No Barking in the Hallways: Poems from the Classroom, by Ann Bracken

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This powerful new collection of poems by Ann Bracken, author of The Altar of Innocence, tells of her work with learning disabled and emotionally disturbed adolescents in a large psychiatric hospital.

In the best poems, she helps us see beyond the fierce bravado of the teenagers to the scared child within. The power of these poems comes from Bracken’s attention to detail, her evocation of voice, and her emotional restraint. She holds her sorrow and indignation in check while giving us a chance to get to know these young people before revealing their secrets.

While demonstrating the control that enables the reader to fully enter the experience, Bracken’s generous heart drives these poems. In describing teachers’ struggles with administrators who sometimes appear to care more about numbers and public perception than children, she doesn’t lose sight of the forces constraining the administrators: the numb surrender to seemingly intractable problems, the determination to keep the school running.

In Bracken’s hands, poetry becomes a peculiarly effective way to convey the reality of the classroom. Individual poems are intensely focused on a single person, giving a voice to those whose voices are rarely heard. Together these poems create an unforgettable mosaic of the experience of teaching adolescents, whether they are learning disabled, emotionally disturbed, or stressed in other ways.

The understanding gained from experiencing a student-centered teacher as she works with students, administrators, and other teachers will benefit anyone interested in education and the reality of classroom teaching.

Best books I read in 2016

As a writer, I learn something from every book I read. These are the ten best books I read in 2016. Although I read much fiction, I’m a bit surprised to see how many of the books I’ve selected are nonfiction. Please check the links to the blog archive for a fuller discussion of each book.

1. Stirring the Mud: On Swamps, Bogs, and Human Imagination, by Barbara Hurd

Stirring the Mud is a slight book, only nine essays, but I’ve been reading and rereading it for weeks, pondering the images and leaps of thought. Reading these essays, I came to love standing with Hurd as she lets her shoes sink into the mud, water seeping in to wet her socks, thinking about what grows there, what is lost there, what is preserved there. She examines the liminality of these places, how mysteriously hidden their edges are.

2. Reading the Forested Landscape: A Natural History of New England, by Tom Wessels

Tom Wessels’ book helps me understand what I’m looking at when I examine the woods that come almost up to my porch. This is not a tree identification book, however. It’s more like a magic decoder ring. It gives the information you need to look at a patch of woods and make a pretty good guess at what it looked like 100 years ago and what has occurred to disturb it in the meantime. This book changed my view of the natural world.

3. Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, by Atul Gawande

Gawande examines these issues through stories of his patients and his own family, encouraging us to look at that phase of life that we mostly try to pretend will never happen, that inevitable decline into death. Most interesting to me, he takes us through the history of solutions for how to make the end of life meaningful, comfortable and affordable, from the first retirement communities to exciting new ideas.

4. Islands, the Universe, Home, by Gretel Ehrlich

This collection of essays is truly stunning. In the things of her world Ehrlich finds tangible evidence for the thoughts and ideas jostling in her head, anchoring them to coherence. Her world is primarily her ranch in Wyoming, its five-acre lake, the nearby mountains. Other essays take us further afield. Whatever destinations we find in these essays come from the resonances between the pieces of her mosaic and the echoes they call up in our own hearts.

5. The House of Belonging: Poems, by David Whyte

The poems in this book are different from those to which I’m usually drawn. At first glance they don’t even seem to be poems—aside from the line breaks—but rather the sort of heart-to-heart you have with an old friend late at night over a cup of tea or glass of whisky. Yet within the plain speaking is a core of light. Such poems may look easy, but must require great patience to revise and revise again in order to craft something so seemingly inconsequential into a work invested with such meaning.

6. Saving Our Sons: Raising Black Children in a Turbulent World, by Marita Golden

Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book Between the World and Me has been getting a lot of press since it came out last year. With good reason: Coates’s letter to his son is an essential reminder to all of us, in the U.S. at least, that a hope and a dream alone are not enough to undo centuries of racism built into the structure of this country. Yet it was this slim book by Marita Golden that I first read twenty years ago that truly brought home to me the dangers faced by young men of color and the emotions endured by their parents.

