to its recipient than a hastily composed email or text message.  Hopefully, Sankovitch will inspire far more people to correspond by traditional methods, and will help to bring back the popularity of something which has been so very important to our ancestors for millennia.

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Reading the World: ‘Human Acts’ by Han Kang **** (From the Archive)

Human Acts was Katie’s choice for the May instalment of our Chai and Sheep book club.  I had a slight mishap with the library, in that both our May and June choices had rather large waiting lists, and then came in during April; I thus had to read them way ahead of time and try and hide my thoughts.

The novel, Han Kang’s second, has been described as ‘a riveting, poetic and unrelentingly powerful examination of humanity at its most appalling, and its most hopeful.  It is an act of extraordinary resistance and a refusal to forget’.  It is ‘a radically brave novel about an atrocious episode in Korean history’.

Human Acts has been translated from its original Korean, and Deborah Smith won the English PEN Award for doing so.  Kang was adamant that the ‘translation maintain the moral ambivalence of the original, and avoid sensationalising the sorrow and shame which her home town was made to bear’.  The novel itself has won awards in Kang’s native country.  I haven’t read much Asian fiction at all, but it does seem to be rather in vogue at the moment, and this book, to me, sounded both strange and intriguing.  9781846275968

The setting is Gwangju, South Korea, in 1980, where Kang herself spent some of her childhood.  Following a ‘viciously suppressed student uprising’, many searches ensue – a boy’s for the corpse of his friend, and, perhaps above all, that of a ‘brutalized country’ for its voice.  The novel is told in a sequence of interconnecting, and sometimes overlapping, chapters.  It took until 1997 for this brutal uprising, in which many died, to be memorialised; in fact, ‘casualty figures remain a contentious issue even today’.

Interestingly, the novel begins with a chapter which uses the second person perspective.  This is a relatively simple but incredibly effective tool to set the scene: ‘When you let your eyelids part just the tiniest fraction, the gingko trees in front of the Provincial Office are shaking in the wind.  So far, not a single drop of rain has fallen’.  It continues with our journey, as it were: ‘You step into the gym hall, fighting down the wave of nausea that hits you with the stench…  The coffins that have already been through the memorial service have been grouped neatly near the door, while at the foot of the large window, each covered with a white cloth, lie the bodies of thirty-two people for whom no relatives have yet arrived to put them in their coffins.  Next to each of their heads, a candle wedged into an empty drinks bottle flickers quietly’.  This well-evoked setting is a centre filled with volunteers, who are housing the massacred as they await identification.

The next chapter is narrated by the boy’s friend, Park Jeong-dae; he and his sister, Jeong-mi, have both been murdered.  It begins as it means to go on, with the following striking sentence: ‘Our bodies are piled on top of each other in the shape of a cross’.  Bodies are a central theme to the whole: ‘From that moment on, I was filled with hatred for my body.  Our bodies, tossed there like lumps of meat.  Our filthy, rotting faces, reeking in the sun’.

Translator Deborah Smith’s introduction gives valuable background information into the history of Korea, setting out the political and social backdrop which Kang writes against.  ‘Military strongman’ Park Chung-hee has been assassinated when this book begins, and his protege, Chun Doo-hwan, steps up to the plate, expanding martial law and curtailing the freedom of the press, amongst other dictatorial things.  Kang, Smith writes, ‘starts with bodies.  Piled up, reeking, unclaimed and thus unburied, they present both a logistical and an ontological dilemma’.

The contextual information about Korea – a country in which, I must admit, my historical knowledge is rather lacking – was fascinating, as are the facets of culture which are embedded within.  For example, ‘In the Korean context… violence done to the body is a violation to the spirit/soul which animates it’.  Gender politics and regionalism are touched upon in the novel too, and one cannot help but feel that they are learning about a completely different world when they are reading.

