Turtle Diary – Russell Hoban (1975)

I’m not entirely sure where I first heard of this title (someone out there in Blogland), but whoever you are/were – thank you! This was a surprisingly good emotive read – and ended up being much more than I had initially thought it was going to be. 

Written as an epistolary novel (be still my heart), this wry but thoughtful narrative features alternating diary entries from two middle-aged Londoners, one divorced, one who “looks like the sort of spinster who doesn’t keep cats and is not a vegetarian”, but both leading pretty lonely lives. (It’s rather Muriel Spark-like in some ways.)

The overlap between these two characters occurs at the aquarium at London Zoo with the turtle enclosure. Although visiting at different times, William G. (the divorced person) and Neaera both have the same idea of freeing the trapped turtles in their too-small cage and it’s this, along with other overlaps, that leads them to come into contact with each other. 

It’s not a simple love story though (although at first blush, it might read as though it’s being set up like that). It’s also not completely filled with middle-aged glumness and angst. (It has some good humor in places.) It’s actually much more complex and layered so what, at first, reads like a fairly straightforward read actually ends up giving you lots to think about. Kudos to Hoban to not taking the easy route with this plot. 

William, now divorced (although why remains a mystery), works in a bookshop and lives in a slightly rundown boarding house. The divorce has meant he has lost his house, his mortgage, daily access to his children, and now he is forced to share a bathroom and a tiny kitchen with his irksome (but distant) housemates. Neaera, OTOH, is a successful children’s book author and illustrator although faced with a serious writer’s block at the moment. Both can be a little prickly and difficult, but there’s enough cheer to make it believable. 

The free-the-turtle plan, although hatched independently from each other, is the point at which these two people interact but through Hoban’s use of diary entries, the reader can see how each person has his/her own reasons for this idea. Generally, both feel trapped in their own lives as well, so it’s a metaphorical idea of freedom at the same time. 

The writing itself is reflective of its times (the mid-1970s) so there was a patch in the middle when I thought I was going to stop reading the book (Gendered expectations. Hippy groups that simulate your own birth! Gaaah.) However, soldier on and you’ll find that the remainder of the narrative picks up again and maintains its pace until you turn that last page with a sigh of satisfaction at both a solidly good read and a big unexpected twist which saves the plot from stereotype. 

Overall, this ended up being a really thoughtful read and I’m glad that I tracked it down. Thanks again to whoever it was who first mentioned it. I’d never heard of it but it was a worthwhile use of time. (It’s been republished by the NYRB back in 2013 so it might be easier to find for you. I found an earlier edition at a book sale.) And interestingly, it’s also come out as a 1985 British film of the same name.

A Book of One’s Own: People and their Diaries – Thomas Mallon (1984)

Found this older book edition on the TBR the other day when I was bibbling around, and being in the exact right mood for diaries (someone else’s – not mine!), I pulled this off the shelf. I had originally expected to read an anthology of different diaries from different people in different years, but when I got into this read, I realized that it was more academic and organized than I had thought. 

Thomas Mallon, Ph.D., is (or was?) faculty at Vassar College who teaches in the Department of English, and I’m thinking that this book was probably part of a tenure requirement packet. Saying that though doesn’t imply that I thought less of it, by any means, but it was surely a more serious read than I had prepared for. This was fine in the end, but it did need a mind shift to get there after the first few pages.

So, this was not the book that I had thought I was going to read, but it turned out to be really interesting all the same. It was still a book about diaries, but the contents were organized thematically (as opposed to by author or time period) and so the usual suspects that typically make diary-related anthologies were also supplemented by less well-known ones as well, which was an enjoyable extra. 

Each chapter was called a large thematic title (e.g. Chroniclers, Pilgrims, Prisoners, Confessors etc.) and it was pretty interesting to read how the author had grouped the diary entries. Additionally, the book was more than just selected authors. It was also quite an academic treatise on the history of diaries (and those who wrote them), on the trends and patterns of diary-keeping, and on the many situations in which people have written them. 

