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text 2017-09-01 00:13
Borrowed, and never returned
Haunted Britain - Elliott O'Donnell

To the best of my recollection, I borrowed this book from my friend Betty sometime during my freshman year in high school.  I went to the public school, she attended the Catholic girls' school.  We became friends because our parents belonged to a local service organization.

 

How she obtained the book, I don't know.  There is a sticker inside the front cover for an occult book shop in Philadelphia.  If Betty ever lived there, I have no idea.

 

Betty's mother became seriously ill, and that put an end to our friendship.  We lived some distance apart and had done most of our visiting either at her house (I had a toddler brother at home) or on the phone since we didn't see each other at school.  Her mother's illness precluded my visiting her, and phone calls became shorter and shorter, until eventually we simply lost contact.  Then one day I called her and the phone had been disconnected.

 

 

There are a bunch of O'Donnell's books available as free or 99-cent Kindle editions.

 

I picked up the freebies.

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review 2017-08-30 10:28
Heroines that must honoured
Women in the Great War - Tanya Wynn,Stephen Wynn

Thanks to Pen & Sword for sending me a paperback copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

I’m not sure why but as I read this book I realised I had read much more about World War II than about the Great War, and having a degree in American Studies, I had read a fair bit about American women’s war efforts (during WWII) but knew very little about what women had done during WWI, other than through some war novels where they would appear as nurses, but little else. That was one of the reasons why I was interested in this book from the Pen & Sword’s catalogue. At a time when women didn’t have the vote but were fighting for it, the war and the changes it brought had an enormous impact on the lives of British women (and women in general).

The book is divided into a number of chapters that after setting up the scene (Chapter 1. Women in General), discuss the different organisations and roles women took up during the war. We have chapters dedicated to women who became munition workers (yes, it was not only Rosie the Riveter who took up that task, and it’s amazing to think that women whose roles were so restricted at the time took to heavy factory work with such enthusiasm, despite the risks involved, although there was fun to be had too, like the women’s football teams organised at some of the factories), the Voluntary Air Detachments (Agatha Christie was employed by the VAD as a nurse and dispenser, and it seems her knowledge of medications and substances was to prove very handy in her writing career), The Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (later the Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps, to reflect Queen Mary’s patronage), Women’s Legion and Other Women’s Organisations (including some like the Women’s Land Army, Women Police Volunteer, The Women’s Forage Corps [that required a great deal of physical strength]).

The chapter entitled Individual Women of the Great War includes fascinating stories, most of them worthy of a whole book, like those of Dorothy Lawrence, who dressed as a man and became a soldier although never actually fought, several spies, among them one of the best known and remembered Edith Louisa Cavell, a nurse, and perhaps my favourite, Flora Sanders, who was born in Yorkshire and actually fought in the war and became a Captain in the Serbian Army (and yes, in this case they knew she was a woman but did not seem to mind very much). Another favourite of mine has to be Violet Constance Jessop ‘the unsinkable’ who worked as a stewardess in a number of liners and survived the thinking of three big ships, including the Titanic’s. That never put her off and she worked at sea her whole career and died of old age.

There is a chapter dedicated to those who lost their lives during the war (and were not included in one of the previous chapters). The authors have checked a number of archives and list as many details as are available for these 241 women. For some, there’s only a name, date, and age (and where they were serving), for others there is more information. Reading through the list, that I am sure will be of great help to researchers looking for information on the subject, I was surprised by how many nurses died of what now would be considered pretty trivial illnesses (influenza, many of pneumonia, some of the nurses in far away locations died of dysentery, some of undiagnosed illnesses, or appendicitis) making evident not only how much medical science has advanced but also the precarious and exhausting conditions under which they worked, putting their duty before their own health. Quite a number went down with ships that had either been bombed or had hit mines, and some were unfortunate enough to be killed during raids when they were back home on a permit. In some cases, families lost several members to the war and one can only imagine the effects that must have had on their surviving relatives.

The last chapter mentions Queen Mary and Princess Mary’s war efforts, which had a great impact on monetary donations and on enlistment of both men and women. The conclusion reminds us that women had a great role to play during the Great War, both at home and indeed close to the action.

The book is well researched and combines specific data with personal stories, making it of interest to both researchers and readers who want to know more about that historical period, in particular about women’s history. Some chapters, like the one dedicated to individual women, are a good starting point to encourage further reading and engage the curiosity of those not so familiar with the topic.

A fitting homage to those women, who, as the authors write in the conclusion, should also be honoured on Remembrance Day.

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review 2017-08-18 19:14
A Writer's Diary, Virginia Woolf
A Writer's Diary - Virginia Woolf,Leonard Woolf

For lovers of Virginia Woolf, but also those interested in writing itself, as well as history (Woolf details the approach and beginning of World War II, including the bombing of her home in London). This "writer's diary," edited by husband and first reader, Leonard Woolf, comprises those entries where Woolf discusses her writing and reading as well as encounters with literary acquaintances.

 

There is a pattern to her writing process whereby she's excited about a new idea (which sometimes comes while she's working on another project) and rides a sort of high until she completes it. This is followed by depression and ambivalent feelings about reviews. Some books come easier than others, but the overall pattern remains the same. Every one feels like it might be a failure or badly reviewed, and she attempts to convince herself she doesn't care. The ups and downs in her mood suggest bipolar disorder, which contemporary psychologists believe afflicted her. Knowing her fate (she drowned herself not long after the last entry of this diary) made reading portions very sad.