7. The Edge of Heaven, by Marita Golden

The story opens with twenty-year-old Teresa Singletary and her mother, Lena, facing a major turning point in their lives: Lena is being released from prison. Through a “chorus of voices”, the story conveys the terrible damage not just to the person imprisoned, but also to her or his family. While the journey is sometimes dark and the human cost is huge, it is in the end a story of love’s possibilities.

8. Burning Your Boats, by Angela Carter

I love these stories. Actually Carter calls them tales, saying they draw on images from dreams and legends, from fairy tales and the unconscious. While these tales do provoke unease, they also overwhelm with audacity and rich allusions and tangled passion. She layers in the descriptions and emotions until you feel as though the whole thing is going to explode—and then she reels you back with a coolly humorous detail or sarcastic observation.

9. I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith

Seventeen-year-old Cassandra Mortmain and her family love their dilapidated home: a house attached to and using a corner of a partially ruined castle. It would be better, though, if they had some money for little things like, oh, having more candles so they can read at night, fixing the leaks in the roof, actually getting enough to eat, and paying the rent. I love Cassandra’s storytelling, her humor, her peculiar turns of phrase, her odd outlook. Every page holds delightful surprises.

10. Tell the Wolves I’m Home, by Carol Rifka Brunt

As this story opens, fifteen-year-old June remembers when and her sister Greta were being driven by their mother to Uncle Finn‘s apartment to continue sitting for the portrait he was painting of them, Uncle Finn who was dying of AIDS. This is more than a coming-of-age story, more than a dealing-with-the-first-death story. It is an engrossing story of deeply human emotions, ones we deny or fear, ones that lead us into actions we regret and the connections we crave.

What were the best books you read last year?

North and South, by Elizabeth Gaskell

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This 1855 novel has much to say about our own times. It is the story of eighteen-year-old Margaret Hale who moves with her parents from a rural hamlet in the south of England to the fictional Milton in the industrial north. There is a bit of misdirection at the beginning of the story, which starts in London where Margaret has been living with her aunt, uncle and cousin Eliza for half of her lifetime.

The story then moves to Margaret’s beloved Helstone, where she has returned to live with her parents after Eliza’s wedding. She says Helstone is “‘only a hamlet; I don’t think I could call it a village at all. There is the church and a few houses near it on the green—cottages, rather—with roses growing all over them.’” While there, she awkwardly receives a proposal from the brother of Eliza’s new husband.

So far it seems like a romance, a novel of manners. But then Margaret’s father suffers a crisis of conscience, gives up the church, and moves the family north where he will become a private tutor.

Similar to the U.S., with its tensions between red and blue states, coasts and midlands, the U.K. has traditionally been divided between the industrial north and the agricultural south. These tensions drive the story. Set in the early days of the Industrial Revolution, Gaskell uses Margaret’s mistakes and misunderstandings to explore issues related to the first-generation cotton mills and those who own or work in them.

When the Hales first arrive in Milton, they detest the noise and hurry and dirt. Margaret takes a dislike to her first acquaintance, John Thornton, brusque owner of Marlborough Mill and her father’s first pupil. She looks down on him as a tradesman, “sagacious, and strong” but “not quite a gentleman”. She criticises him, too, for not caring for his workers outside of work hours, saying he should be giving them moral instruction and making sure they have enough food and a decent place to live. But that is not how things are done in the north, where workers are free to make their own choices once they leave work.

Margaret quickly befriends a young woman, Bessy Higgins, whose father John works in another mill. Horrified by their poverty and Bessy’s “cotton consumption”, a disease caused by the air quality in the mills, Margaret invites herself to their home to bring a basket of food, as she used to do in the south for her father’s poorer parishioners. To her surprise, the Higginses are offended. As she learns to respect their independence, they become friends.

Margaret’s mistakes and missteps in what to her is an entirely new culture mirror our own easy assumptions from the beginning of the story: that a London wedding and an awkward proposal in a pastoral rose garden signalled a familiar story of romance. Gaskell’s clever misdirection resulted in my feeling great sympathy for Margaret as she struggles to to look past her preconceptions and recognise what is really there.

Margaret’s coming-of-age story alone is sturdy enough to carry the reader’s attention, but what I found intriguing were the even-handed discussions about the rights and responsibilities of “masters” and “men”. These organically arise in the story as Margaret’s reactions, conversations between her father and Thornton, Thornton and his fellow mill owners, and—most interestingly—between Thornton and Higgins, whom Margaret brings together.

