For once I am not racing to get the Bookends post done before the weekend disappears. Maybe it’s the Indian summer we are currently experiencing in the UK that has stimulated my productivity?
This week I bring you an article about one woman’s bid to read 200 female writers by 2020, how to tackle the challenge of reading challenging books and a novel
Book: Ash by Alys Einin..
My book choice today comes from Honno, an independent women’s press based in Wales. This is the second novel by Alys Einon who somehow finds the time to write in between her work as an associate professor in midwifery and women’s health and a part-time lecturer for the Open University.
Ash is the story of a woman who runs away from an abusive marriage in Saudi Arabia with her four sons and infant daughter, Aisha. She finds sanctuary with a community of women at Blossom House but is always fearful that her husband will come looking for his children.
It’s a while since I read anything by Honno but this is a good opportunity to make up for lost time.
Blog Post: Unhappy experiences reading assigned books
CurlyGeek has been making good progress with a ReadHarder challenge this year but the latest requirement, to revisit a classic that she hated, has her thinking back to other unhappy experiences with classics. In her latest update she names Jane Eyre as her nemesis but also still bears scars from being made to read Crime and Punishment, The Grapes of Wrath and The Scarlet Letter.
I bet everyone has their own bête noires from their time in the education system.
Mine would be:
Comus by John Milton. Can you imagine anything more unlikely to interest a bunch of hormone-charged sixteen-year-olds than a 17th century masque in honour of chastity? I have no recollection about the plot or the characters – I simply remember it as being deadly dull.
Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev. This was something to do with a student and the gulf of understanding between him and his father. I had my usual difficulty with Russian novels – the way that characters seem to have more than one name, making it doubly hard to keep track of who each person is.
The Rover by Aphra Behn. This was a set text on an Open University literature course, selected I strongly suspect because it was felt there should be a recognition of women writers. Even seeing a production starring Daniel Craig (many many years before he became famous as James Bond) did nothing to increase my enjoyment of this text.
Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I know that for some people, my inclusion of this novel is tantamount to heresy. Sorry everyone but I just don’t get what all the fuss is about. It’s ok but nothing more. I’ve read it three times and get the same reaction each time.
What would be on your list??
Article: 200 books by women writers
Sophie Baggott was shocked to learn that male authors account for two thirds of the translated fiction market. Three months ago she set out to change her own reading habits by embarking on a project to read 200 books by women authors from around the world by the year 2020.
Her starting point she says was ” a realisation that anglocentric and male-dominated reading habits were blinkering my worldview.”
She’s now 10% of the way to achieving her goal and has put a list together of books she has read so far, and the countries she has yet to visit. The Guardian article in which she explains her project is here. She has also created a blog where she lists the books she has read and the countries she has yet to visit. I’m going to watch this with interest because in my own world of literature project (one that is considerably more modest in scale than Sophie’s) I have struggled to find authors from some countries and I wasn’t giving myself the added hurdle of only reading female authors.
And so that’s a wrap for this episode of Bookends. Have you found anything new exciting and to read this week that might entice me?
Friday was St David’s Day here in Wales, the feast day of our patron saint. It’s a day when the nation is meant to celebrate our heritage and what it means to be Welsh. In my childhood, it meant going to school dressed in our national costume of a black and white check skirt, white blouse, red shawl and the most ludicrous of black hats, and spending hours singing and reciting poetry (in Welsh).
Fortunately these days I can mark the day in rather more refined fashion – which was why this week I indulged in A Few Selected Exits, the autobiography of one of most eminent writers Gwyn Thomas.
Gwyn was born in 1913 as the twelfth child of a coal miner in the Rhondda valleys of South Wales. His mother died when he was six and it was left to his sisters to care for the family, relying often on soup kitchens particularly during the depression years of the 1920s or when the miners went on strike for better working conditions.
For boys like him there was scant hope of escaping the desperate poverty of this area; he was destined like his elder brothers to follow them down the mines. But Gwyn miraculously escaped by virtue of a scholarship to read Spanish at Oxford university. It might have seemed his life had turned a corner but he struggled to find full-time work and to get his novels and plays published. Only in 1946 did his work come to the attention of the BBC and he was commissioned to write for the radio, then became a regular panelist on the prestigious BBC Brains Trust chat show and a regular presenter and respected commentator on Welsh politics and life in general.
His was a mellifluous voice that could ring with wit and humour one moment and then soar with passion the next. His oration at the commemoration service for the Aberfan disaster is a tremendous example of his ability to perfectly project the mood of a nation stricken with grief with humanity and gravitas.
In A Few Selected Exits, it’s his wit, his love of words, and his powers of observation that are most evident as he describes his life through a series of comic episodes and a cast of hilarious characters like Nim Jones a young neighbour who constantly dashes about the village with gossip.
However quietly, secretely, a thing might happen, Nim would get to know and he instantly became a vibrant wire stretched from one end of the village to the other, telling the facts. Ned was shouting my name and his face was blithe. This gave no clue to the nature of the news he bore. Rape, arson, theft, subsidence, all flowed with equal ease into the net of Nim’s enjoyment.
Thomas tells these stories in a conversational tone that reveals little about himself but much about his love for his fellow countrymen and their eccentricities.There are so many passages that it’s hard to choose just one to illustrate his style but one of my favourite episodes from the early part of the book comes when Thomas is persuaded by his headmaster that the one thing he will need in Oxford is an overcoat. Not just any coat, but one made by the valley’s finest tailor. It will act as Gwyn’s armour against those in Oxford who will undoubtedly look down on him. On the day the coat is finished, Gwyn tries it on surrounded by eager neighbours. They all understand the symbolic importance of getting this coat just right.
A large group assembled to see me put the coat on for the first time, for between the ascension of a local boy to Oxford, and the sight of so much new fabric, the occasion was regarded s pretty glossy
When the garment fell into place, there was silence. My father looked at Mr Warlow [the tailor] as if he were the last instalment in some long purchase of perplexity. The coat came to within an inch or two of the floor. The buttons, of prodigious size, seemed to come down just as far as if afraid to let the fabric make the long journey south on its own. Mr Warlow did not seem to have taken my stoop into consideration and the great hoop of collar looked down at my neck either with contempt or just thoughtfully.
On the morning of my departure for the ancient university I marched down the hill to the coach station feeling like an emperor and looking like a cross between Sam Weller and a shrouded dwarf.
It’s passages like these, and many others, that remind me of the first lines of the poem by Brian Harris.
To be born in Wales,
Not with a silver spoon in your mouth,
But, with music in your blood
And with poetry in your soul,
Is a privilege indeed.
Gwyn Thomas certainly never had the the silver spoon but he most assuredly had poetry and music is his soul.