Thoughts on some Agatha Christie short stories.

Ag christie regatta_mysteryMy copy of, The Regatta Mystery and Other Stories, claims that Agatha Christie is ‘The Queen of Mystery’, and I’m inclined to believe that might be a fair assessment.  How many other writers have won the esteem of such a vast raft of readers over so many decades?  I can think of only a handful.

Most authors who have had time in the limelight eventually drift out of fashion, even in the second-hand market.  Some will be picked up again by publishers who specialise in reminding us of neglected, but worthwhile reads, many more will fade.  That’s fine, it has to be, or where is the room for new writers?

Agatha Christie, though, seems to have a special place in this system.  I’m not going to claim she’s universally loved or admired.  I’ve met plenty of people, including readers of mystery, who don’t rate her for various reasons. Still, her books continue to be published, and bought.  Last time I saw my friend Ruth, the bookseller, she told me Christie was one of her most asked for authors.

So, what’s the trick?  I think Christie is like a good quality bar of chocolate: comforting.  In her novels we’re in fairly safe hands.  The murdered are usually people we either don’t know, or aren’t sure we like, and the solution is generally tricky to predict.  We might be able to identify romances in the making, but you’ve got to be a careful reader to assemble the crime-clues correctly.

Romance might be the key.  Characters, generally with forgivable flaws, are gradually revealed to be secretly falling for someone who seems to be unsuitable.  Often they mistakenly suspect the object of their attention is the guilty party, and are conflicted about providing vital evidence. In the process of discovering this, they learn something about themselves.

Oh dear, how cynical I sound.  But, break any story down, and doesn’t it become flat? In a Christie novel main characters, even the caricatures, are not flat.  They have quirky dialogue, or entertaining mannerisms. They’re active and interesting, digging up red-herrings to keep me guessing.

In the past, I’ve read a lot of Christie’s short and long fiction.  As I contemplated the Harper/Collins paperback I thought about why I’ve preferred her novels.  Had I given the short-stories a fair read?  I flicked a couple of pages over.  Nothing else had caught my eye, and this paperback was less than a pound. Reader, I bought it.

I’d like to be able to say I had a revelation, but I don’t want to mislead you.  The stories are nicely written.  Setting and situation are delivered economically.  There’s snappy dialogue, tight plotting with twists that I mostly didn’t foresee, and neat solutions.  So, I’ve been asking myself, ‘why don’t I like them?’

In general, these felt dated, and irrelevant in a way that her novels don’t.  The novels draw me in gently, settle me into situations far outside of my experience, whether that means a smart ‘otel on a private island, an archaeological dig in a desert, or dinner at a crumbling stately home.  There are introductions, a chance to find my feet.

The short stories dropped me into an upper-middle-class 1930s world, often with characters I’d never met before.  Four of the stories featured Poirot. ‘Phew,’ I thought, ‘throw me a life-buoy, Hastings, old chap, will you? Please?’  He tried.  Miss Marple tried too.  I couldn’t adjust.  I tried to think myself into the period.  These, after all, were not written with an eye to the future. It felt like hard-work.

Sometimes a lot of characters tried to hold my attention, in others several significant doors were opened or shut in the same paragraph. The focus was on the puzzle, and some puzzles seemed big for the space they occupied.

Was there one story I liked? I’m afraid not: there were fragments.

‘Problem at Pollena Bay’ came closest.  The premise was so simple I actually worked out the solution, but the characterisation was strong.

Am I sorry I read them?  No, I learnt a lot by working out what I didn’t like.   I’m not sure I need to re-read them, though I’ve not given up on Christie’s short stories.  Apparently she wrote over 100.  I’ve a long way to go.

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Fat-Free-Literature, the quick way to kill a reading habit.

This week a statistic was given claiming that 10% of people in the UK have no books.   Really?  Not even something technical, about cooking, or a car manual?

Well, so the Aviva insurance company say.

