Prisoners, escapades and histories: my #10booksofsummer.

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This week I’ve finished three more books from the ten I chose for the reading challenge set by Cathy, at 746 books, Chinua Achebe’s, Things Fall Apart, Coraline by Neil Gaiman and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain.

I’ve little to say about Coraline. It’s a competent novel, but I don’t think it would have appealed to me as a child. There were nice moments, and it wasn’t a struggle. Other reviewers have been positive and Henry Selick made it into a film, in 2009. I just didn’t feel any magic.

Huckleberry Finn, on the other hand, grabbed me by the heart and pulled me into his story. I wished I’d read it when I was young. Though I probably would have missed some of the humour.

That book was made by Mr Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mostly.

I loved every moment until Tom Sawyer came back in and took over. Why, of why did Twain do that? Oh, I know it made commercial sense, and that he thought of Huck as a spin off from the highly successful Tom Sawyer, but I so much preferred honest Huck. As, I’m sure, the long suffering Jim must have, too.

I’ve passed Huckleberry to my fourteen year-old nephew, to while-away the hours of a long journey. I’m looking forward to finding out if it works for him, too.

It’s a good job Tom Sawyer is not part of this challenge. I’m not sure I can face him, yet.

I first heard about Chinua Achebe’s, Things Fall Apart on the BBC Radio 4 book show, A Good Read, in 2013. I bought a copy, but it stayed on my TBR shelf.

Then last year, it won the Cheltenham Booker 1958 debate. As Claire and I drove home, I said, ‘I’ve got to read that novel, now.’ But somehow, the time has never been right.

When I gathered books for this challenge, Things Fall Apart was the first I decided on. So I was sorry when I couldn’t engage with Okonkwo, the main character. It’s what I expect to do when the opening paragraph seems to offer a hero.

Okonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond. His fame rested on solid personal achievements. As a young man of eighteen he had brought honour to his village by throwing Amalinze the Cat. Amalinze was the great wrestler who for seven years was unbeaten…

There’s a lovely description of the wrestling match. But, as soon as Okonkwo has won the story jumps forwards, ‘That was many years ago, twenty or more...’ Now, Okonkwo has a ‘severe look‘, and he walks ‘as if he was going to pounce on somebody. And he did pounce on people quite often.‘ In case, like me, you thought that sounded a little playful, the next aspect of this character portrait reverses that:

He had a slight stammer and whenever he was angry and could not get his words out quickly enough, he would use his fists. He had no patience with unsuccessful men.

There are no parallel descriptions of how he behaves when happy. Instead, it is clear that Okonkwo is a repressed and repressive character, who doesn’t allow even his family to get close. If they couldn’t, then why should I be allowed to do so?

The narrator did his best, providing me with influences and events that could explain Okonkwo. ‘Fortunately, among these people a man was judged according to his worth and not according to the worth of his father.‘ Respect, then is his goal, and we’ve already been shown that to earn that, he must be, ‘a man of action, a man of war. Unlike his father...’

I could understand, but I struggled to empathise. ‘Okonkwo ruled his household with a heavy hand. His wives, especially the youngest, lived in perpetual fear of his fiery temper, and so did his little children.‘ My sympathies were with them, fleeting though the glimpses of individuals were.

Yet, I read on. I began to think about why that was.

Every detail counts. It feeds the story. Okonkwo’s father, Unoka, reclines ‘on a mud bed in his hut playing on his flute.’ He’s a lazy man, ‘a failure‘ with huge debts. Okonkwo, on the other hand, ‘stretched himself on his bamboo bed‘. It’s night-time when he goes to rest.

Domestic detail is threaded through the dialogue and action without explanation. Gourds were filled with palm-wine when Unoka ‘made merry‘; a kola nut disc was broken and shared by two men beginning a discussion; prayers were said and the talk was of yam growing, or the threat of heavy rain. Wives kept to their own huts in the compound, cooking meals and raising their children. I was not a stranger being shown something unusual, I was taking part in something ordinary.

I became involved in the domestic, social and spiritual realities of Okonkwo’s community. I had a place in the village. I shared the struggles and dangers, the everyday routines and expectations.

That’s clever. Achebe has taken the advice to ‘show, not tell’ to another level.This is a fine and powerful story. It cut through what I thought I knew about history and civilisation.

I’m not in a physical prison, but the tribute from Nelson Mandela, quoted on the cover, made me think about how complacent-thinking can fence us in. He said, ‘The writer in whose company the prison walls fell down.

A lot of ‘things‘ have been shaken, for me. I don’t say anything will ‘fall apart‘, but it’s good to be able to turn a story round and think again about the values of what has been lost.

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Reading Akunin and Pratchett for the #10BooksofSummer challenge.

Putting Boris Akunin with Terry Pratchett feels like the clue to a cryptic crossword, or perhaps a literary riddle. They’re novels five and six from my Ten-Books-of-Summer challenge and, on first sight, an unlikely pairing. Not that I read them together, but the second did follow close-on-the-heels of the first. Given the way the month is slipping by, I felt I needed to make more effort with my reading schedule.

