Nights at the Alexandra by William Trevor
This book was recommended to me by Don at Uncle Bardie’s Stories & Such. And I am very grateful. A few years ago, I read Trevor’s Love and Summer, which I thought was good but not quite enough to send me running to read more of his books.
The writing in this novella had me feeling like I was right there in 1950s rural Ireland, watching Harry watch the mysterious emigrant couple move into town, burning with curiosity. The woman takes a liking to Harry and asks him to carry out some simple tasks for her. The tasks slowly turn into lengthier visits with her at her home, and her husband also begins to take him under his wing. Harry enjoys spending time with them, but everyone wants him to spill the beans about the new-comers. Harry’s reserved nature serves him well. Now a 58-year-old man, he wistfully looks back on this time in his childhood, and tells us the story of Herr Messinger and his wife.
What I enjoyed most about the book was the description of Harry’s family life. His family sitting around the table, discussing the newcomers, trying to figure out who they were and where they came from. His father never wanting to be wrong, his mother correcting his brothers’ manners, his sister feeling resentful of her dull job at the timber yard, and his two grandmothers sitting there silently (they had not “addressed one another” since his parents’ wedding day!).
Best line: My mother’s tongue became sharp in anger: having suffered pain and inconvenience bringing four children into the world she demanded sensibleness in return.
The World More Full of Weeping by Robert J. Wiersema
Eleven-year-old Brian loves to play in the woods behind his house. But one day he doesn’t come home. His father, Jeff, calls in Search and Rescue, and while they wait, his neighbour reminds him of the time he got ‘lost’ in the woods when he was about the same age as Brian. Except Jeff has no memory of it. What is it that draws them into the forest? And will Brian eventually come out like his father before him, or will he be lost to the forest forever?
“It’s not how far you go… It’s how you look. All of this, these trees, these flowers, this place, it’s all here. It’s all right here. All forests are one forest, if you know how to look at them.”
This novella gave me goosebumps. It was the perfect one-sitting read for a snowy night by the fire.
Recommended to me by Buried in Print.
Also recommended: Before I Wake and Bedtime Story (both by Robert J. Wiersema)
Dear Sir, I Intend to Burn Your Book by Lawrence Hill
Less than a month after launching the Dutch edition of his novel, The Book of Negroes, Lawrence Hill received a letter from the Netherlands informing him that the “descendants of enslaved in the former Dutch colony Suriname” do not accept the title of his book and are going to burn it. In Dear Sir, I Intend to Burn Your Book, Lawrence Hill talks about his views on different perspectives, book burning, book banning, and racial terminology.
In the Introduction to this book, Ted Bishop gives us some background about Lawrence Hill and his work: at the time this book was published (2011), The Book of Negroes had sold more than 600,000 copies in Canada alone, “where sales of 5,000 constitute a bestseller”. He describes his work as something that “takes us into the complexity of race, with humour, sensitivity, and love. It doesn’t lecture; it dramatizes, immersing us into the situations of his characters, revealing to us our often-unexamined assumptions”.
It’s no wonder, then, that receiving this letter “deeply troubled” him – that a work to which he had “given five years of passion and attention and integrity should attract such a hateful act”. Hill goes on to explain, through anecdotes about his own family, why he and the people behind the letter “should have been on the same side of the issues”.
I don’t agree with those who burned my book. But I empathize with them. And that, and the troubling relationship we have with books that offend us deeply, is what I want to talk about.
On burning books…
There is something particularly odious about burning a book, or a pile of books. The action aims not just to remove the offending article from the hands of readers, but to silence and intimidate writers, publishers and booksellers. It suggests that they too will be burned if they do not heed the message. The act seems to say: “You will not be tolerated. Your ideas will not be discussed. We must protect society from your toxic mind, and so we are lighting this bonfire.”
On banning books…
We can hate them, dissect them, learn from them or praise them, but we need to leave books alone and let readers come to terms with them. We can teach young people to be aware and to be critical thinkers. But to believe that we can protect young people from the ideas in literature is self-delusional, in the extreme.
On violence and abuse in books….
Apparently, Palestinian and Israeli children are old enough to live through hell, but children in Canada are not old enough to read about it.
The purpose of literature…
The very purpose of literature is to enlighten, disturb, awaken and provoke. Literature should get us talking – even when we disagree. Literature should bring us into the same room – not over matches , but over coffee and conversation. It should inspire recognition of our mutual humanity. Together.
I came across this book after reading Lawrence Hill‘s Black Berry, Sweet Juice, a book that is part memoir and partly an exploration of racial identity in Canada, and one I highly recommend (review to come). I’m also a huge fan of The Book of Negroes, and while I knew about the controversy over its title, I wasn’t aware that it had been the subject of a book burning.
27 thoughts on “A Round-Up of Short Works: William Trevor, Robert J. Wiersema, and Lawrence Hill”
Delicious William Trevor quote! I’d not come across Dear Sir, I Intend to Burn Your Book – it sounds like an eloquent and thoughtful riposte to a letter that must have shocked the author deeply.
I found Lawrence Hill’s book just as fascinating as fiction, which is saying something!
The first two especially sound interesting.
And they’re quick!
