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!

I Submit!

                In a flurry of unaccustomed, industrious zeal, during the week we’d had to make an unplanned return from the warmer, sunnier parts of Europe, I threw myself into yet another round of submissions of my first novel to still more literary agents. This burst of activity was, in part to justify and ‘make the best’ of the precipitate return to [then] chilly England and also because the next three submissions were, according to my schedule, due.

                I admit I’ve been dogged and inflexible about following this agenda. In the Bible that is ‘The Writer’s and Artist’s Yearbook’ there is no shortage of advice on finding, selecting and submitting to an agent, however now that I’m past the six month mark the selecting part has become more a case of ‘anyone who accepts new writers’ manuscripts’…and rather than choosing on the basis of their current author stable or the genre, I’m using alphabetical order as a guide.

                Literary agents’ websites vary from the pretentious to the austere and from the unapproachable and superior to the fluffy and avuncular. They rightly proclaim their discoveries and their successes, include lists of the prizes their authors have won, the bestsellers, the smiling debut novelists. ‘Come on in’ they say, beckoning encouragement or almost daring the fragile, amoebic beginner to send something. Many still demand postal entry for submission, requiring endless printing out on quality paper, no staples, single sided, double spaced, this, that and the other-plus a mint of postage and don’t forget the self-addressed envelope for the return [that is, if they agree to return it-a number candidly admit to shredding.]

                There is no conformity of requirements for submissions. They want the first 3 chapters, a single page synopsis, a letter of introduction and a CV; or they want the first 50 pages, a letter outlining the story and some personal history, or they want a chapter outline, a 500 word synopsis and a CV. Each submission means beginning all over again with preparation. It may not be such a bad thing. Perhaps it weeds out those whose belief in their work is not absolute? Much is said and written about the tolerance of the would-be writer to rejection, but I’d say it is the absolute lack of any kind of response that is demoralising. A few weeks ago I received an email from an agent I’d submitted to last October, kindly saying the work could not be accepted at this time and apologising for the delayed response, a missive which did almost feel a little encouraging, in the face of so much ignorance.

                Many agents are cashing in on the rush of aspiring authors by offering various courses, although according to an item I heard on a radio consumer programme, many are cynical exercises in generating revenue, rather than attempts to improve the standard of the great ‘unpublished’. One agent was quoted as rubbing his hands with glee at the prospect of ‘lots of lovely money and they haven’t got a clue’.

                I will soon be coming to the end of my schedule of submissions, then I shall be doing what countless other amateur writers have done, ie self-publishing. In the meantime I press on with novel 2; after all, Iain Banks apparently penned a whole 6 tomes before getting one published. And if E L James can get lucky with an e-novel, I’m bloomin’ sure mine can make it!

Shameless gadgetry of the reading kind.

Are you an e-reader or a p-reader? I am guessing you are a reader, because you are reading a blog-but which sort?

                The march of all things digital forges on like the charge of the Light Brigade. The digital front, I believe, cannot now be halted. We have seen this irrevocable development in music, where downloads have eclipsed all other forms including tapes, CDs, mini-discs and the like. Of course all these formats are still available, together with ‘vinyl’. ‘Vinyl’ however is very much the preserve of nostalgia junkies, those of us who lament the passing of the album and it’s arty, expansive cover…useful, as I recall, for all manner of activities-proper and improper.

                Increasingly, a similar divide exists in literary production. Among readers, as with music lovers, people tend to be either firmly in the e-book camp or clinging emotionally to p-books. In defence of p-books, most of the argument tends towards romantic and usually includes some of the following:

  • ‘Oh-but I love the smell of a real book’.

Yes-the smell. Most of my paperback purchases were from charity shops or second hand bookshops. The smell would often be accompanied by stuck together pages and unidentifiable stains…

  • I like to hold a proper book in my hands and turn the pages.

OK. [why?]

  • They look lovely on the shelves/add to the decor etc

They do. I still have packed shelves of real, proper books. They do look attractive. I just haven’t added to them in recent years.

  • You can write on them/highlight/return to parts/bookmark and so on.

Actually, I never did scribble on books, even as a child, when I believed, as I do now that a book was an object to be revered, treasured and kept pristine for posterity. You can do all of these actions to an e-book.

  • Bookshops and libraries will go out of business.

Many bookshops will go out of business, like record shops. They will either have to adapt in cunning ways or sink without trace. I think there will always be a market for children’s books, for example.

 

I am a convert to e-readers, although I have regrets about owning one from a certain, best-selling, market smothering, tax-avoiding company.  Before I succumbed to going all electronic my reading purchases were random and not necessarily successful. I was inclined to stick with writers I knew or titles I’d heard of.

I’d get anxious before any lengthy travel that I would be stuck somewhere remote without anything to read, not having the capacity or strong enough arms to carry the weight of that number of books [my reading appetite is of the voracious type]. Now I can load a library full of titles and if I’ve devoured them all I can access some internet and replenish the supply in seconds.

Husband has a subscription to a newspaper on his reader, so that he will never be anywhere without knowing the latest rugby results or how much lower the pound has sunk.

Most books are considerably cheaper to buy than their paper versions which means that the device has more than paid for itself by now. Classics are, for the most part, completely free. This has led me to tackle many titles I might have avoided, [with varying degrees of success!] I am still flogging my way through ‘Les Miserables’, albeit with interludes of respite, but I loved Steinbeck’s ‘The Grapes of Wrath’.

 

So I am wedded to my tiny, purple, leather clad gadget, even though I still read an occasional paperback for my book club. How about you?