Let me start by being shallow. What drew me to Pelagia and The White Bulldog was the cover. I liked the colours, and the firm lines, as well as the details. It suggested setting and period. I’ve been caught out before by inaccurate book covers, but in this case, my instinct was true. Every detail is relevant, though I didn’t understand quite how cleverly D. Rink had interpreted the story until I’d finished the novel.

As an aside, here’s a hint for any publishers who might stumble across this post: there’s more than one advantage in employing an artist rather than trawling through out-of-copyright images for something that’s vaguely appropriate.

The story opens in medias res (that’s the technical term for ‘in the midst of things’) with a long sentence. I know there’s a lot of valuable advice out there about brevity and simplicity. I agree with it. I’ll go further – I try to abide by it, especially on my blog.

But occasionally, I stumble across a piece of writing that demonstrates how to break that rule. I didn’t itch to un-cap my red-correction pen when I read this opening sentence:

…But I should tell you that, come the apple festival of Transfiguration Day, when the sky begins to change from summer to autumn, it is the usual thing for our town to be overrun by a genuine plague of cicadas, so that by night, much as you might wish to sleep, you can never do it, what with all that interminable trilling on all sides, and the stars hanging way down low over your head, and especially with the moon dangling there only just above the tops of the bell-towers, for all the world like one of our renowned ‘smetna’ variety apples, the ones that the local merchants supply to the royal court and even take to the shows in Europe.

I hadn’t even realised just how long it was, until I started copying it out.

To have interrupted this flow with stronger punctuation would have broken the lyrical dream I was entering. The world presented is a different continent and historical period to mine, but the delivery draws me in.

The narrator is close beside us, ‘I should tell you...’ It’s confidential. He trusts us to understand and share his view. ‘You‘, he says, again and again. I do feel that this is a male voice, though I’m not sure why. A male author doesn’t have to signify a male narrator.

There are references to Sherlock Holmes and, apparently, Akunin was influenced by Umberto Eco’s, The Name of the Rose. This novel, however, feels like magical realism, though the set-up is quirky rather than fantastical. Sister Pelagia, a nun, is sent by His Grace Mitrofanii, Bishop of Zavolzhie, to discover who is trying to ‘murder’ his aunt’s valuable white bulldogs. As she investigates this crime, Pelagia stumbles across a whole host of additional situations.

This is a book that deserves careful reading. What can seem like inconsequential rambles into back-story will be key to the resolution. At its heart, this is a traditionally styled crime novel, with neatly deployed smoke and mirrors.

The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents also uses a range of clever miss-directions. Maurice, a talking cat with questionable moral values, leads a clan of talking rats and a ‘stupid looking kid‘ who plays the flute. They’re travelling from town to town pulling a tremendous Pied Piper scam.

But, the rats, who used to live on the rubbish heap at the back of the University for Wizards, have begun to struggle with their recently acquired senses of individual identity. In doing so, they force Maurice, and us, to share their examination of actions and attitudes, and enter into philosophical and ethical avenues of debate.

The older clan member, Hamnpork, would rather ‘the Change‘ hadn’t happened. He thinks that ‘setting fire to a candle is a waste of perfectly good food.’

Dangerous Beans, though, was born after ‘the Change‘ happened. He is clear about why candles should be burned rather than eaten.

‘We have to be able to control the fire, sir,’ said Dangerous Beans calmly. ‘With the flame we make a statement to the darkness. We say: we are separate. We say: we are not just rats. We say: we are The Clan.’

It’s a pacey, character driven story. For those who care to look, it’s threaded through with satirical observations. Cultural myths about plague and rats are central. In the Author’s Note, at the end of the novel, Pratchett says:

I have read, in the past few months, more about rats than is good for me. Most of the true stuff… is so unbelievable that I didn’t include it in case readers thought I’d made it up.

There’s more than biological detail, though. He visits the Pied Piper, Dick Wittington, Puss-in-boots, Alice in Wonderland, Enid Blyton’s Famous Five, plus Beatrix Potter and the legion of anthropomorphic story-writers who followed her.

As for James Herbert – remember his horror story about a pack of mutant rats that threaten human life? Pratchett turns that upsides-down. His rat-Clan have eaten the discarded ‘dribbly candle ends‘ and ‘green bubbly stuff‘ that are thrown so carelessly on the tip the rats knew as both ‘home‘ and ‘lunch‘. The result is the evolution of an heroic Clan, as keen as Sister Pelagia to think carefully about doing the right thing.

Improbable or not, the pairing of these two novels began to seem like a happy accident, with a lot of valuable writing practice in common.

Six degrees of Separation – The Wild Card – leads me to book four of my 10 books of summer.

Ah, card games. Kate, at booksaremyfavouriteandbest, might have had me in mind when she titled this months six degrees as a Wild Card. I love cards so much I’ve uninstalled the virtual games from my phone and laptop.

As a teenager, my favourite game was cheat. I don’t remember much about the rules. It was fun, and required devious strategies.