I have friends who don’t own books, but most of them have kindles.  Some other friends keep their books under the stairs, or tidied away in cupboards.  There’s no reason why we should all be the same, and yet…stories.

bookshelfWe can’t live without them, can we?  Do you know anyone who will not tell you the story of what they did, an hour, day, week, month or year ago?

To not own a book does not necessarily mean an absence of fiction.  Stories come in so many media that we are surrounded by them.  85% of 8 – 15 year-olds own a game console.  Most games are interactive stories.

On Sunday morning I was listening to Will Self’s,A Point of View, broadcast on Radio 4.  He was talking about ‘Teaching to the Test’.  Amongst other worries he had about how education works, he discussed the teaching of literature.  Children are no longer expected to read whole texts – so they, the children, claim.  Teachers give them summaries of a novel and tell them which sections will contain the best quotes.

One of my nieces did this with Wuthering Heights, a few years ago, and recently another niece did the same with Jane Eyre.  I tried to persuade both that it was worth reading the whole novel from beginning to end.  ‘There’s no need,’ they said. Both were/are attending good schools, one a comprehensive and one a grammar, so I can’t blame a single teacher.  Which means this must be the system.

Somewhere though, if we trace this system back, was there a teacher with simmering resentments against books?  I can’t think that anyone with a love of literature would have created a system that seems designed to belittle the joys of immersing one’s self in a fictional world.  We don’t have to love all books, but surely we need to be exposed to full novels when we are young.

To be taught that all we ever need is a summary, is to reduce story.  Wuthering Heights unfolds through a series of questionable narrators, leading us to form judgements about actions and consequences. We get to know and understand what, how and why they respond to their situations as they do.  I didn’t ‘love’ Jane Eyre, but by the end of the novel, I understood her world, and I believe my world was a little broader for having done so.

Show us how to read whole books, and we’ll go on to read more, and more widely.  We’ll read with and against the flow of society.

Dumb the reading process down, and you reduce our ability to explore.  If the Bronte’s seem too out-dated for modern minds, why not set some texts that young adults can identify with?  Don’t, for goodness sake, spoil the immersive experience of discovering the gothic and other wonders of our past.  Leave them alone.  Eventually a keen reader will stumble upon them somehow.

For women, one or the other of the Bronte novels usually seems to speak to us: only to us.  How can that be possible with a book that was written in 1840s?  You’d have to read the whole thing to work that out.

upside-down-bookshelf

Designbuzz.com

 

 

 

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.

 

The Milliner’s Tale

The last few weeks I’ve been alternating between two hats.  For my reading group, I’m wearing a morphing, anarchic design, that has me flying through The Once and Future King.

Steampunk_Hat_PNG_Clipart_PictureI’ve been enjoying the way White plays with history, rippling time so that events shift in and out of period, and juggles with our ideas about the characters who make up the Arthurian Legends.  I’m so comfortable with my head-gear that once donned, I forget I’m wearing it.

Like any extreme fashionista, I am a devoted follower of my latest mode.  So for a moment I’m taken aback when some of the group say that they find TH Ladies-Steampunk-Hats by tag hatsWhite’s use of anachronism distracting.

This gives us some interesting discussion on techniques for reading texts that challenge us, and sets me thinking about writing intentions.  The explanation White gave to his friend was:

I am trying to write of an imaginary world which was imagined in the 15th century. .. I state quite explicitly that we all know that Arthur, and not Edward, was on the throne in the latter half of the 15th century, at the beginning of my second vol. .. By that deliberate statement of an untruth I make it clear to any scholar who may read the book that I am writing, as I said before, of an imaginary world imagined in the 15th cent. .. I am taking 15th cent. as a provisional forward limit (except where magic or serious humour is concerned…

Malory and I are both dreaming. We care very little for exact dates, and he says I am to tell you I am after the spirit of Morte d’Arthur (just as he was after the spirit of those sources collected) seen through the eyes of 1939. He looked through 1489 .. and got a lot of 1489 muddled up with the sources. I am looking through 1939 at 1489 itself looking backwards.

Got that?

