Saturday, 3 December 2016

Book East – Brilliant Books by Brilliant Women

The Glass Mother, a memoir by Rosie Jackson, is the next to be reviewed in our series of brilliant books written by women with connections to this region and published this year. Books you may wish to add to your Christmas list.

In the late seventies and early eighties Rosie Jackson lectured in English Literature at the University of East Anglia in Norwich. She was a bit of a star: young, hard-working and the author of Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion, a study of the fantastic in literature. Friends of mine, who were students at UEA during that period, remember that Fantasy was the book everybody was reading and quoting from in their essays. When I told them I was reviewing the author’s memoir they wanted to know what became of Jackson because she seemed destined for great things like her colleagues Malcolm Bradbury, Angela Carter, and Lorna Sage, but then just disappeared off the radar.

And this is the question that Jackson asks herself time and again throughout her memoir: what happened, why did I vanish myself? Jackson left UEA after five years and, like a detective, investigates and examines why she made that choice, why turn from the career that she put so much effort into building, why abandon financial security, why instead flit from one job and relationship to the next, why?

Her probing causes her to look hard at her childhood and the way she was parented. She examines too her own mothering of her son Adam. Jackson separated from Adam’s father  when Adam was three and her youth and her need to study compelled her to leave her son with his dad. In a reversal of what is still usually the norm the father became primary carer and Jackson had intermittent access to the child. Jackson bravely explores how this act of abandonment skewed her life. She expresses immense regret and shame, and is honest about how her relationship with Adam continues to be fragile to this day.  

Jackson’s writing is precise and sensitive - perhaps on occasion too sensitive - to the thoughts and feelings of those friends, family, and acquaintances she has encountered over the years. It’s perhaps a little distanced too when recounting how she becomes a follower of the Indian spiritual master Meher Baba and what her devotions require of her. Jackson visits India often but she fleetingly describes the delights of these journeys into the spiritual, instead choosing to weight the memoir towards her peripatetic life here in England.

The Glass Mother follows a linear, chronological path, which  veers brilliantly off course towards the end into the wonderful titular chapter about nurturing and inheritance. Ultimately it is a fascinating read about a woman who chooses personal discovery over a ‘neurotic academic life’.

Pub Unthank Books,  November 2016 


Reviewed by Lynne Bryan, author of a short story collection, Envy At The Cheese Handout (published by Faber & Faber), and the novels Gorgeous and Like Rabbits (Sceptre). Lynne is co-organiser of Words And Women.

Saturday, 26 November 2016

BOOK EAST – BRILLIANT BOOKS BY BRILLIANT WOMEN

There are so many excellent women writers in our region we thought we would look at some of the new books they have published this year in a series of short blogs.  You never know you might just find that unexpected Christmas read…

Our first is a hugely timely collection of essays – The Mother in Psychoanalysis And Beyond, Matricide and maternal subjectivity, co-edited by Rosalind Mayo and Christina Moutsou. It is vigorously academic exploring our relationship to the maternal through psychoanalysis, philosophy, culture and art, as well as politics and gender and profoundly touching, as half the book is the reflective, lived experience of women on being mothered and mothering.  It is a handbook to understand the contradictions of motherhood, the conflict between the dreams of motherhood and reality.

The book grew out of a series of seminars on the maternal open to psychotherapists and members of the public, held at the Philadelphia Association in London. An institution founded by R.D. Laing in 1965 to challenge established ways of thinking.  It became clear through the meetings that there was an enormous chasm between the idealisation and reality of motherhood – there was so much that was unsaid.  This book breaks that silence.

It examines the myths that illustrate ‘…the conflicts and dilemmas of our collective relationship with the Mother,’ as Christina Moutsou outlined at the book launch. Athena who leaps fully formed from the brow of Zeus after he has raped and swallowed her mother, a daughter born of matricide, and Persephone stolen to the underworld, while Demeter roams in winter, the forgotten, stripped out older mother. But it also unfolds the political landscape, the failure of feminism to support motherhood in the past, the undermining of motherhood, the perpetuation of impossible zeal.

Contributing their voices are writer and journalist Melissa Benn, feminist theorist Amber Jacobs and conceptual artist Eti Wade as well as eminent psychotherapists Alison Davies, Kate Gilbert, Jane Haynes and Lucy King, not to mention the editors who have both contributed to and shaped this brave and honest book.

To be a mother is at once the most intimate, profound and universal of our experiences. Our own mothering cannot be separated from our own experience of being mothered. It is the most ambiguous and ambivalent of relationships as well as the most enriching. The mother relationship can render us paper-thin, vulnerable, exposed to slipstreams of uncertainty, separation, betrayal and loss, aching to fulfil the impossible idealisation and fantasies of the mother in our society.  This is a rich, moving book of courage, a handbook to understanding.


