Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout

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I’ve been a great fan of Elizabeth Strout since reading Olive Kitteridge (which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2008). I also loved the follow-up, Olive, Again, and after reading My Name is Lucy Barton, saw the brilliant stage adaptation, starring Laura Linney, at the Bridge Theatre in London in 2018. Thus buying Strout’s latest book, Oh William!, provided a little literary excitement and I looked forward to reading it. It’s actually been sitting in a book pile for a while – the pile that builds when I’m too busy with my publishing work to read books I’ve bought. But I finally picked it up a couple of days ago and it provided all the delight I’d been hoping for and glorious weekend entertainment.

In Oh William! we meet Lucy Barton again, but years later. Lucy is now 63, a successful writer living in New York and recently widowed following the death of her second husband, David. She has, however, maintained a friendship with her first husband, William, father of her two daughters, Chrissy and Becka, and this friendship, this relationship, is at the heart of Oh William!; a portrait of how a long-term friendship grows and changes.

The storyline follows Lucy supporting William (71) through the break-up of his third marriage, the effects of some night terrors that plague him, and his investigation into his family history. His third wife Estelle gave him a gift of access to an ancestry website and through this he discovers he has a half-sister he knew nothing about. This discovery is not just part of his story and an insight into his relationship with his mother Catherine, it is also about Lucy’s relationship with her mother-in-law, and it is part of their daughters’ story too. Everything in life connects.

Strout’s style of writing is very conversational; it is as if she’s talking directly to us and she creates a great intimacy with the reader. There are even little digressions, in the way we all talk sometimes, which are so clever and give a sense that this is a real person telling a true story. But it is also a device for taking us deeply into Lucy’s world and head. Oh William! is not just about this latter-day friendship between the couple, but the stories of their lives from childhood and how their experiences brought them together in the first place. It is essentially a book about who and what makes us as people. 

We witness Lucy’s deprived childhood, a time of bleak poverty and not just lack of love from her parents, particularly her mother, but cruelty too. There is a moving poignancy in her memory of the support her teacher Mrs Nash gave her, encouraging her and then driving her to college when she leaves school, buying her clothes on the way – you can pay me back later, she says kindly – and Lucy arriving at college wanting everyone to think Mrs Nash is her mother; this is the kind of mother she longs for.

This explains why she is attracted to William, with whom she finds a sense of cosiness; he is the person she’s always felt safe with. But on their present journey of uncovering William’s past, Lucy starts to see their relationship in a different light. She also sees it from the perspective of having enjoyed a wonderful and deeply connected relationship with her second husband David. 

By the end of the book, everything has shifted a bit. Lucy sees William in a different light and she reflects on how we create myths about people and ourselves in response to our experiences and our needs. ‘Oh dear Everybody,’ she says, ‘we do not know anybody, not even ourselves! … Except a little tiny, tiny bit we do … We are all mysteries is what I mean.‘ 

This is a wonderful book, so thought-provoking and such a brilliant examination of life and how we live our lives. But it’s also an easy read in the sense that there’s a lightness to the writing that carries you through its depths and really, who can resist Lucy and Elizabeth Strout’s fantastic writing? 

April in Spain by John Banville

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I’ve just read another John Banville crime novel. It was this latest one that first interested me when I read a review and then I ended up also buying the preceding novel, Snow, to read first (click here for my review). I was also attracted by its setting in San Sebastian, Spain, a place I’ve visited and really like (see my food & travel blog: 48 Hours in San Sebastian). Who couldn’t be tempted to be transported to a bit of Spanish sun during these dull and grey winter days, albeit virtually.

April in Spain is another Detective Inspector Strafford novel set in the late 1950s, but in this one, Strafford takes a back seat and plays only a small part, and it is Dublin pathologist Quirke on whom the story centres. Quirke is on holiday in San Sebastian with his wife Evelyn, a psychiatrist. It is a second marriage for both and rather a strange match. Quirke, an alcoholic who has got his drinking almost under control, is often petulant and cantankerous and holds dark secrets about his orphanage childhood. He is not an immediately likeable character. Evelyn, is an Austrian who survived the Holocaust and refuses to talk, even to him, of her tragic past; she is not easy to like either. Their relationship has a combative edge, she the cool psychiatrist who always has to have the last word; he the bad-tempered and difficult man. Yet Banville creates a portrait of a loving and gentle relationship that makes sense of the marriage and forms an engaging thread to the novel.