So, the contents included Samuel Pepys, but also Parson James Woodforde (The Diary of a Country Parson, 1758-1802); of Jerome K. Jerome’s Diary of a Pilgrimage along with the travel diary of 15-year-old Miss Julia Newberry who was dragged across a long tour of mainland Europe with her incredibly rich American mother; the journals of Pope John XXIII and author Annie Dillard… 

Curiously, I was most interested in the diaries completed by people who were imprisoned in some way, physically or mentally, whether fairly or unfairly so. Anne Frank is in there, but so is Hitler’s “master architect”, Albert Speer and his diary, Spandau

(Being a big fan of 1980s English music, I naturally thought of the old group, Spandau Ballet, and wondered if their band name was anything to do with this Speer’s Spandau, but disappointingly, the group name only arose from when a friend of theirs saw it written on a wall in Berlin on a weekend trip. Huh. 

And then digging a little deeper, it turns out that Spandau is the name of an old town near Berlin. The actual prison was there until it was demolished in 1987, after its final prisoner, Rudolf Hess, had died. The prison was demolished to prevent it becoming a neo-Nazi shrine. Well, well. Now you know.)

Back to the book at hand: there are all sorts of lesser-known diarists here which I’ve noted for further perusal: William Allingham (1824-1889), a rather sad and lonely guy who was on the very edge of the Pre-Raphaelites (such as Tennyson). Arthur Crew Inman (1895-1963) wrote ten million words (no exaggeration) who led a very quiet life in Boston, but longed to talk with interesting people. He even put a newspaper ad out that asked “for interesting people to talk” with, each paid 75 cents/hr to tell their stories to old Arthur as the visitor sat in front of a black curtain with Arthur sitting behind it. (Nope. Not weird at all. No sirree bob.)

A female partner to old Arthur would be Eve Wilson, whose words comprise The Notebooks of a Woman Alone (1935). Eve worked on the edge of poverty as a governess, and whose real life seems to echo that of the single middle-aged women who were the protagonists of mid-century authors such as Margaret Forster and Anita Brookner et al. You know – Eve really reminded me Brian Moore’s character in The Lonely Passion of Miss Judith Hearne (1955). 

So, lots of food for thought in this read and lots of other breadcrumb trails to chase after for future reads. The author seemed to be pretty erudite and witty in the end, and I enjoyed this one. Plus – one more off the old TBR. 

Other diary-related reviews include:

The Diary of a Nobody – Weedon Grossmith and George Grossmith (1888)

Diary without Dates – Enid Bagnold (1917)

Diary of a Provincial Lady – E.M. Delafield (1930)

The Assassin’s Cloak: An Anthology of the World’s Greatest Diaries – Irene Taylor & Alan Taylor (2001)

The Country Diaries – Alan Taylor (ed.)

The Diary of a Nobody – Weedon Grossmith and George Grossmith (1888)


“Why should I not publish my diary? I have often seen reminiscences of people I have never even heard of, and I fail to see—because I do not happen to be a ‘Somebody’—why my diary should not be interesting.”

Although this was a reread, it was a reread from A Long Time Ago and so it ended up being more or less a New Read in the end. And this was fine, as I loved this book. I know it was written in the late Victorian era, but it was so funny that I burst out laughing at times which led to some strange looks when I was on the elliptical at the gym. I couldn’t help myself though, and TBH, it was that funny to me that I can neither confirm nor deny that snorting out loud did occur in public.

Laurels House - the home of the Pooter family.

Laurels House – the home of the Pooter family.

This is a fictional diary of a lower middle-class man living on the outskirts of London, married with a grown-up son and a wife who loves him despite his flaws. (He doesn’t acknowledge these flaws though…) Charles Pooter is the diarist, and he lives a modest existence as a city clerk in an office where he’s been working for the past 20 years without much professional recognition, and he begins journaling as he secretly thinks that someone somewhere will publish his diary for its literary worth. He’s a nice guy, basically, but has some insufferable snobbish airs which stem only from his own personal social insecurity and not from malice.

