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.

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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 ~ 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.’
‘Really?’
‘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

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 ~ 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)  

Sunday Salon

70757~Cafe-Mocha-PostersOh Lord!  Sorry I haven’t been around these last couple of days.  My nightmare scenario happened at a preliminary meeting over at Stratford.  There was a major accident on the motorway on the way home and as a consequence the hour journey took nearer three.  And, as a consequence of that, my adrenalin problem kicked in and, well let’s just say you don’t want to know about the rest, because you really don’t!    I console myself by the fact that if things really do become impossible this is a degree that can be done by distance learning.  I don’t want to do it that way, but if I have to I will.  Nothing much to report from the meeting (this week and next it’s more administrative stuff than actual teaching) except that everyone seems formidably clever and incredibly confident.  I know enough about students to know that the latter, at least, is 90% bravado.  Most of them will be shaking in their boots as much as I am.

But, I did get a good tip from one woman to whom I spoke about a very good audio version of Richard II, which in the light of what we were talking about last week concerning the way in which Shakespeare’s audience would have listened to a play, I thought I would explore and see if just listening made a big difference.

The version about which she was so complimentary was the BBC Radio Production with Samuel West as Richard.  I’m not certain if those of you who are reading this outside the UK will know Sam West’s work, but let me just say that when I heard this existed I had to come home and discover if it was available anywhere because anything with West in it is a must in this household.  In fact, it is because Sam West is his namesake that Samuel Bear wants to grow up to be a Bear who is an actor. (Amongst many other things.  Samuel Bear is a Bear who wants to do everything; preferably yesterday.  Sometimes, living with Samuel Bear can be exhausting!)

The link I’ve given you is for the Audible Company.  I discovered them last week after deciding that I wanted to do more listening.  For £7.99 a month you can have one download whatever the actual price.  Sometimes that means a saving on shop bought CDs of over £50.  A deal not to be sniffed at.  We have already had our discounted download for this month and I’ll tell you about that another day, but as this Richard is only £8.99 I’m going to treat The Bears and we are all going to the theatre this evening.

I think Audible must have originated in the US, so if this is as good as my new colleague suggests then when I report back maybe you will be able to get a copy there if it appeals. I wonder, are there other companies like this around?  If anyone knows of any I’d be glad of a link.  As it is we have already decided on next month’s discount.  Little Dorrit is available at about 15% of the price I would have had to pay in the shops.  Our long winter nights with tea, scones and Dickens are now assured.

Published in: on September 20, 2009 at 9:39 am  Comments (9)  

Sunday Salon ~ A Different Type of Listening

70757~Cafe-Mocha-PostersI have spent the last forty-eight hours trying to get used to a new pair of glasses and so any form of extended reading has been very difficult.  Past experience has taught me that this will sort itself out in time, but at the moment it’s all very blurry and rather nauseating so I was more than usually interested in the discussion that I managed to plough my way through yesterday in Simon Palfrey’s Doing Shakespeare about Elizabethan audiences and the manner in which they listened.  (The ploughing, by the way, was down to the glasses and not the writing; the book is very good.)

Palfry makes the point that because of the very high levels of illiteracy (90% of women and 60+% of men) ‘[m]ost school learning was by rote, absorbed aurally.’  These people were read to, and it wasn’t just lessons that they experienced this way, but also ‘fables, stories, songs , ballads, news – and in a very real sense plays.’  They knew how to listen in a way that we have forgotten, nay in a way which we have never learnt.

For us sound is perpetual, we are surrounded by it constantly, to the point where complete silence, if we do ever experience it, is frightening.  But the corollary to this is that we have stopped listening.  I would consider myself to be far more aurally aware than many of my friends.  I watch almost no television and rarely go to the cinema.  Most of my non-reading entertainment and all of my news coverage is absorbed from the radio or via CD, but even so, I know that I do not actively listen to any more than about 20% of what I hear.  I am not an Elizabethan.  This weekend I have wished I was.  It takes practice to listen actively and I’m not good at it.

So, if it is permissible to make a new year resolution half way through September, here is mine.  In future when I put a programme on the radio that I want to hear I am going to stop doing whatever else I was multi-tasking and really listen to it.  I am also going to start downloading audio-books and listen to those.  There is a real issue here for me because my mother lost her sight and was unable to read during her latter years.  While the condition she had is not inherited, the shape of eyes that are likely to develop it is and so there may come a time when I have no option but to be an Elizabethan listener.  If that time should come then I don’t want to have to learn how to do it in my eighties.  Whether I will ever reach the listening heights that Palfry claims for Shakespeare’s contemporaries and be able as a matter of course to pick out the rhetorical figures of speech that dominate his works is another matter, but I’m going to have a really good try.

