Books Without Pictures

Years ago I sold an old manual typewriter at a garage sale. It was a reaction to a familiar need—the need for more space. That is by no means a modern dilemma, but it is what filled the space that makes it modern, and, now that I look back, suspect.

Who could have dreamed what was to fill that space? For where once sat that manual typewriter, came a ‘word processor’. Then the internet. Then social media. And the white space of Instagram posts. (white space, white background, natural light—de rigueur)

The typewriter I sold was an early sixties era manual Smith Corona. It had belonged to my father, and when he passed away I took it with me. Along with it came the memories of sounds, the sensations of a vibrating table as he typed, and smells, strangely pleasing, of fresh inked cartridges. Images in my mind of my father sitting at his desk, all muttering concentration and stubby, work roughened fingers tapping out words, words, words….

Today, with the aforementioned lighting and spatial requirements, perhaps a rose sitting atop the typewriter for textural contrast, or a cup of steaming coffee (where steam is captured actually moving) that typewriter would have made a fetching Instagram post, harvesting a stream of reactive emojis and comments like ‘amazing’. But that is not the missed opportunity I am thinking of.

A ‘word processor’ sounds like a funny term now, but that is what we called it then. Processed words make one think of Spam—‘is it really meat?’ but in the end what we had was a fascinating new machine that now goes by the name of device. By this device we could process words and ideas with dizzying speeds. No more little jars of whiteout to clutter up your desk. That slow painting action with the brush, the absolute concentration, the dexterity needed to not get a drop on your keys—all a thing of the past. Now, those sub par chapters that represent the work of an evening? You can wake up with a fresh perspective and delete it all in a second! Done, with the click of a button. Destructive power begins to swamp creative power.

I dreamed of the ease with which a word processor was going to help me create miles and miles, as it were, of stranded sentences, ideas, and stories. What comes to mind are factory workers, perhaps in a garment district, sitting at hundreds of machines, all humming with industry, while regular, even stitches flow on into infinity; becoming garments, sheets, towels, bed linens and prom dresses. While we may now think this is a negative comparison, at the time industries like this were springing up, it was considered progress. It took years to assess the human toll.

In the symbolism of space that was once occupied by my unassuming little typewriter, what exists there now is like a hole in space. Enormous space, vacuous space, as it turned out. A black hole of inimitable power that eats stars and burps radiation. (descriptive terms borrowed from actual science websites, google ‘black hole burps’ if you don’t believe me, but then again, don’t, pour yourself a cup of coffee and write that haiku on cherry blossoms you keep thinking about.)

I want my old stodgy typewriter back. It doesn’t need to stream, burp, or teach me how to felt a woolen toque. It doesn’t need to produce pictures for me. It doesn’t need to take me to the Himalayas for stunning views of Gurla Mandhata.

It will be okay if I don’t have access to a Polish university, and the digitalized diagrams of Copernicus. I’m ashamed to say I still get the accomplishments of Copernicus and Galileo confused, even after all this time. (sorry, Nicolai, I had such hopes)

And speaking of regions near the Gulf of Gdansk, I can willingly cut back on my virtual streaming of shipwrecks as they find them. Fascinating, of course, if you like old shipwrecks. As the website says, ‘there is no need to dive to the depths of the Baltic Sea…’ (Oh, really? That’s too bad. I would have enjoyed that.) You see, adventure is as close as your device. Adventure IS your device.

As to google…I wring my hands in despair… how can something that changed my life be called GOOGLE?? Ah, but can I live without it?? I might. Just. Maybe.

I can’t remember the last time I needed to know the difference in pronunciation between the Hebrew word ra’a for sheep and the Hebrew word ra’a’ for evil, although at one time I found it interesting and remembered it, and there was a story idea involved where the girl needed to know how to say ‘sheep’ and not say ‘evil’. (story not finished to date)

I will be okay with not being able to watch real time footage of a dog being rescued from a flooded ravine in Belgorad. Such a feel-good story at the time, the sort you later find out was staged. Or that Facebook story that circulated ‘a mother cow’s desperate wish comes true’… (you want to know, don’t you?)

