Thursday, 15 December 2016

Two Thought Provoking Novels About Racial Oppression

Who could have imagined that in the 21st century and with a United Nations Council mandated to preserve the peace that a city could be subjected to a protracted siege and the bombardment of innocents? That a huge city could be destroyed by shelling?

If you are in any doubt about what the innocent people of Aleppo have endured and continue to endure then I commend to you a well-researched novel by Helen Dunmore.  The Siege was first published in 2002. Set against the background of the siege of Leningrad by the Nazis during WWII, the protagonist is Anna, a young woman with caring responsibilities for her novelist father and her five-year-old brother. Despite the horrendous circumstances of daily life Anna falls in love and the extended family shares a battle for survival in the beleaguered city.

Beautifully written, when it was first released the book received glittering accolades from critics writing for the more important British newspapers.

Literary writing of the highest order set against a background of suffering so intimately reconstructed it is hard to believe that Dunmore was not there.
— Richard Overy, Sunday Telegraph

Three-quarters of a million people died of starvation during the siege of Leningrad. Helen Dunmore's book is a thought-provoking novel, the subject matter and themes of which are still current.
We now need to dig into the collective conscience to discover how to help tens of thousands of displaced innocents, the ones who managed to escape from the hell of Aleppo, to attempt to build some kind of future for themselves.

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr was written primarily as a book for children. Nevertheless, I was absolutely enthralled. It was first published 40 years ago. The copy that I borrowed has a preface by the eminent children's writer and former Children's Laureate Michael Morpurgo, who writes that it is The is the most life-enhancing book you could ever wish to read. The book is fictionalised life writing in the third person. Told from the perspective of Anna, the nine-year-old protagonist (Judith Kerr), it is an account of the escape from Germany of the Kerr family after the Nazis came to power. Ms. Kerr's father, Alfred, was an eminent Jewish writer and vociferously anti-Nazi journalist whose fame was such that his books were burned and a price is placed on his head by the Nazis. The family moved first to Switzerland, on to France, and eventually to England. Ms. Kerr writes in her postface that the important parts of the story are true but that, as we can't remember everything from the past, she has added things that she felt would make the story a more enjoyable. She has added as appendices some facts about WW2.

Like The Siege, the book is still relevant today. I can add nothing to what Michael Morpurgo has said about it. This is one that will give children lots to think about. If you have children of your own - why not share it with them. If you don't have children - it's still worth the candle.

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

You Can't Judge A Book By It's Cover - or can you?

I attended a couple of events at small local literary festival at the weekend and I have to say that the interviews that we listened to were more enlightening, for anyone who has writing ambitions, than those with some of the giants of the literary world that I heard last year in Bath.

I was surprised to hear how much importance is attached to the cover of a book. The successful crime writer  Stephen Booth  revealed this his publisher had set the wheels in motions for the design of a cover for one of his novels on the basis of nothing more than the title, followed by a brief synopsis. This was said in response to a remark from the member of the audience that she only bought a book if she liked the cover, followed by her question about how a cover is chosen. The panel went on to say that an author has very little input. The cover is so important to large retailers and supermarkets that they will refuse to stock a book if they don't like it. One panel member later remarked on a personal case of a cover being redesigned because a particular supermarket chain refused to otherwise take the book.

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Clustering to free the imagination

As far as creative writing is concerned, I've been in a dry period for too long (hence the compulsive blogging, which at least maintains the writing habit). Am I suffering from writers' block? Probably. I  suspect that years of activities that rely on left-brain thinking (I was trained as an auditor in a former life and I regularly play chess, bridge, and computerised card games) have stifled my creativity. So I've ditched the card games and prescribed clustering (a technique also used as a team activity in the world of business, where it is sometimes referred to as brain storming)  in the hope that it will be the cure. I'm planning to build a habit of spending ten minutes or so on the technique each morning.