Thornton complains that workers don’t understand the market forces that prevent him from raising their wage, while the workers believe he is just living in luxury while they suffer.

As Thornton and Higgins begin a strange sort of friendship, their mistrust and misunderstanding of each other fade and their respect grows. Thornton has already installed a wheel to draw out the cotton fluff that fills the air and destroys lungs, over the objections of some workers who believe all the fluff they swallow inadvertently helps prevent hunger. Thornton works with Higgins to provide a hot midday meal for the workers, so they at least get one good meal a day.

As workers, our concerns today are less about food and more about health care and other benefits, but the same mitigation holds true. In companies where owners and workers communicate, such as the one where I was lucky enough to work, benefits and the occasional necessary belt-tightening are out in the open.

The novel takes place during a time of great social upheaval. Industrialisation was changing the job market—Margaret’s mother can’t find a maid willing to work for a Helstone wage when young women could be earning more in a factory—at the same time that railroads were revolutionising movement. And everything was speeding up.

We are at a similar crossroads. Globalisation and automation are changing the face of work. Without unions—whose pros and cons are explored here too—workers are at the mercy of the bosses. With so many companies being publicly traded rather than owned by one person or one family, there is no Thornton to appeal to. Income inequality is even worse than during Gaskell’s time. And, yes, things seem to be speeding up even more.

One way to gain a more balanced view of the issues which divide us today is to look at how they played out in the past. This novel, sweetened as it is by Margaret’s story, is an excellent start.

Have you read a novel that’s helped you understand one of today’s issues?

Playlist 2016

Songs, vocal or instrumental, are stories too. And sometimes poetry. These are the songs I kept coming back to this year. Many thanks to my friends for their music. In the end, though, I head back to work, making my own stories.

Bird on a Wire, Jennifer Warnes
Candles In The Dark, Jacqueline Schwab
Oft in the Stilly Night, Flow Gently Sweet Afton, Jacqueline Schwab
Isle of Islay, Donovan
Catch the Wind, Donovan
Black Is the Color, Elizabeth LaPrelle
Handsome Molly, Elizabeth LaPrelle
Wagoner’s Lad, Elizabeth LaPrelle
Storms Are On the Ocean, Elizabeth LaPrelle
Kesh Jigs, Scythian
Malt Is Come Down, Sweet Felons All
Singing Bird, Leela & Ellie Grace
Seamus O’Brien, The Latter Day Lizards
Honeysuckle Cottage, Band of Friends
Whately Barn, Band of Friends
Nostalgia, Emily Barker & The Red Clay Halo
Cinema Paradiso: Nostalgia, Yo-Yo Ma/Morricone
Fields Of Gold, Eva Cassidy
Under The Greewood Tree, Hubert Parry
The Blackbird, Hubert Parry
The Lark Ascending, Vaughn Williams Academy of St. Martin in the Fields
Bach: Concerto For 2 Violins In D Minor, BWV 1043 Itzahk Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman; Daniel Barenboim: English Chamber Orchestra
Get Behind The Mule, Tom Waits

What have you been listening to this year?

Tell the Wolves I’m Home, by Carol Rifka Brunt

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This 2013 debut novel came highly recommended. I approached it cautiously, prepared to be disappointed, only to be thoroughly charmed by the voice of the narrator, fifteen-year-old June. One of the blurbs compared her to Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, but I thought immediately of Cassandra in Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle. Both young women are imaginative and well-read. Both have beloved older sisters who seem to be moving away from them. Both are set apart from their peers, Cassandra by her peculiar family and living situation, June by a special friendship.

The voice alone would have carried me through the novel, but the story is gripping as well. As it opens, June remembers when and her sister Greta were being driven by their mother to Uncle Finn‘s apartment to continue sitting for the portrait he was painting of them, Uncle Finn who was dying of AIDS. It is the late 1980s, when AIDS was still new enough that, unsure of how it was transmitted, people feared and shunned the infected.