The idea that the past informs about the present can take a little getting used to, especially if you are someone who cares for exact dates.  When I put my Life-Writing-Hat on, I have to care, and yet, looking around, it seems to me that few of us live exactly within our time.  The things we use, wear, own and live with belong in variations to past days, weeks, months and years, even if we don’t live in historic houses.

It seems to me that reading history always requires some imaginative leaps.  Usually we do that from a present-day perspective.  What White does is to reverse this process, to comic effect, but also as an attempt at helping us understand something of what that past culture was like.  How do you set a story in medieval England without long explanations?  You translate every experience into a language children can recognise.

So I’m thinking of ways to translate dates and names into shareable texts, and what I see is that sometimes it takes an imaginative approach to explore truths.  After all, wouldn’t we all rather have a designer hat, that’s maybe a little shocking, than something mass-produced?hats

 

*Steam-punk hat photos from pin interest & Tag Hats.

 

Embracing the absurd.

I’ve just picked up on a challenge laid down for me a month ago, and read some of the absurdist stories of Daniil Kharms.   Thanks Mike, what a find, and how have I missed him before?

Literature is my favourite form of travel.  Think of the efficiency.  No hours on the road, or waiting around for connections.  Step between the lines of a story and I’m away.  The infernal combustion engines might transport us across the geographical world, but I’ve just travelled back in time, and got dunked into Russian culture.  No tourist destinations for me.

OldWomanLucieJansch

photo by Lucy Jansch

These Kharm stories read in a flash, resonate for hours.  They’re ridiculous, funny and dark.  Death slices through the lines of plot, taking out central character after central character.  The early twentieth century Russian landscape is grim, even bitter.  ‘Good people are not capable of getting a good foothold in life,‘  concludes Kharms, in his 1936 story, The Things.  I sense layers of suggestion, of anger, behind the flying dogs and missing legs, the drunken binges and vanishing brothers.  Like dreams, they sketch scenes, distort reality, break the rules.

These characters and their deeds twist my understanding of the world,  my sense of self and reality.  It’s brave, risk-taking writing, and I can’t predict the outcome of any piece.  They stop.

I think on, and see that sometimes writers need to be brave, and leap.

Clout Theatre 2013

Clout Theatre, 2013.   How a Man Crumbled.

 

 

 

 

 

Readers, narrators and authors.

That I’m reading a memoir this week is either a happy accident  or serendipity, depending on how you view the world. Friday morning, as I was heading for an appointment that was guaranteed to include a waiting room, I grabbed a book off my to-be-read shelf.

After three months of focused studying, I was looking forward to some simple pleasure-reading.  My course paperwork was finished, and ready to post, the new classes would not be starting until mid-April. The long Easter weekend could be given over to indulgence.

I don’t know how I missed knowing that Fever Pitch wasn’t a novel.  If I had, it would have been shelved with the other memoirs that I’ve been gathering as background for the Writing Family Histories course that is next on my list of classes to prepare, and perhaps I’d be writing this post next week.

fever pitchInstead, I was several pages in before my suspicions were roused.  That’s the thing with first person narration of course, when it’s done well, it should convince us that the character and their world is as real as we are, even when we know it’s a fiction.  The thing that tends to give memoir away is usually shaping.  It can be tricky to translate the random, scoincidental nature of life as most of us experience it, into a convincing novelistic form.

Nick Hornby has shaped his life around an obsession with football in such an entertaining way that I’m hooked.  I still couldn’t answer a pub quiz sport question, but he has helped me understand something about the need so many people have to cheer on a bunch of players chasing a ball around a cold, muddy field.  Before this, my most entertaining connection to the game was thanks to Sarah’s Knitted Footballer blog, which demonstrates another approach to expressing passionate interest in a sport.

 

 

 

Reassessing my relationship with W. Somerset Maugham

Maugham, by Graham Sutherland, 1949

Maugham, by Graham Sutherland, 1949

I admit now, that despite his long-time home on my bookshelf, it took a discussion with a reading group to push me onto opening my two volumes of W. Somerset Maugham stories.  It’s not that they were on the shelf as decoration, but there have always been so many other authors, well recommended, that I wanted to read.

