Review: My Name is Lucy Barton

A friend of my wife’s gave me this book to read with assurances that I would certainly enjoy it.  One night, when I was about half way through the book, there was an interview of the author, Elizabeth Strout, by George Alagiah on the BBC World News channel.  The interview was recorded at the last Hay Festival.  I warmed to Ms Strout – in part – because two nights previously there was another interview from Hay of a poet, whose name I don’t recall, and whom I found unintelligible.  In her interview at the Hay festival,  Ms Strout said that her writing is shaped by the ordinary people she knew in Maine.

Elizabeth Strout was born in 1956 in Portland, Maine,  She attended Bates College and the University of Syracuse.  She waitressed before writing her first novel, Amy and Isabelle (1998). Her debut was met with widespread critical acclaim, became a national bestseller, and was adapted into a movie.  She has since written five novels, My Name is Lucy Barton  being her fifth.  Her third book, Oliver Kitteridge, was published in 2008. The book features a collection of connected short stories about a woman and her immediate family and friends on the coast of Maine.  It won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.   Louisa Thomas of the New York Times said: “The pleasure in reading Olive Kitteridge comes from an intense identification with complicated, not always admirable, characters. And there are moments in which slipping into a character’s viewpoint seems to involve the revelation of an emotion more powerful and interesting than simple fellow feeling—a complex, sometimes dark, sometimes life-sustaining dependency on others. There’s nothing mawkish or cheap here. There’s simply the honest recognition that we need to try to understand people, even if we can’t stand them.”

Elizabeth Strout

My Name is Lucy Barton is centered on the unexpected interaction between Lucy Barton, who is in hospital suffering from complications following surgery, and her estranged mother, who has flown east to be with her.  Throughout the book, Lucy has recollections about her childhood in rural Illinois with an impoverished family: distant father and mother, a sister and brother.  Lucy, herself, has gained an education, a marriage, two small daughters, and a career as a writer in New York City, thus estranging herself from her family.  The dialogue between the two women is both limited in the sense that there are unspoken words, and informative in revealing something of their respective characters.  Ms Strout strikes this balance in her writing very well.  She also uses the descriptive recollections of people of the past to elucidate some of the values of the principal characters.  She uses unique voices which shed light on the characters, and her writing style flows simply.  Characterisation is clearly Ms Strout’s strength.

My Name is Lucy Barton is, at 188 pages, short enough to be considered a novella, rather than a novel.  For me, while the writing flows beautifully and the characters are very much alive and their circumstances unique, what was missing was how and why the current circumstances arose.  Why, for example, did Lucy’s father lock her in his pickup for hours – on one occasion with a large brown snake?  We are told that is was a frequent occurrence, but we don’t know why, and knowing why and how it came about would shed further light on the characters.  All of the characters are certainly interesting, but I feel like a hungry diner who was served only an appetizer.

“Writers Are Wrong to Make Historical Women Strong”

This is the title of an article by Hannah Furness, arts correspondent for The Daily Telegraph, on 1 June 2017.  The quotation is from Dame Hillary Mantel speaking in the second of her five Reith Lectures at the Middle Temple in London.

Hilary Mantel

The article said: “Women writers must stop rewriting history to make their female characters falsely ’empowered’, Dame Hilary Mantel has said.  Dame Hilary, the Man Booker Prize winning novelist, said writing about women in history has ‘persistent difficulties’ for her contemporaries who ‘can’t resist’ retrospectively making them strong and independent.  Anyone ‘squeamish’ about the difference in male and female roles in certain historic periods should, she suggested, try a different job.  Dame Hilary, author of Wolf Hall, singled out her own gender for criticism, questioning whether writers should ‘rework history so victims are the winners’.  She said, ‘Many writers of historical fiction feel drawn to the untold tale.  They want to give a voice to those who have been silenced.  Fiction can do that, because it concentrates on what is not on the record.  But we must be careful when we speak for others.  If we write about the victims of history, are we reinforcing their status by detailing it? Or shall we rework history so victims are the winners?  This is a persistent difficulty for women writers, who want to write about women in the past, but can’t resist retrospectively empowering them.  Which is false.  If you are squeamish – if you are affronted by difference – then you should try some other trade.  She added, ‘A good novelist will have her characters operate within the framework of their day – even if it shocks her readers.’

“Dame Hilary did not single out any particular author, but Philippa Gregory, who has written best sellers including The Other Boleyn Girl and The White Queen, has been praised for her strong characters.  Gregory has previously said: ‘The more research I do, the more I think there is an untold history of women.'”

The article goes on: “A ‘feminist ideology’ could have the unintended consequence of making endings too predictable because the woman would always come out on top, warns Gerard Lee, who co-wrote Top of the Lake (a BBC2 crime serial).  Fellow writer and Palme d’Or winner Jane Campion called his view ‘complete rubbish’.  She said film could change for the better overnight if 50% pf all public funding went to female filmmakers.”

My view is that Dame Hilary has a point: women in Tudor England had very little power or voice over their own affairs.  I haven’t read Philippa Gregory’s novels yet, but I think that giving a real female character, in a historical novel, more voice and power than she actually had is simply misleading.

