Grandmothers by Salley Vickers

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I’ve long been a fan of Salley Vickers – since a friend lent me her copy of Miss Garnet’s Angel (probably Vickers’ most popular and well-known book) as I was heading off on a holiday to Venice in 2006. I loved the book so much I had to buy my own copy and then lent it to others who were visiting Venice. I also very much liked The Other Side of You, but on the whole, the more recent books haven’t made quite the same impact on me as the early ones, although I’ve enjoyed them.

A friend mentioned Grandmothers to me a few months ago. As doting grandmothers she thought we should read it. I waited a while to see when the paperback would come out (I rarely buy hardbacks and don’t like reading novels on Kindle), but as it won’t be until September 2020, I gave in and bought the hardback. I knew the book had received mixed reviews so approached it with some uncertainty about what I’d think.

One of the things that appeals to me about Vickers’ writing is her background as a Jungian analyst. This might suggest that her writing is heavy going but in fact her books are easy reading, in the sense that they flow and are very accessible. What her psychotherapist background gives her is a deep understanding of how people think, how they react to events and situations; how their experiences in life have led them to be the people they are now; how relationships work – or don’t work. Thus there are always moments of recognition; moments when you know she’s caught exactly how someone would feel. This is usually just one sentence that is so well put together that it stops you fleetingly and you think ‘oh yes’ or ‘but of course’.

There are similar moments in Grandmothers, though not really startling or new thoughts that you’ll take away with you as precious revelations on the workings of life. Vickers knows that ‘Children understand better than people give them credit for’, that one of the hardest things to grasp is ‘that other people see life from a perspective often quite unlike one’s own’ and that ‘the whole business of meting out blame was a mistake. Blame was a displacement activity, a means of avoiding the recognition that very little in life was in your control.’ She asks whether it is ‘sadness that made people kind – or was it that kind people were more liable to sadness?’ But these are more neat little summings up of what we already know rather than words that make us think deeply.

There are three grandmothers in the book and rather an odd bunch they are. They are not particularly likeable; one, Nan, is particularly difficult and fierce. Their overriding feeling is that they know better than the parents of their grandchildren, but the wisdom of their long lives and experience is not appreciated. They come from dysfunctional backgrounds, carrying long held griefs (that one feels a bit of psychotherapy should have sorted out years ago) and their young families are equally dysfunctional. This all gives a sense of the characters being formulaic, mere vehicles for some of Vickers’ ideas, and thus a little too one dimensional.

So … I quite enjoyed the read; it was an easy read and engaged my interest enough to want to read on (and I do give up on books I’m not enjoying!), but it was a disappointment; it didn’t feel like a book that came from the heart. And as a book about grandmothers, it should have had a lot of heart.

 

 

Daniel Mason: The Winter Soldier

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It’s been a while since I’ve written here but plenty of reading has been going on; an inevitable part of the life of a book editor. But there have also been books chosen by my book club (like Jonathan Coe’s brilliant Middle England), books recommended by friends (like Madeline Miller’s Circe) and those simply picked up in a bookshop while I’ve been browsing. A Winter Soldier fits into this last category. I think there was one of those little ‘recommended’ cards attached to it in Waterstones, but I’ve always had an attraction to reading works set in World War One, from the poetry of Wilfred Owen and others, to Pat Barker’s glorious Regeneration trilogy and Sebastian Faulks’ early and brilliant novel, Birdsong.

I haven’t been quite so absorbed by a novel for a while and have hardly been able to put it down over the past couple of days. The story opens in 1915 as Lucius, a young Austrian trainee doctor, reaches the desolate winter lands of North Hungary on his way to take up a position in a remote Polish field hospital. ‘He was twenty-two years old, restless, resentful of hierarchy, impatient for his training to come to an end.’ He’s left his home in Vienna in the hope of at last finding a chance to get the medical experience he yearns for, frustrated by the teaching he’s so far received. And he’s fought against the wishes of his privileged and wealthy parents, who don’t think being a doctor is a ‘proper’ or suitable career for their son and would prefer him to go to war as a soldier.

An accidental sixth child, Lucius knew ‘from the beginning he hadn’t belonged among them’. Perhaps this feeling of being an outsider fuelled his determination. Just as maybe the tortuous instruments a doctor fits into his mouth to ‘cure’ his childhood stutter, gives birth to a conviction that there are more effective and kinder ways of healing damaged people than the horrific treatments he witnesses in the medical school. Far away in a remote corner of Poland, he unexpectedly finds himself the only doctor in the hospital where he’s been sent; set up in a church with horrifically wounded men lying between pews. Impossibly unprepared and inexperienced, he finds the nurse in charge, a nun, extraordinarily competent. From Margarete he learns almost everything, from how to do amputations to the importance of hygiene, the cleaning of wounds – something yet not understood back in Vienna. But then the Winter Soldier arrives and this disturbs the rhythm of the life Lucius has built with Margarete and nothing will ever be the same again.

