Matter of Recall

I’ve just finished Strange Affair, the second of two Peter Robinson crime novels which I’ve listened to in audio format rather than reading. I have read some of his earlier work but have not been the devotee that some of my friends are. Indeed I have one friend who deliberately saves his new novel each year for her Christmas treat and retires behind closed doors with that and a bag of fudge not to be seen again until she has finished both.

While I’ve enjoyed both books I have to say that listening to them, experiencing them in a medium in which you have to encounter every word, has made me aware of some the weaknesses of the extended series that a reader might well skim over and not necessarily notice. For instance, there are moments of verbal déjà vu when you come across the reminders of specific characteristics of the main participants, so often couched in exactly the same words as they were in the preceding book. Or you find yourself listening to the recall of episodes from earlier crimes in the sort of clunky detail that signals this is something you need to know if you’re going to understand what happens next but really you ought to have read the previous books.

I’m finding this a bit grating and beginning to wonder if one of the mark of a really good writer is the ability to orientate the reader to what has gone before in a way that is less than obvious. I remember when Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets came out cringing at the way J K Rowling handled the necessary recall from book one and then being aware as the series progressed that one indication of how she was growing as a writer was her development in this area. I’ve moved on now to Henning Mankell, also a new writer to me, and I shall be interested to see how he stacks up in this respect. Of course, it does depend on my being able to get hold of his books in audio form. Off to the library site again!

Published in: on January 11, 2010 at 5:54 pm  Comments (9)  

Sunday Salon ~ Reading for the Snowbound

While I was washing up this morning (well, even the mundane jobs have to be done every now and again) I happened to catch the thriller writer, Andy McNab, being interviewed on the radio about books to be read while snowbound.

Now, one of the more interesting discoveries that I’ve made about myself as a reader over the past couple of weeks is that when I have apparently endless time in which to do nothing but read I can’t sit for more than an hour or so without needing to get up and fiddle with something.  Maybe this is because the leisure time is enforced, I don’t know.  Nevertheless, I was intrigued by the idea that there might be some books that were better for the snowbound than others (perhaps I’ve been choosing the wrong ones!) and even more intrigued by McNab’s choices, which included Great Expectations and Catcher in the Rye.  The one thing that his selections had in common was that they were plot driven rather than character led.  Of course, this might have something to do with nature of his own writing, I don’t know.  He did set me wondering, however, if there were books that were more appropriate than others and whether or not you have any ideas that might help me to take better advantage of the time the snow is forcing me to spend in my comfortable new chair.  I’ve read everything McNab suggested and I’m sated with re-reading at the moment, so what can I pick up instead?  All suggestions gratefully received.

Published in: on January 10, 2010 at 6:35 pm  Comments (8)  

Sunday Salon ~ Characters in Genre Fiction

As I expect my UK readers already know, The Teaching Company has recently opened an outlet on this side of the Atlantic, which has made ordering courses from their catalogue considerably easier.  Just before Christmas I treated myself to Timothy Spurgin’s twenty-four lecture series, The Art of Reading.  On sale, the downloadable version was less than a pound a lecture, a bargain unlikely to be beaten even in the most generous of January reductions.

I used to teach a course very similar to this and it’s always interesting to see how someone else approaches a topic that you have spent hours, weeks, years even, trying to make as accessible as possible to new undergrads who at school have been drilled with techniques designed to get them through exams without paying much attention to developing them as open-minded, thinking readers.

This morning I was listening to the session on characters, always a problem area for me because as a structuralist I instinctively read for plot first and characters tend to come a pretty poor second.  Spurgin was stressing the point that what he was considering was literary fiction where he would expect the principle characters to be well rounded and to have the potential to behave in unexpected but convincing ways.  Pulp fiction on the other hand, he suggested, was more likely to feature characters whose behaviour is predictable.  (I should say that he wasn’t necessarily downplaying plot here -we haven’t got that far in the series yet- simply focussing on one particular feature for discussion purposes.)

