Paradise by Toni Morrison. Short-listed for the 1999 Women’s Prize for Fiction.


Published by Chatto & Windus

Book Review Rating –  ♀♀♀

Awards and nominations



The book opens early one morning in 1976, with nine men from the town of Ruby (with a population of 360) assaulting a former Convent which lies some 19 miles outside the town. The men justify this assault on the convent and its female inhabitants as a way of protecting Ruby, “the one all black town worth the pain.” The 1960s and 1970s has been a confusing time, racially, politically and generationally for the town. With rumours of witchcraft and abortions happening at the convent the townspeople find a scapegoat for all that ails them in the shape of the nonconformists and fugitives who inhabit the convent.

The story then weaves its way back and forth through time relating the story of the people and origins of the town and how the women of the former convent found their way there. Through these elements and the third person prism of points of view from many different characters, the reader is lead toward the conclusion of the events on that morning of 1976 nineteen miles outside the town of Ruby. 

“They shoot the white girl first” 

This is a powerful and stunning opening line that has the reader asking a plethora of questions before they move onto the second line: Why is the woman shot? Was she killed or injured? Why is her ethnicity mentioned? The last question is substantially more pertinent as the novel never reveals the ethnicity of the women at the convent and because of that we the reader have no idea which of the women was shot: Connie, a former ward of the nuns, who ran the convent when it was a boarding school for Indian girls; Mavis, a woman who left her two babies to suffocate in her car on a hot day and fled believing her husband and remaining children wanted to kill her; Gigi, who participates in anti-War demonstrations and whose boyfriend is in jail; Seneca, a hitchhiker, turns up at the convent after temporarily providing sexual fun for a rich woman; Pallas, a runaway whose boyfriend leaves her for her mother and is brought to the convent after having escaped from rapists.

Ruby’s nomadic group of descendants migrated from Mississippi and Louisiana in the 1870s and attempted to integrate into other societies but found themselves turned away. They eventually established the town of haven. After the apparent disintegration of the town of Haven’s moral fibre during the years of World War II the elders moved on to establish a new town, Ruby. This search for the ‘promised land’ is one of the novel’s themes writ large, religion.

The town’s founding fathers, Deek and Steward Morgan have set down unwritten ‘commandments’ that they believe should be adhered to at all costs. A set of rules that are not only unrealistically Utopian but ignore the intricacies and convolutions of human nature.

The other large themes that permeate the novel is race and racism. Not just racism in its obvious ugly form between white and black but also the racism that exists in the novel between dark skinned African Americans and lighter skinned African Americans.

Over and above these large themes, Toni Morrison looks at the subjects that though always with us in one form or another were greatly magnified in the post war years and in particular the 1960s and 1970s; the rise of feminism; a cultural and societal widening of the generation gap; race riots that beset America and Christianity faced challenges from the likes of Eastern religions and Marxism.

Though the novel is interesting, intelligent and wonderfully illustrates the devastating legacy of slavery in all its forms, racial, sexual and gender, its message is lost in what is a convoluted, affected, vague and over populated novel.

Not only are there over sixty, (yes 60+) characters in the novel but so many of them are written in such a similar manner that it is at times difficult to distinguish one from the other. However, this maybe intentional on the author’s part to show us, the reader, that we are not all that different from each other.

The novel’s events that occur to allow the plot to harness its themes feels too random and unpersuasive. From the lost white people who appear in Ruby, to the women who happen upon what is supposedly a remote house. The character of Gigi/Grace particularly grates as she has arrived in the area looking for a rock formation in the desert which looks like a couple having sex and then searches for a lovers’ tree in Ruby after her original search proves fruitless before stumbling upon the convent.

This is not a book for the casual reader and maybe not even for the seasoned reader either who is looking to read, cogitate, enjoy and move onto the next book. For most readers it would need several readings to help fathom this intricate and deeply flawed meretricious novel.

