1

One From the Archive: ‘A Fifty-Year Silence: Love, War and a Ruined House in France’ by Miranda Richmond Mouillot ****

First published in February 2015.

A Fifty-Year Silence: Love, War and a Ruined House in France has been hailed both ‘a rich and evocative portrait of Mouillot’s family spanning three generations’, and ‘a heartbreaking, uplifting love story spanning two continents’.  In her debut work, Mouillot ‘seeks to confront and illuminate a shadow that haunts every family: the past, which is at once sharply present and maddeningly vague’.

9780804140669A Fifty-Year Silence presents an ‘honest account’ of her grandparents’ separation, and the consequent problems which their offspring and only grandchild, Miranda, were caused.  Anna and Armand purchased an old stone house in the south of France after surviving the Nazi occupation during the Second World War.  Five years after they had moved, Anna left, ‘taking the typewriter and their children.  They never met again’.

In her author’s note, Mouillot tells us that this ‘is a true story, but it is a work of memory, not a work of history’.  The whole has been based, for the most part, upon letters, diaries, and conversations had with her grandparents, as well as her own memories of them.  Mouillot is descended from a family of Holocaust survivors, ‘with a lot of bad memories to cope with’.  These feelings were passed down to her; she tells us: ‘I kept my shoes near the front door, so I could grab them quickly if we had to escape in a hurry, but then I’d lie awake and worry we’d have to use the back door instead’, and ‘the unspoken question that nettled me was not whether such a thing [as losing a house] could happen but how many houses you could lose in a lifetime’.

A Fifty-Year Silence begins in a manner which immediately gives us a feel for Mouillot’s grandparents: ‘When I was born, my grandmother tied a red ribbon around my left wrist to ward off the evil eye.  She knew what was ahead of me and what was behind me, and though she was a great believer in luck and the hazards of fortune, she wasn’t about to take any chances on me’.  She then goes on to say: ‘My grandmother practiced a peculiar and intensive form of self-sufficiency.  She wasn’t a wilderness type; she just knew that in the end, the only person she could truly rely upon was herself’.  Her seeming incompatibility with her stubborn, set-in-his-ways grandfather, is discussed at length. Mouillot believed that her grandparents were ‘more than opposites, or perhaps less; they were like the north poles of two magnets, impossible to push close enough together in my mind to make any kind of comparison, let alone a connection’.

From the first, Mouillot’s narrative is engaging, and she presents her voyage of self- and familial-discovery marvellously.  The flashbacks of her grandparents’ comments, and musings about their early lives have been woven along with her own youth.  She weaves in the tale of how she herself fell in love with La Roche, the decrepit, crumbling house two miles away from the nearest village, and an hour north of Avignon, whilst visiting as a teenager, and how she has now made the region her home.  A Fifty-Year Silence is incredibly interesting, and it has been so lovingly written that it truly is a treat to settle down with.

0

One From the Archive: ‘The Woman Upstairs’ by Claire Messud *****

First published in August 2018.

I read Claire Messud’s The Burning Girl whilst on holiday in Florida last year, and thoroughly enjoyed it.  I have been keen to read the rest of her oeuvre ever since, and picked up her fourth novel, The Woman Upstairs, which was first published in 2013.

Lionel Shriver, an author whose work I very much admire, writes that ‘Messud’s prose is a delight…  addictive, memorable, intense.’  Of this novel, the Sunday Times reflects that protagonist Nora is ‘a clear-eyed and fiercely self-critical narrator…  It’s beautiful, and it’s moving, and it feels true.’  The Economist declares that ‘Rage and sorrow burn so fiercely off the pages of this novel…  this is Nora’s conversation with herself, as she spins on a “mental gerbil wheel”, trying to comprehend a betrayal so foul it continues to unsettle long after the last page is turned.’  The Guardian writes ‘Rarely has the mundane been so dazzling’.9780307743763

Nora Eldridge is the protagonist and narrator of The Woman Upstairs.  She is a forty-two-year-old woman who says of herself: ‘I’m a good girl, I’m a nice girl, I’m a straight-A, strait-laced, good daughter, good career girl, and I never stole anybody’s boyfriend…’.  She is a former third grade teacher living in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  In the reflections which she makes upon a pivotal meeting and subsequent friendship in her life, this is the position which she holds.  Of her career, which she moves away from in the present day part of the story, she muses: ‘… and maybe I’ll go back and do it again, I just don’t know.  Maybe, instead, I’ll set the world on fire.  I just might.’