As to the Lee-Campion disagreement, it’s not clear to me that strong female characters make an ending too predictable, but maybe Mr Lee means something more that strong female characters when he speaks of ‘feminist ideology’.  Ms Campion’s remark strikes me as self-serving, and I would ask her ‘in what way would films be so much better if they were made by females?’  She might be right, but what is the evidence?

Review: Song of Solomon

A couple of months ago, in this blog, there was a post about the 100 greatest novels, and how many of them had been read by the average reader.  In order to improve my score, I said I would read Song of Solomon, by Toni Morrison.  I’m very glad I volunteered: it’s a wonderful novel.

Toni Morrison

Wikipedia says this about Toni Morrison: “(born Chloe Ardelia Wofford; February 18, 1931) is an American novelist, editor, teacher, and Professor Emeritus at Princeton University.  Morrison won the Pulitzer Prize and the American Book Award in 1988 for Beloved. The novel was adapted into a film of the same name (starring Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover) in 1998. Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993. In 1996, the National Endowment for the Humanities selected her for the Jefferson Lecture, the U.S. federal government’s highest honor for achievement in the humanities. She was honored with the 1996 National Book Foundation’s Medal of Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. Morrison wrote the libretto for a new opera, Margaret Garner, first performed in 2005. On May 29, 2012, President Barack Obama presented Morrison with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 2016 she received the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction.”

The paragraph in Wikipedia on the early years in Toni Morrison’s life helps me understand her great facility as a black writer: “Morrison’s parents instilled in her a sense of heritage and language through telling traditional African American folktales and ghost stories and singing songs.”  Song of Solomon is full of children’s songs, traditional folktales, ghosts, and – in today’s terms – unthinkable racism.  All the principle characters have names one would never think of: Milkman, Guitar, Pilate, First Corinthians, Hagar and eccentric, engaging personalities.  The novel is set in a small, poor black community in Michigan, beginning in the 1930’s; it progresses through Pennsylvania into Virginia, but always in black territory.  It is the story of the development of Milkman against the background of a family whose origins are slaves and Native Americans, and whose strange history make them what they are.  There are numerous tensions within the family with various historic causes; and external tensions of being well off vs having nothing; sexual tensions; and tensions arising from differing circumstances and values. Milkman’s development as a person is facilitated by his dissatisfaction with his comfortable, but pointless situation, and by his search for identity in the personalities of his fore bearers.  He must learn, figuratively and mythologically, to fly.

For me, Song of Solomon was the best kind of reading experience.  One learns, or perhaps in my case re-learns, the savage history of racism in America, set against a background of ‘real’ people who are flawed but nonetheless our friends.  One admires their unique coping skills: songs, love, stories and tradition.  One is carried from one set of circumstances, expecting the outcome, to a new, more interesting situation.  The author’s inventiveness is breath-taking, and enjoyable.  The writing is voluble or terse as the situation demands, and the language is appropriately unique but always descriptive.  Most of all, I admire Toni Morrison as a great story-teller.

Child Readers

There was an article in the June 2 issue of The Daily Telegraph regarding a study by the National Literacy Trust which found that black and Asian children enjoy reading more than white children.

According to the NLT, 25% of white children involved in the survey of 42,406 pupils aged eight to eighteen said that they enjoyed reading ‘very much’.  This is compared to 27.8% of black respondents and 28.2% of Asian children.

At the other end of the scale 9% of white children said that they liked books ‘not at all’, compared with 6.7% of black children and 5.3% of Asian children.

The annual survey also showed that the number of primary school children who enjoy reading a book has reached record levels.  Nearly 78% of youngsters aged eight to eleven said they enjoy reading while 55.4% of pupils aged eleven to fourteen also enjoy doing so.

However, the study shows a continuing gender gap with boys less likely to enjoy reading than girls.

Jonathan Douglas, of the Literacy Trust, said: “When children enjoy reading and have books of their own, they do better at school and later in life, so we must do everything we can to inspire children to fall in love with reading for a lifetime.”

I certainly agree with Mr Douglas: motivating children to read is very important to the development of a child, but also becomes a lifelong pleasure that can be passed on to their children.

For me the statistics of black and Asian vs. white children are not sufficiently significantly different to be a cause of concern.  What is worrying for me is the apparent decline in reading for enjoyment among older children.  I can accept that older children have busier lives and perhaps less time to read for enjoyment, but I would hope that their enjoyment of reading does not lessen.

The article in the Telegraph did not publish statistics on the ‘gender gap’, but I’m not surprised that there is one.  Unfortunately, for many boys, reading is not enough of an ‘action activity’.

Erudite Writing

A friend was telling me about a book she was having trouble reading and enjoying.  She (a well-educated woman) said the “writing is over the top; I have to stop now and then to look up word.  Why can’t authors simplify their writing?  Why do they have to make it so complicated?”  He husband added, “There seems to be a trend for authors to try to position themselves above their readers, and to win the admiration of critics.”  I agreed with both points, and I said that, “It seems to me that writers who are aiming for big prizes use extraordinary language to express themselves: not only in vocabulary, but in sentence structure, grammar and imagery.  Prose is becoming poetry for the benefit of the critics.”

As evidence of this trend, there are three passages below.  The first is from Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses.  The second is how I think I would have tried to write the same passage, and the third is in ordinary English.