Adult son William (and then later called Lupin) is rather a gadabout creature who drinks, gambles and makes somewhat brash decisions, but who receives the general adoration from his parents (which becomes somewhat tempered after Lupin movies in to his childhood home due to losing his job). Wife Carrie is portrayed as a sweet Victorian wife, but readers can see (through Mr. Pooter’s diary descriptions) that perhaps she is not quite as quiet and adoring of her husband as he writes. It’s all very farcical, but done in such a way that it’s fresh and still very very funny in parts.

Mr. Pooter’s diary chronicles about 15 months of his life and details his thinking about his life in London as a clerk and the sometimes hilarious social misfortunes that occur to him, typical things that happen to anyone but which, when they happen to Mr. Pooter, can completely shape his day and how he sees it. It’s a little bit like reading Basil Fawlty’s diary (if you remember that TV series). He does his best, but things consistently go wrong for him. Despite this, his family still loves him all the same.

(L-R) George and Weedom Grossmith, authors.

(L-R) George and Weedon Grossmith, authors.

Written by brothers and stage performers, Weedon and George Grossmith, this book was first published as a series of excerpts in Punch, and was popular precisely it skewered most of the typical routines of its audience and the increasing social expectations of a booming lower-middle and middle class. However, it wasn’t an instant hit, but its popularity grew over time and since it was first published, this title has never been out of print. It’s also been the influence of other fictional diaries that have since been published: Diary of Adrian Mole series (by Sue Townsend), Bridget Jones’ Diary series (by Helen Fielding) and in other media forms, there’s a clear influence of Mr. Pooter’s ilk on TV shows such as Fawlty Towers. Interestingly enough, Hugh Bonneville (who plays Lord Grantham in Downton Abbey) was given rave reviews for his time as Mr. Pooter in a 2007 BBC dramatization on BBC Four. I wonder if that’s available on-line somewhere… I’ll check in the future.

Suffice to say, this was a very fun read and I’m really glad that I picked it off the TBR shelf. Highly recommended. This will be added to my Epistolary Novels post for certain.

Random note: Speaking of Hugh Bonneville, anyone going to see the new Paddington movie?


Catch-Up Time…


This is one of those general catch-all blog posts to round up all the other parts of my life which have been happening at the same time as my reading. (And some of this will be reading-related, but I’m afraid it’s been a bit slow going lately.)

I’m reading a Victorian read – The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins – which I am loving and seems perfect for this time of year. Each chapter is written from the perspective of one of the characters, and some of them are hilarious in how awful they are. (Not the actual writing itself, but how the characters each present themselves through telling their story.)

It all revolves around the disappearance of a huge diamond (the Moonstone of the title), and Collins has done a really good job of presenting those involved as they give their version of events. I think this could count as an epistolary novel in some ways, but whether it does or not, I am really enjoying it. Just a bit dense and not a book to fly through. It’s also 528 pages (which I’ve only just found out), but as I’m reading it on-line, I’m not too freaked out by that. (I have a history of slightly freaking out at large page numbers in books. See Scary Big Books (SBB) for details of a project that tried to address that.)

Tea in the garden circa 1905

Tea in the garden in some tropical clime. (Source: ??)

I’ve also been reading a coffee table non-fiction book called “Out in the Noonday Sun” by Valerie Pakenham. Having a title taken from the old Kipling verse – “Mad dogs and English men out in the noon day sun” – this book is a readable delve into the lives of those Edwardians (mostly men of course) who chose (or were forced) to join the diplomatic and other services to support and move forward the ongoing territorial “Scramble” for Africa, India and the East. (I say “were forced” to go because some of these men had done some bad behavior at their school or home (like debts, drinking, etc.) and their families pushed them into the foreign service to get rid of them mostly. If their hijinks continued, at least it wouldn’t make the London papers.)