Now I would have stopped my I-pod there and then in order to have a good argue against this had Professor Spurgin not immediately qualified what he’d said – or rather had he not acknowledged that his wife had pointed out to him that he was being too sweeping in his generalisations.  Mrs Spurgin, a librarian apparently, had drawn his attention to the fact that what distinguishes a good genre writer from a poor one is precisely the fact that while plot is likely to be pre-eminent they do also make an attempt to shade their characters and give them three-dimensional qualities.  The author mentioned was P D James and I would agree that she does indeed create well-rounded characters, at least in her earlier books.  In fact, thinking about this while I was out walking, I realised that it was the way in which James has begun to falter in this respect in the more recent Dalgliesh books that has made me think that they are diminishing in quality.

Walking is always thinking time for me, so while I was out in this morning’s gorgeous winter sun I found myself drawing up a list of other popular fiction writers that I would cite as paying considerable attention to the creation of characters who are more than simply cardboard cut outs.  Ian Rankin was high on my list, as was Katharine Kerr in the field of fantasy and Philip Pullman where children’s literature is concerned.

What do you think about this as a means of distinguishing amongst the writers of genre fiction and if you agree with it as a principle who would you suggest should feature on that list?  All suggestions gratefully received.  Who knows, we might all meet some new writers we can add to our tbr piles – as if we needed any additions!

Published in: on January 3, 2010 at 6:32 pm  Comments (8)  

Sunday Salon

Life is still very interesting in the Table Talk household.  While I seem to have an Internet connection most of the time, I am again without an incoming phone line, and although I can make outgoing calls I can’t always guarantee that I’m going to be connected to the number I’ve rung.  This has meant that I’ve had some very surprising conversations over the past couple of weeks with people I might never otherwise have had the chance to become acquainted with but I would have exchanged that pleasure for the certainty of knowing that I can reach those that I want to reach.

There is no point in trying to do anything about this until the annual UK Christmas and New Year shutdown is over in around ten days time, the more so because we have heavy snow forecast for the forthcoming week and I wouldn’t want to be responsible for anyone coming out on the roads simply to deal with my phone problems.

I don’t do snow.  I get neurotic about not being able to get out and about as I want to.  You’d think the idea of a whole day when whatever I have in the diary I can legitimately ignore and just curl up with a good book instead would fill me with joy, especially as I no longer have anyone else for whom I’m responsible and about whom I have to worry, but I’m afraid it doesn’t work that way.  When I was teaching the children would inevitably get ecstatic the moment the first flake was spotted.  Up would go the cry, “Miss, it’s snowing.”  And grouchy old misery that I am, I would snarl through gritted teeth, “I know it’s snowing.  Get on with your work.”  Once the roads are clear it isn’t so bad, but when people can’t get around safely I find it very disturbing and if the forecasters are right then we’re in for some very nasty roads indeed this week.

Not that I’m lacking reading material.  I’ve just finished the fourth of Katharine Kerr’s Deverry series, which means that I still have eleven to go.  The idea was to read all of these through the Christmas and New Year period, but they’ve proved to be more substantial than I remembered and with everything I have to read for other purposes I suspect it’s going to be another month or so before I finally manage to get to the new one.  I’m very much enjoying the experience of reading them as a whole, though.  There are all sorts of links of which I hadn’t been fully conscious when reading them piecemeal that are now making their presence felt and the encounter is that much the richer for it.  One thing that is particularly apparent when reading the series this way is the very very detailed pre-planning that went into the work.  Do you know, there is one sentence in book one that encapsulates the entire plot of book thirteen.  Not surprisingly, I didn’t realise this the first time through, but meeting it now I can only marvel at the complexity of the mind behind this epic.  Maybe I’m going so slowly because subconsciously I don’t want the series to end.  If you enjoy fantasy and haven’t read Kerr’s work then you have a real pleasure before you.

Published in: on December 27, 2009 at 6:10 pm  Comments (4)  

Sunday Salon ~ I Hope

Some days the connection works and some days it doesn’t.  Yesterday I had a line out, but no line in.   Today I have a line in (someone’s just rung me) but won’t know if I have a line out until I try and post this.  Well, you have to admit that it makes life interesting, if only in the Confucian sense of the word.  Mind you, yesterday’s situation meant that The Bears very nearly missed out on their Christmas present, which was supposed to be being delivered in the morning.  They have had a new flat screen television set on which to watch their Harry Potter and Star Trek DVDs but when it didn’t arrive we were all getting very agitated and rang the delivery service to be annoyed only to discover that they had been trying to ring us all morning to ask if they could come in the afternoon.  Anyway, all was well that ended well.  Their present arrived after tea and I’m probably not going to see anything of them for the next few days as they watch their entire collection to see just how much better the films look on the latest technology.  There are all sorts of interesting sounds coming out of the television room, which have nothing to do with the DVDs themselves and I suspect The Bears are having fun with the new remote control.  I just hope they don’t blow the whole thing up before Christmas ever arrives or it will be tears before bedtime.