It is when a young boy named Reza Shahid joins her class, whilst his academic father is undertaking a year at Harvard from his post at a Paris University, that things begin to change for Nora.  ‘It all started with the boy,’ begins chapter two.  ‘With Reza.  Even when I saw him last – for the last time ever – this summer, when he was and had been for years no longer the same, almost a young man, with the illogical proportions, the long nose, the pimples and cracking voice of incipient adulthood, I still saw in him the perfection that was.  He glows in my mind’s eye, eight years old and a canonical boy, a child from a fairy tale.’  She goes on, in quite striking prose, to describe the spell which he soon casts over children and staff alike: ‘Exceptional.  Adaptable.  Compassionate.  Generous.  So intelligent.  So quick.  So sweet.  With such a sense of humor.  What did any of our praise mean, but that we’d all fallen in love with him, a bit, and were dazzled?’  Nora soon has the opportunity to meet Reza’s parents, Skandar and Sirena, and soon becomes obsessed with the whole family.

I was immediately pulled in.  Nora’s narrative voice feels authentic from the first page, and she is a highly engaging narrator throughout, unusual in her viewpoints and outlooks.  Messud uses language in markedly interesting ways, and she creates such depth in Nora.  The Woman Upstairs is candid and darkly funny, with a realistic cast of flawed characters.  Messud presents a brooding and memorable reflection upon friendship and family, and the things which we really need in life.  By the end of this unpredictable and surprising novel, I felt that I knew Nora intimately.  In every respect, The Woman Upstairs is a wonderful and powerful novel, and I cannot recommend it enough.

2

One From the Archive: ‘Ghost Wall’ by Sarah Moss ****

I consistently enjoy Sarah Moss’ novels, and was so excited when I found out about the 2018 release of her novella, Ghost Wall.  The premise, which revolves around a seventeen-year-old girl named Silvie, who is spending her summer at an Iron Age reenactment with her strict father and put-upon mother, intrigued me, and I found myself absorbed in the story from the very beginning.51uqxbrcmll-_sx324_bo1204203200_1

It is difficult to pinpoint quite when this takes place, but a couple of clues given place it in the late 1980s or early 1990s.  Silvie finds herself in the camp, which lies in a remote area of Northumberland, due to her bus driver father’s passion for history.  They are living there for some time, along with Professor Jim Slade and three of his students, as ‘an exercise in experimental archaeology’.  Silvie’s father is an ‘abusive man, obsessed with recreating the discomfort, brutality and harshness of Iron Age life.  Behind and ahead of Silvie’s narrative is the story of a bog girl, a sacrifice, a woman killed by those closest to her’.  The stories of Silvie and this unnamed ‘bog girl’ become linked in rather a horrifying way toward the end of the novella.

I very much liked the opening of this story, which felt stylistically Moss-like from its first paragraph.  The prologue begins with a series of quite choppy but very descriptive sentences, which immediately give one a feel for the darkness of the book: ‘They bring her out.  Not blindfolded, but eyes widened to the last sky, the last light.  The last cold bites her fingers and her face, the stones bruise her bare feet.  There will be more stones, before the end.’  As with this example, Moss places small clues throughout for the reader to piece together.

Ghost Wall is highly sensual.  As with all of Moss’ novels and, indeed, her non-fiction, there is a constant awareness of the natural world, and the ways in which it shifts.  Such an atmosphere is built, in what feels like an effortless manner.  In the prologue, for instance, Moss writes of the bog girl: ‘She is whimpering, keening now.  The sound echoes across the marsh, sings through the bare branches of rowan and birch.’  This is continued when Silvie’s first person perspective begins in the first chapter: ‘Within a few days, our feet would wear a path through the trees to the stream, but that first night there was moss underfoot, squashy in the dim light, and patches of wild strawberries so ripe and red they were still visible in the dusk, as if glowing…  Bats flashed through the space between branches, mapping depth into the flat sky, their calls brushing the upper range of my hearing.’

Silvie has depth and range to her character, and she is particularly believable for her flaws and naivety.  When asked by one of the students whether she plans to go to University, her immediate response demonstrates the stifled, lonely life which she has lived thus far: ‘Stop questioning me, I thought, but I didn’t quite know how to ask anything of my own.  How do you leave home, how do you get away, how do you not go back?’  As the novella goes on, Silvie lets the reader know small details of her upbringing.  She talks, to herself at least, about her father’s psychological abuse in an eloquent manner, but the physical abuse is almost baldly stated.  Of her mother, for instance, she says: ‘There was a new bruise on her arm’, before entirely changing the thread of her narrative.

Ghost Wall has been impeccably researched and, to me, the story felt like rather an original one.  I have never read anything quite like it before.  The sense of foreboding is built wonderfully, and whilst quite different in some ways to Moss’ other books, it is sure to delight and chill her fans in equal measure.

Purchase from The Book Depository

0

One From the Archive: ‘One Writer’s Beginnings’ by Eudora Welty ****

First published in July 2018.

I very much enjoy Eudora Welty’s fiction, but know comparatively little about her childhood.  I read the wonderful What There Is To Say We Have Said a couple of years ago, which features much of the correspondence between Welty and another favourite author of mine, William Maxwell.  This autobiographical work, which is composed of a wealth of memories largely from Welty’s Mississippi childhood, works as a wonderful companion volume.