 

On the other hand, Woolf felt she had just begun to know her own mind in her 40s, which gives me hope! Elements of her process and the way one negative review overrode all the positive responses created a sense of affinity for me as a writer. Woolf changed literature, and I'm glad she kept such a diary.

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review 2017-08-14 10:10
A contemplative look at the life of a village for those who love a different kind of writing.
Reservoir 13: A Novel - Jon McGregor

Thanks to NetGalley and to Haper Collins UK Fourth State for offering me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

I had never read one of Jon McGregor’s novels before but I was curious by the description of this novel and more curious when I saw it had been long-listed for the Man Booker Prize. The biography of the author intrigued me even more and I finally managed to read the book.

The book starts with the disappearance of a thirteen-year-old girl, a visitor holidaying, with her parents, to a village in Britain (not too distant from Manchester and also near enough to Leeds and Sheffield for those cities to make appearances, so probably in the general area where I live). Despite a large search party and much publicity and community effort, the girl does not appear. At first, everything is stopped: Council meetings, Christmas celebrations, the lives of her parents who remain in the village for a long time. Slowly, things go back to almost normal, with only the anniversary of her disappearance as a reminder that something tragic happened there. Life returns to its natural rhythms. There are births, deaths, people get married, separate, get new jobs, are made redundant, people move into the village and out, cricket matches are lost (mostly), the weather is very wet, and occasionally dry, the reservoirs are checked, the quarries exploited or not, there are pantomimes, well-dressing, Mischief nights, birds come and go, clocks go back and forth, foxes are born, bats hibernate, crimes are committed, crops harvested, farm animals looked after…

The novel (if it is a novel) is a slice of the life of the community of that village. The story is told in the third person from an omniscient point of view, and one that seems to be an objective observer that peeps into people’s heads (and observes animals) but without becoming over involved with feelings, just describing what people might think, but not going any further than that. The style of writing is peculiar, and perhaps not suited to everybody’s taste. There are very beautiful sentences and a particular rhythm to the paragraphs, which are not divided according to the different characters’ points of view or stories and can go from weather to animals to a person’s actions. Each anniversary of the girl’s disappearance marks a new year, but, otherwise, there is little to differentiate what happens, other than the chronology and the passing of time for the characters, the houses, and the village itself.

There are no individual characters that have a bigger share of the limelight. We have the youngsters, who had known the missing girl, and we follow them, but we also follow the female priest, the teachers at school, several farmers, a potter, the newspaper editor and his wife, the school keeper and his sister… We get to know a fair bit about each one of them but not at an emotional level, and we become observers too, rather than putting ourselves in the place of the characters to share their feelings and thoughts. It makes for a strange reading experience, and not one everybody will enjoy. It is as if we were supposed to let the words wash over us and explore a different way of reading, pretty much like the passing of life itself.

There is no resolution (there isn’t in life either) and I have read quite a few reviews where readers were disappointed as they kept reading waiting for some sort of final reveal that never comes. We are used to classic narratives with beginning, middle, and end, and being confronted by a different kind of structure can make us uncomfortable. This novel reminded me, in some ways, of the film The Tree of Life directed by Terrence Malick, although in that case, the story was more circumscribed and here it is more choral (and less involved).  Reviewers who know McGregor’s previous work are not in agreement about this novel, as some feel it shows a development of his style and is the best of his yet, whilst others prefer some of his earlier work. My advice to those who have never read him would be to check a sample of the novel and see how they feel (although, remember that the earlier focus on the search for the girl dies down later). This is not a spoiler as the author has said saw in quite a few interviews and it is clear from the description that this is not a mystery novel.

In sum, this is a novel for people interested in new and post-modern writing, rather than for those looking for a conventional story. If you are annoyed by head hopping and strange writing techniques and like to find a clear ending, then stay away from it. If you enjoy meditation and savouring every moment and are prepared for a different type of reading, you might be in for a treat.  

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review 2017-07-06 18:35
My Cousin Rachel, by Daphne du Maurier
My Cousin Rachel - Daphne du Maurier

I thought to read this, my second du Maurier novel, after recently seeing the film adaptation with Rachel Weisz and Sam Claflin. The story balances upon the question of whether or not Rachel is a villain. I was interested to know if the novel might be more definitive about the answer, and it seems to me it is. (Also, I enjoyed reading Rebecca.)

 

Perhaps because I saw the film first, it felt more like a mystery than the novel. The novel illuminates even more the influence of perspective, as it's written from Philip's (English, young, male landowner) first person point of view. I was most engaged with the novel in those moments when I questioned his perspective and instead considered Rachel's. I've started keeping a reading diary, and many of my notes focus on the ways in which Philip is ignorant: for example, he finds Rachel (like all women) to be mercurial and emotionally manipulative while he himself is often moody and simply ignorant of the effect his words and actions can have. Though almost 25, he's childish, and like a child, grows churlish when his immaturity is pointed out to him.

 

I was also interested by the character of Louise, the daughter of Philip's godfather. She's clearly interested in marrying Philip, and the whole county, including Rachel, is behind the idea. Philip is resistant; he at first wants to remain a bachelor as his beloved cousin and guardian Ambrose was for so long. He's also unused to the company of women and has a narrow view of them and marriage. What interested me most was that Louise is the first character to voice suspicions about Rachel; later in the story, at a key moment, she once again wonders about Rachel's character and possible misdeeds. This novel is not one in which all the men or all the women are wrong; it's more nuanced, thankfully.

 

My Cousin Rachel low-key critiques privileged male perspectives and women's roles through its storytelling techniques. The writing and narrative are engaging as well, and I look forward to my next du Maurier.

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