One of the things I’m planning to do this Summer

746 Books has set up a Summer Reading Challenge for 2019, that has sufficient flexibility to entice me. Starting from today, the 3rd June, readers can join the 20 Books of Summer challenge, and set themselves a number of books by September 3rd.

Okay, so resolutions wise, I’ve not got a good record. But, despite that title, 746 Books has generously promised to be flexible. Not only do we have the option to choose our own number, we can make changes to our list.

Ambition aside, I’ve decided to be realistic, so I’m halving the original and aiming to name 10 books for my summer read. That should clear a little space.

Which books to choose, though? The beauty of this challenge is in the planning. There may be time for a little random side-reading along the way, but the ten books need to be listed at the start. How else will I set a measure for my progress?

I’ve put some effort into working this out. I’ve looked at the lists other, better-prepared people have already posted, and I’ve made notes. Some are planning to go with a theme. Interesting, but I don’t think that will work for me. I like random.

Another tip I picked up on is to include some children’s or Young Adult books, to provide variety of tone and length. That does appeal. There are several books I missed reading at the appropriate age.

As I gathered some of them, I found other books that have been waiting. Soon I had a dangerously leaning tower of reading. I resisted the twenty, though, and reverse my gathering process. That took time, too. It was tough, but here are my final choices.

Here’s my list (so far):

  • Coraline by Neil Gaiman
  • Pastors and Masters by Ivy Compton-Burnett
  • Pelagia and the White Bulldog by Boris Akunin
  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain
  • The Thing Around your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche
  • The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide
  • Once Upon a Time in the North by Phillip Pullman
  • Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
  • Charlotte’s Web by EB White
  • The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents by Terry Pratchett

All I’ve got to do now is decide which order to read them in…

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Presenting the past, on the page.

Because I tend to live in the moment, I forget that everything moves on, that change is inevitable, until something happens to make me realise I’ve been left behind.  I’m not talking about technology here, though I’m always running to catch up with that.  This time, I’m thinking about how we use words.

Okay, so that’s pretty much what my job is.  Even when reading for relaxation, I find myself noting interesting phrasing. In particular, I love colloquialisms.

Growing up, I’m not sure I realised they existed.  When inviting friends round, I’d say, ‘We’re having Mary for tea.’ with no comic intention.  Maybe I was slow on the uptake, but it was years before I realised the correct reply to that was, ‘Roasted, boiled or fried?’

Oh, I knew that language had adapted, over time.  The books I inherited, a wide selection of old poetry, novels and plays, were sometimes waded through with more determination than enjoyment.

“When will your hounds be going out again think ye, Mr Benjamin?” inquired Samuel Strong, a country servant of all work, lately arrived at Hanley Cross, as they sat round the saddle-room fire of the “Dragon Inn” yard, in company with the persons hereafter enumerated, the day after the run described in the last chapter.”

The humour of Handley Cross, by RS Surtees was far beyond me.  It was not because the vocabulary was tricky, I understood most of the individual meanings, it was the syntax: the way the sentences were constructed.  I have kept the book, and will try it again, one day.

john-donne-hires-croppedThe love poems of John Donne, 1572 – 1631, on the other hand, I went back to time after time.  To read them was to be bathed in warmth.  These scenes involved me. Sometimes through the use of familiar imagery:

Busy old fool, unruly sun,
Why dost thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtains call on us?

Or because he described emotion with such power that I was drawn to the idea of it.  Passion oozed between his words, along with joy.  What a wonder his love was, more powerful than sunbeams:

I could eclipse and cloud them with a wink,
But that I would not lose her sight so long;

I found the language both archaic and invisible.  We’ve ditched the ‘how dost thou?’ form of address, but the sun still rises, and love still happens, in blinding all absorbing beautiful moments that eclipse the universe. Did he imagine his words would not only be quoted, three hundred and eighty-five years later, but retain their ability to melt the reader or listener? I doubt it.