Quirke is like a sulky child in his behaviour about being on holiday; he hates holidays. But then something very unexpected happens. When an accident (trying to shell oysters) takes him to the local A&E, he spies a woman doctor who seems familiar. She quickly disappears after seeing him and another doctor comes. It takes him a while to make the connection, but he feels certain this is the young woman, April, a friend of his daughter Phoebe, who supposedly died four years’ ago, murdered by her brother. When attempts to find out more about her prove impossible, he calls Phoebe who flies in from London to see if it really is her friend. But first she speaks to the police, and this sets in train a terrible and shocking set of consquences.

Strafford is sent with Phoebe – as a protector? To find out more? Meanwhile, we follow the story of Terry Trice, a hit man, who is also sent to Spain.

Behind April’s story lies a tale of incest, and political and moral corruption. These are themes that Banville likes to explore and which make his crime novels different – as well as his stylish and elegant writing. In Snow, it was the corruption and hypocrisy of the Catholic Church that came under his critical eye, this time it is the Irish state itself.

This is in no sense a genre ‘crime novel’. I’d describe it more as a novel in which there is a crime theme. While the ‘crime’ thread contains terrible stories of violence, abuse and corruption, it is not the kind of crime novel in which the reader can follow clues and hope to guess the murderer before the end. The ‘novel’ side, the part that is essentially Banville, contains wonderful insights into characters and their workings; a moving intimacy in the way the Quirkes’ marriage is drawn; and there are beautiful descriptions of its Spanish setting: ‘Darkness, when it fell, fell rapidly … they would stop and lean on the rail above the beach and gaze out over the bay, as black and shining as a vast bowl of oil and scattered with the reflections of lights from houses on the hill on the right, or from the little island of Santa Klara at the mouth of the  bay.’ Such descriptions took me right back to San Sebastian.

While there is something about Banville’s characters that I find slightly unreal and even at times clichéd, the book is so rich in its complexity, so beautifully written and engaging, that I found it – like Snow –  to be the kind of book you can hardly put down and want to keep on reading right to the end.

Still Life by Sarah Winman

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I saw this book reviewed on BBC2’s Between the Covers, a book programme hosted by Sara Cox in which each week four guests join her to discuss their favourite books of all time and new books recently published. Last week they discussed Sarah Winman’s Still Life and I was hooked enough by what they said to order a copy immediately.

The reviewers all loved the book but it wasn’t just this that attracted me, but the theme of art and its meaning in our life, and the setting – of most of the novel – in Florence, Italy. The story begins in war-torn Europe in 1944 when a young British soldier, Ulysses Temper, meets Evelyn Skinner, an art historian, who has come to Italy to help save important artwork. Their meeting is brief but makes a huge impact on them both. This isn’t a story of romantic love between them but that visceral attraction we can feel towards another instantly; it’s about feeling a deep connection and seeing the world through the eyes of someone else and it changing us for ever. Evelyn is much older than Ulysses and gay; he is in love with the wife who will never return his love in the same way but their connection also runs deep enough for them to remain important people in each others’ lives, even once they’ve divorced.

I was pleased one of the TV reviewers said it took them a while to get into the book, for after the short beginning in 1944 Italy, the story moves to London’s East End where Ulysses has returned to take up his former life, and keep going his father’s business making beautiful globes. These aren’t the kind of cheap globes you buy kids to teach them geography, these are works of art, thus this is also another connection to Evelyn. Back home, wife Peg has had a baby – Alys – with an American soldier who seems to have deserted her – a theme of longing and the heartache of unrequited love that runs throughout the book. But Ulysses remains a friend, a rock, and another rock to them all is old Cress. Ulysses lives above Col’s pub; Col’s drinking and violence have caused his wife to leave and his instability rages throughout the story, but underneath his love for all those around him makes them continue to care about him.

This London period is when the characters are gathered – Ulysses, Peg, Alys, Col, Cress and piano Pete – and we witness the strong bond that ties them together. It was here that my interest waned a bit though before the big change: Ulysses inherits a large apartment in Florence. It has been left to him by Arturo, who in 1944 he rescued from a suicide attempt. Should he sell the apartment or go back to Florence? Uncertain at first, he then sets off with Cress in an old van, and with Alys. Peg finds motherhood too hard, cannot get over the pain of her daughter’s likeness to the missing father. Ulysses has become a father to Alys and so he takes her. They also take Claude, the parrot that lives in the pub and is constantly abused by Col but loved by all. Once in Florence, it soon becomes apparent they will stay, this will be their new home.

