Monthly Archives: September 2014

Music in Novels

I am passionate about both books and music. It’s hard to find music (classical) in novels, partly because it not easy to communicate what music does in words. Here are five novelists who have used music in different ways.

String Quartet by Buyerlerdeqalardim  via Wikimedia Commons

String Quartet by Buyerlerdeqalardim via Wikimedia Commons

E.M. Forster A Room With A View and Howard’s End

126 Howards EndEM Forster knew his Beethoven and in A Room With A View Lucy crashes through a Beethoven piano sonata revealing her romantic but unformed sensibilities. I’ve done that too! Lucy’s playing style provokes this prophetic observation by Mr Beebe:

‘If Miss Honeychurch ever takes to live as she plays, it will be very exciting – both for us and for her.’ (36)

Beethoven is there again in Howard’s End. Helen attends a concert at the Queen’s Hall.

It will be generally admitted that Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is the most sublime noise that has ever penetrated into the ear of man. All sorts and conditions are satisfied by it. Whether you are like Mrs Munt, and tap surreptitiously when the tunes come; or like Helen, who can see heroes and shipwrecks in the music’s flood; or like Margaret, who can only see the music; or like Tibby, who is profoundly versed in counterpoint, and holds the full score open on his knee; or like their cousin, Fraulein Mosebach, who remembers all the time that Beethoven is ‘echt Deutsch’; or like Fraulein Mosebach’s young man, who can remember nothing but Fraulein Mosebach: in any case, the passion of your life becomes more vivid, and you are bound to admit that such a noise is cheap at two shillings. (p45)

There is gentle humour in this passage as well as skill. The sentence that begins ‘Whether you are like Mrs Munt …’ is very long, has great rhythm, near-repetitions and at the same time takes us into the characters of several people through their responses to the music. Margaret’s response is contrasted to Helen’s who sees heroes and shipwrecks. When I was much younger I used to listen to music as Helen does. Forster is saying something about Helen’s naivety. In the Adagio she hears goblins and a trio of elephants, and then comes the final movement. We are following Helen’s perspective now:

Beethoven chose to make all right in the end. He built the ramparts up. He blew with his mouth for a second time, and again the goblins were scattered. He brought back the guts of splendour, the heroism, the youth, the magnificence of life and death, and, amid vast roarings of a superhuman joy, he led his Fifth Symphony to it conclusion. But the goblins were there. They could return. He had said so bravely, and that is why one can trust Beethoven when he says other things. (p47)

A theme of the novel is the contrast between Margaret’s down-to-earth realism, and Helen’s more emotional impulses.

Rose Tremain Music & Silence

126 Music SilenceThis is a historical novel, set in the Danish Court of King Christian IV in the 17th century. Peter Claire is a lutenist employed in the king’s small orchestra, who must endure the most bizarre and harsh conditions, playing in a cellar amongst wine and chickens. It is some time since I read this novel but I clearly remember that the king believed that the function of music was to bolster a sense of order. I am tempted to reread it now I have picked it up again.

Vikram Seth An Equal Music

126 Equal MusThis novel tries to capture what is like to make music, in this case in a string quartet. At its heart is a love story, boy violinist meets girl pianist. We learn a great deal about rehearsing and performing in the quartet. I have the CD that complements the novel, containing the pieces to which it refers. What does it mean if the sound track is available alongside the novel? That the words cannot do the work of the music?

Reviews concluded that it is a flawed but interesting novel. See for example the review by Nicholas Christopher in the New York Times.

A full house, seen from the rear of the stage, at the Metropolitan Opera House for a concert by pianist Josef Hofmann, November 28, 1937 via Wikimedia Commons

A full house, seen from the rear of the stage, at the Metropolitan Opera House for a concert by pianist Josef Hofmann, November 28, 1937 via Wikimedia Commons

Eva Hoffman Illuminations: a novel

The story, both vivid and frightening, follows a concert pianist, Isabel, who is very passionate and focused on her art and the meaning she makes from the nineteenth century canon, especially Schubert. On tour in Europe she meet Anzor, who is a mysterious Chechnyan. He is passionate too, but about the damage to the codes of conduct and honour of his people. The story turns violent. Isabel observes that we need to pay attention to the ‘unfinished provisional prose of life’, not cut ourselves off in music (however beautiful) or in violent nationalism. This novel questions the meaning of the creation of beauty and the forces of violence and passion.