Kang’s descriptions are vivid; throughout, there is a very tight control over the vocabulary and the translation.  The characters, even those who are deceased, feel realistic; they all have different wants and longings.  The translation has been perfectly rendered, and there is such a marvellous flow to the whole that it is difficult to believe it has been translated in places.  Kang certainly has a deft hand for writing, and I have heard from so many people that they very much enjoyed The Vegetarian too.  Human Acts is a captivating, stark, and memorable novel, with much to discuss within its deceptively slim covers; the perfect choice for a book club.

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One From the Archive: ‘Virginia Woolf in Manhattan’ by Maggie Gee ****

Championed by bestselling authors such as Jacqueline Wilson and Patrick Ness, Maggie Gee’s Virginia Woolf in Manhattan was first published in 2014, to great acclaim.  The Virginia Woolf Society of Great Britain, for instance, term it ‘a remarkable feat’ and ‘an exhilarating novel’.

The premise which Gee has focused upon is most inventive: ‘What if Virginia Woolf came back to life in the twenty-first century?’  Rather than simply muse upon this idea, Gee has fashioned quite an original story around it.  A mid-life crisis has befallen her protagonist, bestselling author Angela Lamb.  After her ‘irrepressible’ daughter Gerda has been left at her boarding school, Angela decides to take an impromptu flight to New York in order to ‘pursue her passion for Woolf, whose manuscripts are held in a private collection’.  The following twist ensues: ‘When a bedraggled Virginia Woolf materialises among the bookshelves and is promptly evicted, Angela, stunned, rushes after her on to the streets of Manhattan.’  She soon becomes the chaperone of the novel’s ‘troublesome heroine’, as she tries to adjust to life in the modern – and rather bewildering – world.

The novel begins in an engaging manner, the tone, strong prose and wit of which is sustained throughout: ‘There is thunder as Angela flies to New York with Virginia Woolf in her handbag, lightning crackling off the wings of the plane’.  In Virginia Woolf in Manhattan, Gee writes intelligently.  It is clear to see that she is very practiced at her craft, and is comfortable with being playful in both her choices of vocabulary and turns of phrase.

The whole of Virginia Woolf in Manhattan has a marvellously contemporary feel to it; there are no constraints in terms of the text existing in strict, conformist paragraphs.  I was reminded of Ali Smith at times, with regard to the thought which had clearly been given to the visualisation of the text.  The narrative, too, has been well-handled.  Portions are told from the imagined voices of both Woolf and Angela, and these alternate with the omniscient third person perspective, which gives a wonderful overview.  Virginia Woolf in Manhattan is facetious, creative, and brimming with a plethora of thought-provoking scenes.  It is the first of Gee’s books which I have read, but I can safely say that it certainly will not be the last.

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One From the Archive: ‘Up the Junction’ and ‘Poor Cow’ by Nell Dunn **

Up the Junction and Poor Cow, both better known works of Nell Dunn’s, have recently been republished by Virago.  As there are many elements which the books have in 9781844089826common, and as both share the same author preface, rather than address them separately, I have decided to write about them both together.  Nell Dunn’s introduction is like a story in itself, and tells of her life in Battersea from the late 1950s.  It includes such details as, ‘There were still a lot bomb sites, and my two-year-old son would be taken by the big girls and boys to play King of the Castle on the mounds of building debris’, ‘The night of Princess Margaret’s wedding everyone got drunk’, and ‘I bought my first pair of tight white jeans off a rail in the market’.  This introduction in a sense serves to ground the stories which follow it.