The six degrees wild-card starts a chain from the title we finished with last month. Since I chose to follow short stories then, I’m continuing that format, beginning with Slog’s Dad, by David Almond.

Davie, the worldly-wise friend of Slog, describes what happens one spring day, six months after Slog’s dad died.

We were crossing the square to Myers pork shop. Slog stopped dead in his tracks.

“What’s up?” I said.

He nodded across the square.

“Look,” he said.

“Look at what?”

“It’s me dad,” he whispered.

“Your dad?”

“Aye.”

I just looked at him.

“That bloke there,” he said.

“What bloke where?”

“Him on the bench. Him with the cap on. Him with the stick.”

Davie’s not falling for that. The ‘bloke‘ is scruffy, ‘like he was poor, or like he’s been on a very long journey.’

“He looks a bit different,” said Slog. “But that’s just cos he’s been…”

“Transfigured,” said the bloke.

“Aye,” said Slog. “Transfigured.

It’s a 2,550 word story. It doesn’t take long to read, but my goodness it lingers.

Ghosts, is a short story by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie that also deals with attitudes and ideas about death, love and beliefs. Adichie’s collection, The Thing Around Your Neck, is the fourth of my 10 books of summer challenge.

Ghosts, is set in Nigeria, where a retired mathematics professor meets a man he believed had been killed in the Biafran war of 1967.

Perhaps I should have bent down, grabbed a handful of sand, and thrown it at him, in the way my people do to make sure a person is not a ghost.

From the first page, I was reminded of, No One Writes to The Colonel, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Not just because both stories feature professional men who have spent years waiting for their pensions, these are both so much more than that. They’re immersive experiences. There are unpredictable revelations, shifts in emotions, life-details, cultural references and examinations of loss and love.

For my fourth link, I’m thinking about letters. I return to Adichie’s collection, The Thing Around Your Neck. The title story is a second-person narration, in which ‘you‘ are unable to write home about your experiences in America, because it falls so far below the expectations of ‘your’ family.

You thought everybody in America had a car and a gun; your uncles and aunts and cousins thought so, too. Right after you won the American visa lottery, they told you: In a month, you will have a big car. Soon, a big house. But don’t buy a gun like those Americans.

I may not be American, but I imagine a similar story written from the perspective of someone coming to live in Britain and feel goosebumps. It’s challenging, even frightening, to see how a stranger views our every-day lives.

An American pushes friendship on ‘you‘, the Nigerian waitress at a small cafe.

He came in the third day and began talking before he ordered, about how he had visited Bombay and now wanted to visit Lagos, to see how real people lived, like in the shantytowns, because he never did any of the silly tourist stuff when he was abroad.

Issues of connection and belonging and exploitation are explored in most of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s stories. In, Jumping Monkey Hill, Ujunwa is at an African Writers Workshop, outside Cape Town.

…the resort had the complacence of the well-fed about it, the kind of place where she imagined affluent foreign tourists would dart around taking pictures of lizards and then return home still mostly unaware that there were more black people than red-capped lizards in South Africa.

The account of her week includes fragments of the story Ujunwa writes, and summaries of some of the stories the other writers produce. The actions and comments of the workshop leader, and his wife, draw attention to ideas not only about what truth is, but who has the right to demand it, or decide what it is.

The next day at breakfast, Isabel…said that surely, with that exquisite bone structure, Ujunwa had come from Nigerian royal stock. The first thing that came to Ujunwa’s mind was to ask if Isabel ever needed royal blood to explain the good looks of friends back in London. She did not ask that but instead said – because she could not resist – that she was indeed a princess…

I loved the way the role of story and story-teller was examined.

My last link is another story about telling stories from the same collection. The Headstrong Historian, highlights the way political and economic decisions impact on the individual.

… Ayaju told a story of two people who took a land case to the white men’s court; the first man was lying but could speak the white men’s language, while the second man, the rightful owner of the land, could not, and so he lost his case, was beaten and locked up and ordered to give up his land.

It’s another story that kept me guessing. Is the Headstrong Historian of the title Nwamgba, who chooses her own husband, then schemes to ensure that her only son will survive and thrive? Maybe it is her granddaughter, Afamefuna.

Nwamgba… was thrilled by the child’s solemn interest in her poetry and her stories…

Alternately, does the title refer to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. After all, she’s led me to question not just what I know of the history of Nigeria and Nigerians, but also of the shape and history of western democracy. That’s something it’s all too easy to view complacently, from the comfortable inside.

The aim of the card game, Cheat, was to shed as many cards as possible, without anyone noticing you were giving more than you claimed. My chain of short stories only uses three authors, but includes the fourth of my 10 books of summer reviews. Maybe that breaks the six-degrees rules. I hope not. I’m thinking of this as multi-tasking…

Card Sharp, by 1636-1638 by Georges de La Tour,

Pastors and Masters, & The Guest Cat – two from my #10booksofsummer list

In case my title has you saying, ‘hashtag what?’ I’ll quickly remind you that back at the beginning of June, I volunteered to join the summer reading challenge set by 746 Books.