For June, who hardly saw her accountant parents during tax season and was ignored or tortured by her older sister, Finn was the one person with whom she could be herself. He took her to the Cloisters and Renaissance festivals and museums. He shared her fascination with the Middle Ages. She would often walk into the woods to pretend she lives in another time altogether. His death has left her bereft.

The story moves easily between memories of times with Finn and the present of the story: tax season, with the girls left alone to care for themselves. Popular Greta, who is two years older, is in her last year of high school, having been moved up a grade. She is starring in play at school and struggling with her own demons.

June is stunned by the loss of her confidante, struggling with the idea of death and, later, with the impossible task Finn has left for her.

There is so much I love about this story: June’s imaginative life that reminds me so much of my own at that age, the relationship between the sisters, the absent Finn and his care for his niece, the mounting suspense as events close in around June. I especially love the use of symbols.

I’ve always appreciated the use of symbols, particularly when they mean something a little different each time they reappear. The best at using symbols is Paul Scott, author of The Jewel in the Crown and other novels. In an essay, “Imagination in the Novel”, he describes how he came up with the central symbol of one of my favorite novels, his Birds of Paradise. His idea for the novel began with an image of a woman appearing in a doorway. The idea of her wearing “fine feathers” leads him to his symbol.

Sometimes this thing that glitters appears, sometimes it doesn’t. The thing that glitters is often a symbol. If the symbol can be justified, it is best to use it for all it is worth, to be honest about it, to say: “This is my symbol and this is what it means.” . . .

It was the idea of birds of paradise that glittered, and they became my symbol because, upon investigation, they not only stirred me with the idea of their beauty, but yielded information pertinent to the idea of the woman in the doorway and to the general climate of something having come to an end. Research brought knowledge.

Later he adds a third factor: “an experience of the oddity of life. The imagination, the knowing, and the experience finally cohere into a pattern.”

In Brunt’s novel we have various symbols: the woods where anything can happen, June’s medieval boots given her by Finn. The main symbol, though, is the wolves. June hears a pack of them in the woods—they are part of her secret world, and it’s significant when and with whom she’s willing to share them. And then wolves begin to emerge in unlikely places. At one point she says they are “hungry and selfish.”

This is more than a coming-of-age story, more than a dealing-with-the-first-death story. It is an engrossing story of deeply human emotions, ones we deny or fear, ones that lead us into actions we regret and the connections we crave.

What are you reading that has moved you deeply?

Calyx, Volume 24, No. 1

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Cleaning out a box, I came across this copy of Calyx: A Journal of Art and Literature by Women. I’m not sure where it came from, but I could tell right away that I had never read it. The opening story was so gripping, I knew I would not have forgotten it.

In “Goulash”, by Anna Balint, the fourteen-year-old narrator is in Budapest, Hungary with her parents and younger brothers visiting Uncle Zoltan and his family: Auntie Eszter and their daughter Gizi. They are all on their way out into the countryside, a trip Zoltan didn’t want to take and Eszter is still angry about. But Mum fought for it, Mum who refuses to speak Hungarian, who claims she is “English, English, English.” There is much here about language and heritage and what we choose to remember, about denial and loss, all wrapped in a story full of enticing scents and sounds, the taste of apricots and hot peppers, singing in the night, and outstretched hands.

The poetry in this volume, too, is stunning. Each poem resounded deep within me. Such innocent images at first, drawing the reader in, ever further in, through forests of joy or comfort or peace. Take “Doorpost”, by Laurie Patton:

There is a lightness
when we cross a threshold—
. . .
No matter the sorrow,
every door holds a hope

And then the memories summoned by the room’s objects begin to multiply, memories of joys and losses, of days past, days that can seem like a future—all conveyed in just a few lines. And then the final lines subtly tie these memories to the image of the door, the threshold, the liminal space between past and future.

There is art here as well, black and white photographs of paintings and sculptures, starting with four pieces by Leah Kosh that seem to unearth hidden memories in me, truths I once knew but have let slip away. Kosh says, “My paintings most often explore the belief that there are a multiplicity of realities co-existing and that these realities are our shadows and our mirrors—always with us, rarely acknowledged.”

Four substantial reviews of books by women close the volume.

Each piece in this issue is a gem. I am stunned by the quality of the works and their diversity. There are stories of a girl who sees her absent mother as a star floating in a pond, of a young woman whose boyfriend’s age seems to be going backwards, of an older woman who has suffered one too many accidents. There are astonishing poems about crows and dancing and walking in the dark.