The trick is, that the readers every writer addresses are those in their present. To do that, it pays to use language that fits them.  How many contemporary readers will be drawn in by a novel that begins:

My Lord of Tressain, his Majesty’s Seneschall of Dauphiny, sat at his ease, his purple doublet all undone, to yield greater freedom to his vast bulk, a yellow silken under-garment visible through the gap, as is visible the flesh of some fruit that, swollen with over-ripeness, has burst its skin.

st martin's summerYet in 1909, when Rafael Sabatini wrote St Martin’s Summer, this wordiness was the accepted mode.  His first chapter is littered with archaic words and phrases yonder, pish, quoth he, nevertheless and several people are ‘sent to the devil’, just in case we forget we’re in the seventeenth century. Today, we’re more likely to find this in parody.

Which isn’t such a bad thing.  If you look at parody from the other side, isn’t it a form of compliment?

What’s my point with this ramble? Well, it occurs to me that one of the things I look for, when redrafting, is falling back into that antiquated way with sentences. I know I’m not alone in this, because there is a specific term for this tendency: it’s called overwriting.

My theory?  It happens when I’m most self-conscious about the blankness of the page and thinking myself a writer.  What I should be doing is following John Donne’s lead, and immersing myself in the story I want to share.

An in-valid reading prescription

Okay, so I’m not asking for sympathy, but it was my turn for the lurgy this week.  Not flu, just some nasty, energy-sapping, head-clogging virus, that made me add logs to the fire and snuggle under a blanket sipping cup-a-soups and eating oranges.

The only way I know to speed along those kinds of miserable hours is reading, but it has to be the right book.  For the first day, to counteract shivers and headaches, I want something easy and comforting.

pixabay woman readingLondon, The Novel, by Edward Rutherford has been taking up a huge amount of space on my TBR (to-be-read) shelf for a long time now.  I flicked through the pages, a good size font, short-ish chapters and fairly thick pages.

The plus about heavy novels, when it’s possible I’ll fall into a feverish doze, is that there’s more space for my resting arm to mark my page.  Small books, I find, slip off my lap and Rusty, loyally and comfortingly curled up on my feet, isn’t keen on getting brained. That happened several times with my next choice, E.V. Thompson’s Chase the Wind, a 1982 Pan paperback, on day two.

Yes, I was speeding through them, despite my infectious state. The Thompson was a good read, but not a keeper.  By now I had a plan.  If I had energy to do nothing else, then I was going to tidy my bookshelves.

What next, though?  Not something classic, or challenging, nor anything I’ve looked out for especially.  It must be interesting though. I wanted entertainment, and there, half forgotten, was a biography of Rudolph Valentino.

Non-fiction, picked up on a whim, perfect.  A bit of history with a lot of Hollywood glamour, gossip and scandal, and it wasn’t a big book.

I romped through it in an afternoon, and without a second thought, dropped it into my discards bag. An unofficial biography of Richard Burton came next.  After that there was Jean Harlow, then Cary Grant.  Phew, I should be getting quite a good overview of Tinseltown, wouldn’t you think?

I like fiction because there I understand the rules about narrators.  In those biographies I got lost.

Often they seemed to be aiming for distance.  There are masses of dated events with long lists of accompanying names. This is a piece of solid research, that suggests, backed up by quotes from contemporaries of the subject.

Take George Burns, who claimed, “Gracie loved scandal.  I didn’t.  Those things didn’t interest me.  I’m not interested in anything that happened yesterday.” Good for him, said I.  Except, he was included precisely because he would dish the dirt: “I vividly recall… What are you going to do about Archie’s…homosexuality?…’

So now I’m lost.  Did Burns tell the truth, or spring some kind of joke?

Then, there’s Jean Harlow, who according to the CG biog ‘…died as a result of a clumsy abortion done by her mother with knitting needles…’ Horrifying, but I’d probably have accepted it if I hadn’t just finished reading a harrowing account of kidney damage caused by beatings from her first husband.

What’s a reader to do? I checked the internet. Harlow’s medical records, sealed until the late 1990s, say kidney failure as a result of scarlet fever caught in childhood.

If that’s not tricky enough, the impartiality would keep slipping.