Still lost? Here’s the recap: I listed 10 books I intended to read, and review, before September 3rd. So far, I’ve completed one.

I know, I’m woefully behind. I’ve got six more Mondays between now and the end of the challenge, and next week I’m planning to do the Six Degrees one, instead. So even my dodgy maths confirms I’ve got to do some doubling-up, if I’m going to fit nine books into five posts.

Hence, this week, Ivy Compton-Burnett gets paired with Takashi Hiraide. The combination results in a title that seems to me suitable for an intriguing leap into magical realism. Perhaps I could have read alternated chapters from each. It’s a fleeting thought, probably indicative of hysteria. I have come through the other side of the combined 238 pages feeling a little disorientated.

I began in the suburb’s of Tokyo, in the late 1980s. My unnamed narrator led me quietly around the home he and his wife rented, explaining in great detail what it looked and felt like, and how they came to live there. I learn a lot about them and their lives, even before Chibi, the cat of the title, appeared.

This is a gently paced, reflective tale. When I checked up on the author, I was not surprised to find that Takashi Hiraide is a poet. The shaping of the story, the attention to detail, the presentation of key images seemed to lead me into areas of quiet contemplation. Even the opening, a description of a window in their kitchen, intrigued.

The small window in the corner of our kitchen bordered on a tall wooden fence, so close a person could barely pass by. From inside the house, its frosted glass looked like a dim movie screen. There was a small knothole in the wooden fence and the green of the bamboo hedge – which was about ten feet wide, to the north of the alley – was always projected on to the crude screen. Whenever someone walked by in the narrow alleyway, a figure formed, filling the entire window. Viewed from the dark interior of the house, sunny days seemed ever more vivid, and working perhaps on the same principle as a camera obscura, the figures of people walking past were turned upside down.

That window, it seemed to me, was the key to the way the narrator presented his world. There were backstories, digressions, contemplations and forward movement. It was one of the most relaxing and yet entertaining reads I’ve ever had. I read slowly, savouring the scenes.

What slowed me up with Pastors and Masters, on the other hand, was the need to concentrate. With hardly any description at all, and no scene-setting hints, I had to pick up my clues from a series of sharply observed dialogues between a challengingly large cast of characters for a small book.

It opens with a tirade that sets a pace, tone and style that never relents.

‘Well, this is a nice thing! A nice thing this school-mastering! Up at seven, and in a room with a black fire…I should have thought it might have occurred to one out of forty boys to poke it…’

The school remains unnamed, and so does the English university town. I finally pinned the period down during the dinner party that concludes the novel.

‘Well, we were certainly classed by the state with paupers and idiots and children, before we had the vote,’ said Miss Basden. ‘I mean we women were.’

Women in England who were householders, and over the age of 30, got the vote in 1918. But I got closer than that when a little later Miss Basden says:

‘I think these changes in the divorce laws will do a great deal towards equalising the position of women’…

I looked that one up and found The Matrimonial Causes Act of 1923. The novel was published in 1925.

I enjoyed the repartee, though after getting lost twice in the first chapter, I wrote myself a character list. I was still using it at the end of the book for the dinner party.

How glad I was only to be an observer at that feast. It was littered with snide asides, direct and indirect personal verbal attacks. Whoever repeats that old saying about sticks and stones should check out the interplay between these characters. Part of the power of their exchanges is created by the absence of authorial comment or explanation.

Compton-Burnett has been described as dangerous. She’s been compared to Oscar Wilde, Dorothy Parker and Pinter. I’m inclined to agree. Maybe I’ll track down another of her novels and see how they compare. But when I do, I’ll set myself a gap from any other kind of reading.

Tom Hanks, short stories.

This week I’ve been reading the seventeen stories in Uncommon Type, by Tom Hanks. I’ve been curious about what kind of writer he might be ever since reading a selection of the mixed reviews he picked up when it was published in 2017. Obviously, not curious enough, because I didn’t buy it. But a couple of weeks ago Mike offered to lend me his copy.

I’ve just finished it, so this is my mixed review:

Top of my likes is Alan Bean Plus Four. It was published in The New Yorker in 2014, and you can still read it online. It begins:

Travelling to the moon was way less complicated this year than it was back in 1969, as the four of us proved, not that anyone gives a whoop. 

The Starry Night, 1889, Vincent van Gogh

The style is light, the concept is fun, and there’s enough confidence about the technical details to convince me that in some Heath-Robinson manner, the narrator, Steve, MDash and Anna do construct a rocket, in the narrator’s back-yard.

We’d have no Mission Control to boss us around, so I ripped out all the Comm. I replaced every bolt, screw, hinge, clip, and connector with duct tape (three bucks a roll at Home Depot). 

I like science fiction, and I like absurd. I also like economy – it’s not just the thriftyness of the duct tape I’m referring to, this story wasted no words on backstory. I wonder if one of the reasons for that was because it picked up characters from an earlier story, Three Exhausting Weeks.

