My Life in Books, 2019

Over on Annabookbel’s blog, this week, I discovered a quirky approach to summing up my year of reading. The idea is to finish fourteen sentences using some of the titles of books I’ve read during the past twelve months.

Apparently this challenge has been circulating since at least 2009. I’ve never been adept at keeping pace with any kind of fashion, but even so, ten years late is probably a record for me.

So here I am. Are you ready? Who knows what these add up to…

In high school I was The Day of The Triffids (John Wyndham)

People might be surprised by The Secret History (Donna Tartt)

I will never be The Power of The Dog (Thomas Savage)

My fantasy job is Eats, Shoots and Leaves (Lynne Truss)

At the end of a long day I need Bluebeard’s Egg (Margaret Attwood)

I hate The End of The Affair (Graham Greene)

I wish I had Our Man in Havana (Graham Greene)

My family reunions are The Blush and other stories (Elizabeth Taylor)

At a party you’d find me with Resurrection Men (Ian Rankin)

I’ve never been to The Narrow Road to the Deep North (Richard Flanagan)

A happy day includes Essential Stories (VS Pritchett)

The motto I live by, I Capture the Castle (Dodie Smith)

On my bucket list is, The Public Image (Muriel Spark)

In my next life, I want to have My Cousin Rachel (Daphne du Maurier)

Thinking about the benefits of reading groups for writers

The most confusing and repeated piece of advice that I was given during the years when I sat on the other side of the desk in Creative Writing classes, was to read, lots.  Not knowing how to fit more books into my days, I decided that my tutors must mean I should be more selective, so I cut back on the thrillers and romances, and looked out for novels that had literary reputations.

3D Artworks by Julian Beever

3D Artworks by Julian Beever

It was an interesting and eclectic period in my reading history.  I didn’t mind whether a book was a classic or modern; so long as someone had considered it worth mentioning, I’d give it a try. Once I’d entered the first page of a novel I forgot all about my writing tutors.  Well, isn’t that how it should be with a good book?

Of course it is, and that’s fine.  But as I closed the covers on one book I was already checking the shelves for my next read.  What I hadn’t understood then was that having read for pleasure, I needed to take time to think about what I’d read, and how it worked…or what didn’t work, and why.

Some writers seem to pick that up early.  I didn’t get it until I became a mature student, studying Literature and Creative Writing.  Since then, my horizons have broadened with every read, whether that’s with a fresh text or one of those that I first read when in that voracious period.

I’m often asked if that doesn’t spoil the fun of reading.

3D Artworks by Julian Beever

3D Artworks by Julian Beever

Actually, it opens up a text.  Yes, I can often see the workings, but I like that, because it offers another dimension of story to enjoy.  I like the process so much that I teach it, and the thing I’ve discovered is that this approach is as rewarding for readers as it is for writers. We get into some fascinating discussions about how writing works.

And most importantly, we share ideas on what a story was about.  Think you know something inside out?  Give it to a group of readers and then get into a discussion and see what is revealed, I’m continually finding that the exchanging of ideas opens up unexpected worlds beneath the surface of the words.

Thinking about how readers read has to be a useful thing for any writer, surely?

Telling stories…

Where do I start? If only my ideas were straightforward.  Instead, here I am scratching my head and trying to unravel too many different lines of thought.

‘Begin at the beginning,’ the King said gravely, ‘and go on until you come to the end: then stop.’

Chapter XII, Alice in Wonderland

That seems like sound advice.  It’s certainly simple.

From, Emily Gertrude Thomson adaption of Alice In Wonderland.

From, Emily Gertrude Thomson’s adaption of Alice In Wonderland.

So, perhaps I’ll start with the source of my inspiration for this week’s ramble.  Aptly enough (says she, with wide eyed disingenuous simplicity) it was the opening lines of a novel, Behind the Scenes at The Museum, by Kate Atkinson.

I exist! I am conceived to the chimes of midnight on the clock on the mantelpiece in the room across the hall.  The clock once belonged to my great-grandmother (a woman called Alice) and its tired chime counts me into the world.  I’m begun on the first stroke and finished on the last when my father rolls off my mother and is plunged into dreamless sleep, thanks to the five pints of John Smith’s Best Bitter he has drunk in the Punch Bowl with his friends, Walter and Bernard Belling.