Of One Writer’s Beginnings, William Maxwell writes, ‘It is all wonderful…  The parts of the book that are about her family… are by turns hilarious and affecting.  They are a kind of present… from Miss Welty to her audience.’  Penelope Lively believes it to be a piece of ‘entrancing reading’, and Paul Binding writes in the New Statesman: ‘A writer for whom “genius” is for once a not inappropriate word…  A book of great sensitivity – as controlled and yet aspiring as a lyric poem.’

9780674639270In One Writer’s Beginnings, which was first published in 1984, Welty decided to tell her story in one ‘continuous thread of revelation’.  The book provides, says its blurb, ‘… an exploration of memory by one of America’s finest writers, whose many honours include the Pulitzer Prize, the American Book Award for Fiction, and the Gold Medal for the novel.’  This book consists of three essays – ‘Listening’, ‘Learning to See’, and ‘Finding a Voice’ – which have been transcribed from a set of three lectures which Welty gave at Harvard University in April 1983.

When ‘Listening’ begins, Welty’s words set the scene immediately: ‘In our house on North Congress Street in Jackson, Mississippi, where I was born, the oldest of three children, in 1909, we grew up to the striking of clocks.’  Throughout, Welty’s voice is lyrical, candid, and often quite moving.  She reveals her deep love of books, which was present even when she was a tiny child.  ‘I learned,’ she writes, ‘from the age of two or three that any room in our house, at any time of day, was there to read in, or be read to.’  Welty’s writing is particularly beautiful when she discusses her love of stories: ‘It had been startling and disappointing to me to find out that story books had been written by people, that books were not natural wonders, coming up of themselves like grass.  Yet regardless of where they came from, I cannot remember a time when I was not in love with them – with the books themselves, cover and binding and the paper they were printed on, with their smell and their weight and with their possession in my arms, captured and carried off to myself.  Still illiterate, I was ready for them, committed to all the reading I could give them.’

In a series of vignettes, Welty talks about stargazing, singing, childhood illness, learning the alphabet, religion, schooling, and the quirks of her in some ways unconventional parents, amongst other things.  The imagery which she conjures up is often lovely; for instance: ‘All children in those small-town, unhurried days had a vast inner life going on in the movies.  Whole families attended together in the evenings, at least once a week, and children were allowed to go without chaperone in the long summer afternoons – schoolmates with their best friends, pairs of little girls trotting on foot the short distance through the park to town under their Japanese parasols.’  When she discusses the travels which she went on with her family each summer, she writes of their positive effect upon her later writing: ‘I think now, in looking back on these summer trips – this one and a number later, made in the car and on the train – that another element in them must have been influencing my mind.  The trips were wholes unto themselves.  They were stories.  Not only in form, but their taking on direction, movement, development, change.  They changed something in my life: each trip made its particular revelation, though I could not have found words for it.  But with the passage of time, I could look back on them and see them bringing me news, discoveries, premonitions, promises – I still can; they still do.’

One Writer’s Beginnings spans Welty’s childhood, and includes comparatively brief reflections about her time at college, and the early days of her writing career.  She is insightful about the creation of her characters, and the knowledge which one must have as an author to create enough depth.  ‘Characters take on a life sometimes by luck,’ writes Welty, ‘but I suspect it is when you can write most entirely out of yourself, inside the skin, heart, mind, and soul of a person who is not yourself, that a character becomes in his own right another human being on the page.’

One Writer’s Beginnings is a beautifully written celebration of stories, of Welty’s own, and of those which filled her girlhood.  I was pulled in immediately, transported to the Deep South in the early twentieth century.  This is a joyous account, filled with depth and insight.  Welty’s voice is utterly charming, and sometimes quite profound.  I shall close this review with one of the most wonderful quotes from the book: ‘The memory is a living thing – it too is in transit.  But during the moment, all that is remembered joins and lives – the old and the young, the past and the present, the living and the dead.’

0

One From the Archive: ‘A Creative Conversation with Kirsty Logan’

First published in 2016.

I have something a little different, but still eminently literary, for you today! At the University of Glasgow, we are lucky enough to have some excellent extracurricular talks organised for us by the English and Creative Writing departments. These are arranged under the umbrella heading of ‘Creative Conversations’, and take place every Monday lunchtime. Yesterday marked the first of these, and what better guest could the University have selected but Creative Writing alumna Kirsty Logan?

3744I am quite a fan of Logan’s work, and have been for rather a long time now (you can read my gushing review of The Gracekeepers here).  Although yesterday’s crowd sadly didn’t quite fill the chapel in which the Conversations take place, the audience felt warm and receptive, and I can only hope that Logan felt the same about this.