So, again, this book is another slow reader, but mostly interesting. (It’s hard to understand how entitled a lot of these people were, but them were the times, I suppose.)

Outside reading, life has been very damp and wet which is remarkably unusual for this semi-arid region. It was cool and rainy for about three weeks and probably rained almost every day. People were calling our region the “Seattle of the South” because there was so much rain, and I really enjoyed the change from the summer heat. We even had a mushroom growing in the garden. (That wet.)

Credit: KCBD-TV.

Flooding in Lubbock, TX, recently. Credit: KCBD-TV.

Having been born and raised in England, I love rain, and so got to thinking about how the rain in UK and the rain here in Texas compare. I boiled it down to the idea that the rain in England is much more “polite” – it’s a gentle rain (with a bit of heavy in between) and sort of coughs and says “Excuse me, I’m going to rain all day if that’s all right with you…” Here in Texas, the rain is much more “rude”, if you will. It comes down hard (flooding is pretty common), it comes down loudly (hard and big rain drops), and it’s very in-your-face for the (mostly) short time that it’s falling. It seems quite rare that Texas gets a nice polite steady gentle rainfall compared to England. (Now the rain might be quite different in other parts of the state, but around here, I think this metaphor is pretty accurate.)

balloon-fiestaSpeaking of weather, I’m getting ready for a trip to the Albuquerque Balloon Festival taking my English mum along with me for the ride.  Looking forward to some lovely times and some fantastic photo-taking of the balloons. The colors can be fantastic in the mornings when the balloons first take off and at dusk when the balloons glow.

And, music-wise, I’m counting down to the upcoming Cher concert! I know – Cher’s old, blah blah blah – I get it. However, Cher is a consummate concert-giver and the last concert I saw her is definitely in my Top Five Favorite Concerts Ever. Her costumes (and the number of different ones) are amazing. Plus her voice is still spectacular. Looking forward to it.




Dracula – Bram Stoker (1899)


As mentioned briefly in an earlier post, I read this during my trip to England and loved it for lots of reasons. It’s as scary as I like to go (not too horrific for me), it’s epistolary, it’s Victorian, it’s a Sensation novel, it’s Gothic…

As I think most people have the basic idea of the plot, I thought I’d take a look at the life of the author as I knew next to little about him. Turns out that Stoker moved in very literary and theatrical circles that were pretty influential. Bram Stoker was born and educated in Ireland, going to Trinity College in Dublin for quite some time before he completed his undergraduate degree in maths (along with serious interests in philosophy and history). He was called “Abraham” at birth, but somewhere along the line, it was shortened to “Bram” which I just love as a name.
Bram Stoker 1906As a student, Stoker became interested in the theater of the time, and one of his first jobs post-college was as a Theater Critic for the Dublin Evening Mail (which happened to be owned by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu who was also a Gothic tale writer). After giving a positive review of Victorian superstar actor Henry Irving’s performance one night in Dublin, Irving and Stoker became friends and Irving asked Stoker to become his personal manager and also the business manager of the thriving Lyceum Theater in the West End of London. (Stoker was also on staff of the literary section of the Daily Telegraph newspaper and wrote other fiction. Irving was the first actor to be awarded a knighthood in 1895, btw. Irving was also satirized in the comedy novel, The Diary of a Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith which was published in 1892.Well I never…)

Through this and his friendship with Irving, Stoker met and married his wife (who was being courted at that time by Oscar Wilde), Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (of Sherlock Holmes etc.) and an author from the Isle of Man called Hall Caine (which is who Stoker dedicated Dracula to in his forward.) Irving also was his link to Stoker visiting twice to the White House, and in fact, it’s been argued that Stoker used Irving’s mannerisms as the foundation for Dracula’s character in the book.