Photographs of him at the time show a softer, rounder, less ruggedly masculine face than millions of women would soon respond to in motion pictures.  In some costumes, he even looked positively effeminate, as though he were aching to appear in drag.

Really?  ‘Aching’?  How can the authors know?

It’s been an interesting convalescence.  I’ve cleared space on my shelf for some of the heap of TBRs by my desk, and have decided that on the whole, I prefer the reality of fiction.

*image from pixabay.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder – research sources for writers.

I have a 1907 copy of the Harmsworth Self-Educator, volume 6.  It’s a battered old thing, that seems to have spent some time in places other than dry, safe, bookshelves. The cover is not so bad as the interior, which is not just stained, it has several damaged pages.

For non-fiction, I do appreciate a straight-forward title.  The Self-Educator is a collection of harmsworth-self-educatoressays exploring ‘life’ in Britain.  I don’t think it should be called an encyclopedia, because apart from not being in alphabetical order, these read like academic papers.  There are 29 groups of topics, dealing with the sciences; commercial activities; arts, crafts, languages and academic ideas and theories.

Who was it for?  I’m not sure.  It doesn’t seem child-friendly to me, but am I a good judge of what Edwardian children did, and liked?  I think of it as a paper forerunner to internet search engines, except that this one is all edited by one man…Arthur Mee (1875 – 1943).

It’s not a book I turn to regularly, but when I do, invariably I find something intriguing.  Do you know, for instance, how an Edwardian child should be dressed?  Dr A. T. Schofield can tell you:

There can be no doubt that a combination flannel undergarment is the most comfortable and healthy arrangement. The legs especially should be protected in this way, and not left bare, or with a single covering of cotton.  Over this, with girls, there should be a stout quilted bodice on which the lower garments can be buttoned, and then a plain dress over all.  The stockings, of course, are suspended.  A sailor costume is a capital one for girls, and very healthy.

unidentified-poss-claptonImagine getting strapped into that lot every morning.  No doubt such padding would have been useful in the winter, but Dr Schofield doesn’t offer a lighter selection for the summer.  Perhaps that’s why there are no smiles in this picture.

Children’s dress…should not leave any vital parts exposed.  Unfortunately, this is too often forgotten, and children are dressed in a fashion that their parents would not endure for a moment if applied to themselves.

photo-from-daily-mail-article-about-slum-childrenI wonder if he’s referring to the families struggling to survive?

It’s worth stating the obvious here, and remembering that in research, we should always find more than one source.  The clue to the Self Educator is in the title and sub-title.  It is an aspirational book, ‘A Golden Key to Success in Life’.  The only reference I’ve been able to track down about the original cost of the volume, was that one bookseller had marked it up for ten shillings and six pennies.

Given that in 1910 the Army and Navy Stores were selling a ‘maids’ dress for four shillings and one penny, and that an average income for a working class family would have been around twenty two shillings per week, it seems likely that only well-to-do households would have owned any of these volumes, let alone all eight.

However, Mr Mee does provide the kind of detail that makes me think that in a post-apocalyptic, google-less situation, these volumes might be useful.  In this copy alone are instructions on how to farm, build houses, make cheese, manufacture hats, weave cloth, lay out a sewerage system, run a bank, speak Esperanto, play a flute, sell postcards…  Is there anything else necessary to keep us safe, dry and entertained?

Actually, looking again at some of those stained pages, I wonder if this copy was kept in a workshop.  The worst damage does seem to be in some of the applied chemistry sections.

I feel a story forming.

 

The value of the diarist-travel-writer.

ruth-annies-safari-2My friends Ruth and Annie went on a trip-of-a-lifetime this summer, an African safari.  Lucky them.  Now though, lucky me too, because for the past month, I’ve been vicariously sharing their experiences via Ruth’s blog, silver anniversary safari.

This is definitely my preferred way to travel: no injections, waiting around in airport lounges or hours of sitting in a metal box being hurtled across the sky.   I jump straight into the heart of another culture when I open the latest instalment.

I’ll make a sweeping assertion that conveying the excitement and wonder of a place is the general aim for any travel-writer.  The key to this particular travel-log is the narrative voice: the choice of language, and stand-point.