Salman Rushdie

Salman Rushdie

After the news of his death in the plane crash reached her, she had tormented herself by inventing him: by speculating, that is to say, about her lost lover.  He had been the first man she had slept with in more than five years: no small figure in her life.  She had turned away from her sexuality, her instincts having warned her that to do otherwise might be to be absorbed by it; that it was for her, would always be, a big subject, a whole dark continent to map and she wasn’t prepared to go that way, be that explorer, chart those shores: not any more, or, maybe, not yet.  But she’d never shaken off the feeling of being damaged by her ignorance of love, of what it might be like to be wholly possessed by that archetypal, capitalised jinn, the yearning towards, the blurring of the boundaries of the self, the unbuttoning, until you were open from your adam’s apple to your crotch: just words, because she didn’t know the thing.  Suppose he had come to me, she dreamed.  I could have learned him, step by step, climbed him to the very summit.  Denied mountains by my weak-boned feet, I’d have looked for the mountain in him: establishing base camp, sussing out routes, negotiating ice-falls, crevasses, overhangs.  I’d have assaulted the peak and seen the angels dance.  O, but he’s dead and at the bottom of the sea.

William Peace

When she learned of his death in the plane crash, she agonised over day dreams of her perished lover.  As the first man she had slept with in over five years, he represented a kind of icon.  In his absence, she had repressed her sexuality out of a fear that to live and examine it would somehow frighten and diminish her.  Her ignorance of the bright spectrum of love, was a source of insecurity, and sometimes she longed to know the feeling – whatever it was – of merging one’s consciousness with that of a lover.  But, if her lover had been there she would have eschewed any leap into the heavens of love; rather she would establish a safe and slow process to advance into the heights until, in her glory, she saw the angels dance.  But, alas, her lover lay at the bottom of the sea, dead.

Plain English

Ever since the news of his death reached her, she thought of him, the first man – remarkably – she had slept with in five years.  She set aside her interest in sex out of fear of stepping into the unknown.  Nonetheless, her ignorance of love bothered her, and she wondered what it would be like to experience true and selfless love.  If her lover had been present, she would not have thrown herself into an unlimited relationship; she would have approached the situation gradually, learning and advancing slowly so that eventually she would have found true bliss.  But, of course, her lover was dead.

I’m not, by any means, suggesting that my text is in any way better that Rushdie’s.  I rather like his use of off-the-wall phrases like ‘archetypal, capitalised jinn’, but I would never think of it; and I like some of his images, which border on the poetic.  However, one has to be pretty well educated to read Rushdie.  So who is he writing for?  Critics and academics, or Mrs Smith, book reader?

Review: Today

In my post of 3 March 2017 on the obituary of David Miller, literary agent, I mentioned that he wrote one novel: Today.  I have now read it, and share the consensus of other readers that it is a little gem of a novel.  Today concerns the gathering of friends and family of  Joseph Conrad on a bank holiday weekend in 1924.  Jessie, Joseph’s wife had recently been discharged from a nursing home.  During the weekend, Joseph dies unexpectedly.

Joseph Conrad was born into a Polish family in what is now Ukraine in 1857.  He traveled around Europe, and eventually settled in England, where he learned English.  He applied for and was granted English citizenship in 1886, but he remained a subject of Russia until he was granted a release from obligation to Tsar Alexander III in 1889.  Conrad had a nineteen year career in the merchant navies of France and England, rising from apprentice to captain. But in 1894, he gave up the sea, partly because of ill health, partly because of the lack of ships, and partly because he had become fascinated with writing.  Almost all of Conrad’s writing was first published in influential magazines and newspapers: The North American Review, The Saturday Evening Post, and The Illustrated London News, for example.  Nonetheless, financial success eluded him for much of his career, although a government grant of an annuity of £100 per annum greatly eased his situation.  His fame increased greatly with the publication of Chance in 1913, which is, ironically, thought to be one of his weaker novels.  Many of his novels include a maritime theme, and he is believed to be a writer who sailed rather than a sailor who wrote.  His writing style is thought of as poetic prose; his work is marked by exotic style, complex narration, profound themes, and pessimistic ideas.  He suffered from gout, malaria and depression.  Conrad wrote some twenty novels and a long list of stories.  His best known novels include: Lord Jim, Heart of Darkness, Nostromo, The Nigger of the ‘Narcissis’, The Secret Agent, and Under Western Eyes.

Joseph Conrad

Coming back to the novel, Today, it is written by a man who clearly admired Conrad and his work.  But Joseph Conrad, as a living character, never appears in Today.  Nonetheless, one feels his remote greatness by the way other characters react to him.  Today is a short, historical novel (160 pages) about the passing of a great author in 1924.  The setting and the culture of the time are accurately reflected.  The writing is fittingly oblique but engaging.  The characters, many of whom were real people – including Conrad’s son’s Borys (a disappointment to his father) and the younger, John; his wife Jessie, an ordinary, working-class, English girl, who was 16 years Conrad’s junior, and who was looked down upon by his friends, but was probably the supportive companion he needed.  And there is the middle-aged Miss Lillian Hallowes, Conrad’s loyal secretary.  At the end, Lillian receives not the typewriter on which she transcribed most of Conrad’s work, but, secretly, from John, the fountain pen by which the original manuscripts were written.  Did it really happen?  We don’t know: this is fiction.