Steven Galloway The Cellist of Sarajevo

126 CellistThe cellist was a real person, Vedran Smailovic who played Albinoni’s Adagio for 22 days in honour of each of the victims killed on 27th May 1992 by a bomb at a bread queue during the siege of Sarajevo. The Adagio is a poignant piece of music, even if it is almost certainly not written by Albinoni. The novel The Cellist of Sarajevo is not about either the music or the cellist. The music stands for humanity in a dehumanised situation, crystallised by the cellist’s courageous act. Asserting humanity in the face of the destruction and moral decline of war is the theme of this novel.

While music is not a common theme in fiction, fiction certainly appears in music, notably in opera. The novels of Walter Scott are a frequent a source, and Dumas’s La Dame aux Camelias was the inspiration for Verdi’s La Traviata, to notice just two examples.

Do fiction and music mix well? What do you think?


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Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews

The Craft of Blogging (6) Why be a Slow Blogger?

I’m a slow blogger and proud of it. Why? And what is slow? The term has been borrowed from the Slow Food movement. Slow food is the opposite of fast food. The work of growing, harvesting, preparing and eating is lingered over to preserve the qualities of the food. It’s seasonal, eaten as close to the source as possible. Carlo Petrini started it in Italy in the late ‘80s, reacting to deaths from adulterated cheap wine and the proposal to site a fast food outlet near the Spanish Steps in the heart of Rome. It is now an international movement with local Slow Food groups all over the developed world. Here’s a quotation from their (indigestible?) Manifesto:

Against the universal madness of the Fast Life, we need to choose the defence of tranquil material pleasure. Against those, and there are many of them, who confuse efficiency with frenzy, we propose the vaccine of a sufficient portion of assured sensual pleasure, to be practised in slow and prolonged enjoyment. (Slow Food Manifesto 1989)

125 slow food logoWhat is slow blogging?

Slow blogging applies the same principles to a blog: practised in slow and prolonged enjoyment. First it means not posting every thought and idea, not treating it like twitter. Raising the number of hits is not the goal. The emphasis of slow blogging is on the quality of what is being written and on people getting something from reading it.

Slow blogging also has a manifesto, by a Canadian, Todd Seiling, in 2006.

Slow blogging is a rejection of immediacy. It is an affirmation that not all things worth reading are written quickly, and that many thoughts are best served after being fully baked and worded in an even temperament. (Slow blogging Manifesto, item 1. 2008)

However, unlike the Slow Food movement slow blogging has no organisation. Todd Seiling makes it clear that the manifesto is his, and we can write our own. He does not appear to have posted recently, which is fine if he feels he has nothing to say. The blog’s strapline is

It happens when it happens.

Why is Bookword a slow blog?

Books are slow. I mean the actual hold-them-in-your-hands and turn-the-paper-pages kind of books. Books are slow …

  • in conception
  • in writing
  • in production
  • in publishing
  • in absorbing or reading
  • in their influence.

Bookshelf DSC00106I accept that some aspects of E-books are also slow. But one of the virtues that kindle-owners relate is that you can get books anytime anywhere. This depends on the internet connection I imagine. But you get the idea. Quick. Quick! On a book blog, if it’s worth writing and worth reading, it’s worth mulling over. So I post every five or six days. In blogging terms, that’s slow.

Some slow bloggers advocate writing only when you feel like it. But I like the discipline of a schedule, a pattern to my posts – even if readers are unaware of them. I have to ensure I have enough time to mull over what I want to write. That explains why I am constantly rewriting the schedule – ready with one post, not far enough along with another. This one’s on time.