There are hundreds of literary magazines out there. I used to subscribe each year to a different one, until I hit a rough patch timewise and decided to get through the backlog before continuing. However, there has always been one so consistently good that I’ve continued to subscribe to it and read year after year.

I think I’ve just found a second one.

What literary magazines have you enjoyed reading?

The Mistress of Nothing, by Kate Pullinger

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Another novel based on the lives of real people, The Mistress of Nothing is the story of Sally Naldrett, lady’s maid to Lucie, Lady Duff Gordon.

In August of 1862, thirty-year-old Sally sets sail for Egypt with her mistress, where it is hoped that the warm dry climate will ease Lady Duff Gordon’s tuberculosis. While Sally is thrilled at the prospect, having thoroughly enjoyed their previous stay in South Africa, she knows that behind Lady Duff Gordon’s brave front, her mistress is miserable.

Author of several books, translator of others, Lady Duff Gordon enjoys the scintillating company of friends such as George Meredith and Alfred, Lord Tennyson. As Sally can see, the only thing worse than leaving behind her intellectual life is the separation from her husband and children, the youngest of whom is only three. In addition to the physical suffering she endures from her advanced tuberculosis, Lady Duff Gordon resents and tries hard to hide her physical decline.

As lady’s maid, Sally tends to her mistress’s illness as well as to her clothing. When Sally declines a last-minute proposal, she declares that she is devoting her life to caring for Lady Duff Gordon.

Sally’s descriptions of Egypt are entrancing, from the crowded streets of Cairo to the time spent traveling on the Nile in their dahabieh to setting up housekeeping in Luxor. They are accompanied by a dragoman hired in Cairo, Omar Abu Halaweh. The three fall into an easy rhythm of life in Luxor, enhanced by various townspeople.

Battered by the heat, the two women shed their English clothes for loose-flowing Egyptian costumes. Both study Arabic and Islam with Omar, and the three begin to have their meals together, sitting on cushions on the floor per local custom. But differences remain. Lady Duff Gordon adopts the clothing of Egyptian men while Sally hesitates and finally choses women’s robes. Sally practices her Arabic in the marketplace while her mistress uses hers in entertaining local notables.

The English class structure is not abandoned as easily as the stiff stays that the women toss away. Sally soon finds that their free and easy their life in Luxor is an illusion. The structures of Egyptian society and politics also close in on the small household.

I raced through this novel, fascinated by the characters, entranced by the descriptions of floating on the Nile and viewing Luxor by moonlight. Most of all, I was caught up in Sally’s story, afraid of how it might turn out, shocked by some of the privileges claimed by English aristocracy that even I, with all my reading, was not aware of. If you want a good read that will also make you think about class and race and religion in new ways, this is a book for you.

In this book, the actual people involved are from the past, which makes me wonder if that is better or worse. We may be able to discover more about them now that they are gone. At the same time, they are not around to defend themselves. Pullinger has done a lot of research and I am pretty confident that the events are accurate. However, she has had to imagine the emotions and motivations of Sally, Omar and their mistress.

It is clear from her comments in the interview at the end that Pullinger has tried to follow the same advice I give in my memoir-writing classes: treat the people in your story with respect. Genuinely try to understand why they thought they were doing the right thing. Remember that each of them thinks he or she is the hero of the story.

The Cellist of Sarajevo, by Steven Galloway

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It seems a good moment to be reminded of those who retain their integrity even in the worst of times. Like Geraldine Brooks’s People of the Book, this novel is based on a true story of courage and honor during the siege of Sarajevo.

Galloway’s novel is based on the actions of Vedran Smailović, a former cellist in the Sarajevo String Quartet, who during the siege played among the ruins, especially the Albinoni piece, and at funerals, even though funerals were often targeted by snipers. Unsurprisingly, Smailović was furious that his life and story had been co-opted by someone else without his permission, calling it an invasion of his privacy. He also said,

“I didn’t play for 22 days, I played all my life in Sarajevo and for the two years of the siege each and every day.

“They keep saying I played at four in the afternoon, but the explosion was at 10 in the morning and I am not stupid, I wasn’t looking to get shot by snipers so I varied my routine.