I would certainly recommend Today.  Though it’s subject is death, it is largely about life.

Review: Days Without End

This novel, by Sebastian Barry, was the Costa Book of the Year in 2016.

Wikipedia says: “Sebastian Barry (born 5 July 1955) is an Irish playwright, novelist and poet. He is noted for his dense literary writing style and is considered one of Ireland’s finest writers.

Barry’s literary career began in poetry before he began writing plays and novels. While he was once considered a playwright who wrote occasional novels, in recent years his fiction writing has been more successful than his work in the theatre.

He has twice been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize for his novels A long Long Way (2005) and The Secret Scripture (2008), the latter of which won the 2008 Costa Book of the Year and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. His 2011 novel On Canaan’s Side was longlisted for the Booker. In January 2017, Barry was awarded the Costa Book of the Year prize for Days Without End, hence becoming the first novelist to win the prestigious prize twice.”

Sebastian Barry

Days Without End is a poetical, historical novel, set largely on the American frontier in the mid nineteenth century; its themes are love and survival.  The two principal characters are Thomas McNulty, the narrator, an Irish immigrant, aged about 15, initially, and John Cole, a homeless boy of about the same age, from New England.  Their tale begins as dancing girls – yes, boys dressed as girls – in a mining town saloon where they offered the apparent fantasy of women to rough, woman-less men.  They then join the army, which meant growing up with soldiers in hostile geography made all the more dangerous by the presence of Indians, a largely unwilling enemy. Thomas and John face near-constant hardship of savage fighting, bad weather, poor food and non-existent pay, but they find a mission and true comradeship in the army.  An Indian girl is captured, domesticated by the fort commander’s wife and assigned as servant to Thomas and John, who are then drawn into the Civil War, fighting on the Union side through battles which amounted to human slaughter.  At the end of an army enlistments, Thomas, John and Winona, the Indian girl, who is treated as John’s daughter, settle temporarily in Grand Rapids where they are entertainers, but they are drawn back into the Civil War, leaving Winona in Grand Rapids.  They are taken prisoners by the Southern Army, and live through terrible hardship, but eventually find their way back to Grand Rapids, from which the three of them set out to help a homesteader in Tennessee.  But peace is elusive: Winona is wanted in a hostage exchange for the daughter of the fort commander.  Thomas accompanies her, and, after a bloody fight in which he kills an army officer, he returns her to the Tennessee homestead.  But then, Thomas is arrested for having left the army before his papers were signed.  In custody, it is revealed that he killed the officer, and her faces the death penalty.  I won’t reveal the conclusion.

The characters are well drawn, including minor characters: army officers, soldiers, entertainers, Indians and miscellaneous blacks.  From what I remember of my American history, it paints an accurate picture of America 150 years ago.  I’ve called this ‘a poetic, historical novel’  because the narrator, Thomas, speaks in the most picturesque language, which is un-accustomed but very effective.  It does, however, make the process of reading a little more laborious.  Also, Thomas, occasionally draws on vocabulary which in very doubtful for an uneducated immigrant boy.

Having said that, Days Without End is a unique reading experience, and a good story, well-told.

National Book Foundation

There was an interview in Time magazine a couple of months ago with the first black female to be named executive director of the National Book Foundation.

By way of background, the National Book Foundation website says:

“The mission of the National Book Foundation and the National Book Awards is to celebrate the best of American literature, to expand its audience, and to enhance the cultural value of great writing in America.

“History: On March 16, 1950, publishers, editors, writers, and critics gathered at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City to celebrate the first annual National Book Awards, an award given to writers by writers. The American Book Publisher’s Council, The Book Manufacturers’ Institute, and The American Booksellers’ Association jointly sponsored the Awards, bringing together the American literary community for the first time to honor the year’s best work in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry.

“In 1986, the publishing community established The National Book Foundation, a not-for-profit organization to oversee the Awards, diversify their base of philanthropic support and expand their mission. The Foundation board then hired Neil Baldwin—an author, and Manager of The Annual Fund at The New York Public Library—to become the Founding Executive Director of The National Book Foundation and help determine its agenda for the future. ”

Wikipedia says this about Lisa Lucas: “Lucas was born in New York City and grew up in New Jersey.  Lucas attended the University of Chicago, where she studied English.  Reporting on Lucas’s 2016 appointment to executive director of the National Book Foundation, NBC said: ‘With Lucas at the forefront of the National Book Foundation and Awards, the future of publishing looks very bright.’  The Los Angeles Times said Lucas ‘is clearly poised to bring the organization to a new level…ideally suited’ to promote the foundation. She is the third director in the history of the foundation, ‘one of America’s key literary institutions,’ and the first woman and the first African-American to lead the organization.”

Lisa Lucas

In the Time interview, Lucas was asked: “What’s going to be the role of American literature in the new political era?”

Lucas: “People keep saying we’re postfact, and I think that books are the special place where we can go to understand the world we live in.”

Time: “In 2014, 27% of Americans didn’t read a single book.  How can we change that?”

Lucas: “People who make and market books probably assume that 27% of people aren’t going to bother with our product.  That’s the place where you first start correcting.  Assume everyone reads.  Lately, people have been talking a lot about book deserts, places where there isn’t access – how do we encourage people to open bookstores in these communities?”