First Line – “They shoot the white girl first”

Memorable Line – “God don’t make mistakes, Lone had shouted at her. Perhaps not, but He was sometimes over generous. Like giving satanic gifts to a drunken, ignorant, penniless woman living in darkness unable to rise from a cot to do something useful or die on it and rid the world of her stench.”

Number of Pages – 318

Sex Scenes – Yes

Profanity – Mild

Genre – Fiction/Magic realism.

If you have the time or inclination and enjoyed the review please click the helpful button here at Amazon. Thank you.

Prisoner of Night and Fog by Anne Blankman

Prisoner of Night and Fog

Published by Headline

Book Review Rating – ♥♥♥½


The review for this book can be found here. Or alternatively go to the left hand side column, place your mouse over ‘Review of non-Bailey’s books by author, (A-D) and there you will find the review.


Helen Dunmore at the 2014 Edinburgh Book Festival


On the 20th August 2014 Helen Dunmore the author of ‘The Lie’ and the 1996 winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction (now the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction) ‘The Spell of Winter’ entertained an audience at the Edinburgh Book Festival. Below is my edited transcription of the talk. Enjoy.

Supported by the Hawthornden Literary Retreat

Read my review of A Spell of Winter here.

A review of Helen Dunmore’s latest book The Lie is coming soon.

Chaired by Mark Watson


MWI’ll start with, I suppose, with an obvious thing. Was there any particular event, something you read that stimulated you to writing the book in the first place?

HDThe Lie was probably a book that began with the characters. The central character is a young man called Daniel Bramwell, who came through to me very, very strongly. It was almost as if he were standing there in from of me demanding to be written about. But I also think I’m part of that generation were everybody’s father was in the Second World War and everybody’s grandfather was in the First World War. I do remember conversations between my grandfather and uncles, very few of them, being elliptical, going over my head when I was a little girl. There was one particular conversation, a very short conversation, between my grandfather and my great uncle who was gassed during the First World War. He made a few wry little comments that he had done pretty well out of his pension because he had lived a lot longer than he was expected to live. That was about the level they discussed it on. I had the feeling that there was a lot of silence, a lot of things that were not being said.

MWThe book is set principally after the First World War, there are flashbacks about their time in the trenches and so on. One of the things you appeared to be looking at was the repercussions in both the immediate term and the longer term.

HD – Absolutely. The novel begins with the childhood of the three main characters. They are part of that generation that came of age during the war. This is sometimes referred to as the ‘lost generation’. The novel follows through to after the war and before in those formative months in France in the trenches in particular the two boys that made them what they were.

It’s an extraordinary period to write about but there was something about the aftermath that interested me. It was the disparity that the returning service men came home to because Lloyd George said that there would be a country fit for heroes to live in, said in a speech in 1918. What they found was very often it was not. They found unemployment, they found homelessness and they found an inability to deal with the physical and psychological wounds that they had received. You have to remember that there was something like 2.1 million incidents of injury and wounding among the men from the British Isles and let alone some 700,000 who were killed. So we are talking about an enormous generational trauma and a medical service that offered some very innovatory plastic surgery that really began to develop very, very fast. But the treatment of psychological injuries were still rudimentary and Pat Barker dealt with that a great deal in her novels.

Then I was interested in, as well as the immediate aftermath, the long nightmare that passes down to us now as we begin to commemorate  the 100 years since the beginning of that war. We are now thinking about it, not just what happened to those people but as a consequence what happened to those people and their role in our society. In what way could we be children and grandchildren of that war and how does it still shape our society. So all those things I find utterly fascinating.

MW It’s fantastically clever how you have the image of the boys in a shelter that you relate to later in the trenches.

HD – I realised when I was writing it or perhaps a little bit later that one of the very strong themes in the novel is shelter. About whether a shelter is real shelter or not. The Dennis house and in particular to Daniel’s eyes is very grand and very luxurious compared to where he lives. However, he realises as he spends more time there that it was unpredictable, it was unsafe. It shelters very well it’s warm but it’s not a comfort in that enormous space.