Now let’s just take the last thing first, and clarify what I mean by ‘stand-point’.  I’m not talking about Ruth’s proximity to the animals, although at times, that was breathtakingly close. What I mean, and I’m sure you understood this, but I’d like to be precise, is how her thinking led her to interpret what she experienced.

What comes through strongly in these pieces is personality: there is humour, as well as wonder and fascination.  The way Ruth describes the people she meets, the incidental events she chooses and the things she sees, show us our narrator as well as providing a brief insight into the culture she is experiencing.

Perhaps it’s because I’m mid-way through tutoring my Writing Family History course, that I’m also thinking about the value of Ruth’s piece of writing for the future.  It is not just entertaining, it is a record of interactions with specific environments at this point in time.  Imagine, in the future, someone tracing their family tree and discovering not just the photographs of this trip, but alongside them, the story that sets them in context.

ruth-annies-safari

*Photos taken from Ruth Boardman Anniversary Safari.

 

Judging a book by its cover

I’ve just finished Barbara Pym’s novel, Quartet in Autumn.  I thought it would be useful to do some reading round a course that I’m going to be leading in October which will include another Barbara Pym book, Excellent Women.

b. pym novel coverFull marks for style and content to the author, five out of ten to the publisher who thought that the illustration by Pat Fogarty was suitable.  It’s a nice picture, but it inaccurately portrays the content of the novel.  True, it shows four middle-aged characters, and three of them do go into libraries at different points in the story, but never all four together.

Am I wrong to expect the cover to connect precisely with the content?  Obviously it doesn’t carry the same weight as a title created by the author, yet it does infect my reading.  Half-way through the novel I realised I was waiting for that scene.  The further I got into the story the less likely such a gathering place seemed.

It’s not much of a spoiler to tell you that the picture never does happen, and yet I gave it five out of ten.  That’s a high score for something I’ve just accused of misdirecting me.  Well, retrospectively, I see the value of the Fogarty cover over some of the others.

I’vebarbara pym novel been looking, and found some plain ones, and how about this patterned one?  Tasteful, I grant you, and it doesn’t in anyway impact on my plot expectations.

It reminds me of some wallpaper in my grandmother’s bedroom, and I can imagine picking up this novel to read.  Trust me, it says, to offer something domestic, elegant and tasteful.  Well, that’s true, up to a point.  But I like to be surprised  by a story, and this cover does not suggest the underlying darkness that Pym reveals.

barbara Pym

Then there’s this rather stylish, one.  Houses in the suburbs, and a distant church spire, are certainly part of the setting.  But why so much pink, and the clean straight lines? Perhaps the blank windows suggest that behind the order of the picture there are secrets…

It must be hard to design a cover to suit all readers.  It’s certainly tricky to come up with a perfect title.

And maybe I’m being too particular.  After all, what the Fogarty picture does get right, for me, is tone.  The four characters, formally dressed, carefully posed, set the period.  I like the distances between them, and the detail of their clothes.  They look real, and ordinary, and I want to know what they are talking about: what the painter is trying to tell me.  Add in the colours, especially that shimmering floor, and it does suggest, Quartet in Autumn.

Whatever my personal preferences are, each cover hooked me in a some way, and the diversity of those tones may well have tempted in readers who might never otherwise have picked up a Pym novel.

Imagine a row of us, sitting on the underground, each reading the same words, bound with contrasting covers.  I wonder what we look like?

 

 

The Oxford Book of English Short Stories

I’m sitting at the front of the class, with my notes and my presentation, throwing out leading questions on the two short stories we’ve read for our homework.  Sounds like school, but this is adult education.  We’re in the church hall, on a sunny Autumn morning, by choice.

DSCF8020My paperback copy of The Oxford Book of English Short Stories, edited by Antonia Byatt, is battered, but still holding together.  It’s a working copy, with a continually shifting fringe of post-its.  The terse notes on them have, here and there, strayed onto the pages.  You’ll have gathered that, as an object, this book is no longer a thing of beauty.