Who exists?  Why Ruby Lennox, a narrator who has such an all-seeing god-like view of events that from the moment her life begins, she knows everything about her family.  I’m not just talking about her great-grandmother’s clock here, look at what Ruby knows about her father’s movements prior to this conception:  what he drank, where he was and who he was with.  To top that off, she also knows that his sleep is dreamless. If you’ve ever wondered what an omniscient narrator can do, here’s a good example.

Trouble is, Ruby’s not exactly a standard example of omniscience, because she’s a central character in the story.  In fact she’s also a first person narrator, recounting the events of her life, like Tristram Shandy:

‘I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, minded what they were about when they begot me.

and David Copperfield (‘Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life…’) .

Far from god-like, Ruby’s as fallible as the rest of us, with opinions, prejudices, likes and dislikes that colour the way she sees and recalls her life.

“‘Bunty’ doesn’t seem like a very grown-up name to me – would I be better off with a mother with a different name?”

So, engaging as her story is, there’s always room for a little bit of doubt about what we’re reading.  We want to trust her.  After all, the narrator’s role is to show us the way in the story.  That role of route-master can include everything from placing only relevant story scenes in front of us, to directing what angle we view them from and even, making sure we read it as the narrator wishes us to.  It’s easy to forget how much manipulation is taking place when we’re speeding our way down the page.

Okay, this is fiction, and in the world of fantasy, especially this kind of magical-realist text, anything can happen.  We could just accept and enjoy it as comic exaggeration.  But this story’s also littered with misdirection.  Our narrator seems to suggest that fictional characters existed in the same way as historical figures, ‘Robinson Crusoe, that other great hero, is also a native son of this city.’  She’s also under the impression that her birth is so important an event that ,’outside the window, a dawn chorus is heralding my own arrival.’

You could call that ego, perhaps.  She wouldn’t be the only one to believe the world revolves around herself.  The thing is, once we see that, shouldn’t we be a bit wary of taking her at face value?

Changing Stories

So, earlier this week I was trawling around on You-Tube, and yes, that was meant to be writing time.  A friend had sent me a great link to five men playing a piano, and after that I got a bit carried away, but it all worked out in the end, because I found this:

I hope you’ve played and enjoyed the clip.  I loved it so much I’ve replayed it to myself several times since, besides insisting that the family and a couple of visitors share it too.

Now I have to put my hand up here and say that Wuthering Heights may well be my all time favourite book, and Kate Bush’s homage, is one of my favourite tributes to it. However, that doesn’t mean I love every spin-off from the story.

How many have there been?  More than I could list here, even if I wanted to.  Check out Wikipedia, if you want to see a few of the art-forms that reference it, but don’t imagine you’re seeing a definitive mapping of work that was inspired by the story. Not included are the authors who’ve tried to emulate Emily Bronte’s masterpiece more directly with varying degrees of subtlety and success, perhaps the best known of those was Mary Webb, with her novels, Precious Bane, and Gone to Earth, and the wonderful Stella Gibbons, in Cold Comfort Farm.

More recently, there have been ‘mash-up’ rewrites of the novel published.  For those of you who haven’t met this phenomenon before, a ‘mash-up’ is the literary equivalent of fusion cooking (the combining of elements from different culinary traditions).  The usual combination is to take a well known classic novel and add elements of horror into it. So, alongside the other well known titles that have been hybridized, you can now buy versions of Wuthering Heights that include vampires, werewolves and zombies, as if it weren’t Gothic enough already.

At the other end of that rewrite scale is the abridgement.  Yes, someone has decided to produce a version of Wuthering Heights that is considered suitable for children.  I admit I’ve only read one page of one abridgement, but I think I said enough about my feelings on simplifying classics in my earlier discussion about Alice in Wonderland.  So I’ll cut this line of thought here and go back to where I started, with that re-worked Kate Bush song.

You’ll remember that I implied that finding it had seemed to me to justify my surfing through songs instead of writing.  I’ll admit that I was already in prevarication mode, having run out of steam with two stories I’ve got half written, and with my mind already on what I was going to blog about this week.

Well I don’t know what happened to you when the song started going, but for me it was as if a veil lifted.  Kate Bush transposed the book into music beautifully, capturing the gothic, mystical elements with her eerie, lyrical rendition, and fixing a good sized segment of the British population into her mode of music for life, it seems.  Did any of us ever imagine a cover version could do more than palely imitate her?