“I never stopped playing music throughout the siege. My weapon was my cello.”

Galloway, on his part, defends his actions by saying in the same article that Smailović’s actions had been “an extremely public act” and that a writer need not get permission from his sources of inspiration. Apparently they have since begun to move towards reconciliation, but I still am concerned about defining the grey area between a private person and a public figure.

In Galloway’s story, on 27 May 1992 an unnamed cellist sees a mortar bomb explode in the square outside his room, killing 22 people who had been standing in line for bread. He decides to put on his formal clothes, go out to the spot where the bomb exploded at 4:00 pm and play Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor, a piece composed around a fragment found after the bombing of the Dresden Music Library in 1942. He will do this every day for 22 days, if he survives that long.

The rest of the story revolves around three fictional characters, ordinary citizens whose lives have been derailed and distorted by the war. Arrow is a young woman who reluctantly became a sniper for the city’s defenders because of her previous experience on her university target-shooting team. To separate herself from that person who would never have used a rifle to kill, she has taken a different name. Yet she still struggles to align her actions with the remnants of her belief system. “The Sarajevo she fought for was one where you didn’t have to hate a person because of what there were . . . You could hate a person for what they did.” What could be more timely?

Dragan was able to send his wife and son out of the city before the siege and now lives with his sister and her family. He is trying to get to the bakery where he works, even though it is his day off, to eat in the employee cafeteria—one less burden for his sister. Dragan imagines Sarajevo as it was before the war, the parks, the Academy of Fine Arts, the Olympic venues from 1984. He is delayed by the people he encounters and the terrifying hesitation at street corners. Crossing a street means exposing yourself, and Dragan falls into magical thinking about what might save him. This is a choice I see people resisting today: to hide in memory or indulge in magical thinking. Only by facing reality can we address it.

Another person out on the streets is Keenan who must travel across the city to get water for his family and for his elderly neighbor, Mrs. Ristovski, even though he is almost paralysed by the thought of venturing out into the sights of the snipers in the hills. As he makes agonising decisions about which bridges to cross and whether to abandon Mrs. Ristovski’s cumbersome bottles, he becomes aware of tankers of water servicing the rich, those who are making money off the beleaguered residents. Keenan must find a way to live with his fear of death and decide whether it is worth going on.

Nothing is more relevant to today’s fears than this chilling reminder from late in the book. Although Galloway is referring to Sarajevo, he could be talking about any of several nations in the throes of change today.

. . . civilization isn’t a thing that you build and then there it is, you have it forever. It needs to be built constantly, re-created daily. It vanishes far more quickly than he ever would have thought possible.

What novel have you read recently that has given you new insight about current events?

The Lord of the Rushie River, by Cicely Mary Barker

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When in need of comfort, I often turn to beloved books. In a recent article on the great writer’s website Writer Unboxed, author Juliet Marillier described some of her favorite and most treasured books, her keeper books. This picture book was the very first one she named. It is by the author of the Flower Fairy books, which I have long adored.

This story opens with Susan’s father, the Sailor, bidding her goodbye as he heads to sea again. In her sadness, she is comforted by a family of swans swimming nearby, one of whom, as a cygnet, had been rescued by her father when some boys had broken its leg.

Dame Dinnage, hired by her father to care for Susan in his absence, immediately drops her pretense of loving Susan, feeding her scraps and watered milk, refusing to mend or replace her clothes. All Dame Dinnage cares about is her stocking of money that grows heavier and heavier. Then she moves them to the city.

In her despair at never seeing her father again, Susan runs away, trying to make her way back to Rushiebanks. She is rescued by a swan, the one her father saved, now grown large and strong, and lives with the swans until he returns.

I’ve given away the ending, but you knew it would end happily. The delight is in the details and in the drawings by the author, some in color. Barker perfectly captures the timeless voice of a young girl. Here is a short passage from Susan’s flight from the city:

It was still the dark night; but in one house a dim light burned in an upstairs window. It gave her a feeling of company; it might be the night-light of a little girl like herself. She crept into a corner of the creeper-covered porch, and rested there.

I was lucky to find a used copy of this lovely book and will treasure it and share it with the young people in my life. I’m grateful to Juliet Marillier for introducing me to it.