Up the Junction, first published in 1963, is made up of a series of short stories set in South London.  It was awarded the John Llewelyn Rhys Memorial Prize, and has also been turned into a film.  The tales in the collection are all heavily involved in the sense of a community and the mundanities of life in 1960s London.  This is clear from the titles of the stories alone, which range from ‘Out With the Girls’ and ‘Out With the Boys’, to ‘Sunday Morning’ and ‘Wash Night’.  The book’s blurb states that the stories ‘are unhibited, spirited vignettes of young women’s lives in South London in the sixties [where] money is scarce and enjoyment must be grabbed while it can’.  To further set the scene, one supposes, all of these stories have been told by way of dialect heavy conversations between its characters – for example, ‘It’s me birthday tomorrer’ and ‘It’s better to marry an ugly man what’s got god ways than a good-looker what’s sly’.  It is not often clear who is speaking, so in consequence, the reader learns next to nothing about any of the characters who fill its 130 odd pages.

Three protagonists are followed in Up the Junction, Sylvie, Ruby and Lily, all of whom work at a local sweet factory.  The entirety of the book, on the surface of it, looks to be heavily involved with sexual politics, but as one reads on, the fixation upon aesthetics becomes clear.  Each of the characters seems to place much emphasis upon their own appearances, interrupting even important conversations to ask if their hair looks nice, or if their new item of clothing suits them.  Examples of this can be found in sentences such as this one: ‘[Pauline] was pretty in the dirty cafe; full ashtrays and dripping sauce bottles; sugar-bowls with brown clotted lumps in the white sugar’.

The stories are evocative of bygone times – there is lots of dancing, ‘snoggin”, institutionalised racism, National Health glasses, the pawning of furniture when money is tight, illegal abortions and the WVS.  Stories take place in the factory where the protagonists work, the local pub, the Old Kent Road, and various dwellings around the area.  Whilst interesting enough, these stories are relatively similar, and in consequence, nothing really stands out amongst them.  Sadly, the majority also do not feel well-developed enough to have any lasting effect upon the reader.  ‘Sunday Morning’, for instance, would have been far better with further explanation of the situation.  The illustrations, drawn by Susan Benson, are randomly scattered through the pages and rarely match the writing which surrounds them.  It does not feel as though there is much within Up the Junction which the modern reader will be able to identify with.  The simplistic writing style also takes away any atmosphere which the stories could feasibly have had.

Poor Cow was first published in 1967, and was Dunn’s second work of fiction.  Margaret 9781844089819Drabble, whose introduction to the story has been reprinted in the new edition, calls it ‘Touching, thoughtful and fresh…  A tour de force’.    In her introduction, Drabble states that after her move to London, Dunn ‘was soon to be writing of the lives of working-class women in a way that struck the same chords as the plays and novels of Sillitoe, Osborne and John Braine…  Nell Dunn felt she had discovered a world where women did not depend on male patronage, where they went their own ways, sexually and financially, where there was plenty of work’.

The novella tells the story of Joy, ‘twenty-one, with bleached hair, high suede shoes, and a head full of dreams’.  When the story opens, Joy is making her way down Fulham Broadway on her ‘slum-white legs’ with her new baby in tow, ‘his face brick red against his new white bonnet’.  ‘Her life seems to be a catalogue of disasters, which follow naturally and inevitably from the first false step of letting herself get pregnant’, Drabble says.  She adds that Joy’s husband, Tom, is a thief, ‘which translates her into a nice close-carpeted flat in Ruislip’.  Neither Joy nor her husband are content with their lives: ‘He always wanted more out of his life than what he had’.  When Tom is caught in a stolen car by the police, he is hauled in and sentenced to four years in prison: ‘… course he had only to do two years out of that you see…  But I hadn’t even the heart to sell the furniture, I just walked out and went to live with my Auntie Emm’.

The story is told in a variety of narrative styles, which chop and change at whim.  Joy’s own narrative voice is written in a similar dialect to that captured in Up the Junction: ‘Terrible when you ain’t got fuck all, you ain’t got nothing’.  As with Up the Junction, it is not always clear here who is speaking.  Poor Cow is not overly engaging, and the uncertain style of its writing and narrator let the story down somewhat.