When they go out to France they are very aware of the outdoorness of its exposure and of the men there. Edward Thomas writes about very brilliantly about it in his poem The Owl. He ends it with the soldiers recalling being unable to rejoice and he’s thinking of those men just across the channel in France, outdoors, exposed in the rain, trying to keep warm, trying to feed themselves to live a life in circumstances that are terrifying. Even when they are at the front the contrast between the little pub the kind of thing they go to fun of warmth and the smell of it and the vinegary white wine and all the bodies jammed in and then the darkness and the waiting. The book follows a big arc but I don’t want to say too much as it might spoil it but again they will be huddled together just as they are at the beginning.

MWDaniel’s first instinct when he gets back from France is to build a makeshift shelter.

HD – That’s absolutely true. When he gets back he can’t move back to the cottage that his mother used to rent because his mother has died while he has been on active service. He no longer has that home and his possessions have been given to neighbours for safe keeping. But as it so happens he knows an old woman on the fringes of the town who has small holding. She says he’s welcome to build a shelter. He does that by making it out of corrugated iron and other bits and pieces. Gradually he makes a home for himself.

I very much wanted to show the contrast between the elements. Many of you may know West Penrith, Cornwall which is at its furthest west part. You will know how strong the weather is there and how little land there is and how much mountain there is. So you have the winds blowing, the seas beating up, I wanted very much to show how strong the elements are and how fragile human shelter can be. And then there is that extraordinary paradox during war when millions go out of their shelter and they go out of their homes and they go into this world, this world that is relatively primitive, difficult, arduous, and dangerous and live there for sometimes months at a time.

MW I was struck by how Daniel’s experience is not untypical of historical reality. When he goes to war it’s the first time he has been abroad.

HD – It’s true. He hasn’t gone beyond Truro before. He is absolutely typical. That’s the story of our grandparents most of whom did not have those opportunities that we all take for granted. For the first time he goes on a train outside the county, crosses England, goes down to embarkation, and then he goes over to France. When you think about it, going to France and Flanders, possibly going to Gallipoli, it was the first massive excursion of the British working man. People normally didn’t go abroad and suddenly there they were, with different languages, everything confronts them at once.

I wanted the first thing that Daniel noticed to be the very high degree of organisation and logistical support. He’s quite an observant young man and he sees straight away that there’s army workshops, there’s hospitals, and telephones for communication and stables. There’s every kind of structure. It’s like a city, it’s industrialised, a very complex organisation.

MW I wanted to comment now on the male friendship, both between Daniel and Frederick, but also the wider kinship between the soldiers.

HD – I found that very interesting to write about because all my research, reading, and listening that I did suggested to me that those bonds were absolutely essential to survival. For physical and psychological survival. You bonded within your platoon, you bonded within your company, and I wanted to suggest that Daniel, who was a bit of an outsider loved the world he loves the world of education, he longs for it. He’s also fatherless and is even a lot poorer than a lot of the children at his school. Then he goes to the army and he finds he’s a good, efficient soldier. He’s physically tough because he’s worked all of his life, he’s observant, he wants to survive, he responds to the army training. To his great ease and relief, he forms bonds with the men who he is fighting with. This time he’s part of an “us”, he’s on the inside and it’s a very fragile thing. But it’s something that means an enormous amount to him. He realises that Frederick who is an officer, and who responds to the conditions and responds to the “lie” differently, Frederick is in agony, he finds it very difficult. He doesn’t feel integrated. Their experience of the war is quite different. I wanted to write about that, to not write about the stereotype because not everyone had a stock experience.

MW It strikes me, not untypically, when Daniel returns he’s old before his time, due to his experiences.

