Monthly Archives: February 2013

Desert Island Books

It’s that old scenario, white sandy beach, a single palm tree, gulls shrieking, strings playing Sailing By and Kirsty Young asking you to choose eight books. The Bible and the Complete Works of Shakespeare are apparently already under the palm tree, thanks to the DIBSTUS (Desert Island Bible and Shakespeare Top Up Society).

What criteria to use? After all, millions of people are not listening to your choices, so you don’t have to answer to them, or make your choices represent important people or events in your life. But DIBSTUS will only deliver 8 more books so you do have to find some criteria or other.

It’s clear that I should choose books I want to read again and again, for all the years I will be stranded, listening to Sinatra singing My Way (also provided by DIBSTUS for all castaways)? I could go for the greatest books list. The Guardian’s 100 greatest novels of all time begins well enough with Don Quixote, and Pilgrim’s Progress, and then at #3 – just the thing on your desert island – Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe. There are no women writers in the top eight books in the list. Jane Austen’s Emma and Frankenstein by Mary Shelley come in at #9 and #10. They may be the greatest (longest?) novels of all time, but these top eight are worthy, harsh and actually, rather masculine. I expect DIBSTUS would approve. I’ll take a different set to my desert island.

My great-grandfather referred to reading as a conversation with the author, and I find myself asking with whom would I like to converse on my desert island? Not John Bunyan or Daniel Defoe I am sure. John Bunyan would treat every day like Sunday, and Daniel has seen it all before, after all. Been there, done that! Is there a T shirt?

So here is the list of authors with whom I would like to converse, and my pick of their books:

Jane Austen, I think I’d try to persuade Kirsty [see what I did there!] to allow me the complete works, but if she doesn’t agree I’ll take Pride and Prejudice.

Pride & Prej

Joseph Heller, Catch-22 has the kind of humour that exactly appeals to my generation, loads of characters and idiosyncrasy, full of those moments of human stupidity and situations when only laughing at the absurdity will get you through.

Virginia Woolf, The Waves. It’s about time I got to grips with this novel. She’s such an amazing and thoughtful writer, never did anything without great reflection. But I felt mostly relief when I first finished reading it. The island context would seem appropriate for a project related to the sea, and to explore the novel further.

Marge Piercy Woman on the Edge of Time for its vision of a world where gender differences are irrelevant; or Ursula le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness for a different approach to the same topic. (Help! Can’t decide!)

W.G. Sebald Austerlitz. I don’t believe I would ever tire of the inventiveness and imaginativeness of Sebald’s writing. And the tour de force of the description of Theriesenstadt deserves the familiarity a castaway’s life could provide.

George Eliot Middlemarch. I wouldn’t tire of this book either with its study of people and their relationships and the fixes they get themselves into.

Susan Coolidge, What Katy Did. I want to overthrow the teachings of this childhood favourite, with its awful insistence on self-sacrifice for girls. I might write What Katy did in 2013 to replace it. The date in the title would have to adjust according to when I get rescued.

Bookshelf DSC00106

That leaves one choice. Any suggestions? In the absence of better offers I can always take the Guardian’s #1 because I have never read it all through: Don Quixote.

Oh dear, Kirsty is asking for a last choice: just one of these books and one luxury. Reading glasses perhaps. But which book?

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The Last September by Elizabeth Bowen

Do you keep a cache of chocolates after Christmas, so that you can savour again the pleasures of treating yourself? The novels of Elizabeth Bowen are like that. She is a novelist I am glad to have come across late in my reading career. I picked up a copy of The Last September recently in an Oxfam secondhand shop and in February it came to the top of my reading pile.

The Last September was published in 1929, when Elizabeth Bowen was 30. She went on writing until 1969, and died in 1973. Her best known book is probably The Heat of the Day (1949) set in wartime London.

Last September

Ireland in 1920 is the location of The Last September. This is the period when the Black and Tans, a motley collection of British armed forces, were sent to Ireland to deal with the insurgents fighting for Irish freedom. A bloody period in Irish history was just beginning. She is often described as a novelist of the inner life and likened to Jane Austen for it. A strong theme of this novel is the intrusion of the outer world into the domestic, the personal, the inner worlds of the characters in the house – Danielstown.