If it turns out I cannot access a tutorial on 1,000 ways to crochet a granny square, that will be okay, too. I just might have to get creative on my own and figure it out.

I do love my family history research—was that ever an eye opener that perhaps I could have done without—but the truth is I often find myself reading about other people’s families, usually so much more interesting than my own. Consider Thomas Brown of Old Dominion, Virginia, born 1770…. his mother was Elizabeth Black, and he married Martha Green, and they named their first son Green Brown. At some point a gentleman named Pinkney enters the picture. This is heady stuff for me. I have a thing for interesting names, and remember odd bits like girls named Kissy Simpleton or Keziah Snively, and I want to write their story, because I love a good story. Sometimes I just hear a name, and a character pops into my mind, almost fully formed. Or I start to imagine a character, with a story line, and the name suggests itself almost immediately.

Writers are a funny lot. Does any branch of the creative world agonize as much over blank white space and block?? So while I reminisce fondly of the old manual typewriter days, the reality is that I thought I would write more when I had ‘the word processor’. And, it happened—for a time. Now, it seems like the modern gadgets are sucking away the creativity. Is that it?

Counterbalance time out. There is also a new burst of creativity—of a different sort—based on the fast-paced stream of content now available to us. It’s exhilarating, thrilling, and exhausting. I’ve learned so much. But sometimes I just need to stop the flow of learning and DO. This is just my own journey. Controlled portions might be the key, if I can say that without sounding like a nutritional coach wanting to take away my Scotch, which would make me not like her.

I still read, but differently. I still write, but a fraction of what I used to. Pictures have taken up the space words used to occupy. My books (those real, tangible things with pages, and most without pictures) are still here, and taking up a great deal of space. On my bookshelves, white space does not exist. There is no spatial harmony. There is not even trinket space. Emojis are not welcome. No shelves are given over to objets d’art. Just books—double stacked, triple stacked, vertical stacks and horizontal towers. A paradise of tactility. They will have that space, will continue to have it, and I will freely give them that space, as long as I am living in something slightly larger than six feet under.

Books without pictures, and old typewriters that don’t stream live media share a charming trait—they encourage use of the imagination.

Postscript: If you’ve been following this blog, glad to have you! If you are new, then welcome.
This blog is a quiet space for readers. In it I like to explore forgotten authors, and hidden gems of writing. If that is your thing, I’m happy you’re here. There may be fewer pictures in the future… we’ll see. I like books with pictures (and certainly blogs with pictures are more popular) but I just want to get back to what started this all for me—the words.

Placid Surface

‘The best of a country’s history is written on its rivers.’ H.E. Bates

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After the brutal fire season here in the Pacific Northwest, we have been trying to spend more time than usual in our beloved Columbia River Gorge. Not all of the trails and viewpoints are open yet–many will takes years to recover from the fires–but there is a reassuring amount of untouched beauty still to be had.

As is often the case, when I think of rivers, and their strangely mesmerizing power, I call to mind the words of H.E. Bates, in his work Down the River.  Bates is primarily beloved as a novelist, and perhaps even more praiseworthy in the short story category, but I do treasure his nature essays. He has that same wonderful sense of recall as poet Laurie Lee, and the simple pleasures of the natural world–the streams, rivers, fields and trees around them–nurtured the artist in both men.

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woodcut illustrations in my edition of Down the River by Agnes Miller Parker

Bates makes this interesting observation about the lure of water, and one I thought paired well with the idea of ‘serene‘:

‘Water shares with woods some power of tranquilizing the spirit, of quietening it almost to a point of dissolving it away; so that nearly all the best enjoyment of a piece of water comes from the mere act of sitting near it and doing nothing at all. It must surely be this power which attracts human beings in thousands to narrow strips of sand and shingle all over the world, which lures them to sit there… and gaze for hours at the expanses of sea and sky….’