Routledge, London and New York, 2017

Review by Belona Greenwood, founder and co-organiser of Words and Women. A former journalist she took an MA in Scriptwriting at the University of East Anglia and writes plays for adults and children, produced and performed both regionally and nationally.  She is co-director of Chalk Circle Theatre Company.  In 2009 she was a winner of the Decibel Penguin Prize for Life Writing, and she has won an Escalator award to write a book of creative non-fiction. She teaches adults and children.  

Saturday, 19 November 2016

Our prose competition has now closed for entries

Thank you to everybody who sent in an entry. We have had a fantastic response! We are now busily reading the entries and, after discussion with our guest judge Naomi Wood, will announce our national and regional winners and our highly-commended entries in the first week of January. 
Announcements will be made on this blog and on Twitter @wordsandwomen.

Saturday, 29 October 2016

Katrina Kirkwood explains why she chose creative nonfiction to tell the tale of a real life WW1 heroine

When I was a teenager, I inherited my Grandmother Isabella’s medical instruments and a strange string of beads. Nobody knew their true story, because Isabella had chosen not to tell, but a rumour remained. As I ran the cold glassiness of the beads over my hands, I would wonder. Was it true that she had served as a doctor during WW1? Had these beads really been given to her by a grateful German prisoner of war? Imagining some wounded hero falling for Isabella and her stethoscope in a romance that smashed through enemy lines, I promised myself that, sometime, I would find out the truth.

Decades later, I dredged up my skills as a research scientist and began my quest. Isabella had left so little evidence that I was thrilled when she turned up in Edinburgh, even more so when she materialised in the Imperial War Museum, and in the Wellcome Library, my astonished whoop disturbed all the other researchers.

Then, one day, the excitement was over. The research was done. My friends were intrigued by the tale: it had a classic narrative arc and it was so unusual that it deserved a place in the WW1 commemorations. But how was I to write it up? I had long since deserted science in favour of art and storytelling, and years spent helping people in the Welsh valleys tell their own tales had made me obsessive about how stories were told. Worthy accounts that killed fascinating lives by merely presenting a cautious list of facts drove me mad.

Idealistically, I wanted readers to be able to slip themselves into my grandmother’s high-heeled button-boots and race through the pages. I wanted people who would never have considered reading a book about a WW1 woman doctor to find themselves gripped.

Isabella relaxing at a hospital on Malta during the First World War
Should I try fiction? Certainly not - the most important thing about this story was that it was true. I spotted a course at Ty Newydd in North Wales: Creative nonfiction. Curious, I booked in. And found the logical solution to my conundrum. Giving myself a working definition - ‘Nonfiction written as engagingly as a novel’ - I tried it out.

It was hard, even harder than writing up a Ph.D. thesis. Using the fiction-writer’s devices to capture the truth without losing historical accuracy, introducing bias or committing any other punishable academic crime made every word a challenge. But there were rewards: a diary enabled me to feel each day of Isabella’s life in a French hospital in 1915, an information gap tossed me into the world of ancient questionnaires, and letters scribbled in the gloriously imperial accent of the time gave voices to important characters, allowing dialogue to break up the prose.

But one worry remained: without access to Isabella’s feelings, was the book doomed to be dry, however much I tried to make the prose live? I started thinking about two books I had loved: Josephine Tey's Daughter of Time and Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes. It was not their conclusions that had kept me reading, it was their descriptions of how they had reached those conclusions - their detective work - that had made both those books unputdownable.

I was tempted - people liked detective tales. That showed in the audience ratings for Saturday night thrillers. I made my choice. Like de Waal and Tey, I decided to relish letting the joys and frustrations of sleuthing become part of the tale, as they really had been from the moment when I began to investigate until the dramatic end, when the solution to the mystery of Isabella’s beads had finally revealed itself and I had discovered the identity of their donor. But of course, I cannot tell whether the book has done what I wanted - only readers can decide that.

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The Mystery of Isabella and the String of Beads: A Woman Doctor in WW1, published by Loke Press, is available on Amazon and by order from all good bookshops. The Ebook is available for seven days at a reduced price especially to readers of this blog. Click here for the link. And, if you enjoy the book, then please post a review on Amazon about it too.

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Katrina Kirkwood@kkstories, a former medical research scientist with a passion for stories, is Doctor Isabella Stenhouse’s granddaughter. Equipped with two science degrees and an art degree, she spent many years helping people in the South Wales valleys turn their stories into mini-films before embarking on her quest to solve the mystery of Isabella and her beads. An evening class in Cardiff and a course at Ty Newydd got her started, while mentoring by The Literary Consultancy helped her bring Isabella together. Following features about Isabella on the BBC Antiques Roadshow, in national newspapers, and on local radio and television, Katrina has been invited to write about her grandmother for numerous magazines and blogs. She moved to Norwich last year.