About six o’clock the sound of a motor, collected out of the whole country and narrowed under the trees of the avenue, brought the household on to the steps. Up among the beeches, a thin iron gate twanged; the car slid out from a net of shadow, down the slope to the house. Behind the flashing windscreen Mr and Mrs Montmorency produced – arms waving and a wild escape to the wind of her mauve motor-veil – an agitation of greeting. They were long-promised visitors. They exclaimed, Sir Richard and Lady Naylor exclaimed and signalled: no one spoke yet. It was a moment of happiness, of perfection. (p7)

Ah, the perfection of that phrase ‘an agitation of greeting’! This is the opening paragraph, a sound of a car from beyond the boundary of the demesne, bringing long-promised visitors and a moment of ‘happiness and perfection’. And thus we are warned that it will not last, this happiness and perfection. Indeed the title of the novel has already indicated it.

Silence or circumlocution are her themes. Silence about certain topics. Notice, in the opening paragraph that short phrase: ‘no one spoke yet.’ Sir Richard leaves the room if anything significant is mentioned. Lady Naylor will not speak directly. Here, for example, she is attempting to warn off the very nice young English subaltern who is courting her niece, and whose English good manners drive her to more directness for once.

‘Oh, Mr Lesworth!’ she cried, disconcerted. She resumed firmly but with inspiration, something between a hospital nurse and a prophetess: ‘The less talk, the less indirect discussion round and about things, the better, I always think.’ (p181)

Less talk and less indirect discussion fill the remaining pages of the novel, until its concluding paragraph:

Sir Richard and Lady Naylor, not saying anything, did not look at each other, for in the light from the sky they saw too distinctly. (p206)

There are many characters in this short novel, and Bowen has no difficulty in getting the reader to see them as individuals, often in a few deft words. A good example is the description of Lady Naylor’s tone with Gerald, quoted above: ‘something between a hospital nurse and a prophetess’.

The house is almost a character, in itself. In it live Lady Naylor and her husband Sir Richard, their respective nephew and niece, Laurence and Lois (late teens, early 20s), and their guests Mr and Mrs Montmorency, whose arrival opens the book. There are other people in their social circle, and Elizabeth Bowen’s descriptions and use of them in the plot have again reminded people of Jane Austen: the voluminous Mrs Fogarty, the unmarriageable Miss Hartigans, sharp and stylish Marda Norton. One of the sub-plots concerns Mr Montmorency’s pathetic yearning after what he cannot or does not have including the inevitable Marda. He can never be sure whether the decision not to emigrate to Canada was right or wrong, and whether to build a bungalow, or not.

Lois is the focus of the narrative, her relationships with Gerald Lesworth, her cousin Laurence, the exotic Marda, her friends in the locality and in London. In the course of the novel she develops a taste for the world beyond Danielstown, and encounters the outer world, which she cannot share with the people in the house. She moves further and further away, as young people must.

The Last September has something of the attraction of a short story, the glimpse of a small world, and over a short timescale, but everything distilled, sharp, moving us towards the denouement.

Elizabeth Bowen is justifiably celebrated for the quality of her prose, and especially for her powers of description. Inanimate objects almost take on intention, emotion, reaction and become, as the house does, part of the action. Rosalind Brown, in her Mslexia blog in January, Influence me, Elizabeth Bowen, quotes Elizabeth Bowen’s description of the dining room and then consciously models her own prose on it. There’s no higher praise for a novelist.

Since I finished this novel I’ve found her first one, The Hotel, in a second hand shop, so I have another treat waiting for me.

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What shall I do with the drunken story?

My short story is drunk and I don’t know what to do with it. Back when I merely dabbled in writing, I believed that my first version was it – a polished version straight off. Nowadays I have moved far, far away from this. I find it hard to stop editing. I usually tell myself to stop when I find myself checking the commas. But between the first version and that final comma, that’s where my problems lie.

It’s in its first draft this story. It is a kind of drunken version of what I imagined. Sober characters lurch about in the 2000 words, horizons shift with each paragraph, and people in the background are too loud.

I have five weeks to fix it. To start with, I could put it in the drawer with my novel (see previous post). Just for a week. But if I do that I think my novel would be so disgusted it would climb out and I wouldn’t see it again. I think I need to have a go at the draft and sort it out.

Can I get it to stand upright, or in other words, is there a story here?

There is a good strong idea, which also happens to have a good image at the core of the story. I have a narrative, but it feels choppy. So I need to check this: narrative + good idea = story?