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For more on H.E. Bates:IMG_9452

The Drowsy Heart of Autumn

Winter Intermezzo

 

 

 

 

 

Book and publishing notes: this cover is borrowed from the web, as it shows the British publisher page (Victor Gollancz, ltd, 1937) and my 1937 edition is identical except it is the American edition by Henry Holt and Co.

Grannies in the Wainscot

“In all their time as such close neighbors they never exchanged a word.”

Bring up the topic of neighbor, and one story comes to my mind.

Grannies in the Wainscot, as short story—an essay of remembrance—is included in the sublime collection Cider With Rosie, by Laurie Lee. If it seems strange to have written a memoir of one’s life at age 23, as did Lee, his tender recall of the story of two enemy grannies is even stranger.

The setting could not be more romantic, with or without Laurie Lee’s lush prose. An old seventeenth century Cotswold manor house, had, by the late nineteenth century become a sagging but picturesque relic, and subdivided into three living quarters for poorer, less exalted folk. In the pre-war years of his childhood, young Lee and his family inhabited one section, while the other two parts of the home were each dominated by an old crone.

‘Granny Trill and Granny Wallon were rival ancients and lived on each other’s nerves and their perpetual enmity was like mice in the walls and absorbed much of my early days. With their sickle bent bodies, pale pink eyes, and wild wisps of hedgerow hair, they looked to me the very images of witches and they were also much alike.’

There is nothing lovable in this description of the two old ladies, and yet, with Lee’s gift for nostalgic writing, you feel you recognize this pair, and a curious warble of affection begins to play.

Laurie Lee, poet

‘They communicated to each other by means of boots and brooms—jumping on floors and knocking on ceilings. They referred to each other as ‘Er-Down-Under’ and ‘Er-Up-Atop, the Varmint’.

Yes, a stranger pair of neighbors you never did ‘hear the like of’ as my grandmother would have said. And speaking of my grandma Josie, she knew how to wield a broom with a fair bit of precision. I can also remember her little ‘war’ going on for years with the old neighbor lady in the back of the property.

So perhaps such stories of neighbors resonates a bit with all our memories. Lee’s recounting of the old beech tree I found particularly beautiful.

‘“Me dad planted that tree,” [Granny Trill] said absently, pointing out through the old cracked window.

‘The great beech filled at least half the sky and shook shadows all over the house. Its roots clutched the slope like a giant hand, holding the hill in place. Its trunk writhed with power, threw off veils of green dust, rose towering into the air, branched into a thousand shaded alleys, became a city for owls and squirrels. I had thought such trees to be as old as the earth; I never dreamed that a man could make them. Yet it was Granny Trill’s dad who had planted this tree, who had thrust in the seed with his finger. How old must he have been to leave such a mark? Think of Granny’s age, and add his on top, and you were back at the beginning of the world.’

The poignant part of Lee’s recounting, comes, of course, at the end.

One day Granny Trill stumbled and broke her hip.

illustration by John Ward

“She went to bed then forever.”

Granny Wallon came a’crowing… “her’s going you mark my words.”

But Granny Trill’s death knell was Granny Wallon’s, too. In the oddest, most neighborly act between the two rival crones in the decades they had lived next to each other without speaking, Granny Wallon soon went, too.

‘Granny Wallon had triumphed, she had buried her rival, and now there was no more to do. From then on she faded and diminished daily, kept to her house and would not be seen. The wine fires sank and died in the kitchen, as did the sweet fires of obsession….there was nothing, in fact, to keep her alive. No cause, no bite, no fury. Er-Down-Under had joined Er-Up-Atop, having lived closer than anyone knew.’

Summer Wine and Word Savor

‘Words have personality.’

Or words to that effect. So said a famous wordsmith named Willard R. Espy, who wrote a great deal of delightful stuff about words, and remains highly unquoted.

51b1dqao1gl._sx361_bo1,204,203,200_One word that definitely has personality is caper, which is today’s word suggestion from the good folks at WP.