This was the opening story. I liked the characters, once I’d got into the story, but I found it a slow, slightly confusing, start.

Day 1

Anna said there was only one place to find a meaningful gift for MDash – the Antique Warehouse, not so much a place for old treasures as a permanent swap meet in what used to be the Lux Theatre.

MDash, it turns out is Mohammed Dayax-Abdo, who is ‘about to become a naturalized U.S. citizen…’ I’m still not clear about the definition of a ‘swap meet‘. I began to feel it wasn’t necessary to, which might suggest that segment could have been cut. However, the narration does reflect the narrator’s personality.

Understand that Anna and I have known each other since high school… We didn’t date, but hung out in the same crowd, and liked each other. After a few years of college, and a few more of taking care of my mom, I got my licence and pretended to make a living in real estate for a while.

He’s a chatty, laid-back, drifting kind of guy. He’s not daft, he’s been to college, remember. But not ambitious either, so I allowed for the odd sideways ramble.

Anna, on the other hand, has a ‘keen eye for the smallest of details and left no stones unturned, uninspected, unrecorded, or unreplaced if they needed replacing.’

By page three, I’d warmed to them both, and become intrigued by their contrasts. I wasn’t skipping past words, I’d tuned-in to the delivery style, and stayed with them for the full three weeks. The outcome wasn’t a surprise, but that’s fine. It felt true, and I was glad to have shared their journey.

With the third story about these four characters, Steve Wong is Perfect, I did skim lines and even paragraphs. Maybe it was just too much detail about bowling – though I didn’t have a problem with that when I watched The Big Labowski.

Top of my dislikes, were the four Hank Fiset stories. They were set out as newspaper feature pieces. Hank being a journalist who is struggling with modern life. Everything about them seemed cliched. One of them includes a section that Hank writes on his phone to demonstrate how predictive texting will affect the way he writes, surely that’s a very old joke, now.

I also failed to stay with Stay With Us, which is a short movie script. It opens with a complicated collage of scene-setting shots, and a montage of character names, some famous. Maybe, if it had been filmed, I’d be writing a rave review: on paper, I was soon confused and lost.

Overall, I did like the collection. The stories are not high-literature, but most of them have a clear dramatic arc, strong characterisation and include some lovely moments.

I thought the idea of using typewriters as a means to link the stories together was fun. In some it’s central, in others it’s a throw-away line. At times I forgot they were significant, even though they were central to the plot.

Will I be buying my own copy? Well no. Interesting as they were, and I am glad I’ve read them, I think once was enough.

Daphne du Maurier: truth and fiction.

I picked up Margaret Forster’s 1993 biography of Daphne du Maurier looking for a little background on My Cousin Rachel, nothing more. I quickly discovered that you can’t just drop into the middle of Daphne’s life and then walk away. Or rather, when you look up 1949 you’re faced with a lot of statements that imply a mass of missed backstory.

Ellen was rightly worried by Daphne’s increasingly distorted view of her life and tried to console and put an alternative, more attractive hypothesis forward. But what saved her friend was what had always saved and rescued her: the very work she saw as fatal to her human relationships. In Florence, Daphne had felt the first faint stirrings of a novel about a woman, a widow like Ellen, who would have many of Ellen’s characteristics and even look like her: the point of the novel would be that this woman was the source of great torment to others.

I’m nosy. I found the simple answers I’d hoped for, but they carried with them a lot more questions. Who was Ellen? What kind of torment was she to du Maurier? What did ‘distorted view‘ mean?

Here was a writer who’d been on my shelves since my young teenage. I can still remember being gripped by, The Loving Spirit. She’d rarely let me down. I particularly liked the strand of Gothic that threaded it’s way through so much of her long and short fiction.

Some of her books carried her photo. It was a rather lovely, kindly, face, I thought. Other publicity, of her sailing with her husband, or playing with her children, left me with an impression of a sun-lit, sea-bound, model family. For years, if I imagined her life at all, it was one of endless summers.

I know, how impossible is that? Still, it didn’t necessarily follow that the alternative would be anything significant, or ground shaking, did it?

How wrong I was. The story of du Maurier, according to Forster, is a very modern one. It includes a dominant father, a strong but distant mother, and questions about gender identity and sexual freedom. All of this is played out in the early years of the twentieth century, largely in London.

A biography written by a novelist might be expected to explore character, to look for the motivations and inciting incidents that lead to a career as a successful and prolific writer. I found myself caring about Daphne in the same way I cared about Rachel and Philip in, My Cousin Rachel.

There were moments when I pulled back from the biography and reminded myself that du Maurier was a real woman. Then I began to ask myself questions about her right to privacy.

Like any other narrator, Forster had chosen which scenes we would see, which fragment of diary or letter to share. If I was questioning the narrator in My Cousin Rachel, shouldn’t I also question Forster?

When I look again at my first quote, I have a perfect example of where my discomfort comes from. It’s the occasional inclusion of a word, like ‘rightly‘. Take it away and I feel less pushed.

Ellen was worried by Daphne’s increasingly distorted view of her life and tried to console and put an alternative, more attractive hypothesis forward.