Isn’t this what Aristotle was getting at when he said that there were only seven plots?  Because even though the names and setting remain true, and even rely upon our knowledge of the original, here the change of tempo affects everything, tone, intention, and mood.

Wuthering Heights has been transformed into a different story, something that is modern, despite its rhythm coming from the jazz age.  This is story as it links back to the oral tradition, something that the tellers adapted to suit their audience, and as I watch and listen, I’m thinking of the story I’m trying to write at the moment, and this song infects me with a fresh surge of inspiration.

I don’t feel any less affection for Wuthering Heights, its various textual hybrids or the original song because of this new version.  If anything, my enjoyment of the originals increases, but I have now to add The Ukelele Orchestra of Great Britain’s interpretation of the story to my list of great adaptations.

What Should We Read?

I’m often asked to recommend a good book, and the question came up again the other evening when I was invited to give a talk to the local Women’s Institute.  My answer usually depends on which hat I’m wearing. I have a variety of suggestions for creative reading and writing groups, but in those cases, I look for texts that work on more than one level.  They should entertain, but also have enough going on with content and or style to provide discussion material.

Since my chat with the WI I’ve been thinking about how recreational reading works. A good book-group can provide added insight into a story, long or short.  Each of us bring our unique life-experiences and history to what we read, and sharing those ideas with other people can help us to see a story in a different way, but I’m not trying to promote book-groups here, that can wait for another blog. This post is about the reading we do on our own.

DSCF4753

I think of my reading as a pleasure, but that enjoyment extends to all words, so if, by some anomaly, I’m in a situation where I’ve not got a book close to hand, I’ll pick up the nearest text and read that.  I’ve gleaned a lot of information that way, over the years, though if I add up all the breakfasts spent reading a cereal box, I’ve probably also wasted a lot of hours.  Less said about that the better, I suppose.

The consequence is that I’m a bit of a genre-magpie, dipping into any text that comes my way.  I may not keep up to date with all the novels – is that even possible these days?  And no, I’ve not yet tried 50 Shades, or the Twilight Saga, but I’m not ruling them out.  I may need to read them for work; I might be given a copy, or hear something intriguing about the writing.  I only got round to the Millenium Trilogy last year.

What bothers me about my title question is the SHOULD.  When I was growing up (in the 60s and 70s) my brothers and I were allowed one comic each per week, partly due to costs, but also because our parents thought we should spend more time reading proper books.  Which was fine by me, but not my one brother.  Beano or Dandy were the only fiction he willingly read outside of the school syllabus.  So while I had my nose in a book, he was exploring other hobbies.  These days he does read for pleasure, though not fiction.  He prefers tales of true-life adventure, and cartoons, of course.

And thankfully, alongside the rise of Manga, and graphic novels, those old ideas about the worthiness of comics have been overturned. Anything that encourages a child to read must be good, mustn’t it?  Besides, they may have been simple, and little short on lessons in grammar, but the clue about comics is in the name, isn’t it?

Surely, the first thing any reader should expect from a text is entertainment.  It doesn’t have to be humour, though in my experience the best classics are layered with irony, but that’s a personal preference, and what might raise a smile for me could leave you cold, or even insulted.  That, I would argue is where discussion comes into its own and why I’m once again veering off towards bookgroups when I’m trying to think about the experience of reading individually.

Reading is such a personal activity, and therefore individual, that I hesitated to suggest an individual title we should read.  Instead, my answer to that question the other night was that it might be worth us all occasionally trying a type of book that we would not usually attempt.  If you read romance, try a thriller; if you read historical, try some science-fiction; or swop long fiction for short or vice-versa.

You may think that I dodged the question, but what would you have said?

 

*Illustration, Alberto Manrique print.

Tolstoy and the Reading Group

This week we finished reading Anna Karenina.  My conclusion?  You should read it too.  Sure, see the new(ish) film, it’s great, and manages to include the main themes and majority of the story artfully.  I loved the way the scenes intersected with each other, and the way they used theatre and dance.  The casting was, mostly, great too.

Sorry Kiera Knightly, but you were not Anna Karenina.  You are far too thin.  You should have been cast as Dolly, and wouldn’t it have been interesting for you to be playing against your looks at this stage in your career?

Oops, side-tracked.  What I’m trying to say is that this novel is worth reading even if you have seen the film, and regardless of whether you loved or disliked that.