Florence brings new characters: Massimo the lawyer who handled Arturo’s will and is to become a close friend; Michele who runs the local restaurant. A whole cast of characters. Meanwhile, Evelyn is back lecturing in London but she hasn’t forgotten Ulysses. She comes to Florence a few times, the city she loves, and their paths almost cross but not quite. It will take many years before they are reunited. As Alys grows she shows huge talent as an artist, returns to London to art school, is touched by Evelyn’s lecturing, but the connection to Ulysses is not yet made …

There are a lot of coincidences, there is a lot of magic. In many ways the book is a fairy tale for the characters are larger than life and even the parrot talks – not just repeating words but words of wisdom; trees talk too. Ulysses’ inheritance is a kind of fairy tale; Cress has vivid visions of the future that result in him being able to place bets on, for example, Geoff Hurst getting a hat trick in the 1966 football World Cup, that make a huge amount of money but he’s also the source of spiritual wisdom and he tells them at one point that he was once a friar.

The years go by, loves are found and lost, friends are made. Florence has become Ulysses’ home and he opens a workshop to make globes again. It’s not until the great flood of 1966 that almost destroys Florence, that Ulysses and Evelyn are finally reunited: not as lovers but soul mates.

I ended up loving the book. Yes the characters are a little unreal; their experiences rely so often on convenient coincidence not to mention that magic I mentioned. But they are real to the reader in the sense that you come to really care about them. And the writing is beautiful with some glorious descriptions of Florence and life there. Winman adopts a conversational style that creates an intimacy with the reader and also a sense of wonder – just as every good fairy tale should do. It is a book about love of all kinds; of the deep bonds of friendship; the wonder of life and the unknown aspect of it. There is a spiritual, metaphysical dimension.

For me, it was also a delight to read a book set in Florence that centred around my favourite part of the city – Santo Spirito, in Oltrarno, the other side of the River Arno to the famous sites, a more bohemian area. I recognised the names of piazzas and roads and bridges, even the famous gelateria, Vivoli. Winman’s knowledge of food is superb and this also appealed. I could picture Piazza Santo Spirito so clearly, where my favourite restaurant, a simple Osteria, is the place I always want to head to first to eat (see my food & travel blog post: click here).

It was one of those books that will keep you up late at night and you are so sad when it ends, although memories of it stay with you.

What does a freelance book editor do?

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Most people’s jobs are a mystery to some extent. We may have an idea about what an accountant does, what a teacher does, what a plumber or a car mechanic does, but it’s usually just a rough overview of the basics. We’re mostly unaware of all the skills learnt and used; the day-to-day experience of actually doing the job.

There’s a certain glamour to saying you’re a book editor. People usually imagine you tucked up comfortably just reading a lot of lovely books with little idea of what we actually do. I’m not sure there’s much glamour in the freelance world of book editing, but when I was a full-time commissioning editor many years ago, well-known authors and personalities would come into my orbit and I have to admit to some excitement meeting many of them. As a freelancer such things are rare and mostly nowadays I don’t even meet – actually meet – the various editors and editorial assistants who contact me to offer work. Everything is done virtually via emails – they contact me about work which is sent either as a Word document for a copy-editing job or an Adobe PDF file for a set of proofs to correct.

I used to do a lot more reading work than I do now, though still occasionally manuscripts are sent for me to assess. I have to look at whether I think they’re good enough to be published, looking not only at how well written (or not!) they are but their commercial potential. A report requires not just a critical analysis of content and an assessment of how well it reads, but it’s important to offer constructive comments on how it might be improved, what work might need to be done before it would be seen as publishable.

Most of my work now is either copy-editing or proofreading. Let’s start with copy-editing as that stage comes earlier, though not first. The first stage ‘editing’, or ‘structural editing’, is usually done in-house – i.e. by the editor who has bought or commissioned the book. They will read it to see if more work needs to be done: perhaps it’s too long or too short; maybe some character or event in the book needs more clarity or expansion; maybe the main character needs to be expanded so we know more about them. In a book I worked on a few months’ ago a guy who’d appeared in an earlier book in the series had behaved badly. In the new book he was going to end up marrying a lovely central character and I said I thought the guy needed to be made nicer as the new book progressed or we wouldn’t want him marrying her!