I probably seem niggly. This kind of direction is so slight, it’s questionable whether there is an intention to direct. But then there’s:

It was as though she…

Or even:

The whole tone of her letters was one of outraged distress…

As in any biography, there are gaps in the evidence. Sometimes because du Maurier had written about the same event in contrasting ways, to different people, at others because nothing had been written at all, and yet other people had supplied details of actions.

This is the point at which hypothesis has to take over, however unsatisfactory…

I wish Forster had trusted me to draw my own conclusions. Worse, were the times when Forster insisted on summing up a situation after she’d presented the evidence.

If Daphne had been prepared to sacrifice Menabilly, she could have made a home in or near London for both of them, so that their marriage would have had a better chance of flourishing once more.

My favourite moment? It’s from a letter written by the senior editor to Victor Gollancz, about the manuscript of her novel, Rebecca.

…brilliantly creates a sense of atmosphere and suspense… I don’t know another author who imagines so hard all the time. …the spelling is quite incredible.

I take heart any time I find an author who has struggled with spelling, aside from the typos, mine seems to get worse and werse.

*Photo on header, of Fowey, Cornwall, by Alan Hearn

#6Degrees – Where the Wild Things Are.

This week I can’t resist taking up the 6 degrees of separation challenge, over at Booksaremyfavouriteandbest, where Kate has set Maurice Sendak’s 1963 children’s story as the starting point for creating a chain of 6 books. I’ve deviated somewhat from the brief. As the next thing that came to mind was a short story, I decided to make the whole of my chain from short, or shortish, fiction.

So, to start with Kate’s choice…

Where The Wild Things Are was not in our school library. If it had been, I’m sure I’d have read it. I stumbled across the opera-version one evening as I was browsing our (then) four or five tv channels – yes, that long ago.

Claire Booth as Max. Photo by Mark Berry

I’d been dabbling with opera for a time, and found plenty to interest and intrigue me, but this one stood out, even on a small screen in the family sitting room.

Since I’ve mentioned opera my next link has to be Angela Carter’s, Puss-in-Boots. It’s a monologue, by a cat called Figaro – yes, drawn in-part, from the Mozart opera.

If you’ve never read anything by Carter before this is a good starting place. It’s a comic, bawdy, naughty, quick-read that was turned into a BBC radio drama.

Puss, a posturing ginger tom, boasts of his ‘fine, musical voice‘.

All the windows in the square fly open when I break into impromptu song at the spectacle of the moon above Bergamo.  If the poor players in the square, the sullen rout of ragged trash that haunts the provinces, are rewarded with a hail of pennies when they set up their makeshift stage and start their raucous choruses, then how much more liberally do the citizens deluge me with pails of the freshest water, vegetables hardly spoiled and, occasionally, slippers, shoes and boots.

Well, that explains the boots.

Unappreciated musicality has to take me to Tania Hershman’s flash-fiction, Mother was an Upright Piano.

My Mother was an upright piano, spine erect, lid tightly closed, unplayable except by the maestro.  My father was not the maestro.  My father was the piano tuner: technically expert, he never made her sing.  It was someone else’s husband who turned her into a baby Grand.

This 400 word flash lead me to William Trevor’s, The Piano Tuner’s Wives. When Owen, the widowed, elderly, blind, piano tuner remarries, he chooses Belle, the woman he rejected as a young man.

Too late Belle realized that Violet had been the blind man’s vision; Violet had left her no room to breathe. One day, when Owen was describing a room as Violet had described it to him, Belle lied and said that it was quite different now. She did the same thing when he mentioned a female acquaintance or a neighborhood animal. Belle became more confident in wiping out Violet’s presence. Owen understood her feelings and allowed her her claims. He had given himself to two women; he hadn’t withdrawn himself from the first, and he didn’t from the second.

Blindness, and its effects, literal and metaphorical, are also explored in V.S. Pritchett’s 1968 story about a barrister, Mr Armitage, and Helen Johnson, his secretary-housekeeper, Blind Love.

 At their first interview ― he met her in the paneled hall: “You do realize, don’t you, that I am totally blind. I have been blind for more than twenty years,” he said. 

“Yes,” she said. “I was told by Dr. James.” She had been working for a doctor in London.

He held out his hand and she did not take it at once. It was not her habit to shake hands with people; now, as always, when she gave in she turned her head away. He held her hand for a long time and she knew he was feeling the bones. She had heard that the blind do this, and she took a breath as if to prevent her bones or her skin passing any knowledge of herself to him. But she could feel her dry hand coming to life and she drew it away. She was surprised that, at the touch, her nervousness had gone.

As the story opens, Helen has been his secretary and housekeeper for some years. But, the cool, professional, relationship they have maintained is about to shift. Suppressed secrets and emotions are stirring.

The Venus of Willendorf

In Hari Kunzru’s 2007 short story, Magda Mandela, Magda wakes her neighbours at 4.30 am, by shouting out the list of her accomplishments. Half naked, and smeared with oil, her emotions are raging and it seems that nothing is secret.

