The Good the Bad and the Unreadable

It would not be an exaggeration to say that writing has spoiled reading for me. This is not to say that I no longer read. I do. In fact I consider that reading-widely and variedly-is essential for anyone hoping to produce any written work of their own. But the sheer hedonistic escapism that ensues when you are engrossed in a rip-roaring, breath-taking story is rare nowadays.

I became a voracious reader as a child, devouring the written word as soon as I could read; beginning with fairy stories and developing an appetite for fantasy in the form of the Narnia books, Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass and the Alan Garner novels. A friend with a penchant for Enid Blyton led me to flirt briefly with The Famous Five but I was soon disenchanted by the formula aspect of the plots [although I was keen to replicate the ‘gang’ aspect by forming a club and pursuing some vague exploits].

Later I flogged my way through Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh, indulged in an Ian Fleming phase with some gentile porn thrown in [a furtive, febrile partaking of Lady Chatterley plus a few dismembered sections of Frank Harris’s ‘My Life and Loves’ undertaken during geography lessons and passed around partly opened desks-little wonder I was not invited to pursue my geographical studies].

Later, during my hippy phase I spent every spare moment during one week reading The Lord of the Rings and became sucked in to the extent that when Gandalf disappeared down the chasm I was devastated to the point of despair and felt my own life to be at an end. Such is the susceptibility of youth-and Tolkien’s writing of course.

As a student I was influenced to read more widely and began to enjoy modern classics like Catcher in the Rye or Sylvia Plath’s fascinating and darkly comic The Bell Jar. I became aware that there were differences between good and poor writing.

Once real life had set in with the onset of work, marriage and babies there was a hiatus in my reading while I dipped into Dr Spock and Penelope Leach whilst wringing out the nappies. Still later, teaching left no time or energy for reading outside of holiday periods, when I’m sad to say pure escapism took over in the shape of thrillers. There was a Stephen King period, a Ruth Rendell/P D James/Minette Walters period and even a Lee Child stage before, short of a book I stumbled upon a dog-eared paperback in a hotel in The Gambia. It was The Blind Assassin. The title grabbed my attention then I was gripped, following up by reading more Margaret Attwood. I discovered Donna Tartt’s The Secret History and began to read Sebastian Faulkes, Ian McEwan etc

At last the work of good writers lured me into having a bash myself-a foolish notion. The work of such writers only serves to underline how futile my own attempts are. Worse than this-the [still published] work of poor writers induces a powerful frustration. I wasted a lot of time last year trying to read ‘A Brief History of Seven Killings’, which won the Booker Prize!

Onwards and upwards…

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Writing Superstardom

Congratulations to Richard Flanagan, the winner of the Booker Prize 2014 for his novel, ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep South’. I have yet to read it, but fully intend to, not just because the judges were unanimous in their praise for the book but because I like to think the act of reading such an acclaimed and feted novel is a piece of research. Maybe there is a remote chance I will be able to uncover the secret of writing superb and successful prose by reading it.
When casting around for something new to load on to my Kindle I often turn to the long or shortlisted books that are in the race for a prize. I learned some time ago that Amazon reviews are not to be trusted [with the exception, of course of my own reviews]. I have posted before about the ghastly mistakes I’ve made-most notably in the case of the tedious ‘One Day’, a predictable rom-com set in the eighties [not a thrilling decade]. The book prize method of selecting reading matter is not always reliable and needs backing up with additional reviews, generally from a respected newspaper.
The only 2014 Booker contender I have read so far is American writer Karen Joy Fowler’s ‘We are all Completely Beside Ourselves’, a story which captivated me for a number of reasons. It is both laugh-out-loud funny and tear provokingly tragic. The subject matter-the tale of a child growing up with a chimpanzee as not only a sibling but a ‘twin’ is unusual and compelling. The book raised many issues including parental, children’s and animal rights. It is certainly a book I would have been proud to have written.
There was something of a shumuncous regarding the opening of the Booker prize to anyone who writes in English. I can see that widening the field does increase the competition, but perhaps it also leads to more diversity. As time goes on it becomes harder to find new subject matter. It is accepted that there are only seven basic story lines and that each and every tale is based on one of them.
The two world wars have spawned an explosion of literature both fiction and fact, much of which is very good-[Helen Dunmore, Sebastian Faulkes] and so any further foray into war territory must necessarily attack from a new angle. I gather Richard Flanagan’s novel is inspired by his father’s experiences as a Japanese prisoner of war. It is the author’s sixth novel and one that took him twelve years to write, a fact I find most heartening given that my novel 2 is stubbornly resistant to progress!
I wonder how winner Richard is feeling-beyond the euphoria of victory of course. There could be an element of pressure, I imagine, as once the excitement recedes the pressure must surely mount to produce another blockbuster, Hilary Mantel style!