I wouldn’t call myself a word expert, by any means, (terms like uvular fricative make my brain hurt) but I do love to savor a word curiosity now and then. And just like a good wine, there are certain pairings that are immediately suggested by the palate. Like a good pinot and soft goat cheese, or a full-flavored port with a dark chocolate truffle.

So therefore, with caper (though it is also a pungent little berry that goes well with seafood and a crisp, chilled chardonnay) we have a word that suggests, inevitably, frolic.

You could even pair the two as frolicsome caper, and further suggest the word antics, and at the risk of sounding octogenarian, cavort.  This brings me to my red squirrels, which, quite unfortunately, were drunk this morning on summer wine, and doing all of the above.

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Summer wine not only goes well with capers, it causes them (the cavorting sort). The wine referred to here is what we like to call the Morello cherries from our tree that have fallen to the ground, now sweetly fermenting. They grow too high for us to actually make them useful for human consumption, but the squirrels and birds are having entirely too much fun up there in the back corner of the yard.

Gambol and tumble are good side dishes, as it were. If fact, if you look up ‘gambol’, you will find the following synonyms:

‘frolic, frisk, cavort, caper, skip, dance, romp, prance, leap, hop, jump, spring, bound, bounce; play; (dated, sport)’

To which I might add “see: tippling“.

All of those definitions sound quite athletic, even for a squirrel drunk on Morello cherries, so occasionally one tumbles down the rockery and causes concern.

So far I have witnessed no injuries, and the merriment continues.

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As you can see from the picture below, the lawn is slightly elevated from the patio, giving a stage-like appearance, which the squirrels use to good effect.

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(this beautiful quilt made by a dear friend)

Other than that, the garden is (usually) a peaceful place for reading. Perhaps even sipping a bit of Morello summer wine, if the squirrels will share.

 

Lucy Carmichael, Part Two

‘She is incautious and intrepid. She will go to several wrong places, and arrive at the right one, while I am still making up my mind to cross the road. She is my opposite in character. She is cheerful and confident and expects to be happy.’ Lucy Carmichael, by Margaret Kennedy

lucy-carmichaelIf this description makes you think of Elizabeth Bennet, then you will enjoy noting several such Pride and Prejudice references throughout this novel.

I enjoyed reading Lucy Carmichael. (This is Part Two of my review of Lucy Carmichael, Part One is here, and for more on the Margaret Kennedy reading event hosted by Jane at Beyond Eden Rock, click here)

I think, perhaps, that I enjoyed it more because of knowing the little tidbit given by Violet Powell, in her biography of Margaret Kennedy:

‘Margaret dedicated it to her daughter, Julia. Suitably, as it is a book about the troubles of young girls in coming to terms with life and love.’

This gave me insight into the overall tone of the novel—a loving mother wrote this, with her daughter in mind.

Lucy Carmichael is strong young woman–‘cheerful and confident’, as mentioned at the outset–with many winning character traits. She doesn’t really need a man, but doesn’t realize this until the end. In spite of the fact that she begins rather shockingly as the poor jilted bride, Lucy has a number of men who want to offer her consolation.

‘This,’ (mother might be saying to her daughter), ‘is not the kind of relationship you want. You’re better than that.’

The crux of the matter is quickly given at the outset, so it’s not a spoiler to point out that Lucy is left at the altar. Thus we begin with a once-vibrant young woman, crushed and brought low.

It’s where Lucy Carmichael goes from here that makes the story interesting.

To some extent Kennedy distances the reader from Lucy’s extreme suffering. When Lucy moves away to get a fresh start, we learn of her new life via letters. In this, we are given more side helpings of insight and the notion that she is doing her best to put on a brave face. Still, we are kept at a distance. Some examples:

Oct. 4
‘This letter is so sour I think I had better finish it. I had meant it to be sparkling with wit and humor but it hasn’t turned out that way. I’m not sorry I came, and I think that Slane Forest looks most enticing. I mean to explore it.’

Nov. 1
‘On Sundays I explore Slane Forest on a bicycle or go to read to Mr. Meeker who is blind and has nobody to read to him. I am quite all right, only my hair is falling out. Do you know of a good tonic?’