Time: “What book would you recommend to our President?”

Lucas: “We were so lucky to have such a wonderful reader in President Obama, who said that reading novels helped make him a better citizen.  I can only hope that President Trump is as interested in our stories, lives and literature.  I’d recommend some books that have recently been celebrated by the foundation: Claudia Rankine’s Citizen; John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell’s March; Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land; and Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning.

The full interview is on page 48 of the January 30, 2017 issue.

Rape & Freedom of Speech

On Tuesday evening, my wife and I went to a piano concert at Southbank Centre.  As we approached the entrance, staff diverted us to another entrance around the corner.  When we turned the corner, we found we were in the midst of a demonstration, complete with portable loudspeakers, signs and angry people – mostly women.  We hurried through and found an entrance at the far end of the building.  I couldn’t help wondering what in the world a demonstration at Southbank Centre would be about.  On the way home that night, I picked up a copy of the Evening Standard, and found what was the issue: Tom Stranger and his ex-girlfriend, Thordis Elva were going to tell their story of rape and reconciliation.

The story is this: at the time of the rape, 20 years ago, Stranger, who is Australian, now married and a youth counsellor, was on an exchange trip to Iceland.  There, he met Elva, an Icelander who was 16 at the time (he was 18), and he became her first teenage romance.  The Evening Standard article continues: “The pair went to a Christmas party, and, wanting to impress him, Elva tried rum for the first time.  She became very drunk and spent the night being sick in the toilets – staff at the venue wanted to call an ambulance to get her home but Tom volunteered.  She was incapacitated and remembers how grateful she was to him for removing her vomit-stained dress and high heels, and how alarmed she suddenly felt when he started to go further.  He raped her.   She remembers it being painful.  She never reported what happened because it didn’t fit with her idea of what rape was.  Or his, he says: ‘I presumed that after a night out with your girlfriend, a boy is deserving of sex.  I sanctioned my own perceived needs and sexual urges, and had no regard for Thordis’ well-being.  I did not have an intent to hurt Thordis, but that is what I did.’

“Nine years after the rape, Stranger, long since back in Australia, all thoughts of Elva buried, received an email. ‘It was detailed and clear.  Her words took me back to that room nearly a decade earlier.  They told me what really happened and revealed the effects my actions had on her. . . . But I also felt I was being offered something really rare, something that needed to be understood, respected and not questioned. . . . He wrote back and they spent the next two years corresponding in long emails, unpicking the events and repercussions of that night.”  She proposed that  ‘in six months time we meet up with the intention of reaching forgiveness, once and for all.  In person.’

“They met on neutral ground – a hotel in Cape Town.  Talking was difficult.  At one point Stranger broke down. ‘I’ve come to understand the damage that I caused.  It’s been a long journey for me to be totally able to acknowledge that it was rape, and to comprehend how Thordis has had to live with the effects of my actions.’

The two have written a book: South of Forgiveness, published by Scribe.

Tom Stranger & Thordis Elva

Their appearance at the Women of the World festival at Southbank Centre last Saturday was cancelled.  2364 people objected to his appearance, but it was rescheduled for last Tuesday.  The petition to cancel said: “By giving the rapist in question a platform to relay their narrative the event will inevitably encourage the normalisation of sexual violence, instead of focusing on accountability and root causes.”  Those who opposed the appearance said it would set a precedent in which rapists can be applauded simply of admitting their crime, “and may even encourage rapists to contact survivors, an action that would severely disrupt their process of healing.”

Stranger says he disagrees with the female judge who warned that drunk women put themselves at higher risk of rape.  “I would say that’s a continuation of victim-blaming.  Once again the scrutiny is on the actions of women. . . . I would not speak about the choice of women in that way.  I want the focus to be on the young men making their choices and why they do what they’re doing. . . . It’s about time we started looking at sexual violence as a men’s issue.  It’s very clear – unless it’s a mutual thing, unless there’s consent, then it’s wrong.”

In reading the Evening Standard article (which covers two entire pages), the writer, Stefanie Marsh, leaves one with the impression not only that Stranger is contrite, but he understands why he is a hate figure, and is willing to suffer abuse to get his point across: It’s a Men’s Issue.

As to whether the Women of the World appearance should have been cancelled, I take a neutral view: it’s up to the management of the festival, and more generally, I think it depends on the time and place.  What I would object to is if the government were to interfere in the decision.  Having said that, I have an issue with the protest petition.  My issue is not about freedom of speech but about willingness to listen.  It seems to me that there is an increasing tendency in our society today when a subject is introduced to say: we don’t want to hear about that!  There are three words in the petition to cancel that make me believe this is an example of refusal to listen.  Narrative: have the petitioners considered what Stranger’s narrative might be instead of assuming what it is?  Accountability: the petitioners want to focus on accountability; that’s exactly what Stranger does: his own.  Root causes: Stranger identifies the root cause as being a men’s problem.  Is that not correct?

Illiterates?

There was a brief article in the Daily Telegraph recently entitled: “One in five Britons can’t name a single author of literature”.