HD – Yes, he is old before his time. He is a very young man, but he’s seen and done more than most people ever do in their life. He’s seen and heard more than he should have done at his age. He goes back to a world where he keeps thinking how untouched it is. The landscape is unmarked, the landscape, the fields, the town are the same. There’s been no bombing, there’s been no shelling, and there are no graves because the decision has been made not to repatriate the dead of the First World War. There is no sign that they ever existed and all this makes him feel very old. Frederick says to Daniel he feels more acquainted with the dead than he does with the living and that’s probably true for Daniel too. And that’s a very ageing thing.

MWIt strikes me that I think one of the things you’re doing in the book, it’s a novel, but you’re writing history from, as it were, ‘underneath’.

The siege

HD – Yes, very much so. It’s Something I try and do in my novels, it was a technique I was thinking about. Particularly when I wrote the novel The Siege some sixteen years ago. But thinking “where am I going to get the viewpoint?” and I wanted to look from below and look at the lives of people who were not or who did not have influence in a large way. We get a lot of overviews of what people like Asquith were thinking and what Lloyd George was thinking. It’s endlessly fascinating, what decisions were being made by the generals, but I also want to know the experience of people like my grandparents. People who did leave school at thirteen and who didn’t leave records and who were the greatest number who were affected. I’ve also been influenced by great writers like Tolstoy, who wrote about the war through the lives of ordinary families.

Audience QuestionI’ve read a number of your novels, like The Siege, it seems to me that this is the greatest of your books and it’s the most poetic. Was it a conscious decision to make it poetic?

HD – That’s an interesting question and a very kind observation. My formation was in poetry and I published poetry long before I wrote fiction. I have problems when I hear a novel is poetic. That usually means it’s not quite got the cohesion or the dialogue quite right. At its best, I think it should mean that the images really come alive and that there’s a cadence to everything. I think this is a novel that I heard a lot in my head. I heard the characters speaking. I have used poetry in the novel to an extent because, as being young men of their generation, their education was rather different from the kind of education children receive today. Rote learning was far more prevalent then. Education was about learning things by heart and was very, very important and enforced. They learnt poetry by rote. So these characters in the novel learned poetry in this way. So I wanted all this to come into the book, too.

AudienceAfter you’ve done your research do you then let the characters lead you through the book, or do you research into your characters before you start writing?

HD – Well with this book, and because it’s not the first time I’ve written a book set during this time, the First World War – my book The Spell of Winter was set during the same time – so it wasn’t starting from a complete beginning. In terms of the characters, quite often, very early on I’ve got a sense of where the characters are going to. So I will have, and this might sound a bit strange, I have the final scene in my mind, but no precise idea of how to get to it.

Audience - I was wondering about your visual influences. On a number of occasions, I kept being reminded of Stanley Spencer’s resurrection paintings. Do you feel influenced by those kind of paintings, photographs, etc?

HD – That’s a very interesting question. Because I do indeed like the paintings by Stanley Spencer. And I do like ideas of resurrection taking place in an ordinary little village, in every day clothes. And the whole iconography of resurrection is very interesting. The way Stanley Spencer handles it is extraordinary because it’s located in a specific spot and not some vague area. It sits in a little village in Cookham Church. I think I am very influenced by paintings. I love painting, I spend a lot of time looking at paintings. I love landscapes and want to be a landscaper. This book probably does come out of looking at, and not just looking once, but getting to know the area.


Audience Hi my name’s Adam Fleming, I work with the BBC. We’re making a documentary for Radio 4 about the publishing world and some of the challenges and some of the changes at the moment. Are you affected by this dispute between Amazon and Hatchette* in the US? And as an author, do you worry what that sort of stuff means for your trade?