‘A letter from you has just arrived. What on earth has my mother been saying? I have not been ill. But my hands and feet went numb. I couldn’t feel anything in them. So Emil said I had pernicious anaemia and would die. I pointed out that people don’t die nowadays; they take liver extract.’

Dec. 24
‘I can’t go home for Xmas. I have got shingles. What do you know about that? I didn’t know anybody my age could have them, but they can for I have, or something of the sort. It came on at a horrible party they have at the end of term, after a most depressing Nativity play.’

But we feel for Lucy, very keenly, with these little revelations. And the brilliant aspect of this method results in us wanting to know more of her thoughts and feelings. The reader welcomes the slow revealing of Lucy’s inner world, as the heartache begins to ease. She is a kind, dynamic, ‘can do’ sort of person. As she begins to heal and grow into her new life—indeed, to regain her former brilliant sparks of life—we enter more of her direct conscious thought, experience more of her life as it is happening, and are no longer at one remove by means of secondhand information or letters.

It was almost as though Kennedy (once again, in a kind motherly fashion) kept us at a polite distance from this strong-minded young woman and protected her while intensely vulnerable.

As mentioned, there are many delightful references to Jane Austen, particularly Pride and Prejudice, for we have none other than a brooding, supercilious Mr. Darcy character sketched for us, under the name of Charles Millwood. He is quite above Lucy in social station—a girl he barely notices at first and then describes as ‘unabashedly middle class’—but he cannot help but be moved by her fresh beauty and strength of character.

‘She lifted her eyes to Charles, who was asking her some question. He thought that he had never in his life seen such beautiful eyes, though he could not put a name to the light which shone in them. The turn of her head, her smile, and this luminous tenderness of her glance, made him feel quite giddy; they tingled through his nerves like a shock.’

I can only quote (as Margaret Kennedy actually did in the book), ‘Are the shades of Pemberley thus to be polluted?’

In her book Jane Austen, Margaret Kennedy gives high accolades to Jane Austen’s premier creation of fiction, Pride and Prejudice, while admitting:

‘Darcy exists only to play in scenes with Elizabeth….Nor can we believe that rude young men of good family, met at balls, turned out later to be as amiable as was Fitzwilliam Darcy.’

Kennedy does not make this mistake with her fictional Charles Millwood.

In the end, we know Lucy has found happiness with herself, that all-important inner self worth that no one can take away.

‘Her restlessness was all gone. A bliss, an ecstasy, came to her, which she had known constantly in childhood but which she had thought to be lost. It came again, the overpowering joy, from the fields in the yellow winter light it came, from the huge sky, from the hard ice beneath her singing skates.

‘She wanted nothing more of life than the moment held…’

Now would be a very good time for Mr. Right to show up, just when he’s not needed, and looks all the better for it. Does he?

‘To create an entirely charming girl is one of the rarest achievements in fiction.’ 

So wrote Margaret Kennedy, in her comments on Pride and Prejudice. In Lucy Carmichael, she created a very charming, very believable heroine. And gave her happiness. Which is always nice to have, in the end.

 

 

Lucy Carmichael: A Preamble

The book of the moment is another gem by Margaret Kennedy — Lucy Carmichael, published in 1951. 

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I am always happy for a chance to explore a Margaret Kennedy book, and Jane at Beyond Eden Rock is hosting a reading event for Margaret Kennedy today.

This is a warm-up to my own review of the book, and likely the best way, as I am sure this review would need to be a Part One and Two, anyway!

There are always riches to be had in a Kennedy novel, so I am trying to linger over it and not rush through to the end. Margaret Kennedy builds her stories in delicious layers, each one needing to be savored.

That being said, at first I was a bit put off by the distance I felt from the main character Lucy–learning of her story secondhand or in a quick rush that felt a bit choppy; and then only hearing of her inner world via letters to her friend. (I’m not always a fan of the epistolary novel) However, this resolves itself beautifully, and there is more to be said on that score, for I was soon left in awe of Kennedy’s sleight of hand. She is a superb technician when it comes to structuring her novels!