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One From the Archive: ‘Andree’s War: How One Young Woman Outwitted the Nazis’ by Francelle Bradford White ****

After the German invasion of Paris in June 1940, Andree Griotteray ‘found herself living in an occupied city, forced to work alongside the invaders…  Her younger brother Alain set up his own resistance network to do whatever he could to defy the Nazis.  Andree risked her life to help him’.  Based on diaries written during the 1930s and 1940s and conversations which she held, and written largely as a response to the Alzheimer’s which now holds her in its grip, Andree’s War: How One Young Woman Outwitted the Nazis has been lovingly penned by Andree’s daughter, Francelle Bradford White.  Here, White aims to tell us ‘her mother’s incredible story: the narrow escapes and moments of terror alongside a typical teenager’s concerns about food, fashion and boys’.

White’s account of her mother’s life begins with her being granted the Legion d’honneur in 1995, as a measure of her bravery during the Second World War.  She was also accordingly awarded the Medaille de la Resistance and the Croix de Guerre.  White then goes on to set out the history of her family, and the factors which she believes led her mother and uncle Alain to become leading figures in the realm of the French Resistance movement.  She discusses what life was like for a comfortable and relatively well-off family such as the Griotterays in France’s capital, placing particular emphasis upon the alterations which came ‘as tensions in the run-up to the Second World War’ manifested themselves: ‘Shopping, a choice of reasonably elegant clothes, a choice of books, non-censored press, attending university, things which today are taken for granted and which should have been theirs, were no longer possible’.  Andree’s own perceptions, along with interest in and experiences of certain elements of wartime life, can be seen throughout, from theatre and patriotism, to her colleagues at the Police Headquarters, refugees, and deportations.

Many of the diary entries are copied out exactly as they were written, and White speaks of the care which she has taken in  preserving her mother’s use of idioms and certain patterns in her speech during her own efforts at translation.  For instance, Andree’s entry for the 5th of August 1940 reads simply, ‘It is unbearably hot at the moment.  We are leading the most awful life’.

Throughout, footnotes add often vital historical background to the whole; they are both succinct and well penned.  Some also contain the author’s memories of particular items or incidences – of a marble bust passed down through the family from Andree’s father, for example.  Further background to her mother’s diary entries is given too; White sets the scene and continually asserts her mother’s life and decisions made against the backdrop of war.  Andree’s War is packed with such emotional depth.  On the 23rd of August 1940, for example, Andree writes the following: ‘Life is so sad.  It is impossible for a young French girl to be carefree and happy because the Germans are occupying most of my country.  Maybe it does not upset everyone in the same way, but for me to walk around Paris, my home town, to see Germans travelling around in cars and admiring the sights, is heart-breaking.  I do understand the government’s position in allowing them to march in, not wanting Paris to be bombed and destroyed, but it is very hard’.

Andree’s War holds interest throughout; the whole has been so well written, and the primary sources have been handled with such care.  The book is absolutely fascinating, particularly with regard to the extent as to which the eldest Griotteray siblings aided the Resistance.  Incredible feats of heroics show themselves, and the way in which the past story has been interspersed with more recent events, in which Andree’s efforts were both recognised and rewarded, works marvellously.  Andree’s War is a memorable read, and is certainly a wonderful addition to the canon of World War Two diaries, respectfully written about a young woman who ultimately believed in sacrificing herself and her own safety for the greater good.

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One From the Archive: ‘Landline’ by Rainbow Rowell ***

Rainbow Rowell is best known for her incredibly popular young adult novel Eleanor and Park.  Rather than choose to write about a teenage couple once again in her newest book, Landline, however, Rowell has chosen a middle-aged married couple as her focus.

9781409152125The protagonist of Landline is Georgie McCool, a television writer and Los Angeles native.  The crux of her story arrives when she decides that a heavy workload and an exciting new project
making it big does not fit with her family’s
pre-arranged Christmas trip to Omaha, Nebraska, to visit her widowed mother-in-law.  Her husband Neal’s response is to take their two daughters, seven-year-old Alice and four-year-old Noomi, ‘home’ to Omaha with him, leaving Georgie behind. We are immediately launched straight into Georgie’s domestic life as she returns from work and breaks her news.