HD – Well I think as an author, I’ve always been concerned about the lives of authors and this is why I became involved with the society of authors, and I went onto the management committee of the society of authors. I then became chair of the society and then became involved in a great number of campaigns to try and improve conditions for authors. With having many friends who are authors, from starting out in poetry where people tend to be poorly paid, I know it can be a hard life. I think the average income of an author is £11,000, which is not a great sum of money. If you look at the amount authors get from the cover price of a book, it’s not very much, and clearly would be much nicer if they got more. I would like to see new technology helping authors to do better. If it’s making books easier to reach readers, then it would seem a shame if the author didn’t get a little bit more.

MWThank you Helen Dunmore.


Bailey’s Prize short-listed author Audrey Magee at the Edinburgh Book Festival 10/08/2014

2014-08-10 18.39.04

Me at the Edinburgh Book Festival.

Last night on the 10th August 2014 I went to hear Audrey Magee, author of the 2014 Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction short-listed book The Undertaking, give a talk at the Edinburgh Book Festival. I recorded the talk and below is my edited transcribed notes on said talk.



Audrey Magee

The talk was chaired by Harry Morgan. He starts by asking Audrey to talk about her book The Undertaking.

My story, The Undertaking, tells the story of Peter Faber an ordinary infantry man on the Russian front. He hates the war and he hates the war so much that he marries a woman he doesn’t know, a complete stranger to him, Katharina Spinnel. He does this because by marrying her he gets home on leave and she receives a pension if he dies.

I use this very simple framework to track the couple as they meet as they fall in love, a very intense relationship. Through their relationship we get to see what it was like to be an ordinary German in the Second World War and I suppose I got fascinated by that ordinariness because I am not German I have no connection with the Ukraine where some of the book is set.

When I was a teen I went to Germany for the first time I knew nothing about the country other than the holocaust and the Second World War. So I went out quite naively and I suppose I was struck first and foremost by the cloud of silence that I had not anticipated.

I come from Ireland and I know about silence and you know about the silence in all these communities we live in, Protestant and Catholics. But it is a different silence in Germany. It’s a very big wall of silence. It wasn’t just silence against me as a foreign person it was the silence among themselves. It was a cross generational silence. Grandparents did not talk about the war with their children. So I became fascinated by this silence and what was behind that silence.

Then there was another encounter when I was 21 and I was outside the walls of Dachau with an American Jewish man who had lost relatives in Dachau. He had promised his family that he would come and pay tribute to the family he lost in the camp. But when he got there it was Monday and the camp was closed. He was traumatized as he had made this promise as part of his European trip. So I said why don’t we walk around the perimeter. As we walked around the perimeter we meet an older German woman and we talked But he knew no German and she no English so I interpreted for both of them.

It emerged during the talk that she had lived here all her life. Her house abutted the camp wall. She had slept in that house, played in that garden, worked in that garden her entire life and all during the time when the man’s relatives were being killed behind the wall. He became hugely upset because this was his family members and he ended up shouting at her. What did you do? Why didn’t you do something? She replied what could I do? It was me against all of them. I didn’t know and if I did know what could I have done? That was a very searing encounter. To some degree it was my first time behind that wall of silence and it stayed with me.

There was pain on both sides. He had lost family and she had to live with the scope of it all and the knowledge she done nothing and thousands of people had died over the wall from her house. So that went into The Undertaking in terms of what decisions people made and the consequences of those decisions. The consequences of doing nothing, the consequences of being silent or the consequences of acceptance.

Harry Morgan: In the Undertaking there is there is the theme of choice. Having to turn a blind eye to things. Audrey, the character of Katharina, she begins to stand up against her parents, and against the Nazis. Can we talk about her character and how it evolves during the course of the war.

Audrey Magee: The book shows us Katharina in a family situation. She lives with parents and her brother is also on the eastern front. She is 22 and Peter is 24. Katerina goes along with everything. She goes along with what is expected of her because she is trying to become a woman and she is trying to become a wife and she is trying to become a mother. So she is following all these expectations of her life things that would evolve normally in peaceful times but she is trying to do these things during war and deprivation.