Wow, I’m so intrigued by the Lawrence Hill. I’ve not yet read The Book of Negroes, but I mean to. Reading his words about burning books reminds me of a photograph I saw yesterday of what ISIS did to the library in Mosul, Iraq. On both large and small scales, there are still people everywhere who are deathly afraid of books and how they invite people to question authority and think for themselves, not to mention identify with “the other.”
His reaction to the letter was fascinating to read about, in my opinion. He even got a few chuckles out of me. And I highly recommend The Book of Negroes – it’s one of my favourites!
Well, now I know that I should really read something by William Trevor soon. His name has been popping up frequently over the past few weeks, in lots of odd places (not just Reading Ireland Month). 🙂 I’m happy to see that Hill’s Dear Sir is available here, and I’ve put it on my TBR. I still think about The Book of Negroes frequently, especially while reading Homegoing last month. And I find his comment about violence and abuse in books very poignant and so true.
I’m glad to hear you can get Dear Sir!
It must be a sign that you should read William Trevor – I didn’t even read this for Reading Ireland month – I think I read it (and wrote about it) back in October, and then it just sat around until now, waiting for a couple more short books to join it.
William Trevor was recommended to me ages ago, but as usual I haven’t managed to read any of his stuff yet, so thanks for this reminder! It’s odd, but when I was a girl, decades ago, negro was considered the polite, politically correct word to use. And yet now it causes book-burning. Sometimes I think the tyranny of words is out of hand – I think more attention should be paid to how words are used – with respect or not – than the words themselves…
Lawrence Hill touches on that a bit in the essay, actually. You might find that part interesting. His father also used to refer to himself as Negro, with pride. He really was truly shocked over the letter he received.
I’ve always been curious about ‘black berry sweet juice’, so I can’t wait for your review!
Hopefully it’s coming soon! It’s mostly done -I’m just waiting on something I want to include. It was excellent – I loved it!
Nights at the Alexandra sounds just my cup of tea. As you’ve probably gathered by now, I’m a sucker for ovens set in the 1950s, so I shall have to put it on my wish list. Thanks for the heads-up!
Great! I’m glad I could tempt you with one of these. They’re all quite different, now that I think about it…
Wow – that’s a super interesting story about Lawrence Hill (who I hadn’t heard of until now). Kind of want to dig into that a bit more. And – The World More Full of Weeping looks great!
I highly recommend Lawrence Hill – in particular “The Book of Negroes”, which is titled “Someone Knows My Name” in the U.S.!
I have been seeing William Trevor in posts both on blogs and IG lately. Maybe it is a sign to pick him up? The last title really shocked me, “Dear Sir, I intend to burn your book.’ The title reminds me of a recent event where many people are burning books to create an aesthetic for their photography portfolio. There were some strong oppositions to the incident.
I can imagine that the book burning caused some controversy!
It just occurred to me that you might be seeing William Trevor around right now because of his death not very long ago (I think in November).
That might be the reason Naomi.
Love that William Trevor quote.And even though I have not suffered all of her inconveniences, I think I’ll demand sensibleness even so (but hopefully without the sharp tongue).
So glad you were swept away by the Wiersema story. It’s defintely a satisfying single-read story. And you chose such a great passage! This one would be good for anyone taking part in Dewey’s Readathon later this month, in those wee hours when you think you can’t read anything else! (Are you?) There also are two other Canadian books which I think would make good companions for this one, one by James Grainger (sp?) and one by Stephen Marche, but I can’t think of either title right now. I’ve yet to get to their woodsy-ness myself.
The Lawrence Hill book has been on my TBR for awhile, so I am pleased to peek inside with your review. (The other books in that series, also skinny and quote-worthy, are always good, if you can find copies!) I saw this burning reported in a newspaper in Little Jamaica years ago and I was just shocked, both that it was news in Little Jamaica (but not in the national papers, at least not that I saw) and that people are still actually burning books today. On another note, I’ve been watching the mini-series of Book of Negroes and just loving it.
I love that quote about the mother – I don’t blame her one bit! But all the scenes that involved the family sitting around the dinner table were priceless.
I probably won’t be taking part in the Dewey Readathon – I find the more I try to read, the less I seem to get done. But the Wiersema would be a great choice. Now I’m curious about those others you’ve mentioned…
I would love to watch the mini-series sometime – so glad you’re loving it! I also need to get to the new Anne of Green Gables series. Hmm… I could fit that one in with the kids!
They rejected the title of Hill’s book so much they wanted to burn it? That’s pretty extreme. What is so terrible about the title? I think they should read the novel and judge it by that.
That’s what he was hoping they would do, too, but I believed they refused to read it under its current title. I can’t remember now, but the title might have been changed for the Dutch edition after the protest – I know there are two other titles in use now, but I don’t know all the countries they apply to; “Someone Knows My Name” and “Aminata”.
Big smile on my face. Love your review of William Trevor’s novella. It made me realize that novellas could be wonderful to read–and to write. Thank you for your review. And the quote.
I like to see that smile! And, yes, I agree – novellas are wonderful! I would love to read more of them!
Ooh I love the sound of The World More Full of Weeping – plus I’m.a sucker for a Yeats quote 😀 No surprise that I adore William Trevor. I’ve never read this one but it sounds really beautiful.
He gave it a good title, didn’t he? It’s almost irresistible!