Saturday, 22 October 2016

OCTOBER STORIES by Kate Swindlehurst

It’s that time of year again. All those years of teaching with barely a break after school and university has meant that the shifting season signals the start of a new chapter for me. As the summer stutters to a close, the weather lurching from seaside sunshine to tropical storm, that restless feeling grows. My dreams are peopled with difficult students and critical colleagues, my competence questioned, my confidence challenged at every turn. I am late, unprepared, clueless. In the real world, I try desperately to recover a working routine but the fallout from the summer lingers in piles of washing and domestic chaos. Jack moves back in, and out, again. I wave him off with a heavy heart. The Cumbrian house is on the market, again and suddenly, after years of lingering, seems to have been snapped up. Unsettled to the point of neurosis, I become obsessed, again, with the idea of moving. I want to clear the ground, dig out what remains of the old plantings, put down new, permanent roots.
On mornings like these, though, I’m caught between nostalgia and longing. Somehow it’s the season for renewing old acquaintances, rediscovering lost loves. I return in my mind to Mexico, those magical early mornings, frost sparkling under sun from clear blue skies, when the usual smog cleared and the volcanoes shimmered in the distance as I walked up the hill to work. Out of sync with the rest of the world as always (my mother’s name for me was Contrary Mary) I took my gap year twenty years late. Looking back, though, at my astonishing naivety then, I might as well have been eighteen. I’m further unsettled by the late holidays of friends who send thoughts from abroad. Despite Cambridge’s loveliness in early autumn, long shadows and rustling willows and sparkling water, I wish I was anywhere but here, with anyone but myself. School dreams give way to turbulent erotic scenes which leave me bemused on waking. And then there’s the botanic garden, a second home for almost two years. I rarely get there now.
As for the writing: there is a lot to be said for sticking at it. I am in the very fortunate situation where I can do that, without paid work wearing me out or children clamouring for my attention. Even more privileged to have a brother happy to share his lovely cottage in Norfolk, so that I was able to take myself off for the month of August and write there. It’s my ideal situation: just me and the laptop, a book or two, a pair of walking boots, the unassuming Norfolk countryside. I came back with a first draft of a novel almost complete. I am happiest when I can reproduce something like that routine here: up early, read a bit of hard stuff with a pot of tea, write for the rest of the morning, perhaps an hour or two of editing in the afternoon, a chapter or two of fiction at bedtime… Often I don’t manage all of it and it does make it difficult to fit in other essentials – tango, exercise, shopping, friends – but I keep coming back to this: it’s what I do. Or, like Simon in Lord of the Flies, ‘What else is there to do?’
To keep going, I have to believe that some of what I write is important in some loosely political way, an exploration of pressing concerns – or that, even if it’s mainly for fun, it’s as perfect as I can make it. I have to silence that critical voice which says ‘This is rubbish’ or ‘You don’t know enough.’ I remember a workshop with A.L. Kennedy in Norwich in which she offered this advice: get rid of your nerves, don’t allow your negative energy to crush or sabotage you, think of your reader as intelligent and interested in the same things as you and, what has stayed in my mind above all, make sure you give your reader your best shot – as if you are writing for someone you love.
There is something deadening about writing in a vacuum, though. So, although self-publicising goes against the grain, the other thing I’ve tried to address in the last six months or so is to get my work out there. And it has paid off. Two of the stories from Writing the Garden, completed during my residency at Cambridge University Botanic Garden, are due to be published in Crisp, ARU’s new anthology of creative writing, next month, and a third will be the featured story on Litro magazine’s #Story Sunday slot this coming weekend. Finally, as a result of a competition which I’d forgotten I’d entered, a publisher is looking at the latest novel. And there’s my blog, of course: I’d forgotten the pleasures of this kind of sharing…

To read 'Inside' go to www.litro.co.uk and click on #Story Sunday. After publication on Sunday 16 October, the story should be available on the page for some time.

‘Heartsease’ and ‘Classical Studies’ will appear in Crisp, to be launched on 2nd November at the 12a Club in Cambridge and available from ARU thereafter for £6.99. Or, if you’d really like to own one, I might be persuaded to pick one up for you at the bargain price of £5.00 on the night!


After thirty years in the classroom, Kate Swindlehurst has been writing full-time for ten years. She gained a distinction in the creative writing MA at Anglia Ruskin University and won an Arts Council Escalator award enabling her to complete a novel based on Argentina’s disappeared. She has also produced a memoir dealing with the impact of Argentine tango on Parkinson’s disease and two short story collections, the second inspired by a 20-month residency at Cambridge University Botanic Garden, where she was mentored by author Ali Smith. Kate is currently working on a novel dealing with our responses to the refugee crisis. A northerner by birth and habit, she now lives and works in Cambridge.