If you go along with the system you get extra food etc and because her family were Nazi supporters, they did things the Nazi party asked of them, they move out of their very small apartment into a palatial apartment that had belonged a few days previously to a Jewish family. They gradually took on an upper middle class lifestyle because they aligned themselves with the Nazi party. She went along with this she went along with what her parents were doing. She went along with her brother being sent back to the Russian front even though he was suffering from Post-Traumatic Disorder.

She went along with everything really until the moment of rape and she was subjugated. It’s what can happen to us. We go along with a system we go along the perceived wisdoms and what the family are doing. Because to some degree we believe it’s the path we think we should follow. If there is a crisis it can turn things for you and you evolve into a very different person.


Audience question: Do you plan to continue writing in historical fiction?

Audrey Magee: Funny thing is I never saw myself as writing historical fiction. I don’t necessarily see my novel as historical fiction I see it as an exploration of war and what it’s like to be on the wrong side of war. So it’s set obviously in history so I suppose I used that period to some degree because it’s over and because I knew Germany. But sometimes I think it could be about any war. So I don’t see myself as a historical fiction writer.

Audience question: How difficult was it for you to engage emotionally and psychologically with events on the eastern front? My second question is to do with the silence you mentioned in Germany and I wondered what sense you think that silence in Germany particularly in Eastern Germany was it even more compounded because of the post war events and the silence that fell over Germany and the British point of view?

Audrey Magee: Well, firstly I’m not British, I’m Irish so even that could give one a different perspective because it wasn’t my war and to some degree I was an outsider to the whole war, So I probably didn’t have the difficulty that to that a British writer may have had writing about the Eastern Front. Had I been British that would have been a huge leap to make, to start taking it from a completely different perspective because being British you have grown up with it. Because I have no perspective of it this allows me to see it from a completely different perspective which is from a German perspective and the Eastern perspective. Because it wasn’t part of my psyche to see it only from this perspective being Irish and with Irish writing you do tend to come at things, to look at things from different angles.

Harry Morgan: At the end of the war the Russians provided jobs and this is something you explore in your book.

Audrey Magee: At the end of the book Katharina is in Berlin at the end of the war. And yes I suppose I look at what it was like in different sectors. What is was like in the American sector, the British sector she was in the Russian sector. So people like Katharina became very isolated. I can’t say too much about it because it’s near the end of the book. But it was like Germany was pushed further into silence and then there was the silence of the East.

I was there in the 1980s it was a very difficult country to be in, to live in because they had so much to be frightened of and especially how people interpreted them; what they had done was so awful and what they let happen was so awful.

Audience question: I was fascinated by the cake eating and the bringing of cake. I just wanted to ask you was part of the novel about eating? Eating and emotions are very tightly put together. What would you say about that and how it fits into the general themes.

Audrey Magee: When you start not to have food it becomes all encompassing. When people look back to when food was taken from them and they are entitled to less than they are used to be able to eat it becomes such a focus of your life. They, the Germany people, had to queue so long for food in Berlin and food was so heavily rationed. So something like a cake becomes a focal point. It is probably quite hard for us now to imagine that situation as we are surrounded by food. I spent some time is central Asia during the wake of Glasnost and Perestroika. Food was such an extraordinary issue. Anything you brought into a house was such an amazing event. To some degree I drew on that because it was such an intense emotion. If you’re hungry you become broken. If all you can think about is food it fills your day.

Audience question: Has your book been published in Germany and if so what has been the reaction?

Audrey Magee: My book has already been translated into several other languages. It’s harder for Germany because I’m writing about them, I’m not German and therefore they believe I really shouldn’t be doing it. I knew that when I was writing it and I drew very heavily on Heinrich Theodor Böll for that because he wrote about Ireland very wonderfully.

There is a walk around near my house and I would reach the same point every day and I would think well if Heinrich Theodor Böll can write about Ireland then I can write about Germany. It is difficult and it is a hard book about Germany. My agency tells me it will happen. But I understand the reticence of the German people with an outsider writing about Germany and it’s hard to hear an outsider writing about your country.