Suitably Hallowe’en themed down to Logan’s skeleton-themed outfit, the hour-long talk began with a spellbinding reading of ‘The Keep’, and included a new and incredibly chilling story entitled ‘My Body Cannot Forget Your Body’.  The tales were interspersed with questions from the chair Rob Maslin, and members of the audience.  I came unprepared, I am sad to admit, and therefore didn’t volunteer myself to ask anything, but I very much enjoyed the breadth of the questions which were asked, and doubt I could have done much better myself.  They ranged from the inspiration which Logan found on her recent month-long trip to an Icelandic writers’ retreat, to the influence of her family members upon her writing; the short of it is that she does not tend to write about those she knows, as ‘everyone needs a secret which they can keep just to themselves’.

Logan discussed many things about her writing: perspective, and the use of the first and second person narrative voices (‘I quite like the reader to inhabit the story… so each has a different interpretation.  Anything’s right…  You should always give the reader space…  I quite like to speak to the reader… [and] use a direct address’); her preference of writing short stories with the use of a frame narrative; her hope to always be able to alternate between writing novels and short stories; her upcoming project (which will be set in a pseudo-Icelandic landscape); and her insistence that she doesn’t count herself as a novelist.  Rather, she inferred, she prefers to write a lot of short stories and link them together.  She is interested – as anyone who has read any of her work will know – in experimenting with the traditional form, and takes much inspiration from fairytales.  As an impatient reader herself, wanting the author to get straight into the action, she has always been inspired by the directness of fairytales and their power.  She also spoke at length about the timelessness of the fairytale form, and how we in the modern world can still relate to the tales; indeed, ‘The Keep’ is a retelling of ‘Bluebeard’.

In the pipeline for Logan are more books (both a short story collection and a novel), a visual arts project, and a couple of films.  She also expressed her longing to work on written video games.  She is currently attempting to write about things which scare her, prompted in part by the isolated writers’ retreat, in which she was left alone for great parts of the day away from her friends and family.  This led her to speak about her craft: ‘I can’t write when I’m happy.  When I write I need to be sad, or lonely, or grieving in some way’.  The writing side of her life is viewed by her almost as an alter ego; a ‘separate persona’ that she ‘vaguely’ knows.  This distinction is important for her: ‘Everything I write is so personal, but then as soon as it’s on the page, it isn’t you anymore’.

Eloquent and warm, Kirsty Logan is a marvellous speaker, with a wonderful reading voice, and full and thoughtful responses to everything asked of her.  The inaugural Creative Conversation of this season was wonderful, and hopefully paves the way for many more interesting and inspiring talks.  I shall leave the last word to Logan herself: ‘We can still find truth in stories’.

(Just FYI, Kirsty’s blog is a wonderful place to go to if you’re looking for something a little different to read.)

0

One From the Archive: ‘The Brothers’ by Asko Sahlberg ****

First published in 2016.

The Brothers is an early Peirene publication, and one I had not been able to find a copy of.  It really took my fancy, particularly since I will happily read anything set within the bounds of Scandinavia.  This particular novella takes the Finland of 1809 as its setting, and has been translated from its original Finnish by Emily and Fleur Jeremiah.  The blurb hails it ‘a Shakespearean drama from icy Finland’, and it has been written by an author who is quite the celebrity in his native land. 9780956284068

The brothers of the book’s title are Henrik and Erik, who fought on opposing sides in the war between Sweden and Russia.  To borrow a portion of the blurb, ‘with peace declared, they both return to their snowed-in farm.  But who is the master?  Sexual tensions, old grudges, family secrets: all come to a head in this dark and gripping saga’.  Its attention-grabbing beginning immediately sets the scene, and demonstrates the chasm of difference between our protagonists: ‘I have barely caught the crunch of snow and I know who is coming.  Henrik treads heavily and unhurriedly, as is his wont, grinding his feet into the earth.  The brothers are so different.  Erik walks fast, with light steps; he is always in a hurry, here then gone’.  Later, of Henrik, Erik tells Anna: ‘… he said that we came into this world in the wrong order.  That he’s not comfortable here and doesn’t want to remain here, that he wants to see the world’.

Multiple narrators lead us through the whole.  We are treated to the distinctive voices of the farmhand, Anna, Henrik, Erik, and their mother, the Old Mistress.  This technique makes The Brothers feel like a multi-layered work from the very beginning.  Their voices are distinctive, and the farmhand especially – contrary perhaps to expectations – is sometimes rather profound: ‘A human being never sheds his past.  He drags it around like an old overcoat and you know him by this coat, by the way it looks and smells.  Henrik’s coat is heavy and gloomy, exuding the dark stench of blood’.

As one might expect, the landscape plays a big part in this novella, as does darkness, both literally and metaphorically.  Characters are often compared to things like trees and woodpiles.  Sahlberg captures things magnificently; he is perceptive of the smallest of details.  Of the Old Mistress, he writes: ‘Her eyes change again.  A moment ago, they were shaded.  Now they darken, open out in the middle, become tiny black abysses which suck in the gaze’.  His prose is thoughtful too, and he continually views things through the lens of others, thinking to great effect how a particular scene will make an individual feel.  For instance, the Old Mistress says, ‘But boys are fated to grow into men, and a mother has to follow this tragedy as a silent bystander.  And now it seems they will kill each other, and then this, too, can be added to my neverending list of losses’.  Sahlberg is that rare breed of writer who can get inside his characters’ heads, no matter how disparate they are, and regardless of their gender and age.  Each voice here feels authentic, peppered with concerns and thoughts which are utterly believable, and which are specifically tailored to the individual.