Part war story, part romance, part a history of medicine – particularly the beginning of understanding, or trying to, the workings of the mind – this is above all a story of determination and courage; mistakes made and the longing for atonement. Mason’s background as a doctor gives a strong authenticity to his descriptions of battlefield surgery and treatments, while his understanding of emotions, fears and relationships gives a powerful urgency to the story.

The writing is simply beautiful and often lyrical: ‘April turned to May … The sun grew warmer. The snow began to melt. Harp strings of light broke through the nave. Everywhere the valley was filled with crinkling whispers, the whine of shifting snowdrifts, the rustling of rills. Beneath the ice, the river began to murmur.’ Single sentences say so much, as when Margarete responds to the warming weather: ‘In her step, he noticed a new lightness, which he hadn’t known she’d lost.’

I don’t want to detail the story too much here; I just want to encourage you to read the book. For The Winter Soldier is a remarkable book, a true tour de force.

 

 

The ‘Myself’ Epidemic: When to Correctly use ‘myself’, ‘me’ and ‘I’

OK, well I’ll confess straight away that I’m a stickler for correct grammar.  But it is my job and getting it right is important when it comes to earning (most) of my money. If I don’t edit a book well … then who is going to give me work?

As I’ve written here before, language and spelling are forever changing. You can see this immediately you pick up an old book, written perhaps in the early to mid-20th century, and spellings (if not updated) are different; the use of some words is different or even obsolete.  Frankly, you notice it when you’re my age! Younger people use some words in a different way. But while different publishing houses have different house styles, which allows for a certain personal preference, there is a large core of correct grammar to which all will adhere.  Enter ‘myself’.

There seems to be a epidemic of people misusing ‘myself’ and, to be honest, as a book editor to whom these things matter, it drives me slightly crazy.  Even BBC radio and TV presenters use it incorrectly. I’m not talking about informal, chatty programmes, where a certain relaxation is not only OK but generally desired. No, I’m talking about the News and other serious programmes. There are regional differences, of course.  For example, I’m aware that in some parts of the country ‘myself’ is used differently to the way those of us living in London use it. But this tends to be in the spoken word.

I can quite understand that many people will not care, or will wonder why on earth I’m making a fuss about this. But if you’re reading this blog, there’s a good chance you either hope to be or are a writer, or you have a keen interest in the written word. And knowing whether the written word is grammatically correct is important – even if you don’t always write that way.

A common misuse I hear is: ‘Myself and my mum’ or ‘My friend and myself’. No: ‘My mum and I‘ and ‘My friend and I‘.  Another example of misuse is, ‘The waiter gave my friend and myself cups of coffee’, which should be: ‘The waiter gave my friend and me cups of coffee‘.  And no, it wouldn’t be ‘… my friend and I’ either. To immediately see this is incorrect, try saying ‘the waiter gave I a cup of coffee’. It’s easier to see that’s wrong. Taking out the other person in the sentence often lets you see whether the sentence works or not. For example, if you say: ‘Myself and John went to the cinema’ and take out ‘John’, you’d have, ‘Myself went to the cinema’ – which you can immediately see is incorrect; nor would you say (if you were being grammatically correct), ‘John and me went to the cinema’ – trying testing it: ‘Me went to the cinema’. That doesn’t sound at all right. You’d say, ‘I went to the cinema‘ so it’s ‘John and I went to the cinema‘.

The use of ‘myself’ is correct when it’s used as a reflexive pronoun – when the person is both the subject and the object. ‘Myself’ reflects the subject: ‘I told myself‘, ‘I dressed myself‘. It can also be used for emphasis: ‘I made it myself‘ – but here you can see that just ‘I made it’ would be OK.

The same rules apply to ‘yourself’: ‘I look forward to seeing you‘ not ‘I look forward to seeing yourself’.

If you’re writing a novel, then you might use words like ‘myself’ in a grammatically incorrect way in speech, depending on the character. As a copy-editor, I have to make a decision about whether it’s appropriate – or simply the author not being grammatically correct. However, if you’re writing something important and formal – like a business letter, perhaps – I believe it’s always important to get the grammar right. Hopefully this little blog post will help!

Laurie Lee: A Rose for Winter

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I’ve recently been to Malaga and when I’m away, I like to take along a novel or travel book set wherever I’m heading. I actually bought Laurie Lee’s A Rose for Winter last year to take to Granada, and indeed read that chapter while there. Planning my reading for Malaga, I couldn’t find anything actually set in the city, but as Lee’s book is about Andalucia then I thought I should give it another airing and read more. In the end, I became captivated by his writing and read the whole thing (not actually very long at 112 pages), including the ‘Granada’ chapter again.

Lee (aged 37) and his wife Kati set off to Andalucia in the winter of 1951 and travelled around the area for 4 months. Lee had been there 15 years before, just before the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936. Thus the ‘new’ journey with Kati revisits some of the ‘old’ places and people from the earlier trip. He was a successful poet by now and making some money from it, but they still had to travel on a budget and walked most of the way, stayed in cheap hotels or lodgings, and Laurie made some extra money from busking with his violin. He was working on Cider with Rosie, his most famous and successful book, but it wasn’t published until 1959.