The most interesting aspect of the plot comes at the point at which Georgie discovers that she is able to communicate with her husband in the past via an old telephone she finds in a closet, and subsequently ‘feels like she’s been given an opportunity to fix her marriage before it starts’ – after believing herself to be suffering a mental breakdown, of course.  This plot device works well, and throws up a lot of questions for Georgie and her life with Neal and their daughters.

Whilst Rowell is perceptive of her characters – freshly cut hair feels ‘like velvet one way and needles the other’, and Neal is said to have ‘dimples like parentheses’, for example – the majority of her creations feel rather flat.  Only Neal and Georgie are far more realistic when shown as their young selves, and even the couple’s children are largely lacklustre.  The entirety feels as though it has been written by a wholly different author to the one who penned Eleanor and Park, in which even the minor characters linger in the mind for some time.

The novel takes place over a week in December 2013, and the third person perspective has been used throughout.  Rowell seems to have taken her contemporary setting a little too seriously, and throughout there are frequent and quite unnecessary references to a lot of ‘modern’ things – the endless hunts for iPhone chargers, for example.  A certain mundanity is added to the novel in consequence.

Landline lacks the sparkle of Eleanor and Park, and it is easy to imagine that a lot of readers may be a little disappointed by the novel.  The slow pace does improve as it goes on, however, and the real strength of Landline lies in the way in which Rowell demonstrates how people can alter so dramatically over time.

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One From The Archive: ‘John Diamond’ by Leon Garfield ***

Leon Garfield’s John Diamond, which was first published in 1980, has been reissued in a lovely new edition as part of the Vintage Children’s Classics range.  Peter Williamson’s cover design is marvellous, and it fits wonderfully with the darkness of the story.  Vintage have recommended that the book is suitable for everyone over the age of nine, and upon reading it from an adult stance, it is difficult to envision that anybody – indeed, of any age – would dislike it.

9780099583271The novel opens in a manner which immediately piques the interest: ‘I ought to begin with the footsteps, but first of all I must tell you that my name is William Jones and that I was twelve years old when I began to hear them’.  His father tells him whilst on his deathbed that he ‘swindled’ Mr Diamond out of a great fortune, and thus, the main thread of the story concerns William’s travels to London to ‘make amends’ with his late father’s old business partner.  The ‘murky big city, with its sinister characters and treacherous back streets’ is clearly no place for him.

William tells us that ‘This story is about my father, chiefly.  He was a tall, handsome man, with his own hair, his own teeth, and, in fact, with nothing false about him’. After his father’s death, he goes on to say, ‘I knew that, until I found Mr Diamond, neither my father nor I would ever have peace.  Night after night he would shuffle and drag across the floor, amd night after night I would hear him; unless I left the house and set out on the journey that would lay his ghost’.

John Diamond is rather atmospheric at times, and it is filled with childish and rather amusing caricatures of those around William.  His Uncle Turner, for example, with his ‘bullying face’ and ‘strong smell of peppermint’, was ‘a stern, God-fearing man, and I think the feeling must have been mutual – God, I mean, being frightened of him’.  William himself is brave and likeable, and much care and compassion is built up for him as the novel progresses.

Garfield’s novel is cleverly crafted, the first person narration works marvellously, and plot details are dripped in at intervals throughout to keep the interest of the reader.  Vintage have lovingly overseen the production of John Diamond, adding rather a fun section called ‘The Backstory’ at the end of the book, which invited readers to learn how to speak in Cockney rhyming slang, as well as providing a quiz, an author biography, and facts about London in the time in which the novel is set.  John Diamond is certainly deserving of this reprinting, and it is sure to be a wonderful addition to any bookshelf.

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