Tag Archives: Carmen Callil

The Ponder Heart – Eudora Welty

A big Happy 40th Birthday to Virago today! I wonder if Carmen Callil knew forty years ago Virago books would be being read by all walks of life all around the world? It seems almost rude to say, yet I am going to say it anyway, that Virago is actually that young as in my head it has been going much, much longer. Giving it some thought this is probably because with Virago Modern Classics it publishes books from pre-1973, indeed in some cases pre-1900. One such book is ‘The Ponder Heart’ by Eudora Welty, an author I have been recommended several times, which was first published in a magazine 1953 (so it could be its 60th birthday) and I decided that I would read to celebrate today.

How could I not have cake on Virago's 40th Birthday?

How could I not have cake on Virago’s 40th Birthday?

Edna Earle’s Uncle, David Ponder, is one of the richest, nicest and possibly simplest people in the Mississippi town of Clay. He has become renowned for his almost stupidly kind levels of generosity; he simply cannot stop giving things to people. Edna is an example of this herself when he gives her a hotel on one of his many whims. He even tried to give away his own cemetery lot. His whims lead him to being confined to an asylum by his own father, though he never stays there long as he is so lovely to the staff and can’t be certified, and also to rash ‘possible’ marriages. His first with local widower, Miss ‘Teacake’ Magee, leaves them both unscathed, however when there is a new arrival in town far beneath the Ponder families social circles you know everything is about to change.

“Meantime! Here traipsed into town a little thing from away off down in the country. Near Polk: you won’t have heard of Polk – I hadn’t. Bonnie Dee Peacock. A little thing with yellow, fluffy hair.
The Peacocks are the kind of people keep the mirror outside on the front porch, and go out and pick railroad lilies to bring inside the house, and wave at trains till the day they die. The most they probably hoped for was that somebody’d come find oil in the front yard and fly in the house and tell them about it. Bonnie Dee was one of nine or ten, and no bigger than a minute. A good gust of wind might have carried her off any day.”

Alas she isn’t carried off by the wind but something does indeed happen, what that is of course I cannot say as it was a twist I wasn’t expecting. So what to say of ‘The Ponder Heart’ as it is a tricky one as I was often as bemused by it as I was entertained and I think this might all be down to the voice of Edna herself.

You know when you are having a bit of a conflab/gossip with one of your closest friends and you wander off on various tangents which make the story you are telling them break up, restart, skip bits and go back again? Well this is exactly what Welty does with Edna as she tells you of her Uncle’s tale first hand, almost, often going off on tangents about something completely different though related in some slight way.

“Intrepid Elsie Fleming rode a motor-cycle around the Wall of Death – which let her do, if she wants to ride a motor-cycle that bad. It was the time she wasn’t riding I objected to – when she was out front on the platform warming up her motor. That was nearly the whole time. You could hear her day and night in the remotest parts of this hotel and with the sheet over your head, clear over the sound of the Merry-Go-Round and all. She dressed in pants.”

I was actually wondering during the book if I was one of her friends who had popped in for a coffee at Edna’s hotel, one of the staff she gossiped with or indeed one of the clientele, though as she doesn’t think too highly of them it is unlikely to be the latter. This is the other clever, but also slightly alienating thing that Welty does with Edna, sometimes you really don’t like her thoughts on the world. To the modern ear any mention of the ‘Negroes’ that she hires and thinks she is doing a favour will make you wince a little, yet Welty’s background was from Mississippi and you know she is retelling you people’s actual thoughts at the time from those places. Edna, or someone like her, would have existed. This for me slightly took away the element of comedy in the book, and some parts are very funny and farcical, and also strangely aged it. Yet Edna couldn’t help but win me over with her frankness and the sense of her confiding in you so makes you almost feel like a really special confident. I don’t think any book, or rather narrator has done this in such a realistic way and I really admired Welty’s prose for that.

‘The Ponder Heart’ is a curiously unusual, quirky and odd novella. In some ways I thought it was absolutely genius and in other ways I thought it was a rather bonkers and confusing, if delightfully so, telling of a family and town that said a lot about class and society at the time yet didn’t really know where it was meant to be going. I was baffled by it on occasion but I couldn’t help being charmed so much by Edna’s gossipy tone no matter how much I wanted to tell her to stop being such a snob. A real mixed bag of a book all in all, yet one worth spending a few hours with nonetheless should you end up with a copy. I wonder if all Welty’s books have this unusual tone, I will have to try more to find out.