And all along the street we come to our windows to twitch the net curtains and face the awe-inspiring truth that is Magda in her lime-green thong. She’s standing on the top step, the lights of the house blazing behind her, a terrifying mash-up of the Venus of Willendorf and a Victoria’s Secret catalogue, making gestures with a beer can at the little knot of emergency-service personnel gathered on the pavement below.

One of the younger and less experienced constables has obviously asked her to accompany him to a place where, as an agent of the state, he will feel less exposed. A police station, perhaps. Or a hospital. Anywhere that will tip the odds a little in his favor. Magda has met this suggestion with the scorn it deserves. She knows that she outnumbers these fools. YOU KNOW ME, she says. Then, with a sinister leer, AND I KNOW YOU.

Can we ever know ourselves, let alone know someone else? That’s a big question, beautifully dealt with in David Almond’s 2007 story, Slog’s Dad. Slog’s dad is Joe, a binman, ‘a daft and canny soul‘ who develops a black spot on his toe. His leg has to be amputated. He seems to adapt to this, and so does his young son, Slog, but then a spot develops on his other toe.

Just a week later, the garden was empty. We saw Doctor Molly going in, then Father O’Mahoney, and just as dusk was coming on, Mr Blenkinsop, the undertaker.

The week after the funeral, I was heading out of the estate for school with Slog, and he told me, “Dad said he’s coming back.”

“Slogger, man,” I said.

“His last words to me. Watch for me in the spring, he said.”

“Slogger, man. It’s just cos he was…”

“What?”

I gritted my teeth.

“Dying, man!”

I didn’t mean to yell at him, but the traffic was thundering past us on the bypass. I got hold of his arm and we stopped.

“Bliddy dying,” I said more softly.

“Me Mam says that and all,” said Slog. “She says we’ll have to wait. But I cannot wait till I’m in Heaven, Davie. I want to see him here one more time.”

It’s another big, big, story, with a bit of everything that matters. Love and faith are pitted against a rational narrator with an armoury of common-sense. The story is subtle, simple and yet endlessly complicated and beautifully concise. Details that can be said to lead all in the same direction, are, in retrospect, also suggesting other possibilities.

Fisherman’s Friends

Okay, so I need to start by saying I’m about to discuss a film, not the famous cold cure lozenges, made up of liquorice, menthol and eucalyptus oil, and connected with a selection of risque jokes and puns.

The film, in case you’ve missed the publicity, was released in March. I missed it then, but there’s a lovely independent cinema just down the road, who cater for slow-off-the-mark viewers like me, and last week they put on two more showings. So mum and I finally caught up.

I hadn’t read any reviews, but I’d seen a trailer. It promised humour, sea, romance, broken promises and an underdog. The setting was Cornwall. I love Cornwall; listening to people harmonising, and rags to riches story-lines. Besides, there were some good actors in it.

Photo by Theroadislong – commons.wikimedia.org

I didn’t know anything about the Port Isaac singers. Every six months or so I re-tune my car radio and catch up on what’s happening with music. The Cornish choir must have happened while I was in a drama and current affairs mode. I’m catching up fast now, though, thanks to You Tube.

‘What I don’t understand,‘ says Jim, the leader of the group, ‘is why anyone would buy a record sung by ten hairy-arsed fishermen.’ Long before the end of the film, we’ve worked it out, and so have they.

This isn’t a tough film. There’s no blood, or car chases. It has highs, lows, lulls and squalls, but the plot isn’t twisty or challenging.

There were about forty of us in the audience. Most of us lingered to watch the end credits, and enjoy the singing, rather than rush for the exit. I think we were all grinning as we left the building.

I don’t want to call it a ‘warm’ film, because that suggests flimsy, but I’m finding it tricky to sum it up with another word. There were clear themes, particularly about community and values. But I think also, although none of us burst into song, by the end, I felt that I too had been part of something.

There is a scene, set in a pub in London, where the ‘ten hairy-arsed fishermen‘ demonstrate what a sea-shanty is. I’ve been humming Drunken Sailor ever since.

Photo by Rarb commons.wikimedia.org

Words, words, words.

Make a list of your obsessions, the writing exercise instructed. Keep adding to it, over the day, then put it in a drawer for a week. At the end of that week throw it away without looking at it, and write another list, that you will keep.

I had an old A4 envelope ready for the recycling bin. ‘Why not?’ I thought. Seeing them written down might help me to manage my time.

Now, my writing is quite large, when not confined to lines, so I’d like to make clear that filling the long edge of that envelope with bullet points shouldn’t be assumed to signify anything. A few hours later, though, as I found that even by reducing my writing font down several sizes, a last thought wouldn’t fit on the same side as the rest, I felt a qualm. Did I really do all of these things, regularly?

I read through them, looking for things to cull. Maybe I’d exaggerated. Were they really, all obsessions? What was an obsession, anyway?

I realised I wasn’t sure. A quick look at the Cambridge dictionary gave me two definitions. First, something or someone that you think about all the time. Well, clearly I didn’t, couldn’t, think about every item on my list all the time. If I did, nothing would ever get done, and I do have a life.