Like The Feast, Lucy Carmichael begins with a climax. You know the worst at the outset, so to speak, then it is aftermath, sifting through rubble, and building character, finding what people are made of, or what choices they will make when affliction strikes.

I really enjoy this aspect of Kennedy’s novels–how she creates character. Even seemingly unimportant characters are built in with a solid foundation and story. This gives the impression that you are entering a real world–warts and all–and a social environment that, while not one I have actually experienced, is still believable as though I know these types of situations and the personalities that give them life.

Even as I say that, I have to make an exception of her ‘Bohemian’, characterizations, which I find to be rather over-stated and overblown in their amoral drama and lifestyle, with their larger than life talents and inability to be true to anyone other than themselves and their ‘Art’. And they talk ‘like zis‘. She has included a colorful one in this story as well, and he is slightly more sensible than her characters in The Constant Nymph. At least he offers Lucy a bit of kindly wisdom now and again.

‘He opened the door when I arrived, clutching a frying pan in
his hand, I can’t think why, for he can’t cook. And he looked at
me very, very sadly and said: ”Zis is terrible!”

It was, rather, because they had made no attempt to get my
room ready, though they knew when I was coming. Mrs. A. is The
Bottom as a housekeeper. She is an apple-cheeked little ninny with
humble brown eyes and a blue plastic hair slide in the shape of
three daisies. They have a baby which she calls *’baby” and he *’ze
child.” It is a dribbly object; I wish I was a womanly woman and
could think it sweet.

Well so I cleaned this room I am to have, for the first time in
its life, and wrote home for some bed linen as the A.s have not got
any— their other pair is at the wash. It’s not a bad room; a big attic
with a view east over Slane Forest, which stretches all the way be-
tween here and Severn ton. And at about 9 we had a meal in the
kitchen: tea, stale Swiss roll, 5 sardines, 4 tomatoes, and some cold
porridge. Why this house should reek of cooking I cannot think.
Nobody cooks.’

But that’s a small quibble, and one that reminds me of reading Angela Thirkell, with her various and amusing ways of rendering ‘foreigners’. Kennedy obviously had a fascination with ‘the artiste‘ who lived outside the rules of society, not to mention basic standards of cleanliness.

In The Constant Novelist, Violet Powell’s biography of Margaret Kennedy, she gives some interesting background information to Kennedy’s writing of Lucy Carmichael.

‘Lucy takes her broken heart to teach at a cultural Institute situated in an approximation of the Forest of Dean. This is the first book in which Margaret used that part of the country for the background of a novel, and also the first in which she introduces the rotting manor house of Slane St. Mary where the family of Knevett had once lived for several unlucky generations. Both house and family reappear in two later novels.’

The setting is beautifully portrayed. The scene in Lucy Carmichael that involves this rotting manor house and the weirdly neurotic Ianthe–a ‘grisly picnic‘–was very dramatic and a turning point for Lucy. In real life, Margaret Kennedy must have been deeply moved by a similar setting in the actual Forest of Dean, (that she calls the Forest of Slane) for she returns to this ancient Knevett family, and enlarges upon the story, in her later novels Night in Cold Harbor and Not In The Calendar.

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Violet Powell also writes:

‘Lucy Carmichael was a Book Society Choice, which still carried some distinction, if less that it had before the Second World War. It was praised by the late Daniel George, and by Marghanita Laski, who found that the flashbacks to the Oxford life of Lucy and Melissa recalled her own career at Somerville…..Her daughters had brought her up to date with contemporary Oxford, and [Margaret] had used the knowledge to good effect in Lucy Carmichael.’

As I was writing this, I found that there is an online version of the novel here.

Thanks to Jane for hosting a Kennedy reading event, and if you would like to read more reviews of Margaret Kennedy’s books, click here to visit Jane’s site. As well, some of my own reviews can be found here.


The Constant Novelist, a biography of Margaret Kennedy by her friend Violet Powell, was published by William Heinemann, 1983.