The original manuscript, long thought to have been lost, was found in a Pennsylvanian barn in the 1980’s and included all the original edits including the original title of “The Un-Dead”. The manuscript was bought by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. (Just a piece of trivia for you.

Lugosi_dracula_1931Of interest to film buffs, perhaps, is that the first Dracula film (called Nosferatu) was released in 1922 after Stoker himself had died. His widow, Florence (the one who had been dating Oscar Wilde before they met) ended up suing the film makers as she had not given permission for the film to be made nor had she received any royalties from it. It took three years for this legal wrangling to get sorted out, and at the end of it, Florence had won and a lot of the copies of the original film were destroyed. The first authorized film version of Dracula was in the 1930’s with Bela Lugosi…

Well, now you know…!

(Does anyone else remember the early Goth-rock band Bauhaus and their song Bela Lugosi’s Dead? Am I the only one?… )

Ten Days in the Madhouse – Nellie Bly (1887)

book239In the late 1880’s, a young journalist called Nellie Bly wanted to make her mark outside the usual writing restrictions accorded to most women journalists back then. (They were usually limited to the Society page and rarely given any hard news to cover.) Her editors at the New York paper The World agreed with her and so she got herself admitted to Blackwell Island (also called Welfare Island, and now called Roosevelt Island) which was America’s first municipal mental hospital. Bly wanted to prove her worth as a journalist and decided to do an expose on the conditions at the hospital and believed only by becoming admitted as a patient could the truth come out.

Charles Dickens had already previously covered conditions here in his American Notes (published in 1842) but they were from the perspective of an outsider and of a foreign traveler. This was the first time that an actual US journalist has been on the inside of the institution. (Blackwell Island has a fascinating history by the way: it was a penitentiary, a workhouse, a smallpox hospital…)

Nellie_BlyPrinted as a series of first-person narrative articles, the resulting coverage was explosive for that time and for Blackwell. Originally intended as a state-of-the-art mental institution “devoted to humane and moral rehabilitation of its patients”, funding had been cut and care had been reduced to bitter and sadistic staff and unsympathetic doctors who simply ascribed any patient claims to sanity (and thus release) as delusional. A very Catch-22 situation for all the female patients who were imprisoned there and with little hope of freedom in their future.

Bly took her project very seriously and prepared deeply for her role as a mental patient: she practiced “looking like a lunatic” in the mirror, she dressed in tattered clothing, and posing as a Cuban immigrant who could not remember her history, Bly checked into a temporary boarding house for poorer women. Within twenty-four hours of pretend irrational behavior, Bly was taken by police to Bellevue Hospital for an evaluation, and then from there, pronounced “delusional and undoubtedly insane”, taken to Blackwell. (Testing was minimal at the time and was subjective and very quick.)

Bly’s detailed account of her time at Blackwell as a mental patient are harrowing to read about – patients were stripped of clothing in corridors and publicly humiliated by the nursing staff, mandatory cold baths in dirty bath water, and appalling living conditions (little heat, poor nutrition, no activities).

“I looked at the pretty lawns, which I had once thought was such a comfort to the poor creatures confined on the Island, and laughed at my own notions. What enjoyment is it to them? They are not allowed on the grass – it is only to look at. I saw some patients eagerly…lift a nut or a colored leaf on the path. But they were not permitted to keep them. The nurses would always compel them to throw their little bit of God’s comfort away…”

It’s also notable that all the patients were female and mostly poor (some couldn’t speak English) and so were powerless in this system of neglect.

“I have watched patients stand and gaze longingly toward the city they in all likelihood will never enter again. It means liberty and life; it seems so near, and yet heaven is not further than hell.”

Any patient who stood up for herself (and the other patients) or who proclaimed her sanity was invariably labeled delusional and so hospital stays to Blackwell became hamster wheels of no release for nearly all the patients imprisoned there.