The second definition said it was, the control of one’s thoughts by a continuous, powerful idea or feeling, or the idea or feeling itself. If anything, that offered the potential to lengthen my list. But it was closer to the idea I’d had when I started, and maybe justifies the number of things I mull over as I go through my day.

I put the list aside, and forgot it, not for one week, but two. When I saw it again, I remembered that I wasn’t to read it, and dropped it in the bin.

I had five minutes to spare. I opened my notebook and wrote, ‘Obsessions‘ at the top of a page.

Oddly, the first word that came to me wasn’t a physical activity, it was described an emotion. I paused. My first list had been constructed from activities, for instance reading, and blogging. I wrote my word down, quickly, then added those two remembered ones.

Don’t rush it,’ the instructions had said. ‘Let the second list build naturally, over the next few days.’ That was easy, I was busy, in and out of the office, house and garden. I put the notebook away. I could remember most of what I’d originally written anyway. Days passed.

I must have been aware of it waiting, because at unexpected moments I’d come up with a word that needed to be added. It was never anything I’d written that first time round.

I kept reading back through this new list, wondering why I was reluctant to mirror my first version. I knew I could have, easily. By the end of the week that thought began to niggle, but I still had other things to do.

The sub-conscious is a wonderful tool. I woke up the next morning with a short phrase, and an idea. Completing things, I wrote.

Then I checked through the list again and confirmed my suspicions. The reason I’d not wanted to add my original list to this one was that it was already there, condensed under headings like, environment and work.

For years, I’ve been reading accounts of novelists who, on completing the first draft of their novel lock it in a drawer and start writing it again, from scratch. I could see the principle made sense, though I’ve never, until now, tried it. I think I’m likely to repeat this trick with my short prose.

I just wish I could remember where I found this exercise. I can’t. I noted the instructions on a scrap of paper, and even that has been lost.

* Paintings: top and bottom, by Kitagawa Utamaro. Middle one by Tori Kiyomitsu.

Journeys into fiction

When a friend loans me a book, I know it’s important. It’s not unusual for books to visit my house fleetingly, but generally they’re on a journey without a clear destination. They might land up at the charity shop or with another friend, and there’s no time-frame for when that happens.

I’ve several shelves carrying that kind of load. I can only rarely tell you where any of them came from, or how long they’ve been there. In fairy tale terms, they’re passive, Sleeping Beauties, waiting to be woken.

A loaned book needs to be a different kind of heroine. She’s got a purpose.

‘You really ought to read this,’ my friend says, drawing a paperback with an understated cover from her bag. ‘I think you’d find it interesting.’

I’m intrigued by the binding. It’s expensive looking, made from thick, textured, cream-coloured card. The title jumps out at me, The Murderess. Beneath it a ribbon of stylised drawings of a woman’s face, in crimson and grey, half in cross-hatched shadow, are repeated across the cover and onto the spine.

My friend tells me no more. I thank her, and open the book, wondering if it can be short stories.

It’s a translation of a novel first published in 1903. The author is Alexandros Papadiamandis – a new name to me, but a glance at his biographical notes tells me he is ‘one of Greece’s most important writers‘. If the first hook was a recommendation from someone who’s judgement I trust, the second is this offer of getting insight into the literature of another culture.

All these years I’ve been dipping in and out of Greek myths, and I’ve not really thought about what was written after them. Starting with a modern classic seems like another good reason to get on and read this.

I skip past the introduction, no tour guide necessary, thank you. I’m looking forward to sharing this journey with the narrator. I promise to come back later, though. It’s always interesting to share notes, afterwards.

She half-sat, half-lay beside the fireplace, her eyes shut and her head propped against the hearthstone, but Aunt Hadoula, often called Yannou or Frangissa, was not asleep. She had given up sleeping to watch beside the cradle of her little sick granddaughter. The baby’s mother, who had given birth less than forty days previously, had fallen asleep a short while ago on her low sagging bed.

A good narrator is a joy to travel with, even when the tale is dark. This one knows exactly how to draw me in. The story is neatly intersected with snippets of information about how life is on Skiathos, at a time when education is only just being offered to girls, and men are emigrating to America.

A Social Tale’, says the sub-title. Even when I was involved in what was happening, but especially in the gaps when I put the book down, I thought about the whole title. The first part foreshadowed every event. While reading, I was tense, wondering who would die, how, and when. At the same time, the story brought me back, again and again, to the way the described society was organised. It was local, personal, global and absorbing.

It was about how big questions impact on a personal level. It could be read simply as the first half of the title suggests, or it could lead the reader to think. It could make you look again at that cover, that line of cross-hatched faces, and wonder why they are repeated. Other copies have opted for different images. I like the subtlety of this one, by Nikos Akrivos.

This book will complete it’s own journey and get back to its owner in good time, not because I saved it from languishing on my TBR shelf, but because it more than delivered on its promise, and I made some unexpected discoveries along the way.