The politics of the period have been woven in to good effect, but Sahlberg makes it obvious that it is the characters which are his focus.  Their backstories are thorough and believable; they are never overdone.  The Brothers is an absorbing novella and, as with all of Peirene’s publications, a great addition and perfect fit to their growing list of important translated novellas.

1

One From the Archive: A Very Bookish Book Trail

First published in 2016.

I am focusing upon books about books here, one of my favourite genres to read.  I have used as my inspiration an absolute gem which I re-read back in September, Helene Hanff’s charmingly witty 84 Charing Cross Road.  We go through a host of wonderful books, some of which I have read, and some of which are high on my wishlist.

97807515038451. 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff
It all began with a letter inquiring about second-hand books, written by Helene Hanff in New York, and posted to a bookshop at 84, Charing Cross Road in London. As Helene’s sarcastic and witty letters are responded to by the stodgy and proper Frank Doel of 84, Charing Cross Road, a relationship blossoms into a warm and charming long-distance friendship lasting many years.

2. Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman
Anne Fadiman is–by her own admission–the sort of person who learned about sex from her father’s copy of Fanny Hill, whose husband buys her 19 pounds of dusty books for her birthday, and who once found herself poring over her roommate’s 1974 Toyota Corolla manual because it was the only written material in the apartment that she had not read at least twice.   This witty collection of essays recounts a lifelong love affair with books and language. For Fadiman, as for many passionate readers, the books she loves have become chapters in her own life story. Writing with remarkable grace, she revives the tradition of the well-crafted personal essay, moving easily from anecdotes about Coleridge and Orwell to tales of her own pathologically literary family. As someone who played at blocks with her father’s 22-volume set of Trollope (“My Ancestral Castles”) and who only really considered herself married when she and her husband had merged collections (“Marrying Libraries”), she is exquisitely well equipped to expand upon the art of inscriptions, the perverse pleasures of compulsive proof-reading, the allure of long words, and the satisfactions of reading out loud. There is even a foray into pure literary gluttony–Charles Lamb liked buttered muffin crumbs between the leaves, and Fadiman knows of more than one reader who literally consumes page corners. Perfectly balanced 9780140283709between humor and erudition, Ex Libris establishes Fadiman as one of our finest contemporary essayists.

3. A Passion for Books: A Book Lover’s Treasury… by Howard Rabinowicz
“When I have a little money, I buy books. And if any is left, I buy food and clothing.” — –Desiderius Erasmus — Those who share Erasmus’s love of those curious bundles of paper bound together between hard or soft covers know exactly how he felt. These are the people who can spend hours browsing through a bookstore, completely oblivious not only to the passage of time but to everything else around them, the people for whom buying books is a necessity, not a luxury. A Passion for Books is a celebration of that love, a collection of sixty classic and contemporary essays, stories, lists, poems, quotations, and cartoons on the joys of reading, appreciating, and collecting books.  This enriching collection leads off with science-fiction great Ray Bradbury’s Foreword, in which he remembers his penniless days pecking out Fahrenheit 451 on a rented typewriter, conjuring up a society so frightened of art that it burns its books. This struggle–financial and creative–led to his lifelong love of all books, which he hopes will cosset him in his grave, “Shakespeare as a pillow, Pope at one elbow, Yeats at the other, and Shaw to warm my toes. Good company for far-travelling.”  Booklovers will also find here a selection of writings by a myriad of fellow sufferers from bibliomania. Among these are such contemporary authors as Philip Roth, John Updike, Umberto Eco, Robertson Davies, Nicholas Basbanes, and Anna Quindlen; earlier twentieth-century authors Christopher Morley, A. Edward Newton, Holbrook Jackson, A.S.W. Rosenbach, William Dana Orcutt, Robert Benchley, and William Targ; and classic authors such as Michel de Montaigne, Gustave Flaubert, Petrarch, and Anatole France.  Here also are entertaining and humorous lists such as the “Ten Best-Selling Books Rejected by Publishers Twenty Times or More,” the great books included in Clifton Fadiman and John Major’s New Lifetime Reading Plan, Jonathan Yardley’s “Ten Books That Shaped the American Character,” “Ten Memorable Books That Never Existed,” “Norman Mailer’s Ten Favorite American Novels,” and Anna Quindlen’s “Ten Big Thick Wonderful Books That Could Take You a Whole Summer to Read (but Aren’t Beach Books).”  Rounding out the anthology are selections on bookstores, book clubs, and book care, plus book cartoons, and a specially prepared “Bibliobibliography” of books about books.  Whether you consider yourself a bibliomaniac or just someone who likes to read, A Passion for Books will provide you with a lifetime’s worth of entertaining, informative, and pleasurable reading on your favorite subject–the love of books.