I made the mistake this morning of going into the City Centre to buy a few essentials to make sure we could get through the Christmas close down that paralyses the British scene from December 24th right through the New Year.  It was chaos even though I went early.  By the time I came away you simply couldn’t move in the streets.  Disturbingly, though, many of the shops were very empty.  I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t think it’s going to be a particularly good retail Christmas, at least not in Birmingham.  The recession is biting harder this year than last and in the luxury market it’s really showing.  Other than shopping for food, I shan’t be doing any more now and I definitely won’t be going into town anymore.  I don’t like crowds at the best of times.

On the reading front, I’ve almost finished my re-read of The Secret River and although it does bear a second read I’m more convinced than I was before that the second in the trilogy, The Lieutenant, is the better book.    Perhaps it is because I’m interested in language, which is a central concern in the later novel, but I think it is more thoughtful and considered work.   This means that I’m really looking forward to the third, which I understand is going to take up the story of William’s second son, Dick.  Don’t you love it when you can see a writer growing in strength book by book?

I’m also reading the first of David Roberts’ mysteries featuring Lord Edward Corinth and Verity Browne, Sweet Poison.  I don’t know where I heard about the series and I have to say that when this arrived from the library I took one look at it and thought, “ooh. I don’t think so”.  Well, never judge a book by its cover.  This may be a typical country house murder, but it’s well written and so far I’m very much enjoying it.  I have a poisoned general who doesn’t seem to have eaten or drunk anything different from everyone else at the meal and a cast of suspects in the guise of the other dinner guests who are all pretty foul and thoroughly deserving of being locked up for a very long time.  This almost certainly means that one of the nice servants will prove to be the villain.  Further reports as I get more deeply embroiled – if, that is, BT will kindly allow me tell you about it!

Published in: on December 6, 2009 at 7:00 pm  Comments (2)  

Sunday Salon ~ Harry Potter and the Medieval Morality Play

70757~Cafe-Mocha-PostersOne of the questions that I was asked to consider this week as I worked my way though the material I’ve been sent on The Comedy of Errors was what, if any, examples I could think of amongst current ‘literature’ that continued the traditions of the Medieval Morality Plays in a modern form.  The suggestion made in the text was that of the Western with its (normally) diametrically opposed good guy versus bad guy.

Well, as you will know if you’ve read the last entry here, I’m beginning to develop a habit of arguing with the materials that I’ve been sent and I wasn’t too sure about this response either.  I can see the good guy, bad guy argument, but it seems to me that a much more fundamental issue where the Morality Plays are concerned is the question of choice – do I choose to be good or do I choose to be bad and if I choose to be bad is there any hope of redemption.

With this in mind, I toyed for a while with the idea of Star Wars and the choices which Luke and Darth Vedar have to make, but then I suddenly realised that in fact there was a much more obvious answer, Harry Potter.

The question of choice is central to the Harry Potter sequence.  It is there from the very beginning when Malfoy approaches Harry on the train and tries to recruit him to the forces of evil.

‘You’ll soon find out some wizarding families are much better than others, Potter.  You don’t want to go making friends with the wrong sort.  I can help you there.’

Harry rejects Malfoy’s offer of ‘help’ and reinforces his choice under the Sorting Hat.

Harry gripped the edges of the stool and thought, ‘Not Slytherin, not Slytherin.’

‘Not Slytherin, eh?’ said the small voice.  ‘Are you sure?  You could be great, you know, it’s all here in your head, and Slytherin will help you on the way to greatness, no doubt about that – no? Well, if you’re sure – better be GRYFFINDOR!’