I think it is because Lee is a poet that his writing is so poetically wonderful. Laurie and Katie visit five places in the book, including Seville and Granada. It’s not a travel book in the sense of being a guide or giving historical background and discussing the major sights. Lee doesn’t even discuss the politics of the day much (and this is the age of Franco). It’s about a personal journey and the book shimmers with radiant life and truly transports you to Andalucia and gives you an insight into the land and its people. It opens: ‘A brilliant November morning with a sky of diamond blue above the bay and the red flowers of a long summer still glowing darkly on the rock‘ and the country they had come to seek ‘crouched before us in a great ring of lion-coloured mountains, raw, sleeping and savage.’

Lee writes of Granada that it is ‘perhaps the most beautiful and haunting of all Spanish cities; an African paradise set under the Sierras like a rose preserved in snow.’ Of Seville he writes: ‘Seville of sweet wines and bitter oranges … the city where, more than in any other, one may bite on the air and taste the multitudinous flavours of Spain … acid, sugary, intoxicating, sickening, but flavours which, above all in a synthetic world, are real as nowhere else.

Allowances have to be made for the book’s age and sometimes it seems dated. It has also been criticised for employing some ‘poetic’ licence, yet don’t the best travel books do this? If you want pure facts, read the guide book or history book; A Rose for Winter is about the experience and feeling of being in southern Spain in the 1950s and even in the 21st century it provides a wonderful backdrop to any visit to Andalucia and Lee’s writing is pure literary joy.

Language & Spelling – Ever Changing and Evolving

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I have to confess to being rather OTT about spelling. But then it is my job. It’s my job as an editor to check that all spellings throughout a book are both consistent and correct. Although ‘correct’ is not always clear because sometimes there are variations with how words are spelled. Well, there’s our first example: ‘spelled’ or ‘spelt’? Actually both are correct but as an editor it’s important to make sure the choice of either -ed or -t endings are consistent throughout a book rather than use a mix.

Publishing houses have their own ‘House Style’ and this is always sent to me, and while mostly the same, there are variations. For instance, one publisher I often work for likes to use -ize endings for words like realize, organize, etc., while most UK publishers prefer -ise endings, so realise and organise. But some words can’t interchange – always, for example, advise, advertise, exercise, etc.

Then there is the need to understand the difference between using a word as a verb or noun and this affects the spelling:

  • You give advice to someone; but you advise them to do something
  • A doctor practises medicine; but you visit their medical practice.

You can see that while we’ve only just started, things are already getting a little tricky. But throw into that the growing influence of US spellings and terms in UK as more and more we read books by US authors and watch US films. And thus spellings like ‘alright’ (always 2 words, ‘all right’, in UK) and words like ‘gotten’ (instead of UK ‘got’) start creeping into UK books. I often proofread American books and usually the US spellings are left unchanged; though – perhaps slightly weirdly – UK publishers usually like to change the punctuation to UK. Yes, that’s different too.

Of course, it may well be that only editors mind about these things. But it brings up the question of how much we allow our language to change. At the extreme end, I like to say to people who think none of it matters, that if we abandon all care of spellings then we’ll end up in a state where we can’t communicate properly. Of course change is inevitable – or we would still be writing and talking like Shakespeare or the Saxons. We also need new words as time goes by. It’s only in fairly recent years we’ve needed words like modem, wireless router, tablet – as in an iPad not a stone tablet from an ancient site or a painkiller – and even smartphone; some of the words added to the 2018 edition of The Oxford English Dictionary include co-parenting, e-address, e-publisher and hangry (being angry and hungry at the same time!). And words change use: when I was a child being ‘gay’ meant being happy  and carefree while now we usually think of it as a term for being homosexual (which, of course, can also mean being happy and carefree!).

Mostly the changes come slowly and we’re barely aware of them. So I’m often surprised if I have to work on a old book that is being reissued, written say in the 1950s or 1960s, to find the spelling and punctuation seem very old-fashioned. I find ‘hallo’ or ‘hullo’ instead of ‘hello’; there are usually a lot more commas breaking up sentences than we would use today. I realise that slowly, through many years working as a book editor, I’ve subtly altered the way I edit. I’m fortunate to work for top publishers and that keeps me on my toes and up to date!

On top of our evolving and ever-changing language we must add things like ‘textspeak’. When we first had texts the number of characters used in one text was limited so people invented ‘textspeak’ to keep a text to one instead of paying for two. This is now outdated but people still use ‘tonite’ and abbreviations like ‘ILY’ (I love you). I have to confess that some of these grate on me … tonite … grrrr! And if someone sent a text saying ILY it really wouldn’t have the same nice impact as the words! But I’m willing to admit that with my editorial background, and the fact that words and their correct use and spelling is my job, I’m probably more intolerant than most people.

However, when it comes to working I do have to take account of all these things and apart from using The Concise Oxford Dictionary to check spellings, my absolute ‘bible’, and used by all publishers, is the New Oxford Dictionary for Writers & Editors. When I edit a book, I have to provide a Spellings & Style list of my references and spellings used; whether I’ve used -ed or -t endings etc. So I think my family and friends are going to have to continue to live with me being rather OTT about spelling!