Copy-editing a book involves not only correcting spelling and grammar but checking consistencies. If the book spans a few years, do people’s ages and years of events match up? As an editor you have to make notes and have a timeline to check against as you work. If real people or products, towns and cities, are mentioned, you need to check spelling. I just happened to find myself working on lots of thrillers featuring terrorists a while ago and had to keep checking the spelling of guns and weapons. I joked that if I was being ‘watched’ the terrorist squad would be at my door soon. You also have to check dates for historical events. To a certain extent it’s the author’s responsibility to make sure references to real people, places and events are correct, but as an editor you have to be ready to question anything that doesn’t sound right.

My age helps sometimes and I’m able to pick up things that a younger editor might easily miss, e.g. the current age at which you can claim your pension. I once years ago read a book set in Rome, which I know well, and immediately saw that a description of a major road in the centre of Rome was incorrect. Having walked along it many times, I knew it was very wide – not the narrow street described in the book. It turned out the author had relied on someone else for the description and had never actually been there.

Most of the books I work on have UK spelling but occasionally US, so I have to know or check some spellings which are different, like ‘kerb’ (UK) but ‘curb’ (US) for the pavement kind of kerb; a block of flats with five ‘storeys’ in UK, but ‘stories’ in US. As a copy-editor you make a style sheet and one will be sent to you for a proofread. Of course most spellings are standard but a few are down to choice or house style (i.e. the publisher’s preference). The important thing for the editor or proofreader is checking consistency, that the same spelling is used throughout.

A copy-editor also looks as ‘clunky’ sentences. I’m sure you know the kind of thing I mean, where a sentence is a bit too convoluted, unclear or simply goes on too long. You also look out for repetition – giving details in almost exactly the same way as earlier in the book.

I always read a book I’m copy-editing as a reader – someone who has bought the book – would do. I don’t skip to the end, I need to make sure everything makes sense as I go through, that things tie up and everything that needs to be explained – perhaps later in the story – is explained.

Once a book has been copy-edited and returned to the publisher, it’s usually looked at by the commissioning editor and the author. The author is given the chance to approve or not any changes; they will also look at and answer any queries.

Then the book is ready to go to the printer. The book is typeset and then sets of proofs made to be checked before actual printing.

As a proofreader you expect that most of the actual editing has been done in the earlier stages, but you might still question some repetition, a clunky sentence or note that some of the dates or events don’t match up. In essence you’re really checking for typos – errors that have occurred in the printing, but there will always be some ‘author’s errors’, things that have been missed at the copy-editing stage. Even an experienced copy-editor and proofreader won’t usually catch 100% of the mistakes and major books which are expected to be bestsellers are often sent to more than one proofreader, as well as being checked by the author.

I rarely work on a book that’s really awful as I work for major publishers and often the authors are well known or have had a number of books published already. Of course, they are not always books I’d actually buy to read for pleasure. This means I’m often working on books which are okay, and I’m happy enough working on them, but I wouldn’t have chosen to read. It also means though that I often find myself reading something I might not have chosen but really like, so it’s a nice surprise. The drawback, of course, to the books I don’t particularly like is that I have to read every word. But I’ve also found myself enjoying a read so much that I want to go on reading past my usual ‘stop work’ time but know I wouldn’t be able to sustain the concentration needed to do a good job for longer. The concentration required is for all described above but also includes things like noticing when a comma should be a full stop, or that a quote mark or apostrophe is the wrong way round – really minute detail. Both copy-editing and proofreading are jobs you can’t do non-stop for hours on end; you have to take regular breaks not just for your eyes but for your concentration. It’s not like working in an office where the day is usually a mix of things, with meetings and phone calls, chats with colleagues. Freelancing is truly head-down, high concentration stuff and over the many years I’ve been doing it, I’ve learnt of ways to break the day up and get a bit of light relief before I get back to the computer with full-on concentration again.

I’ve always loved reading, right from when I was a small child and reading my first books, so how lucky was I to find my way into work that enabled me to do something I’m passionate about.

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!