Just in case we haven’t realised the importance of this choice, Dumbledore makes it very plain when Harry agonises over the similarities between himself and Voldemort and questions whether or not the hat has made a mistake.

‘It only put me in Gryffindor,’ said Harry in a defeated voice, ‘because I asked not to go in Slytherin…’
‘Exactly,’ said Dumbledore, beaming once more.  ‘Which makes you very different from [Voldermort].  It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.’

Throughout the sequence the importance of choice is emphasised again and again.  Think, for example of the moment in the Shrieking Shack where Harry chooses not to kill Wormtail and the consequences inherent on that choice.  And, of course, we are reminded of it right at the very end as Harry says goodbye to his son, Albus, on the platform at King’s Cross.  As Albus agonises over the possibility that the Hat might place him in Slytherin Harry tells him,

‘if it matters to you, you’ll be able to choose Gryffindor over Slytherin.  The Sorting Hat takes your choice into account.’
‘It did for me,’ said Harry.

So, if the question of choice is central, then what about the question of redemption?  There we have to turn to Snape.  For if ever there was a character in literature who has turned his back on the bad, given himself over to the good, despite what it costs him, and who is eventually redeemed by his actions it is Severus Snape.  And, he does it without any expectation of reward.  Indeed, he refuses to allow Dumbledore to tell anyone of what he has done and why.  But, in the end he is willing to give his life for the child he loathes, the son of the man he hates, because of love, because Harry is also the son of Lily Evans.  He is redeemed by his action and has his final reward.  The last thing he sees as his life drains away is the one feature that Harry has inherited from his mother, her beautiful green eyes.

Realising the link between Harry Potter and the Medieval Morality Tales has made me think again about the value of those earlier texts.  I read several during the week and to some extent passed them over as not particularly relevant to me or to the current world, mainly, I suspect, because they are placed in such a strict Christian context.  However, when I think about what they are saying through the context of Rowling’s work I find myself acknowledging that the medium is not always the message.  That sometimes the medium can get in the way of the message.  Whatever tradition we come from, whatever our cultural perspective, our choices are what define us and the idea that we can be ‘redeemed’, that we can recognise the folly of earlier choices and do something to put those choices right, is for me at least, serious grounds for hope.

Published in: on October 25, 2009 at 10:47 am  Comments (6)  

Sunday Salon ~ Sacred Hearts

sacred-heartsSacred Hearts is the third novel by Sarah Dunant to be set in sixteenth century Italy, this time in the city of Ferrara. Like the two earlier books, The Birth of Venus and In the Company of the Courtesan, Dunant’s primary concern is the life that intelligent women were forced to live in those times and places if they wished in any sense to fulfil their potential.

Having previously explored the world of the artist and that of the business woman turned courtesan, this time the author turns her attention to the world of the convent where many women who might otherwise have found themselves bound to despotic husbands were in fact able to develop talents that might have withered in the secular world.  The price however is steep, the loss of liberty and the possibility of family life.

Sacred Hearts is set in the convent of Santa Caterina at a time when, historically, the Council of Trent had turned its attentions to the licence with which many such religious houses were run.  Although, at the time of the story, the nuns way of life is protected by a less than rigid bishop, it is not just those who enjoy rather more luxury than would be found acceptable under the new regime who fear for their indulgences.  Suora Zuana, the convent’s dispensary mistress knows only too well what would happen to the books of anatomy and medicine that she brought with her after her father death, should the Council have their way.  However difficult Zuana might have found her early years as a nun, she recognizes that in the outside world she would never have had that freedom to explore her calling which she has been allowed enclosed behind the convent walls.  If the convent is to continue as a place of learning and relative comfort then it is essential that nothing happens to draw attention to the sisters and the life they have carved out for themselves within its boundaries.