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Filed under Eudora Welty, Review, Virago Books, Virago Modern Classics

Stop What You’re Doing and Read This!

A few weeks ago I got very excited about the arrival of some books about books. The one I decided to read on and off first was ‘Stop What You’re Doing and Read This!’ The idea behind the initiative of this book from Vintage is to remind people about the joy of books and to have them running out to read more. I had hoped to pop thoughts on this up on World Book Day yesterday however I was so conflicted by it I needed to mull it further.

Vintage Books, paperback, 2012, non fiction, 192 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

‘Stop What You’re Doing And Read This!’ is a collection composed of ten essays by authors (such as Blake Morrison, Zadie Smith, Jeanette Winterson, Mark Haddon etc) as well as people in the industry such as Virago founder and Man Booker judge Carmen Callil and Jane Davis, who is the founder and director of The Reader Organisation which this book is supporting, discussing the importance of reading and the joy that books can bring in their many forms.

The collection starts with Zadie Smith’s ‘Library Life’ which shows the importance of books and libraries in particular to her shaping as a writer and finding books and also as spaces for her to do her writing. It is an impassioned and political essay which looks at how the people making the decisions about libraries are probably the ones with enough income to have their own personal libraries and so may not be the best people to leave in charge of such issues. Blake Morrison, who I have never read before but now most definitely will be, follows with the superb ‘Twelve Thoughts About Reading’ which had me going ‘yes, that’s me, yes, that’s me again’.

I liked Carmen Callil’s essay ‘True Daemons’ but considering she set up Virago books I didn’t feel this was really discussed, it is mentioned but in a paragraph and actually an essay on why she had been so desperate to get the unknown/forgotten/overlooked books published and so set up her own publishing house would have been a phenomenal and far more apt inclusion, it felt a little like a missed opportunity as instead it became something of a piece on class and the books people feel they ought to read rather than ones they want to. The class thing interestingly leads me into my main issue with the book…

A book like ‘Stop What You’re Doing and Read This!’ could have one slight flaw to it and become worthy or preachy. Fortunately there was only one essay in the collection that, to me, jarred and that was Tim Parks, unfortunately it jarred and lingered. I don’t know Tim Parks, I have not read any of his books, but for me his ‘Mindful Reading’ came across as a little bit pompous and clever, in fact it read rather like a high brow person (who knows it and loves it) feeling like he was writing for low brow about how clever we readers are and therefore, not so cleverly, excluding the reader completely. I didn’t like it, and this broke the spell and made me suddenly ask the question ‘if I wasn’t a lover of books would this book make me rush out and read more?’ and I kept asking this as I read on and it left me in a real quandary. I am a book lover as it is, so naturally I would enjoy this book as would any book lover the world over, but is this going to be taken on board by the people it’s aimed at, which technically isn’t me because I am an avid reader, I was not convinced.

From this point on I doubly assessed each following essay and ones that proceeded it, well apart from Mark Haddon’s incredible essay ‘The Right Words in the Right Order’ but more on that shortly. I looked back at Carmen Callil’s essay and found myself thinking ‘I know who she is because I love books, would anyone who didn’t love literature know who she was and would her essay therefore work as well?’ As someone who isn’t a fan of poetry I thought Jane Davis’ essay on the power of it (and indeed reading aloud and why she started The Reader Organisation) was incredible and very moving. There were a couple of lines that almost went into a rather worthy and preachy mode; I put this down to simply her passion, would anyone else who happened upon this book feel the same or would they think ‘who does she think she is?’ With Michael Rosen’s ‘Memories and Expectations’ I found the book lover in me thinking ‘wow, this has made me want to run out and grab Great Expectations right now’ because of Rosen’s poignant memories of storytelling, but also thinking ‘this is a wonderful piece of writing but is it only going to appeal to readers of The Guardian, myself included, rather than the layman who doesn’t read?’ I feel bad writing that, because I enjoyed the book so much personally, but once that one essay made me question the whole collection that question wouldn’t leave.