Those that can, write, Those that can’t, write too.

                I attend a book club at my local library. It consists of about eight gentile old ladies-[I am including myself in this description although the gentile part is the most inaccurate]. On the whole I love my fellow old ladies. They are smiley, mild mannered, self-deprecating. We talk about a wide variety of subjects-most recently hearing aids, the sights of Rome and foot ailments. Occasionally we come around to discussing the novel we have been allocated by Tracey, the enigmatic librarian. Given that we have all had a month to read said novel we should, by rights have plenty to throw into a discussion about it, however we are almost always as earnest as schoolgirls in our lame excuses.

                ‘I’ve read it but so long ago I can’t remember it’

                ‘I read some of it’

                ‘I couldn’t find it until this morning’-

The Book Club equivalent of ‘the dog ate my homework’.

                The problem lies, I believe with the kind of books Tracey chooses for us [or rather, the set of books that has become available for us]. They are rarely riveting, or if they are, I’ve generally read them already. Hence several recent issues have been, for me unreadable.  

                One of the ladies has literary tastes which are in direct opposition to mine. If there is an odd book that I enjoy I know she is going to declare it ‘rubbish’. One such book was The Great Gatsby, which I had read many years ago and enjoyed rereading. Other tales, such as the very popular ‘One Day’ by David Nichols did nothing for me but gave her much pleasure. You would think, would you not, that such discrepancies in reactions to books would lead to interesting and lively discussion, yet this has still to happen.

                I’m sorry to say I blame Tracey for this lack of debate. Were she to arrive at our table armed with provocative questions the conversation would be sustained and would not veer off on to subjects such as bunions or where to buy fruit teas. We could discuss characters, plot lines, whys and wherefores. We could say why we did or did not get something from the read [or lack of read]. Really there is no excuse, since many novels come ready pressed with the book club questions and stimulants all there at the end of the narrative.

                Just for once though, last week the opinions were unanimous. Everyone was agreed that the novel was one of the very worst we’d ever been given. The book? It was Richard Madely’s ‘Some Day I’ll Find You’.

                Richard Madely is a lightweight journalist and TV presenter who made a name co-presenting a daytime TV chat show with his wife and subsequently as a TV Book Club host. Now I understand completely what makes someone who is interested-even passionate about literature become motivated enough to take up the pen themself. This has happened to me. But the difference between myself and Richard is not associated with writing ability. It is that he, with all his lack of talent has simply thrown into his novel every cliché, formula and hackneyed device he has encountered and produced a tired story which he has not had to send to every literary agent known to man in order to get published. He can sell his boring book on the strength of his name.

It goes to show that reading, whilst useful to aspiring writers does not a writer make. Do I sound jaded? Indeed I am!

TV-the opium of the masses…

                When you consider how long ago television was invented it is surprising how little about it has really changed, especially the world’s love affair with it. I imagine you could go into the most deprived, squalid hovel in the most impoverished shanty town on the planet, with ten people sharing one crowded room to sleep, cook, eat and bathe and there would be a TV rigged up somehow with scrumped electricity, the only prized item in the family. What will they be watching? Football, adverts for cars and reality TV shows; Botswana ‘X Factor’ or Delhi ‘Big Brother’.

                A month’s trip to traditional holiday destinations off season demonstrates how reliant so many are on television for their entertainment needs. No matter what nationality-Swedish, Dutch, German, British-one of the first items to be organised once they have positioned the motorhome within the emplacement is the aerial, or the satellite dish. Our own entertainment was partly addressed by watching the Austrian couple next door spending several hours attempting to place their satellite dish in a location that would offer them Austrian TV. Austrian TV? A version of ‘Masterchef’ with viener schnitzel, perhaps, or ‘Austria’s got Talent’ with lederhosen-clad dancers and an oompah band? Early next morning the Austrian couple voted with their wheels, presumably returning to their homeland in disgust and hopes of watching ‘I’m an Austrian Celebrity [?]-Get me out of Here’ in the comfort of their living room.