The last thing they need, therefore, is the arrival of Suora Serafina, a teenager gifted to the convent by her parents after she has threatened to disgrace the family by running off with her music tutor.  Serafina’s appearance causes nothing short of mayhem.  A spirited individual, she has no intention of settling to the religious life.  Her first evening behind convent walls is a memorable one for everyone within earshot and as the weeks go on there is no apparent change in her intention to find a way to leave the order and be reunited with her lover as soon as possible.  However, events conspire to make the recalcitrant novice the focal point of an internal dispute between familial factions within the convent and suddenly it looks as if not only her freedom but her very life is threatened.  It falls to Suora Zuana, with whom Serafina has developed some level of trust, to try to find a way to break a deadlock that threatens the foundations on which Santa Caterina’s community is built.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel.  Although the specific situation is fictional, I believe the general historical facts are true and the local and temporal colour certainly feels authentic enough.  I’m not so sure about the characters, who had a very modern air to them, but that is a quibble that certainly didn’t distract from the pleasure of the reading experience.

I’ve only read Ms Dunant’s historical output and at some point must go back to her earlier thriller writing and see what that is like.  Has anyone read any of those books?  And, if so, what would you recommend?

Published in: on October 18, 2009 at 9:28 am  Comments (9)  

Sunday Salon

70757~Cafe-Mocha-PostersJust two quick points today, quick because of the first of them.

I am having real problems with my server at the moment.  Just now I can get on line, but I don’t know how long this is going to last.  So, my apologies for not visiting around as much as usual.  Most days it just hasn’t been possible.  The engineer is coming to check the line tomorrow but this has been an on-going problem for the best part of a year and I suspect the answer eventually is going to have to be a re-wiring job.  I will post and comment from the University when I can, but if I’m sporadic for a while you will know why.

The second point is a reading one – proper material for the Salon:)  Yesterday afternoon, I picked the new Audrey Niffenegger novel, Her Fearful Symmetry, from the library and realised when I got it home that I was almost too frightened to read it.  I loved The Time Traveler’s Wife so much that even the possibility that this might not live up to it froze my hand as I went to open it.  Is this a common phenomenon or am I just being neurotic?  (Or, as The Bears would say, even more neurotic than usual!)

Talking of Bears, I have to tell you that I was driving back from Kidderminster on Friday afternoon when I passed a motorcyclist going the other way who had (and I kid you not) a life-sized Teddy Bear strapped to his waist and sitting on the pillion seat behind him.   If only I could have got a picture.  Mind you, my Bears did not approve when I told them about it; the Bear was not wearing a crash helmet.

Off now to do some visiting while I still have a connection.

Published in: on October 11, 2009 at 9:18 am  Comments (14)  

Sunday Salon ~ My Native Tongue

70757~Cafe-Mocha-PostersLast week in the Salon I was having a grumble about novelists who either felt the need to establish their credentials as researchers or who were not skilful enough to distinguish between material that was necessary for their story and detail that pushed the book from fiction to quasi-encyclopaedia entry.  In either case the result is a novel that is relatively top heavy in minutia and light on plot. In doing so, I quoted from Henry James, who wrote:

The historical novel is, for me, condemned.  You may multiply the little facts that can be got from pictures and documents…as much as you like, but the real thing is almost impossible to do…I mean the invention, the representation of the old consciousness of individuals in whose minds half the things that make ours, that make the modern world, were non-existent.

Starting out on the journey of my first Masters module this week, I found myself thinking that in fact, the opposite was true: that when we try to understand the cultural sensibility that allowed Shakespeare to flourish, we don’t have the slightest chance of coming close because the conditions that made it possible for him to thrive, that made the Elizabethan world the crucible of linguistic invention that it was, are now non-existent.

It was just half a sentence in the course materials that set me thinking this way, although I’ve given you the sentence before as well, to set the context.

It’s never easy to account for cultural change, for the emergence of the new, or for the way in which a particular set of social, historical circumstances lead to the development of specific art forms. The early modern period was characterised by developing use of the vernacular,

And there you have it.  We take the use of our native language for granted.  Not only do the major institutions of our time conduct their business in our mother tongue, but there are consistent moves made to ensure that as much confusing jargon as possible is removed, that we understand what the powers that govern our lives are about.  How can we ever begin to even imagine what it must have felt like back in the latter half of the sixteenth century to experience the shackles of legal and religious parlance falling away and to know the exhilaration of hearing for the first time the most important and influential factors in your life spoken about in your own language?