Audience question: What research did you do about the eastern front?

Audrey Magee: I took quite an academic approach to it by starting with tertiary texts and then other materials and I distilled and distilled and distilled until I came to diaries and journals. So I read and read and drew on the Russian poets because the pain within them and their poems. There was so much pain within that war for everyone. Stalingrad was absolutely horrendous for the Germany army as they were completely abandoned.

Harry Morgan: A big thank you to Audrey Magee.

My review of the book can be found here,

Middle Age and the Art of Staying Awake while Reading.


Below is an edited (by me) version of an article by the Pulitzer Prize winning writer Michael Dirda published in the July 18th 2014 (No’ 5807) edition of The Times Literary Supplement. I enjoyed this article, especially being of a certain age, so much I thought my fellow bloggers and readers may also enjoy it. I have at last found something in common with a Pulitzer Prize winning writer. The title above is my own. Read on…

While writing and editing are inescapably active, reading is, alas, only theoretically so. You may start off alert and focused, but allow a moment’s inattention and the mind will soon be tiptoeing through the tulips. A mental digression will imperceptibly segue into a daydream or a memory, and suddenly you’re reliving that night when you and your highschool sweetie finally…Well, between such a night and any book, what contest is there? Smiling you doze on.

There was a time, of course, when I could read anywhere for hours on end. As a small boy, I would settle down in a corner of the living room, next to the heating vent, and spread out all my recently bought or borrowed comic books. In my pyjamas I must have resembled a pint sized pasha, surrounded by issues of Batman and Green Lantern rather than voluptuous slave girls. There was even a comely serving woman to bring me hot chocolate and fresh baked cookies. Thanks, Mom!

On many nights of my adolescence, my mother might find me awake in my bedroom at 1am, unable to stop turning pages of some embarrassing bestseller such as Harold Robbin’s Carperbaggers or Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.

We all have stories like these. But eventually, reading – especially sustained reading – grows harder. Sit down and our bodies start to shutdown. These days, I sometimes open a book at 7pm, comfortably ensconced in an armchair near a bright floor lamp, and twenty minutes later find myself nodding off. Truth is, come middle age it takes serious resolve to read a book for two, three or more hours. the spirit is willing, indeed usually eager, but the flesh is weak.

medieval scholars sometimes employed a leather scourge to flog themselves into studious wakefulness. Working from home, I instead take a morning trudge around the block, during which I review my life’s major blunders and try to get the blood pumping. Finished with both spiritual mortification and the bare minimum of cardio exercise, I’m able to work on a book review or essay until the early afternoon. But on the days when I have to read, I suffer. Even thrillers might just as well be whispering, “Your eyes are growing heavy, so very heavy…” From a couch in the living room I eventually rouse myself and move to a seat on the porch, then to a chair at the dining room table, and finally to a shaky standing lectern. After a lunch of leftovers, it’s time  for another brisk walk. When I return from that – usually regretting how little was accomplished during the best part of the day – I repeat the musical chairs of the morning’s reading but at an accelerated almost Keystone Cops-like pace.

For me, the best place to read has always been the train. The Amtrak from Washington DC to New York is particularly excellent, provided one selects a seat in the “Quiet Car”, which prohibits the use of cell phones. In fact, all conversation, of any sort, is discouraged. The knowledge that you have been gifted with three or four hours in which nobody can communicate with you, or you with anyone else, elicits a distinct feeling of liberation, as if one were playing hooky from school. To use a term beloved by anthropologists, one is suddenly liminal, being neither here nor there and temporarily released from business, the busyness of adult life, which is – aside from physical torpor, the chief obstacle to sustained, rapturous reading.