In a way, I’m glad that was so.  If I’d picked them up casually, would I have read them carefully?  Because despite the fact that I’ve seen some great film versions of his novels, I had preconceived ideas about his writing.  His short stories, I understood, were…well…old-fashioned, and horror of horrors, commercial.

I think I might have missed the point without an agenda attached to my reading. Instead, because we’re going to be discussing two of his stories this week, I’ve looked more closely at what’s going on.

You know what? They are ‘ripping yarns’, but they’ve also got layers of other meanings embedded in them.  There are subtleties in the way the narration works.  So although I can see how his words could be misread as promoting colonialism, I read the opposite message, and more…

What he has, in abundance, is entertainment value.  The two stories we deconstructed in the previous reading session went down a storm, and I’m expecting these will too.

I might love the brevity of the modernist style stories, but many of my students see them as difficult, and often struggle with the idea of open endings.  I understood that Maugham belonged to the Maupassant school of story telling, but he’s not so simple to pin down.  The French influences are there, but so too is Chekov, and it shows.  The stories I’ve read so far, despite having a beginning, middle and end, are not closed.

I’m left with the feeling that these characters moved on into new stories, and are about to behave just as badly in a fresh setting.

 

 

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?

Inspired readings…

I’ve been reading a short story anthology called The New Uncanny this week.  There’s no horror in the amityville sense, nor gallons of gratuitous gore.  These gems, as the subtitle suggests, are Tales of Unease.

the new uncanny  ...tales of uneaseIn varying degrees, they sent tingles down my spine.  Some happened as I read, others were slow burners that seemed fairly innocuous in content, but resonated hours later.

And if you’ve ever wondered where such ideas come from, then try looking at the source of inspiration for these stories.  Comma Press commissioned fourteen established writers to create stories based on Freud’s 1919 essay, The Uncanny.

That fascinating piece of literary analysis was inspired by a 1906 essay, The Psychology of the Uncanny by Ernst Jentsch.  Both essays based their investigations on a story by E.T.A. Hoffman, The Sandman.

Convoluted, isn’t it?  But personally, I like a few twists along the way, and I shall definitely be keeping a copy of the eight tropes Freud listed.  In case we don’t want to explore the essay, Ra Page gives us the ‘eight irrational causes of fear deployed in literature’  in his introduction to The New Uncanny (thought I’d best repeat the title, in case you’d forgotten what I started with).  I make no excuses for copying them out here, but I hope you’ll still go out and get a copy of this anthology.  There’s some lovely writing in it.

  1. inanimate objects mistaken as animate (dolls, waxworks, automata, severed limbs etc.),
  2. animate beings behaving as if inanimate or mechanical (trances, epileptic fits, etc.),
  3. being blinded,
  4. the double (twins, doppelgangers, etc.),
  5. coincidences or repetitions,
  6. being buried alive,
  7. some all-controlling evil genius,
  8. confusions between reality and imagination (waking dreams, etc.).

Tempted?

 

 

 

Radio Tales.

Some of the writers from my groups have been taking advantage of an invitation from the Writers’ Room for local writers to read their stories on Corinium Radio.

Unless you live in Gloucestershire you’ve probably never dreamed such a broadcast existed.  I do live in the county, and didn’t realize until I was forwarded the email calling for contributors to volunteer for a short story slot in the schedule.  Since this discovery I’ve been tuning in and enjoying an eclectic range of subjects, styles and approaches.

So why don’t you check it out too?  It’s available on-line as well as via the air-waves.

corinium radioI’m looking forward to more stories, over the next week or two.

Perhaps you should also check out your local radio stations and see if they have similar opportunities.  If they haven’t, it still might be worth approaching them with the idea…

It’s all too easy to get locked into thinking the only way to share our words is through the printed media, but the truth is there’s a whole other world of performance opportunities out there for prose people, from slams to story-telling events to internet podcasts.

Reports from the first recordings have been trickling back to me full of positive vibes.  Scary but fantastic, is what they say.  I say, what a buzz.