4. The Anatomy of Bibliomania by Holbrook Jackson
Inspects the allure of books, their curative and restorative properties, and the passion for them that leads to bibliomania. This title comments on why we read, where we read – on journeys, at mealtimes, on the toilet (this has ‘a long but mostly unrecorded history’), in bed, and in prison – and what happens to us when we read.

97815559124065. Biblioholism: The Literary Addiction by Tom Raabe
‘A hilarious guide for book lovers that brings book addiction out of the closet.  Have you ever… awakened, the morning after a book-buying spree, unable to remember how many you bought or how much you spent?
been reprimanded or fired for reading on the job?
purchased or rented additional living space… just for your books?
You are not alone. Your complete recovery awaits you — just buy one more book!

6. Slightly Chipped: Footnotes in Booklore by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone
More than a sequel, Slightly Chipped: Footnotes in Booklore is a companion piece for Used and Rare. A delight for the general reader and book collector alike, it details the Goldstones’ further explorations into the curious world of book collecting. In Slightly Chipped, they get hooked on the correspondence and couplings of Bloomsbury; they track down Bram Stoker’s earliest notes for Dracula; and they are introduced to hyper-moderns. Slightly Chipped is filled with all of the anecdotes and esoterica about the world of book collecting that charmed readers of Used and Rare.

7. Shelf Life: Romance, Mystery, Drama, and Other Page-Turning Adventures from a Year in a Book Store by Suzanne Strempek Shea 9780807072585
Suzanne Shea has always loved a good book-and she’s written five of them, all acclaimed. In the course of her ten-year career, she’s done a good bit of touring, including readings and drop-ins at literally hundreds of bookstores. She never visited one that wasn’t memorable.  Two years ago, while recovering from radiation therapy, Shea heard from a friend who was looking for help at her bookstore. Shea volunteered, seeing it as nothing more than a way to get out of her pajamas and back into the world. But over next twelve months, from St. Patrick’s Day through Poetry Month, graduation/Father’s Day/summer reading/Christmas and back again to those shamrock displays, Shea lived and breathed books in a place she says sells’ideas, stories, encouragement, answers, solace, validation, the basic ammunition for daily life.’ Her work was briefly interrupted by an author tour that took her to other great bookstores. Descriptions of these and her memories of book-lined rooms reaching all the way back to childhood visits to the Bookmobile are scattered throughout this charming, humorous, and engrossing account of reading and rejuvenation.  For anyone who loves books, and especially for anyone who has fallen under the spell of a special bookstore, Shelf Life will be required reading.

8. An Alphabetical Life: Living It Up In the World of Books by Wendy Werris
Little did Wendy Werris imagine that when she began a temp job at a Hollywood bookstore in 1970 at age nineteen, she had embarked on a thirty-five year career that would stretch into a journey of self-discovery and literary enlightenment. In An Alphabetical Life, Werris reflects upon how she came to embrace the book culture as her singular way of being in the world. Her career began when the book business was conducted amid an atmosphere of civility and wry humor, and her memoir captures the essence of this time and the people she met along the way. The challenges she faced, in what was then a male-dominated industry, are also discussed — particularly in 1976 when she was one of only two women repping books in the entire country. In describing the hilarious, eccentric characters that were her colleagues, lovers, and partners in crime, the essence of retail bookselling comes alive. Among the figures she profiles are Henry Robbins, editor of The World According to Garp; Alan Kahn, then of Pickwick Bookshop in Los Angeles, now President of Barnes and Noble Publishing; and many great and memorable retail bookbuyers and authors.

0

One From the Archive: ‘The Small Widow’ by Janet McNeill ****

First published in May 2019.

Irish writer Janet McNeill seems to be unjustly underappreciated.  Whilst a prolific author, publishing ten novels for adults and penning a whole host of radio plays, it is her children’s books for which she is most well known – and for those, she seems to be barely remembered.  She has intrigued me ever since I saw her single title, Tea at Four o’Clock, represented on the Virago Modern Classics list.  Whilst I was unable to find a copy of the aforementioned in time for my book club’s monthly author selection, I got my hands on a copy of The Small Widow, and am so pleased that I did.

9780957233652Fortnight writes of McNeill’s work favourably, and draws parallels between her and ‘English novelists such as Barbara Pym, Anita Brookner and, more particularly, Elizabeth Taylor.  What their writing shares… is a subtlety which makes demands of its readers.’  These three are all novelists whom I very much enjoy reading, and I have adored everything of Taylor’s which I have read to date.  I was therefore most excited to begin The Small Widow.