This technique was included in a creative writing module that I studied as part of my OU  literature Degree course. You are probably already familiar with it but if not  - the following has been culled from my course reader:

Clustering -

 A technique developed by Gabrielle Lusser Rico in her book Writing the Natural Way (1983)

Based on the separate functions of the brain's two hemispheres

Aims to bypass the analytical functions of the brain which might initially constrain creative writing

 Clustering helps us to move backwards and forwards between different areas of the brain as needed. It suppresses the analytical mode that we often go into when we begin to start thinking about writing something. It is more like drawing or sketching than writing and helps us to begin writing more easily and coherently.

How to do it -

This is a fast exercise. Spend no more than 3 minutes on a cluster

Take a blank sheet of  paper and choose a word or phrase connected with what you want to write about

Write this word or phrase in the centre of the page and circle it

Write down every connection that comes into your head

The words or phrases that you write should fan out from the initial circle like a branch 

Don't worry about being neat. Here's a sample cluster (not written by me!)


Once you have drawn a cluster the idea is that you look for things in it that you find particularly interesting and use them as the basis for free writing exercises, which will further release the creative imagination.

Sunday, 5 June 2016

Who Do You Read? And Who Do You Write Like?

It's fun to analyze my writing on the website - but I'm uncertain about how accurate is the analysis.

I have now copied and pasted four separate pieces of my writing into the window and come up with three different writers. Twice I have been informed that I write like David Foster Wallace. I won't lie - I had never heard of him. So,naturally, I read his bio on Wikipedia. It was pretty impressive so I ordered a couple of his books from the library. I am now a few pages into Girl With Curious Hair and frankly - I hate it.

So I then input a section the autobiography that I am ghost-writing - my father's life up the end of WW2. The result? I write like George Orwell. Perhaps a bit closer to my style than DFL. I like to think so.

A Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

I'm a fan of Mr McEwan's writing and this latest offering didn't disappoint. Set in 1970s England, a girl fresh out of Cambridge with a Maths degree is recruited to a junior post in MI5. She is tasked with recruiting an author whose writing, it is felt, will help to promote anti-communist propaganda. The plot turns into a love story with a surprising twist at the end. If you are a writer you might find, as an interesting bonus, an insight into a creative writers' thought processes amongst the pages. If you haven't yet read Ian McEwan's books I recommend his Booker Prize -winning Abandonment (made into the film starring Keira Knightley); Amsterdam; and The Children Act.

Sunday, 15 May 2016

Stop Trying to 'Find' Yourself

Here's something for navel contemplators to meditate on -

The authors of The Path: A New Way to Think About Everything endorse the 2000-year old stance of Confucious, who thought that looking within was a futile exercise. Why so? Because it seems that there is no true self and no means to finding a self by looking within. Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh write that what you would find by undertaking this exercise is nothing more than a snapshot of that particular moment. Who we are at any given moment is ephemeral - it arises from our constantly changing interactions with other people.

Friday, 13 May 2016

Lord of the Flies by William Golding

Lord of the Flies is, as you know, a contemporary classic. So, you might ask, how have I got to the age of xx without reading it before now. Well, I suppose it's because I didn't particularly enjoy the film all those years ago.

Lord of the Flies 1963 film

To be honest, I picked up the book at the library because there were lean pickings in the bin of books available for the Three Book Challenge by the time I got around to it. And I was pleasantly surprised, though I had to speed read because my three-week challenge ends today and I have to return the book to the library. Nevertheless, I was very pleasantly surprised - because, as you might expect from somebody who won the Nobel Prize for Literature, William Golding is a superb master of his craft.

First published in 1954, the edition that I have been reading was published for the William Golding Centenary in 2011 and has an introduction by Stephen King.  He writes that the novel is 'as exciting, relevant and thought-provoking now as when Golding published it in 1954'.

The plot - a group of around 30 small boys are the only survivors of a plane crash on a desert island. Unsupervised, their sense of order fades and their behaviour starts to become savage and murderous.

