Reading for a good cause.

If there’s one thing I suspect that all bookworms have experienced, it’s the shocked expressions of the uninitiated when they see our bookshelves. Then the question, ‘Why?’ is asked, in one form or another.

It was many years before I understood that most of the people who asked were not going to be convinced by any answer I could give. Sometimes, when I knew someone well, I’d turn the question round, and say, ‘Why don’t you?’ Just to share that sense of defeat.

Photo by Nightingale Art House on Pexels.com

The word hoarding has drifted back into focus in the UK this week. I’ve never thought of myself in that way, but I was brought up in a household where the well stocked pantries and larders of my parents and grandparents were considered, stores.

Often these were constructed seasonally. It began with things gathered from the garden and the hedgerows, and was supplemented with bought tinned and dried goods. Such activities were traditions, based on anecdotes, or experiences of: rationing, heavy weather, economic uncertainties… times when shopping would not be an option.

I’m reminded of that this week, as friends who are venturing into supermarkets report that shelves are once more being cleared of some stock. Need I mention toilet rolls?

I’m curious about the quantity of goods that count as a hoard. Perhaps there’s a specific number of tins or bottles beyond which we should not go. I can see how the extremes fit this, those pictures of bunkers with industrial shelving, for instance. But for the rest of us, how do we know whether our shelves are sensibly, rather than excessively stocked?

When it comes to books, I can hold my hand up and say I’m a story-hoarder, banking up food-for-the-mind for the future. There’s only one room in this house without bookshelves.

And then there’s my shed. I mean office, of course, and whoever heard of having an office that wasn’t designed around the tools for one’s trade?

Maybe, when we are again able to invite people in, and someone’s eyes widen as they look at my walls of books, they’ll understand them in the light of these times.

Meanwhile, my blogging friend Ann Burnett has drawn my attention to an interesting new way to buy books and donate money to a good cause, an on-line ‘auction of signed books and items donated by celebrated Authors and Illustrators from around the world‘ called ‘Children in Read. Proceeds go to the BBC charity, Children in Need. There are, as of Sunday morning 573 interesting lots to chose from, divided into 25 categories.

My book buying, over the last six months, has been based on tracking down specific titles, and my random reading from my TBRs has made a little space. So, it was good to browse a virtual bookshelf, and put on a bid or two. I got that lovely feeling that comes from mitigating having indulged myself by supporting a charity.

Am I a hoarder?’

Let me quote Miss Piggy, ‘Who, moi?’

On reading a short story by Anthony Doerr

This reading adventure began in A Corner of Cornwall, with Sandra, who said that although she wasn’t usually a reader of short stories, she’d found Anthony Doerr’s collection, The Shell Collector, ‘exquisite’. That’s the kind of recommendation that makes me seek out the nearest copy. In this case, luckily, at our local library.

I’ve met quite a few people who don’t read short stories.

‘Why not?’ I ask, preparing to pounce, to convert them. I will say, without modesty, that I’m quite good at that.

That claim is, of course, not entirely true. The people who’ve become converts to short forms of fiction because of me, have arrived in my short-story-appreciation-classes, so they must, at some level, have been prepared to be converted. I didn’t go out onto any street and convince anyone.

The truth is that winning people over is a matter of finding the right kind of story, and helping them to find the key, or perhaps I should say, ‘keys’. I do like fiction that can be peeled back in layers. Sometimes they’re simple seeming plots, like the third story in this collection, So Many Chances.

Dorotea San Juan, a fourteen year old in a brown cardigan.The Janitor’s daughter.Walks with her head down, wears cheap sneakers, never lipstick. Picks at salads during lunch. Tacks maps to her bedroom walls. Holds her breath when she gets nervous. Years of being the janitor’s daughter teach her to blend in, look down, be nobody. Who’s that? Nobody.

That’s a nice opening, a quick glance: a neatly summed up characterisation that says to me ‘event on the horizon’.

After all, one of the main rules for a story beginning is that we are at a moment of significant change. A character is about to shift from static to active. All my instincts tell me that Dorotea is about to go from nobody, from blending in, to… well, something. That title, So Many Chances, has to mean something.

It does. Dorotea’s father is about to swop jobs. He’s taking his wife and daughter away from Youngstown, Ohio, to a new opportunity in shipbuilding, in Harpswell, Maine.

That’s exactly what I need, I’m reading on, absorbing the doubts and anxieties of Dorotea and her mother, but all the same, I’m already anticipating a new school. I’m leaping ahead to this opportunity for Dorotea to be noticed. She’ll be able to recreate herself, be somebody.

Doerr’s writing carries me along, he’s so precise that even the most simple moves are elegantly presented.

Dorotea tells nobody and nobody asks. They leave on the last day of school. that afternoon. Like sneaking out of town.

Though there is one that defeats me.

Her mother sits stern and sleepless behind tracking wipers, lips curled above her chin like two rain-drowned earthworms, her small frame tensed as if bound in a hundred iron bands.