Once Bly’s stay was over and she had been formally released by the newspaper’s attorney, the story went public, and one month later, Bly was giving details of her experience to a Grand Jury who then visited the hospital themselves. Prior warnings to the staff had helped to clean up the place and the patients, but Bly’s report lead to recriminations from the hospital doctors and to a fast-tracked funding increase of $1 million (enormous at the time).

This was a fascinating read, and was nicely complimented by my earlier reading of “Mad, Bad, and Sad: A History of Women and the Mind Doctors” by Lisa Appignanesi. (No post on that, but definitely not a reflection on the quality of the book or the author.) The treatment of mental health has come a long way in the past one hundred years or so, and Bly’s work helped to propel some of that change.

American Women: Their Lives in Their Words – Doreen Rappaport (1990)

American Women cover

This was a quick and zippy tour through a large part of American history as seen through the letters and books of some of the women who were actually there at the time history was happening, from pre-Revolution War times to the 1990’s. Although this edition has not been updated since it was published in 1990 (wish it would be!), it is still a really good starting point for anyone who is interested in the pivotal and typically unheralded role of women throughout U.S. history. (It’s categorized as YA and would be a good intro to women’s history for almost anyone, really.)

It covers writings from famous women (such as Eleanor Roosevelt and Sojourner Truth) to those women and girls who led more private lives (such as being the daughter of an early pioneer family going west or a mother who is facing anti-Chinese immigration opinions in Gold Rush California). Famous or not, each writer shows what it was like to experience life as it happened at that time.

Being quite well read in this area (although plenty more to go!), some of this material and information was not new to me, but as it’s really a YA book (that I accidentally picked up in the library’s adult section), I think it would make a good intro for junior high and high school students or anyone else who needs a rapid-fire intro to the arena of women’s history in the U.S. It’s also a good way to increase your TBR pile! (Lots of autobios and bios to look for now.)

Rappaport is a well established award-winning YA author, and she clearly shows her expertise in editing and compiling the volume using first person sources of a wide variety of women, young and old, wealthy and not wealthy, women of color or not, and this selection gives the book an edge on helping the reader have a more wide-ranging understanding of how the U.S. came to be for both genders.

I really enjoyed this read.

As for Me and My House – Sinclair Ross (1941)

Me and my house bookAlthough referred to by Canadian critics as a “classic”, this book does not seem to receive the same love from the average reader on Good Reads and other reader-review sites. Some of the comments about it are just plain funny:

After careful consideration and a night’s sleep, I’m fairly certain that this is the worst book I have ever read in my life…

Or how about this one:

I would rather poke my eyes out with a rusty needle than read this again…

Or even this one, a reviewer who holds nothing back, it seems:

I know this is supposed to be classic Canadian literature and all, and it wasn’t bad, but good Christ, suicide really should’ve been considered as an option, what with all that tension and misery.

So, perhaps not everyone will appreciate this quiet but desperate epistolary novel from the perspective of a reluctant preacher’s wife stuck in a small town on the Canadian prairie. Although married for twelve years, Mr. Philip Bentley and Mrs. Bentley (no first name given) are unhappy – not unhappy enough to do anything drastic to change the situation, but  unhappy enough to isolate themselves from each other.

It was written in 1941 and is set during the Depression, so life is hard enough in the prairie but really hard if you’re a preacher and his family who are dependent on others for your income, your house, and everything you need. It is this sense of powerlessness that surfaces the most, I think. The husband feels powerless in that he doesn’t really want to be a preacher and is not happy in his relationship with his wife, but sees no other way to support himself (although he’s dying to be an artist). His wife, unhappy in the marriage as well, sees no other options to escape her life: she is doomed to be the supportive “preacher’s wife” out in the middle of nowhere in a community of narrow-minded people with whom she has little in common.  And everyone has secrets that they’re not telling.