Published in: on September 13, 2009 at 8:57 am  Comments (16)  

Sunday Salon ~ On Tolkien and Shakespeare

70757~Cafe-Mocha-PostersThere has been a certain amount of chatter here over the past two weeks about Dr Samuel Johnson, prompted by my admission that despite the fact that he is very much a local writer I know almost nothing about him.  I’ve sat back in admiration letting other bloggers teach me about one of the great figures of English letters and I’m very grateful, but it’s not very good for ego, so yesterday I set off to remind myself that there is one local writer about whom I know much more.

As some of you know, I live in The Shire.  Now don’t get worried.  I’m not living a fantasy life.  I really don’t believe that I’m a woolly-footed Hobbit or a long-eared elf, although I have to admit that when I was at work there were days when I wouldn’t have minded being a grumpy axe-wielding dwarf.  No, I actually do live in The Shire, the landscape that Tolkien drew on when he was creating the Middle Earth homeland of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins.  I often go for tea at the mill that was the model for the one own by Ted Sandyman and yesterday, between first and second breakfast (I do have a healthy admiration for the Hobbit insistence on regular meals) I went for a long walk in The Old Forest.

Fortunately, we haven’t had that much rain over the past couple of week, because one good downpour and the paths can become impassable and as Frodo and his friends found out to their cost, taking a detour is not a good idea.

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As you can see, I was able to do the sensible thing and follow one of the tributaries of the Brandywine so that I would be sure that I could find my way out again.

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I was also able to stick to the lower path.  It’s always wise to avoid the upper one.  So much easier to hide if you happen to hear horses hooves coming up behind you.  They may say they’re just from the local trekking centre, but who knows what guises those evil Nazgul may have taken in this reincarnation.

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Walking these paths alone, it is actually very easy to understand not only where Tolkien’s ideas came from, but also where he found some of the inspiration for the chilling atmosphere that he created.  It isn’t perhaps as easy to see how the University clock tower became one of the two towers of the trilogy’s second book, not that is, until you know that when it was built, a process Tolkien would have watched, it was constructed from the inside.  There was no scaffolding.  Watching that grow day by day, with no visible support, must have been very creepy indeed and it must have been easy to attribute it to some sort of magical intercession.

I cherish my links with The Shire and I also cherish my links with that other local writer, William Shakespeare.  As you will know if you come over here for tea on a regular basis, I’m going back to my Shakespeare studies and there’s been a suggestion made that we set up a Shakespeare discussion group.  I’ve put together a post about this, which is at present a sticky on the main blog site.  If you are interested in joining us then just click on the blog tab at the top of this post and you can read more about it there.  It would be great to have some fellow Salonistas along.

Published in: on August 23, 2009 at 8:51 am  Comments (11)  

Sunday Salon ~ An Open Letter of Apology

70757~Cafe-Mocha-PostersExcuse me, but were you the lady behind whom I was sitting in the bus on Thursday morning?  If so, I would really like to apologise.  I know the way in which I was peering over your shoulder and craning my neck around was an appalling example of bad manners, but I was just desperate to see what book it was that you were reading.

Actually, you were so engrossed in it that you probably didn’t notice me.  In fact you were so engrossed that you very nearly missed your stop.  I do have to say that that puzzled me.  I have read Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and to be honest it wasn’t exactly the most riveting book I’ve ever picked up.  But we could have talked about that, couldn’t we?  If I’d had the courage to come and sit next to you and strike up a conversation one reader to another.  Except so deep in the African forests were you that you probably wouldn’t have appreciated my bringing you back to the dusty byways of Warwickshire one little bit.

Anyway, should we happen to find ourselves on the same bus again some day, I promise to try and behave in a more seemly manner.  Perhaps you could bring your knitting to occupy you or something to listen to on your I-pod?  Then I wouldn’t have the temptation to peer put in front of me.  Because, to be honest, peering over the shoulders of people who are reading is like an addiction to me and without serious therapy I don’t think I’m going to be able to break it.  Perhaps there are clinics that specialize in curing such problems?  If you should happen to be aware of any then I would consider it a real kindness if you could let me know.  Some day someone is going to take exception to the way I behave and bop me on the nose, which would embarrass not only both of us but also everyone around us.

Again, I really am sorry and hope that you will accept my apology.

Yours very sincerely

Addicted Reader.

Published in: on August 16, 2009 at 9:28 am  Comments (20)