                I understand why this is. Much of the South of France is still closed, especially in the evenings. You can spend hours tramping the streets searching for a bar that has not yet pulled its tables off the pavement and closed its doors. We rely heavily on the PMU bars-open for gamblers; as long as the racing lasts. In the malls and the streets leading to the promenade the cafes and bistros sport faded scraps of paper scrawled with the same message: ‘Fermé. Ouvert Marche’. But none of them is. Elsewhere there are signs of opening-roofs being repaired and signs getting spruced up, though as yet no pressions getting pulled or vats of moules steaming.

                In our wondrous van there is a TV, a novelty for us and with an aerial that can access whatever local TV stations are broadcasting. In a rush of excited enthusiasm we sat down to watch French television, pretending that it would be helpful in improving our French conversation skills; but interest in the news channel’s grindingly tedious coverage of Nikolas Sarkozy’s inflammatory remarks comparing France with East Germany soon began to pall and we returned to our usual in-van activities of internet, novels, music, writing, cooking, eating and assessing the local wines-punctuated by forays into the neighbourhood to scour it for some evening life.

                Better. Better than slow death by TV. Maybe one day we will succumb…but not yet…

                 

               

It’s all about the Story

                We have made good our escape from windy, waterlogged England and are making for [hopefully] warmer, drier lands to the South.

                In preparation for this first jaunt of 2014 I loaded up my e-reader with some novels I’ve missed, some I was seduced by, having read reviews [though not Amazon’s-having been fooled more than once before] and some I feel it my duty to read.

                The first book is one that surprised me by its 99pence price tag, since it is the book from which the current blockbusting, award winning, sweep-the-board movie was made from-‘Twelve Years a Slave’.

                Now I have yet to see this film, and I’ve no doubt I will, but in my view films rarely match up to their book form. Although I am less than 25% through the story, ‘Twelve Years a Slave’ has gripped me and held me in its absorbing clutches. Solomon Northup’s account of his capture and subsequent subjection as a slave is both dignified and moving. He recounts the horrors that he and his fellow slaves endure in a measured, matter of fact narrative. Some of his descriptions are particularly moving, such as his account of the people of the Indian village celebrating with their visitors, enjoying a meal and dancing around a camp fire accompanied by music played on a fiddle [Solomon is himself a fiddle player]. He is captivated by the scene, whilst not once pointing out the irony of their freedom against his captivity.

                There is much to be said for personal accounts of horrific events in history. They tug our emotions more than facts. We all know of the dreadful horrors wrought on so many during the war, but Anne Franck’s diary story, documenting her life and including domestic trivia, teenage angst and family squabbles brings to life the awful reality of the events. It is the story of an ordinary family, one that we can relate to. How much more poignant than factual accounts!

                At school we were taught the dry, fusty dates and facts of history; the reigns of Kings and Queens or the politics behind the wars. If we’d have been given the personal stories behind the events I think we’d have been more interested-interested enough, perhaps to have ceased the passing round of a particularly smutty and sexually explicit paperback that some miscreant had purloined and divided into lesson-sized portions.

What would Solomon make of all the Oscar hullabaloo, I wonder. After all, the success of the film relies entirely on his story, whatever the performances and direction were like.

                We have reached the South of France, where the early March weather is already warm enough during the day to bring a blush of heat to the skin, though plummeting sharply at night. We cycled 25 miles up and down the Canal du Midi in glorious, unbridled sunshine without a cloud, the vineyards laid in neat rows ready to come into leaf. Along the side of the canal those who’ve made their houseboat homes in Dutch barges are busy spring cleaning and sprucing up. Spring must surely be the nicest season, with a promise of long, warm days to come.

                

Long Live Story Telling

                Here endeth Fiction Month on Anecdotage. If you’ve read and enjoyed the stories, check out ‘The Year of Familiar Strangers’[by my alter ego, Jane Deans]-available to download from Amazon[http://www.amazon.co.uk/Year-Familiar-Strangers-Jane-Deans-ebook/dp/B00EWNXIFA]. 

; or send an email address on a blog comment to enter the draw for a free download before the end of December.

                Thanks to everyone for your visits, ‘likes’ and comments. I’ve been very pleasantly surprised by the response. It has given me food for thought. Stories are never going to go out of fashion and can be enjoyed by all, from the very young to the very old.