It went on to say: “A fifth of Britons cannot name a single author of literature, while one in four has not read a literary work in the past six months, a survey has revealed.  In the Royal Society of Literature survey, 15 per cent believe classical writing is too difficult, and yet 67 per cent said literature had brought them comfort in stressful times.  In a vote in which almost 2,000 people were asked to pick a writer they considered to be a literary figure, a staggering 20 per cent could not name a single one.  One in four had not read any literature in the previous six months.  The most commonly named writer was Shakespeare with Dickens a close second.  War Horse author Michael Morpurgo warned: “There seems to be a gulf that shuts off 20 per cent of people from the benefits of literature.”

In 2015, The Guardian published the following list of the 100 best novels written in English:

1. The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan (1678)

A story of a man in search of truth told with the simple clarity and beauty of Bunyan’s prose make this the ultimate English classic.

2. Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe (1719)

By the end of the 19th century, no book in English literary history had enjoyed more editions, spin-offs and translations. Crusoe’s world-famous novel is a complex literary confection, and it’s irresistible.

3. Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift (1726)

A satirical masterpiece that’s never been out of print, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels comes third in our list of the best novels written in English

4. Clarissa by Samuel Richardson (1748)

Clarissa is a tragic heroine, pressured by her unscrupulous nouveau-riche family to marry a wealthy man she detests, in the book that Samuel Johnson described as “the first book in the world for the knowledge it displays of the human heart.”

5. Tom Jones by Henry Fielding (1749)

Tom Jones is a classic English novel that captures the spirit of its age and whose famous characters have come to represent Augustan society in all its loquacious, turbulent, comic variety.

6. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne (1759)

Laurence Sterne’s vivid novel caused delight and consternation when it first appeared and has lost little of its original bite.

7. Emma by Jane Austen (1816)

Jane Austen’s Emma is her masterpiece, mixing the sparkle of her early books with a deep sensibility.

8. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818)

Mary Shelley’s first novel has been hailed as a masterpiece of horror and the macabre.

9. Nightmare Abbey by Thomas Love Peacock (1818)

The great pleasure of Nightmare Abbey, which was inspired by Thomas Love Peacock’s friendship with Shelley, lies in the delight the author takes in poking fun at the romantic movement.

10. The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket by Edgar Allan Poe (1838)

Edgar Allan Poe’s only novel – a classic adventure story with supernatural elements – has fascinated and influenced generations of writers.

11. Sybil by Benjamin Disraeli (1845)

The future prime minister displayed flashes of brilliance that equalled the greatest Victorian novelists.

12. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (1847)

Charlotte Brontë’s erotic, gothic masterpiece became the sensation of Victorian England. Its great breakthrough was its intimate dialogue with the reader.

13. Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë (1847)

Emily Brontë’s windswept masterpiece is notable not just for its wild beauty but for its daring reinvention of the novel form itself.

14. Vanity Fair by William Thackeray (1848)

William Thackeray’s masterpiece, set in Regency England, is a bravura performance by a writer at the top of his game.

15. David Copperfield by Charles Dickens (1850)

David Copperfield marked the point at which Dickens became the great entertainer and also laid the foundations for his later, darker masterpieces.

16. The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1850)

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s astounding book is full of intense symbolism and as haunting as anything by Edgar Allan Poe.

17. Moby-Dick by Herman Melville (1851)

Wise, funny and gripping, Melville’s epic work continues to cast a long shadow over American literature.

18. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (1865)

Lewis Carroll’s brilliant nonsense tale is one of the most influential and best loved in the English canon.

19. The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins (1868)

Wilkie Collins’s masterpiece, hailed by many as the greatest English detective novel, is a brilliant marriage of the sensational and the realistic.

20. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (1868-9)

Louisa May Alcott’s highly original tale aimed at a young female market has iconic status in America and never been out of print.

21. Middlemarch by George Eliot (1871-2)

This cathedral of words stands today as perhaps the greatest of the great Victorian fictions.

22. The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope (1875)

Inspired by the author’s fury at the corrupt state of England, and dismissed by critics at the time, The Way We Live Now is recognised as Trollope’s masterpiece.

23. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (1884/5)

Mark Twain’s tale of a rebel boy and a runaway slave seeking liberation upon the waters of the Mississippi remains a defining classic of American literature.

24. Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson (1886)

A thrilling adventure story, gripping history and fascinating study of the Scottish character, Kidnapped has lost none of its power.

25. Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome (1889)

Jerome K Jerome’s accidental classic about messing about on the Thames remains a comic gem.

26. The Sign of Four by Arthur Conan Doyle (1890)

Sherlock Holmes’s second outing sees Conan Doyle’s brilliant sleuth – and his bluff sidekick Watson – come into their own.

27. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (1891)

Wilde’s brilliantly allusive moral tale of youth, beauty and corruption was greeted with howls of protest on publication.

28. New Grub Street by George Gissing (1891)

George Gissing’s portrayal of the hard facts of a literary life remains as relevant today as it was in the late 19th century.

29. Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy (1895)

Hardy exposed his deepest feelings in this bleak, angry novel and, stung by the hostile response, he never wrote another.

30. The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane (1895)

Stephen Crane’s account of a young man’s passage to manhood through soldiery is a blueprint for the great American war novel.

31. Dracula by Bram Stoker (1897)

Bram Stoker’s classic vampire story was very much of its time but still resonates more than a century later.

32. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (1899)

Joseph Conrad’s masterpiece about a life-changing journey in search of Mr Kurtz has the simplicity of great myth.

33. Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser (1900)

Theodore Dreiser was no stylist, but there’s a terrific momentum to his unflinching novel about a country girl’s American dream.

34. Kim by Rudyard Kipling (1901)

In Kipling’s classic boy’s own spy story, an orphan in British India must make a choice between east and west.

35. The Call of the Wild by Jack London (1903)

Jack London’s vivid adventures of a pet dog that goes back to nature reveal an extraordinary style and consummate storytelling.

36. The Golden Bowl by Henry James (1904)

American literature contains nothing else quite like Henry James’s amazing, labyrinthine and claustrophobic novel.

37. Hadrian the Seventh by Frederick Rolfe (1904)

This entertaining if contrived story of a hack writer and priest who becomes pope sheds vivid light on its eccentric author – described by DH Lawrence as a “man-demon”.

38. The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame (1908)

The evergreen tale from the riverbank and a powerful contribution to the mythology of Edwardian England.

39. The History of Mr Polly by HG Wells (1910)

The choice is great, but Wells’s ironic portrait of a man very like himself is the novel that stands out.

40. Zuleika Dobson by Max Beerbohm (1911)

The passage of time has conferred a dark power upon Beerbohm’s ostensibly light and witty Edwardian satire.

41. The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford (1915)

Ford’s masterpiece is a searing study of moral dissolution behind the facade of an English gentleman – and its stylistic influence lingers to this day.

42. The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan (1915)

John Buchan’s espionage thriller, with its sparse, contemporary prose, is hard to put down.

43. The Rainbow by DH Lawrence (1915)

The Rainbow is perhaps DH Lawrence’s finest work, showing him for the radical, protean, thoroughly modern writer he was.

44. Of Human Bondage by W Somerset Maugham (1915)

Somerset Maugham’s semi-autobiographical novel shows the author’s savage honesty and gift for storytelling at their best.

45. The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton (1920)

The story of a blighted New York marriage stands as a fierce indictment of a society estranged from culture.

46. Ulysses by James Joyce (1922)

This portrait of a day in the lives of three Dubliners remains a towering work, in its word play surpassing even Shakespeare.

47. Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis (1922)

What it lacks in structure and guile, this enthralling take on 20s America makes up for in vivid satire and characterisation.

48. A Passage to India by EM Forster (1924)

EM Forster’s most successful work is eerily prescient on the subject of empire.

49. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos (1925)

A guilty pleasure it may be, but it is impossible to overlook the enduring influence of a tale that helped to define the jazz age.

50. Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (1925)

Woolf’s great novel makes a day of party preparations the canvas for themes of lost love, life choices and mental illness.

51. The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald (1925)

Fitzgerald’s jazz age masterpiece has become a tantalising metaphor for the eternal mystery of art.

52. Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner (1926)

A young woman escapes convention by becoming a witch in this original satire about England after the first world war.

53. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway (1926)

Hemingway’s first and best novel makes an escape to 1920s Spain to explore courage, cowardice and manly authenticity.

54. The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett (1929)

Dashiell Hammett’s crime thriller and its hard-boiled hero Sam Spade influenced everyone from Chandler to Le Carré.

55. As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner (1930)

The influence of William Faulkner’s immersive tale of raw Mississippi rural life can be felt to this day.

56. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1932)

Aldous Huxley’s vision of a future human race controlled by global capitalism is every bit as prescient as Orwell’s more famous dystopia.

57. Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons (1932)

The book for which Gibbons is best remembered was a satire of late-Victorian pastoral fiction but went on to influence many subsequent generations.

58. Nineteen Nineteen by John Dos Passos (1932)

The middle volume of John Dos Passos’s USA trilogy is revolutionary in its intent, techniques and lasting impact.

59. Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller (1934)

The US novelist’s debut revelled in a Paris underworld of seedy sex and changed the course of the novel – though not without a fight with the censors.

60. Scoop by Evelyn Waugh (1938)

Evelyn Waugh’s Fleet Street satire remains sharp, pertinent and memorable.

61. Murphy by Samuel Beckett (1938)

Samuel Beckett’s first published novel is an absurdist masterpiece, a showcase for his uniquely comic voice.

62. The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler (1939)

Raymond Chandler’s hardboiled debut brings to life the seedy LA underworld – and Philip Marlowe, the archetypal fictional detective.

63. Party Going by Henry Green (1939)

Set on the eve of war, this neglected modernist masterpiece centres on a group of bright young revellers delayed by fog.

64. At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O’Brien (1939)

Labyrinthine and multilayered, Flann O’Brien’s humorous debut is both a reflection on, and an exemplar of, the Irish novel.

65. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (1939)

One of the greatest of great American novels, this study of a family torn apart by poverty and desperation in the Great Depression shocked US society.

66. Joy in the Morning by PG Wodehouse (1946)

PG Wodehouse’s elegiac Jeeves novel, written during his disastrous years in wartime Germany, remains his masterpiece.

67. All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren (1946)

A compelling story of personal and political corruption, set in the 1930s in the American south.

68. Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry (1947)

Malcolm Lowry’s masterpiece about the last hours of an alcoholic ex-diplomat in Mexico is set to the drumbeat of coming conflict.