The novel’s protagonist is a middle-aged woman named Julia, who has been left a widow after the death of her husband Harold.  She is ‘alone and struggling with grief as well as her new life.’  She is a mother to four children, none of whom she feels overly comfortable in interacting with, as their relationships have shifted so much since their childhoods.  For the first time, she ‘has to learn independence, she needs to discover who she is when she is no longer a wife and is now a mother to children who do not need her.’  The central question which the novel asks is this: ‘As a widow can Julia find a freedom, an identity, which has never existed in her life before?’

The novel opens with Harold’s funeral: ‘The car slowed, they were approaching the gates.  Julia’s throat tightened, the impossible thing is happening now…  She ached to escape from the pressure of her daughters’ hips, the inevitability of shared warmth and the threat of shared emotion.’  The funeral scene is vivid: ‘The mourners formed into an untidy procession and started in the direction of the grave, trying to find a pace between a stroll and a trot.  The raw wind robbed them of any attempt at dignity.  It plucked their hair and their clothes, snatched the breath out of their mouths and ruffled the tufts of frozen grass.  Only the humped shapes of the dead were undisturbed.’  McNeill goes on to probe Julia’s conflicting emotions about her sudden loss.  At this point in time, when everything is raw and new, she sees her children as ‘… four relentless and dedicated orphans, demanding a formal come-back from her, the Mother Figure, whom they had discarded years ago.  It wasn’t fair.  Julia felt that she needed protection from them.’

The Small Widow is told using the third person omniscient perspective, which has been interspersed with Julia’s opinions and concerns.  In this way, McNeill makes us party to Julia’s innermost thoughts, and the secretive, one-sided conversations which she imagines with her husband: ‘I’ll do my mourning for you later, Harold.  Just now I am getting through this the best way I can.  You could have coped magnificently with my funeral, Harold.  I don’t know how to cope with yours.’  These asides continue throughout the book, and are particularly poignant when Julia considers her children.  Of her son, Johnnie, who lives in an outbuilding on her property, and runs a small bookshop, she thinks: ‘To him I’m not a person in the ordinary sense of the word.  I was typecast the minute the cord was cut.  I have been drained and diminished by motherhood.  I am a collection of attitudes, a pocket-sized matriarch whom it is traditional to have around…  It doesn’t help these self-made creatures to remember they are the children of my body.  I have done my job.  I am allowed, expected, to love them still, but at a decent distance.’

Julia’s concerns do not just affect her family.  Some of them are deeply personal, and seem trivial at first to outsiders.  She therefore keeps her grievances private, sometimes excruciatingly so.  She is forced to make all sorts of adjustments, and get used to the absence of things which she has grown so accustomed to throughout her long marriage.  For instance, ‘During the day the uninhabited area of the bed made her embarrassed.  One didn’t think of bereavement as posing problems like this.  One expected anguish, not embarrassment.  (I shall feel anguish in a week or two, Harold, just now there isn’t anything much that I feel.  It was puzzling to know what to do about the space here and all through the house that Harold used to occupy.  Presumably time would spill over and close the gaps, like the bark of a tree when it has been cut.’  She develops coping mechanisms; if she does not move from her place on the sofa or in bed for the entirety of the day, for example, ‘she wouldn’t notice that she was by herself.’

The Small Widow was first published in 1967, and was the only book which McNeill wrote whilst living outside Northern Ireland.  In the novel, she ‘anticipates many of the concerns of the 1970’s women’s movement in its awareness of the restricted role of women in the traditional family and marriage.’  I liked the way in which McNeill pushed against these limitations, giving Julia a voice and authority of her own, which built as the novel went on.  I found myself rooting for our central character, who rises above the opinions which others around her hold of women in her particular position, and the demands which they often make upon her.  The Small Widow feels far more modern, in many ways, than it is; Julia’s concerns are still prevalent in today’s society, particularly with regard to loneliness, and the shifting relationships between parents and their grown children.  The familial relationships here are revealing, and have a complexity to them; they shift both with time, and as a consequence of Julia finding her voice.

As a character portrait, The Small Widow is striking.  Throughout, Julia has a great deal of depth to her, and I found her surprising rather than predictable.  Her character arc alters  believably due to her circumstances.  On the basis of this well-sculpted novel, it is evident why one of her books has been published by Virago; it is just a shame that more haven’t followed suit.

0

One From the Archive: ‘What There Is To Say We Have Said: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and William Maxwell’, edited by Suzanne Marrs *****

First published in 2016.

What There Is To Say We Have Said: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and William Maxwell is one of my most anticipated books – well, ever.  Maxwell is one of my favourite writers (and it pains me that he is so little known), and I very much admire Welty.  Regardless, I knew little about them as individuals, so when I spotted this volume, I immediately put it at the top of my birthday list. 97805477503231

Marrs’ introduction is wonderful.  She writes with such passion, and compassion, for her subjects.  From the very beginning, I knew that I would have loved to meet both of those whom Marrs clearly deeply admires.  Welty was an incredibly sassy, shrewd woman; of Jane Austen’s house, she wrote that it ‘looks big, but is really small.  The opposite of her novels.’  Bill, who struck up a wondrous friendship with her, was an incredibly humble, humane man, filled with a myriad of thoughts, and devoted to all of those around him.