To fix the narrative I could apply the famous eight point story arc. But I’d get squiffy thinking about stasis, trigger, quest, surprise, critical choice, climax, reversal and resolution. In fact I could use many of the 2000 words just arcing the thing.

I prefer to use the fairy story spine. You know, once upon a time there was a young woman called Tilly, who had lived with her aunt and uncle since her mother was killed in the Blitz. One day Tilly meets Henry and falls in love … So far so good. Because of that … Something a little bad needs to happen. It does. Then something really bad happens. It does. Until finally … And then Tilly finds she has obtained more than she expected but not what she originally wanted and she’s the better for it. They all live happily ever after (except Henry). I found the story spine idea in Jurgen Wolff’s useful book Your Writing Coach on p95.

I need to know Tilly a little better. It’s her story. I like to use character questionnaires to find out all those things that help imagine the character: big things like how old she is, the colour of her eyes, and little things like, what does she always have with her? And what gesture does she use? It helps that I like Tilly. I could use Jenny Alexander’s five points suggested on her blog Writing in the House of Dreams: name, appearance, something they love, and hate, a special object. What does this character keep in their pocket, a suggestion in a comment.

And I need to do the same with Henry. I’m not so keen on Henry. But he deserves to be authentic and full-bodied, all the same.

And I need to do a little more research on that period immediately after World War II. That wont be a hardship as I love researching, and that period is of great interest to me. I’ve just reread The Girls of Slender Means, by Muriel Spark, and noticed that she locates her short novel very precisely between VE and VJ Days. I need bomb damage and shortages and – you’ve heard this word recently – austerity. I must check out the details.

camay

And then I can start on the adverbs, adjectives, nouns and verbs, in a close edit. I found the ideas of Noah Lukeman in The First Five Pages, very helpful in this respect. After all, a short story is the first five pages.

OK, the story feels a little less drunk. Now what next?

Well, of course, I could go and pour myself a drink and get going.

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How do you organise your books?

The problem of organising your books is owning them. If you love books you own lots of them. You acquire them, read them, and then put them – where? On a shelf, in a pile, and immediately you are confronted with the persistent problem of how to organise your collection. Even the most evangelical of kindlers surely has some books to organise, unless they have been completely ruthless. Kindles may be the answer to the problem in the future, but I am not a convert to Kindle yet. That’s a topic to come back to.

It’s the rule, in organising books. There is never enough shelf space, however many books you own.

If you have ever cohabited with another reader, the rule means you have had to take urgent action and someone disposed of their copies of Women in Love, To Kill a Mocking Bird and The Collected Works of William Shakespeare. It can be a fraught time as you argue over the emotional value of your GCSE copy of Julius Caesar, or don’t want to part with the precise copy in which you encountered Atticus Finch. And remember, some people can’t bear to part with books under any circumstances. That’s another topic to come back to – recycling books.

When you move house books get put in boxes, and often left in boxes for weeks, months, even years. Two years ago I came across several boxes of books in my cellar that had been put there when I moved in 30 years before. I figured that if I hadn’t missed those books in 30 years I could send them on their way now. Anyway, see the rule. Not all of them have been recycled of course. Some of them snuck on the shelves (see method 2  below).

book organise DSC00171_2

Here are some methods for organising your book collection. I’ve already given you a clue about mine. Which is yours?

  1. The Librarian. Categories of books are grouped together: gardening, cookery, reference, poetry, travel books, biography, gifts from Aunty Doreen, fiction. Within the groups they are organised alphabetically by author.
  2. Willynilly. Wherever they fit (see the rule).
  3. Half and half. Some organisation for half of them, so that cookery books are in the kitchen, reference books by your computer and books by the same author pushed in together. Other half, as in Willynilly.
  4. Surprise. After some discussion about organising sheet music at choir I asked Yvonne, the alto sitting beside me, how she organised her books. ‘They’re art books,’ she told me, ‘and I keep them in the cupboard.’ Well there you are.
  5. Aesthetic. By colour. Very tasteful, but this method takes ages to arrange and books take even longer to be found. But that’s not the point (see method name). My nephew did actually arrange his collection by colour and it was enchanting (see photo for one I tried earlier; not exactly enchanting). But this method doesn’t solve the question – where would you put that gold covered copy of The Mirror Within by Anne Dickson?
  6. Other wild ways. Order of purchase. Height. Alphabetically by title. Stacked on their sides. Order of publication. Order of reading. On the stairs.

Go on. What do you do with yours?

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