69. The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen (1948)

Elizabeth Bowen’s 1948 novel perfectly captures the atmosphere of London during the blitz while providing brilliant insights into the human heart.

70. Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell (1949)

George Orwell’s dystopian classic cost its author dear but is arguably the best-known novel in English of the 20th century.

71. The End of the Affair by Graham Greene (1951)

Graham Greene’s moving tale of adultery and its aftermath ties together several vital strands in his work.

72. The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger (1951)

JD Salinger’s study of teenage rebellion remains one of the most controversial and best-loved American novels of the 20th century.

73. The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow (1953)

In the long-running hunt to identify the great American novel, Saul Bellow’s picaresque third book frequently hits the mark.

74. Lord of the Flies by William Golding (1954)

Dismissed at first as “rubbish & dull”, Golding’s brilliantly observed dystopian desert island tale has since become a classic.

75. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (1955)

Nabokov’s tragicomic tour de force crosses the boundaries of good taste with glee.

76. On the Road by Jack Kerouac (1957)

The creative history of Kerouac’s beat-generation classic, fuelled by pea soup and benzedrine, has become as famous as the novel itself.

77. Voss by Patrick White (1957)

A love story set against the disappearance of an explorer in the outback, Voss paved the way for a generation of Australian writers to shrug off the colonial past.

78. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960)

Her second novel finally arrived this summer, but Harper Lee’s first did enough alone to secure her lasting fame, and remains a truly popular classic.

79. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark (1960)

Short and bittersweet, Muriel Spark’s tale of the downfall of a Scottish schoolmistress is a masterpiece of narrative fiction.

80. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (1961)

This acerbic anti-war novel was slow to fire the public imagination, but is rightly regarded as a groundbreaking critique of military madness.

81. The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing (1962)

Hailed as one of the key texts of the women’s movement of the 1960s, this study of a divorced single mother’s search for personal and political identity remains a defiant, ambitious tour de force.

82. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess (1962)

Anthony Burgess’s dystopian classic still continues to startle and provoke, refusing to be outshone by Stanley Kubrick’s brilliant film adaptation.

83. A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood (1964)

Christopher Isherwood’s story of a gay Englishman struggling with bereavement in LA is a work of compressed brilliance.

84. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (1966)

Truman Capote’s non-fiction novel, a true story of bloody murder in rural Kansas, opens a window on the dark underbelly of postwar America.

85. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (1966)

Sylvia Plath’s painfully graphic roman à clef, in which a woman struggles with her identity in the face of social pressure, is a key text of Anglo-American feminism.

86. Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth (1969)

This wickedly funny novel about a young Jewish American’s obsession with masturbation caused outrage on publication, but remains his most dazzling work.

87. Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor (1971)

Elizabeth Taylor’s exquisitely drawn character study of eccentricity in old age is a sharp and witty portrait of genteel postwar English life facing the changes taking shape in the 60s.

88. Rabbit Redux by John Updike (1971)

Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, Updike’s lovably mediocre alter ego, is one of America’s great literary protoganists, up there with Huck Finn and Jay Gatsby.

89. Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison (1977)

The novel with which the Nobel prize-winning author established her name is a kaleidoscopic evocation of the African-American experience in the 20th century.

90. A Bend in the River by VS Naipaul (1979)

VS Naipaul’s hellish vision of an African nation’s path to independence saw him accused of racism, but remains his masterpiece.

91. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie (1981)

The personal and the historical merge in Salman Rushdie’s dazzling, game-changing Indian English novel of a young man born at the very moment of Indian independence.

92. Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson (1981)

Marilynne Robinson’s tale of orphaned sisters and their oddball aunt in a remote Idaho town is admired by everyone from Barack Obama to Bret Easton Ellis.

93. Money: A Suicide Note by Martin Amis (1984)

Martin Amis’s era-defining ode to excess unleashed one of literature’s greatest modern monsters in self-destructive antihero John Self.

94. An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro (1986)

Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel about a retired artist in postwar Japan, reflecting on his career during the country’s dark years, is a tour de force of unreliable narration.

95. The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald (1988)

Fitzgerald’s story, set in Russia just before the Bolshevik revolution, is her masterpiece: a brilliant miniature whose peculiar magic almost defies analysis.

96. Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler (1988)

Anne Tyler’s portrayal of a middle-aged, mid-American marriage displays her narrative clarity, comic timing and ear for American speech to perfection.

97. Amongst Women by John McGahern (1990)

This modern Irish masterpiece is both a study of the faultlines of Irish patriarchy and an elegy for a lost world.

98. Underworld by Don DeLillo (1997)

A writer of “frightening perception”, Don DeLillo guides the reader in an epic journey through America’s history and popular culture.

99. Disgrace by JM Coetzee (1999)

In his Booker-winning masterpiece, Coetzee’s intensely human vision infuses a fictional world that both invites and confounds political interpretation.

100. True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey (2000)

Peter Carey rounds off our list of literary milestones with a Booker prize-winning tour-de-force examining the life and times of Australia’s infamous antihero, Ned Kelly.

I count that I have read 29 books on the list, which I regard as a pretty low achievement.  I’ve decided to order Song of Solomon right now, as it’s author is unknown to me and the topic looks interesting.