It goes without saying that both are incredible writers.  Learning about the process of their craft was fascinating enough, but getting to know the pair as individuals was far more rewarding.  That rare thing is so evident here; that enduring friendship, built upon mutual respect, which was all the more cherished as the two lived far from one another (Maxwell in New York, and Welty in Mississippi).  They could see one another only at long intervals, but in some ways, both found this beneficial; the therapeutic motion of penning (semi-) regular letters to one another lasted for decades, and much was learnt about the other in consequence.

What There Is To Say We Have Said is a stunning read, and I was a little sad when I came to its end.  Throughout, one is nudged to remember just how important communication is (and just how much the majority of us in the modern world almost instantaneous communication for granted), and how beautiful the art of letter writing.  There is not a single dull sentence in this 450-page long volume, and if it had been twice as long, I would have been thrilled.

I could type out quotes at length here, but I shall leave you, dear reader, with the ones which really touched me:
– Maxwell to Welty: ‘There are enough similarities in our two childhoods to make me feel […] that they grew up on a tandem bicycle.’
– Maxwell to Welty, on the publication of one of her works: ‘But I wanted to write to you now, because when a book first comes out, it is really like a party, and when I am invited to a party, I like to come early.’

2

One From the Archive: ‘Eat Up!: Food, Appetite and Eating What You Want’ by Ruby Tandoh *****

First published in July 2018.

Anyone who knows me will know what a huge fan of food I am.  I adore cooking new recipes, playing around with flavours, and visiting new restaurants.  It comes as no surprise, then, that I have wanted to read Ruby Tandoh’s Eat Up!: Food, Appetite and Eating What You Want ever since it came out.  Many will remember Tandoh from The Great British Bake Off, of which she was a contestant in 2013.

In her insightful introduction, Tandoh gives her reasoning for writing such a positive 9781781259597book about food; it directly goes against the wealth of dieting and fitness crazes which have swept the United Kingdom over the last few years.  She begins by rubbishing the often contradictory dietary advice which we hear almost daily on the news: ‘We don’t want to go hungry, we don’t want to be too greedy, we don’t want to live too exuberantly, we don’t want to be a kill-joy.  We fret about our size and shape, and too often police the bodies of others.  We accept the lie that there’s a perfect way of eating that will save your soul and send you careering blithely through your eighties, into your nineties and beyond.  Do what you want, we’re told – but you’ll die if you get it wrong.’

The main exploration in Eat Up! is ‘everything that happens in the peripheries when we take a bite: the cultures that birth the foods we love, the people we nurture, the science of flavour and the ethics of eating.’  Tandoh recognises the splendour of all food, regardless of its preparation; she shows the myriad ways in which food is directly linked with how we feel, and what we need in our lives.  ‘Not every meal,’ she writes, ‘will be in some sunlight dappled orange grove; sometimes what you need is a pasty by the side of the M4, and there’s no harm in that.’  Food can also be used as a tool in order to bring people together; it ‘transgresses the “boundaries” between here and there, us and them, me and you, until we are all just bundles of matter, eating and being eaten.’

The celebration of food is linked in with Tandoh’s own memories: the blackberry bush near her grandmother’s Essex garden; eating a huge Indian takeaway with her girlfriend when both were suffering with influenza; the food which comforted her when her grandfather died.  She also touches upon her own relationship with food in the past, and the eating disorders which she has dealt with in the past.  Eat Up! is highly revealing in this manner.  Never does it feel preachy, or as though Tandoh is hard done by in any sense; rather, it feels like sitting down and having a conversation with the very best, and most intelligent, of friends.

The history of food, and the ways in which we eat, have both been touched upon here.  The research which Tandoh has done is impeccable; facts and statistics blend seamlessly into her narrative.  So many issues are explored which can be linked to food and eating: those around weight, how we eat in public, the joy of seasonal eating, the diet industry, culture, eating trends, food as power, comfort food, and the scientific processes of digestion, amongst others.  This varied content, all of which has food at its centre, is fascinating, and makes for an incredibly engaging and coherent book.

Eat Up! is, pardon the pun, a delicious book; it is warm and understanding, and filled with love and humour.  Such positivity abounds; throughout, Tandoh cheers for the existence of every body, no matter its size or shape.  We all need to be nourished, and we need to feel happy when we eat.  In this manner, Tandoh weaves together a fascinating narrative about food, peppered with recipes for every occasion, and body positivity.  ‘The way you feel about food,’ she points out, ‘sits hand in hand with the way you feel about yourself, and if you eat happily and wholeheartedly, food will make you strong.’  I thoroughly enjoyed the reading experience of Eat Up!, and know that it’s a tome I will dip into again and again.