                Now for the confession. Besides the [very real] conditions of Alice Munro’s success and National Novel Writing Month I did have an ulterior motive for preparing all those stories for November. I was away. In an indulgent, luxurious, hedonistic moment last April I booked a month long trip to Thailand, which is where we have been while ‘Fiction Month’  was enjoying its own heady moment in the sun.

                During the last couple of years I’d become increasingly aware that a large number of friends, acquaintances and family members had been to Thailand, indeed many take repeated trips there. This intrigued me. Why was it such a popular destination? As usual, ‘word-of-mouth’, photos, books and the internet are not enough. I have to see for myself. November, a drab, colourless, draughty month in the UK, seemed a good choice of time, the three destinations we’d chosen would give a fair snapshot of this gem of the East. We would avoid a good deal of the welling Christmas frenzy and the long, dark nights.

                To arrive to Bangkok from the UK in November is to step out from a chiller cabinet into an oven and feels as if a hair dryer is being trained on your face. The first hurdle is to negotiate the winding pen that houses the immigration queue, the second the queue for a taxi, the third the hour long drive into Bangkok centre, where the traffic seems at a constant standstill in the shadow of the concrete, elevation of the sky-train. Despite all of this it is a teeming, colourful, chaotic wonder of a city with beautiful, exotic temples, tall sky towers, crowded night markets, waterways with packed water taxis, a wide, winding river, gaudy tuk-tuks, street stalls selling a fantastic variety of bizarre identifiable and non-identifiable foods-[fried locusts being a popular option], ‘Irish’ pubs, ‘Australian’ pubs, bars with tiny, barely clad girls, bars with less tiny, glamorous, deep voiced ladyboys and a vast range of restaurants selling some of the most delicious meals you could hope to enjoy.

                An evening’s entertainment in this whirlwind of a metropolis need consist only of sitting in a bar and watching the street activity, a ceaseless, moving drama playing out each and every night until late and followed in the morning by an almost eyrie calm, the streets having been miraculously cleaned and tidied.

                We stayed five nights, by which time Husband had developed a persistent cough as a result of the poor air quality. We moved on to destination two…

                

Reading Life

                Reading habits differ as much as tastes in TV or music. There are those who do not read at all, choosing to derive their entertainment from the screen. There are those who eschew books in favour of newspapers, magazines or manuals. There are those who consider fiction beneath them and opt for worthy non-fiction. Then there are issues of class or generation.

Years ago I was quizzed by a gentile, elderly great-aunt-in-law as to what my preferred ‘light’ reading tastes were and I responded with more enthusiasm than prudence, eagerly blurting out a long list that included lurid thrillers, shallow romances, juicy, explicit murder mysteries and science fiction. Her stony faced response was an impressive put-down as she shared her leisure time favourites- Jane Austen, George Eliot-and for more vicarious pleasure, Charles Dickens. I refrained from inquiries about her ‘serious’ reading choices, fearing I may have already become so far out of my depth my feet had floated out from underneath me.

I was a voracious reader as a child; the child who could not be torn from a book for anything, not to help with the dishes, to lift her feet for the vacuum cleaner or for sleep. There were books I longed for, having heard them serialised on the radio [a joy children are deprived of these days]. The Christmas morning I awoke to find that Santa had left a hardback copy of ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ on the end of my bed is my most memorable. I still have it, along with many other beloved childhood novels- Alice in Wonderland, The Wind in the Willows and Eleanor Farjeon’s beautiful take on Cinderella, ‘The Glass Slipper’.

As a teacher of young children I managed to squeeze in enough time to indulge my enjoyment of children’s literature by regular readings of my own favourites as well as theirs-Roald Dahl and Dick King-Smith included. It was gratifying to see them coming in with their own prized copies of these novels, even those whose ability was not quite, yet, up to the task of reading the stories themselves.

Then there are the film versions. I have never been able to shake the compulsion to see a film version of a book despite knowing from experience that it is never going to match the depth and pleasure of its print original.

Even now that I am approaching my dotage I still come across novels that captivate me to a point where I become evangelistic about them, urging others to read them and feeling vastly disappointed if the response does not match my own. D. C. B Pierre’s ‘Vernon God Little’ was one of these. I eulogised ad nauseam over it but found no one to share my enthusiasm. When my frustrations at the dearth of post book analysis became overwhelming I joined a book club, only to find that within the narrow confines of those who enjoy fiction novels there is the same mismatch of tastes.

But whatever is read, one truth remains. The written word is the most wonderful invention known to man!