Or is it? Only a bad carpenter blames his tools yet, in moments of weakness, I’ve sometimes wondered if modern books themselves might be another cause of my reader’s fatigue. Aren’t our biographies way too long and vast swathes of contemporary poetry heart sinkingly-pointless and soporific? Am I alone in drawing back from crime fiction and fantasy that lingers too lovingly on the bloody and sadistic? As for cultural studies and literary scholarship, the work of fresh-minted PhDs all too often seems either annoying hip or possessed of a deconstuctionist-like power to cloud men’s minds.

The sad truth is, after adolescence, books are no longer magic casements or flying carpets, as the posters in school libraries proclaim. By middle age, a novel may be good, it may even be great. But it’s still just another book. It’s not going to change anyone’s life, is it? This doesn’t mean we old campaigners aren’t always hoping to recapture a bit of the Keatsian magic, to feel one more that exhilarating sense of horizons opening, every time we see the words, “Chapter One”.

To bolster my own efforts to overcome the sluggishness of age, I may actually invest in one of those pricey treadmill workstations – or start searching eBay for a good leather scourge.

This article is the copyright of Michael Dirda.




 (Originally posted at


To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee takes top spot in

#ThisBook campaign to find the most life-changing novels written by women.

Back in May 2014, the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction launched the #ThisBook campaign. The aim was simple: to find out which books, written by women, have had the biggest impact on readers.

We enlisted nineteen inspirational women – from Dawn O’Porter to Jennifer Saunders, Sandi Toksvig to Joanna Trollope – to launch the campaign and tell us about the books that most impacted, shaped or changed their lives.

The reasons for their choices varied greatly – while Kate Mosse attributes Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte to kick-starting her writing career, for Edith Bowman, The Lovely Bones by Alice Seabold helped her deal with a personal loss. Saffron Burrows said that I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou made her fall in love with storytelling, while Zawe Ashton’s experience of The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison made her truly understand just how books can really change you.

Following the launch, we took to Twitter to ask the general public to share their submissions and we were overwhelmed with the response. Thousands used the #ThisBook hashtag to take part and nominate the book that changed their life, and the final top twenty list, revealed today, features a diverse and eclectic mix of literary greats.

Harper Lee’s timeless classic To Kill a Mockingbird took the top spot as the most influential book written by a woman, with Margaret Atwood’s dystopian fiction The Handmaid’s Taleand Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre taking second and third place respectively.

Interestingly, nearly half of the top 20 books, as nominated by the public, were published before 1960, including Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (8th place) and Middlemarch(16th place) by George Eliot – confirming that classic novels continue to inspire readers today.

The full #ThisBook top 20 is as follows:

  1. To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
  2. The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
  3. Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte
  4. Harry Potter – J.K Rowling
  5. Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte
  6. Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
  7. Rebecca – Daphne Du Maurier
  8. Little Women – Louisa May Alcott
  9. The Secret History – Donna Tartt
  10. I Capture The Castle – Dodie Smith
  11. The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath
  12. Beloved – Toni Morrison
  13. Gone With The Wind – Margaret Mitchell
  14. We Need To Talk About Kevin – Lionel Shriver
  15. The Time Traveller’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger
  16. Middlemarch – George Eliot
  17. I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings – Maya Angelou
  18. The Golden Notebook – Doris Lessing
  19. The Colour Purple – Alice Walker
  20. The Women’s Room – Marilyn French


Shami Chakrabarti, Director of Liberty and announced today as Chair of the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2015 judging panel, took part in the campaign launch in May and selected To Kill a Mockingbird as her #ThisBook. She comments, “With human rights under attack the world over, the enduring appeal of Harper Lee’s great tale gives hope that justice and equality might yet triumph over prejudice.”

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Heroes’ Welcome by Louisa Young

louisa young

Published by The Borough Press

Published 2014

Book Review Rating ♥♥♥

The review for this book can be found here. Or alternatively go to the left hand side column, place your mouse over ‘Review of non-Bailey’s books by author, (U-Z) and there you will find the review.