And it’s this contrast between the vast openness of the prairie and the winds that sweep down from the north, and the insular life of secrecy and hidden ideas that the husband and wife maintain, both from each other and the community around them. They live in a run-down house next to the church, and both seem to be mired in the social quagmire and tangles of small-town life with its petty squabbles and lack of privacy. They have few friends and nowhere to go, so it’s a life of being trapped in many ways.  Perhaps the house mirrors their marriage and lives in some ways: run-down, uncared-for…

Compounding this is the fact that the couple has no children (although they would have liked to): they had a son early in the marriage, but he died, and since then, the two have sealed themselves from each other, both unhappy but refusing to really talk about it.

It’s very reminiscent (to me) of Evan Connell’s duo of Mr. Bridge and Mrs. Bridge although both written about a decade later. Set in a different community and with options available that were not there for the unhappy Bentley couple in Canada, there is still this same sense of suffocating life, of being trapped like a fly in a jar with no hope of being released. (It also reminded me of the short story The Yellow Wallpaper and the novel The Wind by Dorothy Scarborough.)

The Bentley’s impulsively adopt a 12-year old orphan from the rougher side of town, both secretly hoping that this new arrival will be the solution for their unhappiness. However, it’s not to be. The child is Catholic, the town (and the preacher Protestant), and so this causes a rift in the community. Alongside all this is the drama of both the husband and the wife having affairs of different degrees with people in town, and as this is written from the PoV of the wife, you only read her perspective of the situation. It’s like hearing one side of a phone conversation, but there is enough info to piece the story together without frustration.

This book has been criticized for being slow-moving and boring. It’s true that there is not a lot of action actually happening, but it’s not that sort of book at all. It’s a contemplative story about domestic unhappiness and unfulfilled ambitions. It sounds terribly depressing, and it’s not a happy read, but it is a good read. Perhaps the unhappy reviewers mentioned earlier are younger and do not yet understand or empathize with goals unreached. I do think this book would be wasted on the teenager set, not because they are uneducated and idiots, but because their life experience has not allowed them to actually have these events occur to them, generally speaking. How can you understand being trapped in a relationship or a job when you still have the optimism of youth on your side?

So – good read. It did get better as I read it more and I was sucked into the narrative. I think it helps to live in a similar prairie environment and to know what the wind sounds like as it whistles across the level land in a rural world.  But I don’t think that should stop anyone from reading this. The writing is excellent at describing the seasons in such a wide open space. I enjoyed this, and the high skill level of the writing. (See below.)

It was clear and glittering today, and when the sun went down the frost-mist made the sky up nearly to the zenith red and savage like a fire. I watched it with [the dog], huddled cold against the grain elevator. A team and sleigh went past while we were there, the horses snorting at the cold and blowing little clouds of steam. The bells and creaking runners left a white cold silence for a minute, like a field of snow that no one has left a footprint on; then a coyote somewhere loped across it with its fluty howl, and [the dog] bristled up his back, and pressing close against me bayed off after it in floundering pursuit.

A Celibate Season – Carol Shields and Blanche Howard (1991)


This was an epistolary novel whose title popped up somewhere on one of the blogs I crossed by the other day. You know that I can’t resist an epistolary book so, of course, I had to get this. This Canadian novel focuses on the letters sent between a married couple when the wife (who is a newly minted lawyer after having been a stay-at-home mum for years) is given a temporary posting as legal counsel for a government commission on the other side of the country.

As the weeks of the assignment turn into months and the couple continue to correspond through letters, the relationship sours for a variety of reasons. One of the big reasons (clued in by the title) is that both individuals decide to remain celibate whilst they are separated (which they sorta should since they’re, like, you know, married and apart…) and this turns into a BIG deal for the couple.