Read it even if you already know what happens with Anna, because the journey is what counts. That’s true in all good fiction, surely, otherwise we’d just read the first and last chapters of any book: the first and last paragraphs of a short story.  Besides, does any reader begin reading about Anna Karenina without knowing her ending?

Read it because Anna Karenina is a gloriously huge story.  I’m not just talking about how many pages it fills, I’m thinking about how the whole thing works.

Tolstoy is a master puppeteer, controlling characters and balancing ideas all the way through.  He creates a picture of Russia at a moment of change, when its society is still trying to work out what being Russian means.  True, we’re talking aristocrats, largely, but should we dismiss it for that?  After all, what a vast and unlikely collection of ideals they are.

Besides, other great Russian writers will step forward to fill-in the social gap.  What Tolstoy does is recreate imperial Russia with all its fashions, ideas and worries, and he does it so artfully that even though he is criticising, the public mostly loved his story.  Their engagement was such that they waited anxiously for each new section over a period of four years, with long gaps between some of the sections.  Many wrote to him with advice, suggestions and questions.

Okay, Anna Karenina wasn’t written in English, and of course there are technical arguments that can be made about authorship when someone stands between us and the original. However, interesting though that discussion would be, I’m going to count it as something of a sidetrack.  It doesn’t seem to offer much of an incentive to read.

The story remains Tolstoy’s, despite the translators.  If you don’t believe me, compare a few pages.  The structure, the events, the characters and characterisation, those are Tolstoy, and what a joy they are.  From the hedonistic Stiva to that dry stick, Sergei, and all the rest of them, they leap off the page.  Including even, Kostya’s dog, Laska, who leads us on a hunt at the expense of her master’s dignity.

I admit here that there were sections I skimmed through on my first reading. But reading it again for working on with the group I realised I had missed out.    This is a story of many facets.  Tolstoy wrote with care, and edited and rewrote and edited again.  There are sections that could be lifted out and stand-alone as short stories, but they belong within the text.  They are part of a large picture that we, the reader must build.

Tolstoy provides us with scenes so that we can interpret or re-interpret the events.  His is a modern method of teaching, not direct lecturing, but leading us to understand through the questions we ask.

Tolstoy, 1876: “I have noticed that any story makes an impression only when one cannot make out with whom the author sympathises.”

This is a ‘modern’ novel in many ways.  Its subjects are the state of marriage and sex, amongst other things.  It includes a long and detailed description of a woman giving birth to her first child, and an account of breast-feeding at a time when high-class women did not mention pregnancy, but used a series of euphemisms to imply their condition.

What else?  Check out the dialogue.  It’s fresh, believable, interesting and varied.  Conversations flow, not just in one direction, but to include inuendo, gossip and asides.  They deliver information without appearing to clunk, and incorporate actions and descriptions seamlessly.

His descriptions are spare, but telling, and his use of the interior monologue would influence the modernists, particularly James Joyce.  If you want to know more, there are thousands of good criticisms to look at, but don’t take their word for it, or mine, go away and read or re-read it for yourself.

Reading Authors.

I’m just working on the research I need to do for my Anna Karenina reading group in a couple of weeks time.  Once again, I am struck by the amount of studying the great writers do.  Where does this idea that writing cannot be taught come from?

It was the same last year, when we read Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones.  Alongside our enjoyment of a rollicking good tale, we began to build up a phenomenal list of texts referenced by the narrator and characters in the story, and also quite a bit of story-theory being discussed along the way.

So, here I am looking at a chronology for Tolstoy.  Besides his education at university, where he read first Oriental Languages then Law, though he did not finish his course due to ‘ill health and domestic circumstances’, he read widely.  His interests were philosophy, education, reform, history, politics, religion, ancient Greek and travel.

He also lived fairly wildly, at least at first.  It’s fascinating to find his life experiences and interests mirrored by characters and situations in A.K.  Is it just me, or do most of us enjoy seeing how things are made?

Tolstoy honed his skills by writing essays and short sketches. He did not finish every project he started. War and Peace, for instance, evolved out of another novel called ‘The Decembrists’.

You could argue that we look for the connections, but does that matter?  Surely, the more we can take from our reading the better?

I like stories that make me think, or go away to find out more afterwards.  Again, it’s a different style of reading to the pure entertainment page-turning novels, and I like those too.  But I would say that this is writing that has matured.  Here is a writer who practiced his craft and shared the variety of his interests through his stories and novels.