Lord of the Flies 1990 film

Thursday, 28 April 2016

Books Beyond Bedtime

Here's my reading list for the next couple of weeks -

  • Sepulchre by Kate Mosse - My second attempt at this book. I'm reading at the rate of around three chapters a night before nodding off. Now up to Chapter 48 and losing the will to carry on. Seems to me that there is a lot of padding to eke out the word count. I would have pruned, had I been the editor. Also, a list of characters at the front would have been helpful - I'm losing the plot, in more ways than one.

 Never one to back away from a challenge, I took up the Three Book Challenge at my local library. Select three contemporary classics from the bin, read them all in three weeks and claim your prize. There weren't many left to choose from when I dipped in. Some of them I had never heard about and would hesitate to call them classics. This is what I selected from the lean pickings  -

  • When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit - Judith Kerr. Looking forward this this one, though it is children's book. Fictionalised life writing about the escape of Ms. Kerr and her family from Hitler's Germany. Michael Morpurgo a former Children's Laureate has called it  The most life-enhancing book you could ever wish to read. 
  • Lord of the Flies - William Golding. You have probably read it, or seen the film, so I will only add that in this edition, which celebrates the William Golding Centenary,  there is a new introduction by Stephen King

  • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon. A murder mystery narrated by a fifteen-year old detective. Wise and bleakly funny, according to Ian McEwan (if you haven't read his novels you are missing a treat).

Sunday, 3 April 2016

Sepulchre by Kate Mosse

Occasionally I open the curtains in the morning, take one look outside and decide that the only thing to do is grab a luxurious, usually to be avoided, mug of hot chocolate and climb back into bed with a good book. Which is what happened today. I had planned to plough on with the garden work but the weather is so miserable that it's impossible. It's so dismal that I can't even summon the enthusiasm to get to the gym. So I picked up Sepulchre by Kate Mosse instead. I started to re-read it a few evenings ago - usually a couple of (short) chapters before settling down for the night.

Recipe for divine hot chocolate as made in Spain -luxurious treat

I got into the habit of speed reading when I was studying for my English Literature Degree, and that's how I read Sepulchre for the first time. But I think it's worth closer reading. It's a novel, set it France, but packed with facts - a short biographical sketch of Debussy, a lesson in Tarot - and I'm only up to chapter 13! Ms. Mosse is a descriptive writer - her description of characters immediately brings a vivid picture to my mind. I usually concur with Hemingway's few that the fewer the adjectives the better but in the instance I'm enjoying a leisurely read of a novel packed with imagery.

Ms. Mosse has a very impressive c.v.: Oxford University educated; senior roles in various publishing houses for 11 years; began her writing career in 1992. Her books have sold millions of copies in 40 countries.

Read a synopsis of Sepulchre

Saturday, 9 January 2016

Recommended Books by Professor David Lodge and his erstwhile student Ian McEwan

The Practice of Writing ' is a collection of prose pieces about literary fiction, drama and television adaptation' by Professor David Lodge  They were mostly written after he gave up his academic career to become a full-time writer. In his younger days Professor Lodge was known for his 'campus' novels and was famously instrumental in setting up the first M.A. in Creative Writing programme at the University of East Anglia.
Professor Lodge was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and was awarded a CBE for his services to literature He writes in his Preface to The Practice of Writing that the writers who he discusses at greatest length in this book all had an influence on this own writing. There are insightful pieces about, amongst others, D.H. Lawrence and Graham Greene, the latter of whom he met on several occasions. I recommend this book to anyone interested in the process of writing.
David Lodge

I am concurrently reading Professor Lodge's memoir - David Lodge Quite a Good Time to be Born A Memoir 1935-1975.

The first student to graduate from the M.A. course in creative writing established by David Lodge was Ian McEwan, the highly  acclaimed prize-winning author, whose oeuvre includes the Booker Prize-winning novel Amsterdam. I have just read McEwan's latest offering of fiction The Children's Act, which I highly recommend. It is the story of a High Court Judge, Fiona Maye, who must make a decision about a seventeen-year-old boy who is refusing the medical treatment that could save his life - a decision complicated by her developing emotional involvement with the boy. Michael Frayn has described it as 'One of the best and most perfect novels that I've ever read'.