As a source book for a reading group though, this anthology is a joy.  The stories provide a taste of how short story ideas changed during the twentieth century, and they’re a challenge.

Half of my class, at least, are not sure about either of the two stories I set them to read for this discussion.  ‘He didn’t keep to the point,’ says Jean.  Several of the group nod, and Geoff adds that he’s not sure what’s going on with the ending.

You might wonder why people would choose to read stories that they don’t ‘get’: some kind of torture, perhaps?

Well, it is a stretching exercise, but I hope that’s for pleasure rather than feeling they’re on a rack.

The reason for choosing this anthology is that it contains a wide range of carefully constructed stories, each open to more than one interpretation.  Readers have to be active.  I like to think of us as detectives, gathering clues.

We’re never sure where any story will take us.   There are twists in tone and plot, and tricks in the language to be watched for.  We look for patterns. One person’s interpretation of what those clues mean is as valid as any other.  What happens in a reading group is that we sift through as many ideas as we can so that each of us can take away ideas that suit us.

The amazing thing is, although I’ve read the whole collection several times now, when I go back to them, they’re never quite the way I remember them.  Then I take them to a new group, and they always provide me with something I haven’t thought of.

Where do these understandings come from?  Our lives and experiences are reflected in our readings as well as our writings.

Isn’t that magical?  Imagine creating something able to achieve that kind of connection.    It’s no wonder my classes set my mind buzzing, and that I leave them feeling that I’ve come closer to discovering some of the secrets of story.

 

Fielding demonstrates how journeys can make a plot.

On Friday afternoon the reading group said goodbye to Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones.  The narrator has been a remarkably good host: fun, informative and welcoming. I’m feeling a little lost, a little disorientated, now that I’ve got both feet firmly planted in the present.

But I’ve learned a lot.  Putting aside the insights this novel has given about English History and life in the Eighteenth Century, Fielding’s management of cast and content was, to use a cliché, masterly.

For a reading group, there’s masses to think and talk about.  Writer’s might like to look at some of the techniques he employs.  I want to draw your attention to the way Tom’s journey provides structure.

brown_last_of_england- Ford Madox BrownRoad-stories are a tradition that can be traced back through literary history.  Think, The Odyssey, jump forward to  Don Quixote, and then further forward, Three men in a Boat, The Remains of the Day, or even more recently, The Hundred-Year-Old Who Climbed out of the Window and Disappeared.  And then there are the fantasy novels, just think about how many of those are based on journeys…

When characters have to move from one geographical location to another some of those important five Ws are instantly set in place:

  • Where from and to?
  • Why?
  • How?

Once you’ve set your character a reason for travelling, and a definite goal, you’ll need to figure out two more of those Ws: when & what will happen along the way?  The possibilities are endless.

And the great thing about journeys is that long or short fiction can put them to effective use.

IMG_0212

*Painting, The Last of England, by Ford Madox Brown

 

 

 

What is a writer?

This week, for a change in tone, I’m back to reading Graham Greene’s Ways of Escape, his collection of autobiographical essays that I was given at Christmas.  It was published in 1980.

In it, Greene begins by looking back to 1926, when he started to write the first of his novels that would get published.  If you’re wondering about the relevance of such a gap to our digital age, take a look at this extract from the first chapter.

What a long road it has been.  Half a century has passed since I wrote The Man Within, my first novel to find a publisher…Why has the opening line of that story stuck in my head when I have forgotten all the others I have written since?

Perhaps the reason I remember the scene so clearly is that for me it was the last throw of the dice in a game I had practically lost.  Two novels had been refused by every publisher I tried.  If this book failed too I was determined to abandon the stupid ambition of becoming a writer.  I would settle down to the safe and regular life of a sub-editor in Room 2 of The Times…It was a career as settled as the Civil Service…in the end there would be a pension and I would receive a clock with a plaque carrying my name.

Third time lucky then, or was it?  Persistence was required. This speaks of a strong drive to create.

Greene says that the very first novel he wrote, ‘…seemed to me at the time a piece of rich evocative writing…’  the second, I called…rather drably The Episode and that was all it proved to be.