One of the benefits of the Writer Unboxed site is that people leave comments on every post. I culled more ideas from other people’s comments on Juliet’s post. Here are the keeper books that I posted in my comment:

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The Diamond in the Window, by Jane Langton. As a child I didn’t realise that this tale of magic and danger was based on aspects of Transcendentalist philosophy. I simply loved it, and the images in it are still touchstones for me.

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The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett inspired a lifelong love of gardening and Yorkshire. I walked the Dales Way this summer.

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The Scent of Water, by Elizabeth Goudge. I first read this as a teen and, on re-encountering it later, realised how much it had influenced my personal philosophy, my beliefs, and my view of the world and relationships.

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Parzival, by Wolfram von Eschenbach. Innocence, quests, and honor: this book took my childhood love of King Arthur stories into adulthood.

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The Hobbit & Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkein. One rarely mentioned aspect of these books is their maps and songs and barely remembered histories, which gave me a love of scholarship that has carried me through formal schooling and beyond.

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Birds of Paradise, by Paul Scott. This early novel by the author of the Raj Quartet resonated so deeply with me that I come back to it again and again. A coming of age story, it makes me consider the unreliability of childhood memory and the place of Arthurian honor and glory in today’s world.

What are some of your keeper books?

The Door, by Magda Szabó

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I have been thinking a lot about doors this week, what doors are closing, what doors are opening. It is a time of great change for me personally, for my country, for the world.

Szabó’s brilliant novel opens with a recurring nightmare of desperately trying to force a door open; there is someone inside who needs saving. Yet she cannot even call for help; she has no voice.

The narrator of this first-person story is a Hungarian writer, also named Magda. She and her husband, also a writer, have no children, indeed no family, for Magda’s mother has recently died. After 10 years, the government has finally lifted its restrictions on Magda’s writing and, overwhelmed with opportunities, Magda decides to hire a housekeeper. Thus, Emerence enters their lives.

A sturdy older woman, Emerence takes control of the interview, announcing that she will decide whether to work for them, rather than the other way around. With great physical strength and an unrivalled understanding of how the world works, she performs herculean tasks to maintain the apartment building where she lives, clearing the snow for 11 buildings, providing meals for the sick, finding homes for stray animals, and the many other duties she has assumed.

Emerence is proud of her role as the bulwark of the neighborhood. She is the one they turn to with their problems, holding court on her front porch with strong tea or coffee. However, no one is allowed inside her apartment, which Magda calls the Forbidden City. This is only one of many mysteries about this remarkable woman. Did she steal the valuables Jewish neighbors had to leave behind when they were rounded up during the war? Did she kill a man and bury him in the back yard? Who is the young woman whose arrival she anxiously awaits?

Magda and Emerence frequently clash, more and more violently as they grow closer. Emerence has a laborer’s contempt for the idea that tapping on a typewriter could be considered work. She disapproves of Magda’s faith and criticises her when she attends church services. In her turn, Magda dismisses many of Emerence’s gifts as not being up to her standards and resents the way Emerence has appropriated the love and obedience of Magda’s dog.

Miscommunications and misunderstandings plague the relationship. In one hilarious scene, Magda takes Emerence to where a film is being shot, thinking to give her a treat. Upon learning that there are machines making the tree branches dance during a passionate love scene, Magda is disgusted and accuses Magda and the other filmmakers of being liars and cheats. Magda asks her, “‘Don’t you think it’s a function of art to create the illusion of reality?’” Emerence’s response changes how Magda understands her own art.

“Art . . . If that’s what you were—artists—then everything would be real, even the dance, because you would know how to make the leaves move to your words, not to a wind machine or whatever it was.”

Neither woman is spared in this brutal, yet subtle work. Every page reveals Szabó’s profound understanding of human behavior and motivations. I am grateful for the work of translators like Len Rix and publishers like New York Review Books for enabling me to read novels from other countries such as this one.

The book works on many levels. Some have seen it as old Hungary versus new Hungary or peasant versus educated elite. Perhaps it traces the difference between art and physical labor. In the end, though, it is a story about how difficult it is to love someone, and how necessary.

Have you read a book translated from another language? What did you think of it?