I’m still failing to visualise a mouth shaped like two rain-drowned earthworms. But that’s such a minor flaw, when there are so many other beautiful sentences to enjoy. As the journey progresses, and they move closer to the ocean, ‘Dorotea fidgets in her seat. The energy of a cagged fourteen-year-old piling up like marbles on a dinner plate.

I could keep quoting.This story is so beautifully written that there are a lot of moments I’d like you to share. If you’ve wondered how realism can be made to resonate, then this story is worth a look.

Be warned, other stories in The Shell Collector are not so firmly grounded. They have their own, different kind of beauty, that I also loved. To sum them up, I repeat Sandra’s assessment of this collection, and say, ‘exquisite’.

There are two more thing to say about my reading of So Many Chances. I’ve resisted the temptation to place before you stepping stones of incidents that will lead you through the events. I don’t want to risk spoiling what is a beautifully paced read, should you also decide to enter Dorotea’s life.

My final comment is about the finish, which I think is beautiful. Once I got there, the closing scene was obvious, it was the only one that made sense. But until that moment, I wasn’t sure how Doerr would, could or should draw the threads together.

Observation and isolation.

Have we become more observant since lockdown?

That’s one of the claims I keep hearing in the media. The evidence offered is that many of us have been getting a lot closer to the natural environment. In Britain, it is said, more people are going for walks, cycling and gardening than ever before.

The sudden loss of mechanical noises certainly allowed nature’s voice to be heard more clearly, and like many people, I’ve been fascinated to see the range of creatures reclaiming spaces they are usually pushed out of by crowds of humans. Internationally, my favourite photo, so far, has been a dolphin swimming into pristine waters in Venice. True or not, that image is now embedded in my mind. But the wonder of what’s on our own doorstep is not easily dismissed.

Ah, climate change, my favourite band-wagon. ‘Surely,’ hope says, ‘now that we’ve seen how quickly the damage we cause can be turned around, we’re going to make some changes.’ That was certainly the supposition of the interviewee on a radio programme, early in the week.

Meanwhile, this talk of our improved powers of observation has set me thinking. Some of my favourite pieces of poetry and prose depend on an adept use of detail.

Take Wuthering Heights, for instance. Emily Bronte conveys setting and climate in a sentence.

Pure bracing ventilation they must have up there at all times, indeed: one may guess the power of the north wind blowing over the edge, by the excessive slant of a few stunted firs at the end of the house; and by a range of gaunt thorns all stretching their limbs one way, as if craving alms of the sun.

Later, when Cathy is raving, she pulls feathers from her pillow and identifies the birds they came from: turkeys ducks, pigeons, moorcocks and lapwings. These are what are called ‘telling’ detail. They not only demonstrate the state of Cathy’s mind, they provide a glimpse back to her childhood. They link to a specific moment when she and Heathcliff were roaming the moors together.

Emily Bronte, I feel confident in asserting, didn’t just take note of her environment, she thought about it. We know that she, too, spent a lot of time walking.

You might say that she practiced isolation. How did that work? I think it provided thinking time, and that’s the other way I read this statement about our powers of observation. Many of us have been forced to stop rushing after a busy schedule, and maybe for the first time, have given extra time to noticing our home environment.

In Emily Bronte’s case, doing this resulted in a piece of fiction that has endured for one hundred and seventy two years. No pressure, of course, but I do like to think there will be more than one positive outcome from this strange moment we’re living through.

Re-booting my creativity #writingworkshop, #Dahliabooks, #Homeby10.

The temperature here dropped a few degrees in the last week of August, a reminder (or warning) that autumn is just around the corner. This time of year Ray, Rusty and I would normally be taking a week away somewhere. Since that’s out of the question, my thoughts have turned to classes (not my own, those plans are already shaping up nicely). I’ve been looking at what else is available.

Most years I spend a lot of time browsing lit-fest brochures, highlighting things that I know I won’t get to. Travel, time and accommodation always defeat me equally.

Not any more. The upside of the continuing restrictions on public meetings is that many events have moved on-line. It has finally dawned on me that I can go anywhere in this virtual country.

Saturday morning I found Short Story September organised by Farhana Shaikh of Dahlia Books, in Leicester. I’d missed the first session, but there was a masterclass on Imagery and Structure in Short Fiction with Farhana Khalique & Anita Goveas that afternoon. A few clicks later and I was booked on it.

From ten-to-three we began to gather in our virtual classroom. Introductions were made, a few ground-rules laid, and then we were off, reading samples of stories, thinking about them, and trying out ideas of our own. Ink flowed. We broke away into small groups and compared notes, then got back together and wrote more.

Both tutors bubbled with infectious enthusiasm. That’s energizing. They delivered an hour-long session each, which provided contrasting and complementary approaches to the subject.

At the finish, I had rough drafts for several stories. This is the physical evidence of a good writing session.

As after any well-designed workout, I realised I was tired, but not drained. I’d been encouraged to stretch, but not strain, my creativity.

Later, having drawn breath and reflected, I felt freshened. I love seeing the literary world through the prism of another writer’s viewpoint. In addition to that, I’d been introduced to some stories I might not have discovered on my own, and I had five pages of new story ideas. That’s what I call a useful session.