He talks of his influences, of reading the great novelists and of studying the theory.  In Greene’s early years, Percy Lubbock’s 1921 literary criticism, The Craft of Fiction provided him with guidance.  This was the period before literary criticism took much interest in novels, so Lubbock’s investigation into ‘How [novels] are made’ was a key text for understanding writing techniques.

This has chimed with what I’ve been reading in the eighteenth century classic, Tom Jones, where Fielding explores ideas about what a novel is or should be.

I wish…that Homer could have known the rule prescribed by Horace, to introduce supernatural agents as seldom as possible.

This not only tells us about Fielding’s approach to writing, it reminds us that the idea of reflecting on writing goes back to ancient Greece.   Like artists in all of the other media, writers study not only their contemporaries, but also the works and thoughts of those who came before them.

I don’t know of a novel, story, play or poem that has no ancestors.  In my experience, the best reading is a result of the writer’s previous best readings.

There haven’t been many novelists who’ve discussed this so directly with the reader as Fielding does in the course of his fiction.  Generally the approach is similar to Greene’s, a separate collection of thoughts or essays about their writing.  The beauty of that is that it allows me to dip into a few paragraphs of non-fiction at a place of my choosing.  That may be while I’m midway through a chapter of a novel, or at the end of the whole.   You might say, that it allows me to make a buffet metaphor out of them…to fill my plate with a selection of ideas and apply different combinations of approach to my reading and my writing. IMG_0180

Well you have to allow a woman to make a small poetic flourish occasionally, haven’t you?

 

A fine sense of place: Henry Fielding.

With all this reading of classic novels and short stories I’ve been doing lately, I can’t help but be reminded how important literature is as source of social history.  I’m not just talking distant history, either.  It’s one thing to set out to write about the past, and consciously recreate a historical period, but I’ve been thinking about how sense of place works when we’re reading it in the future.

Illustration_from_Tom_Jones_LACMA_M_78_94_15

Illustration by Jan Punt 1750

For instance, Henry Fielding wrote Tom Jones, with the intention of making his contemporaries think…really think, about how their world worked, and how novels could be written.  How do I know this?  Each of the eighteen books begins with a chapter where Fielding sets us up for the coming events.

 

You could see these as being the equivalent of tv adverts: those fragments of scandal and adventure that tease us into tuning in for the next episode, or the new drama.  There is something of that happening in most of them.  However, their real purpose is to educate, to teach readers not to be passive consumers, but to think about the characters and their actions, to be judicious readers who will exercise judgement, for ,

…I am, in reality, the founder of a new province of writing, so I am at liberty to make what laws I please therein.

Here is a novel that broke established rules.  It skips over time, it reminds us continually that it is a work of fiction.  So many things we take for granted were fresh with this novel.

You can skip those first chapters.  Our narrator gives his permission at the end of his book-five essay.  He has, of course, first gone to a great deal of trouble to explain how drama and comedy need to be contrasted with their opposites, in order to gain their full comic or exciting aspect.  In fact if you’ve read to that point of the chapter, it’s to be hoped that you would disagree that these are ‘laboriously dull’, and ask yourself what Fielding is really suggesting when he says;

 ‘…I would have the reader to consider these initial essays.  And after this warning, if he shall be of opinion that he can find enough of serious in other parts of this history, he may pass over these…and begin the following books at the second chapter.’

Some do take his words at face value.  I have a rather attractive paperback on my shelf that came out with the 1963 Tony Richardson directed film starring Albert Finney and Susannah York in the lead roles, that has none of the essays, despite Fielding’s warning.

As someone who aspires to the good esteem of the narrator, I opt for the essays.  Besides, for a true sense of place and time, I want the whole time-travel experience.   The language used, the rhythms and shapes of the speeches are as valuable to me as the insights into the way the characters interact, and the lives they are living.   To get that I need all of the voices, and our narrator is the best guide I could ask for, tricky, wise, wry and observant, he keeps me up on all the latest ideas.  I’m not just learning about the past, I’m thinking that some of the political preoccupations speak to the twenty-first century too.