The English Language was being liberated and Shakespeare and his audience must have been relishing this in the same way as the growing child relishes the sudden freedom to explore territory previously denied to them.  The joy in discovering the possibilities that writing in his mother tongue afforded him is palpable in everything that Shakespeare wrote and must have been appreciated just as much by the audiences that came to see and hear his work performed.  The nearest that I can hope to come to this today is to try and imagine what it must be like to be a Welsh speaker here in the UK or a Basque speaker in Spain surrounded by a culture that may pay lip service to their language but which in every meaningful way makes using it on a daily basis for anything that encourages social enhancement almost impossible.

James may have felt that it was his advantages that got in the way of writing historical fiction.  For me it’s the other way round.  What might seem like an advantage on the surface, my ability to converse in my own tongue without even having to think about it, is in fact a disadvantage, because it robs me of the impetus to explore my language and makes it almost impossible to appreciate the intensity and the exhilaration of creating a new art form in the words that are spoken around me every day.

Published in: on October 4, 2009 at 9:54 am  Comments (10)  

Sunday Salon ~ Warts and All

70757~Cafe-Mocha-PostersAt the moment I’m re-reading Geraldine Brooks wonderful book March in preparation for a book group meeting a week tomorrow.  The edition I have includes an article by the author in which she quotes Henry James on the subject of historical fiction.  Mr James was not amused. He wrote:

‘The historical novel is, for me, condemned.  You may multiply the little facts that can be got from pictures and documents…as much as you like, but the real thing is almost impossible to do…’

Not surprisingly Ms Brooks does not agree and, for the most part, I’m with her.  I enjoy well-written historical fiction and I think you can learn a lot about not only the facts but also the feeling of what it was like to live in times other than our own, but…

Oh yes, there is always a but.  Sometimes that multiplicity of little facts that James talks about can become an avalanche under which the story is suffocated.  Over the past three or four years there has been a spate of books mostly, but not always, historical, which seem to me, and I have to add to many of my reading friends, to have suffered from what you might call the warts and all principle.  Their authors have done their homework to the nth degree.  Their research is meticulous.  It can’t be faulted.  And you know it can’t be faulted because you can read it all, every last reference, every last footnote, every last little fact, right there on the page.  You don’t so much read these books as mine your way through them, hoping beyond hope that you will eventually reach the seam of gold that is the story and that, if you do find it, it will still be alive and well.

Sometimes, you feel you can forgive the writer. (Although, I have to say that some readers are more forgiving than others.  My friend Mary and I have had some right ding dong discussions about what is acceptable and what isn’t.)  For me, one such occasion was Elizabeth Kostova’s first novel, The Historian. It contained so much information I could really have done with a notepad and pencil by me all the time to keep track of everything.  And yet, at the core there was a fine story that was worth the effort it took to dig it out.  Kostova is a writer to be watched, I feel, and I’m very glad to see that she has a new novel, The Swan Thieves, due out in the new year.  I hope she will have refined her technique and that the resulting book will be sharper.  At a projected 400 pages it’s still hefty but, nevertheless, over 300 pages shorter than that first novel.

This week, however, I have had a rather different experience.  I’ve had to give up on a book by one of my favourite writers because over a hundred pages in I was still trying to claw my way through the spoil pile of her research in order to find a story that I was beginning to suspect might not be there to find in the first place.  Note, ‘one of my favourite writers’, this is no first time author not yet sensitive to how much detail should or should not find its way onto the page.  This is a writer with over twenty historical novels behind her and a rightly-deserved fan base that must run into six figures at least.

I think what may have gone wrong in this case is that the author has changed her period and that as a result she is not as confident as she should be about what the reader does or doesn’t need to know.  There is a sense almost of her reassuring herself that she knows enough about this new world to be able to write about it.  And, if that is the case, then I have to ask the question, where was the editor?  This is a question I seem to return to again and again.  Too many books recently have reached the shelves before they are properly ready.  In some instances the problem has been major faults in the way the story is fashioned, as here, in others the difficulties have had more to do with the quality of the proof-reading, which I know can never be perfect, but which nevertheless seems to be of less and less importance these days.

OK, so it’s been a bad week and maybe I’m feeling grouchy.  Am I alone in the blogging world in feeling this way?  Or are there others who have encountered similar problems?  Let me know what you think.

Published in: on September 27, 2009 at 10:38 am  Comments (14)