Three essays in the second half (along with the wonder of Blake Morrison’s essay earlier on) almost erased it however. Nicholas Carr’s ‘The Dreams of Readers’ is a wonderful essay on how no matter what technology comes next nothing will ever beat the novel, he won extra brownie points from me when I found out he writes about technology, it almost doubled the power of the point he was trying to get across. Jeanette Winterson’s ‘A Bed. A Book. A Mountain.’ is a wonderful piece on where a story can take you and the thrills and experience it can bring from wherever you are. The essay that steals the show though has to be Mark Haddon’s ‘The Right Words in the Right Order’ I don’t care if you love books or loathe them, read this and you’ll be converted or simply love books even more than you thought naturally possible. It is brimming with wonderful ideas about reading and books and I loved it. I was going to quote lots from it but frankly you should buy the book for yourself and everyone you know simply for this one essay.

A rather rambling and conflicted set of thoughts on ‘Stop What You’re Doing And Read This!’ overall. As a book lover and on a personal level this was a sublime read in many ways, but I am left with that questions of ‘am I the audience this book should be hitting’ and ‘if I was to give this book to a non-reader would they become converted’ and I am left unsure. If you read this blog I know you love books and so will, if you haven’t already, be off to get this book swiftly (and quite right too as it supports a great cause). Yet what about all those people who don’t read the broadsheets or blogs or who might not see this on a shelf in Waterstones though? It is something I can’t really answer.

Who else has read this and what did you think both as a book lover yourself and then coming from the perspective of someone who doesn’t normally read books? Am I being too critical, is the question of audience with a book like this really relevant? I would be interested to hear other people’s thoughts on this. I am also wondering how I can get involved in The Reader Organisation too; mind you after this review they might not want me – oops. I am coming from a good place with my thoughts though I hope.

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Filed under Blake Morrison, Books About Books, Jeanette Winterson, Mark Haddon, Review, Zadie Smith

Two Bookish Books I Think We Should All Be Reading…

I try not to bark ‘read this now’ as an order too often on Savidge Reads. If I really love a book then I hope the enthusiasm comes of the screen and you might want to go and have a look at it in a book shop or read about it more online. It’s very unusual then that I am pretty much going to bark the orders ‘read these now’ about two books that I actually haven’t read myself the whole way through…

 

‘Stop What You’re Doing And Read This!’ and ‘The Library Book’ are two books from separate British publishers which are all about books, reading and libraries. Really that should be enough to have you rushing to your nearest bookshop or book selling website shouldn’t it, in fact it might already have done just that, however I thought I would tell you a little more about both – just to really push you over the edge.

‘Stop What You Are Doing And Read This!’ is an anthology which asks the question ‘why should you stop what you are doing and read a book?’ The ten essay responses collected here are from the likes of authors such as Jeanette Winterson, Blake Morrison, Mark Haddon and Zadie Smith, along with Jane Davis founder of ‘The Reader Organisation’ and Carmen Callil who founded Virago and rather famously quit the International Man Booker judging panel. These ten essays simply tell you, in varying ways, the power of the book and the joys of reading. I have only dipped in and out of a few so far but from what I have seen it’s only going to make my love of reading and desire to read all the stronger. I know that Simon T of Stuck in a Book loves this book.

There is a different twist on the joys of reading with ‘The Library Book’ as this book is of course celebrating the library itself. Some of my favourite authors like Susan Hill, Val McDermid and Alan Bennett (there are lots more Kate Mosse, Julian Barnes, China Mieville, Stephen Fry – I could go on, there are 23 pieces in this collection) have all contributed works to this book, not all of them are essays though as of course we go to libraries for fiction, and so some of the authors have made fictional shorts along with the other essays throughout – all about the library, of course. Again, I have only had a glimpse at this book (as it only arrived this morning) but I am very, very excited about what’s inside. In fact what am I doing here writing this? I should be reading them already!

What I think is another thing that’s special about these books, if I haven’t sold these two you by now you may be a lost cause, is that they are working with the charity The Reading Agency (all the proceeds of ‘The Library Book’ are definitely going to this charity, it doesn’t say with ‘Stop What You’re Doing And Read This!’) which encourages people to read in all sorts of ways and is developing exciting library programmes. What could be better?

I am hoping some of you have stopped reading the blog by now and run off to find out more, or even gone and got the book. I am off to sit with my copies for a while. I will report back, I hope you will too!

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Filed under Book Thoughts, Books About Books