When she leaves home, the house goes to he** — why? Because the husband can’t cope as he is a caveman. This book is soooo dated even though it was only written in 1991.  He doesn’t pay the phone bill so the phone is disconnected for weeks making it difficult for the wife to call home when a letter won’t do. He can’t cook properly and won’t clean…

He’s unemployed so moons around doing nothing in particular (although he does sign up for a poetry class). Even though he has all this spare time, he has to hire a (female) cleaner and then go on about her in his letters to the wife – none of which she is happy about. Additionally, there are two adolescent kids who seem to have secret lives going on which the husband/father doesn’t address despite the mother’s request to do so. (And with the phone disconnected, she can’t do anything about it.)

The format of letter-writing really helped to emphasize the slow speed at which their whole world changed and how they reacted (or didn’t, as the case may be). (I imagine it would be a different set-up with communication as it is now.)

It sounds like it was rather an annoying read (and it was at times), but then I put some thought into it and realized that, generally, this is how small incremental changes become life-changing events – very gradually – so it was effective in the end.

However, the book is soooooooooooooo dated. (It reminded me of Atwood’s Surfacing (novel) which was written in 1971 and was all about swinging hippies etc.) The characters in this book also engage in weird sexual parties on occasion and both end up having sexual flings. I was in my 30’s during the 1990’s, but I don’t remember being invited to any weird sex parties or anything (which is fine), but was Canada like this back then? Additionally, the book was set in Vancouver which Shields refers to as Lotus-land presumably because of the hippie connection.

So – this was an OK read. Good strong epistolary set up – rather dated characters who do rather dated things. I’ve read stronger work by Shields.

Diary Dates…


Every now and then, I get the urge to write and be creative with words, and that time has come for this year. I am never quite sure what to write, as it’s rare that I write creatively (as in fiction), but there comes a time each year when the sap rises and I start to think about this more seriously than at other times.

As part of this project, I started to read “Bird by Bird” by Anne Lamott, and then I dug up some old writing from when I was about twelve years old in England and composing my pre-teenagery thoughts in my diary. Lots of minutiae from a pre-teen perspective, but still fun to look at. I am impressed at my young self for keeping this diary up as I wrote almost every day from about 1976 (when I was 12) until I moved to the US when I was 20. I don’t have the later editions, but I do have the earlier versions (which are probably more funny and less serious).

Virginia Woolf was a big diary-keeper person:

But what is more to the point is my belief that the habit of writing thus for my own eye only is good practice. It loosens the ligaments. Never mind the misses and the stumbles. Going at such a pace as I do I must make the most direct and instant shots at my object, and thus have to lay hands on words, choose them and shoot them with no more pause than is needed to put my pen in the ink.

And I really connect with her description of how she wanted her diary to be:

What sort of diary should I like mine to be? Something loose knit and yet not slovenly, so elastic that it will embrace anything, solemn, slight or beautiful that comes into my mind. I should like it to resemble some deep old desk, or capacious hold-all, in which one flings a mass of odds and ends without looking them through.

A “capacious hold-all” – what a fabulous description of such a document! And I can see overlaps between a diary and what’s called a commonplace book (a la Victorians), except that I think diaries have more personal reflection and thoughts in as opposed to those of other people.

I still keep a journal, although it’s a bit sporadic and digital nowadays. I don’t also tend to keep the documents for a while afterwards, as most of the time, it’s usually me trying to sort out something in my head and so I think it would be either mortifying for someone else to read it and/or boring. But I really enjoy the act of writing out my thoughts, much more clarifying than trying to have an actual conversation with a real human in present time. I am much more comfortable writing words than saying them out loud, and perhaps it’s because I have always been an avid reader since I was a child.

Despite the fact that I don’t let others see my journal entries, I do enjoy reading others, ranging from Adrian Mole to anthologies such as The Assassin’s Cloak or A Year in the English Countryside .

I am also relentlessly drawn to epistolary novels (see this post here), and in fact, one of the fiction books that I have just finished was epistolary in nature (Where’d you Go, Bernadette?)

So – what about you? Are you a regular diary or journal keeper?