Snail: Katsushika Hokusai (葛飾北斎) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Snail: Katsushika Hokusai (葛飾北斎) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

. . . and two other thoughts

First, slowness is no guarantee of quality, of course. Some things are spoiled by over working (soufflés for example and other dishes involving eggs).

Stopwatch by Wouterhagens (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Stopwatch by Wouterhagens (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Second, the bots that mindlessly roam the internet are the antitheses of slow blogging. They infest blog in-boxes with messages like larvae, or stains, wherever they go. Knitters: think moths and you have the idea. Thank goodness for Akismet which saves me from thousands of the blighters. This blog is not a vehicle for cut-price rip-off handbags, sports shoes, and dubious medications.

A last word

Being a slow blogger does not prevent me from checking my statistics every day. I may go slowly but I want readers and comments. I believe that these depend upon the quality of the posts. But is there a connection? What do you think?

This is the sixth post in an occasional series on the Craft of Blogging. Please visit the first 5 posts:

  1. The medium
  2. Types of posts
  3. A checklist for blogposts
  4. Why do it?
  5. How I write my blog slowly


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Filed under Books, Reading, The Craft of Blogging, Writing

Retiring with Attitude at the BBC

To promote our recently published book Retiring with Attitude we are visiting some interesting places. In July it was the platform at the Ways With Words Festival in Dartington, Devon. Last week we sat in a studio of the BBC Western House, Great Portland Street, London and spoke to John Toal in Belfast. I have to admit that I hadn’t dressed for the occasion, having been on a train from Devon to London when the call came to summon me.

The authors on radio

I last did a radio interview for Anderson Country on Radio 4. Not many people remember that programme. It was broadcast last century! Eileen was interviewed more recently for Woman’s Hour about our Retiring Women’s Group and an earlier book, Retiring Lives. We were scheduled to record an interview for Radio Ulster’s Saturday morning magazine programme. We are green enough to be excited by the glamour of our experience!

Waiting for the studio

124 BBC passIt was a very relaxed, very professional, very low tech and very enjoyable experience. We waited in the foyer, watching the comings and goings of lots of busy people wearing identity cards on lanyards or pinned to their chests. We had identity tags too! People went through the security barrier and others came out. One pair in green sweatshirts carried three cat baskets. What were cats doing on the radio? They weren’t cats but something even more unlikely, which I’ll reveal at the end of the post! Anything seemed possible.

124 micThe time came to cross the barrier ourselves and wait again outside a suite of small studios. We were very conscious that it was everyday life for the people working in the building. For us peering into the little studios and noticing the red lights above the doors it was like being on a film set.

In the studio

124 empty studioWe were placed in a very small studio, shown headphones and mics like huge lollipops. There was no natural light and apart from the information that a voice would join us in a few minutes from Belfast we did not know what to expect. So I began to interview Eileen, hearing my voice and hers through the headphones. ‘What made you decide to write this book?’

And suddenly the mellifluous voice of John Toal joined in. He’s gorgeous on radio! I always admire professionalism. This guy knew us only from the book, and yet he put us at ease and got us talking and laughing and saying what we wanted to say about the book within a minute. He was warm, human, confident, reassuring and funny. He picked up important points from the book and asked us good questions. He is another in the long line of people who have helped us achieve what we wanted to achieve for the book, in this case a presentation of some of its arguments and message.

What we said

Eileen on air

Eileen on air

We had rehearsed a few of the themes we wanted to emphasise, drawing on our experience at Ways with Words. Our double act helped us by providing space when the other was speaking, and to present alternative points. And our interviewer helped as I’ve said. These were our points:

  • Retirement is changing, and nowadays it is much more in your control for decisions about timing and pace.
  • You need to prepare for other people’s expectations about your retirement, what we call the could-you-just syndrome.
  • Planning to replace some of the structures of work can help with the transition.
  • Support for you in your transition is invaluable, especially talking with others.

What we learned

It was a strange experience. We never met or spoke to Amy, our contact person. Was she in London or Belfast? We never knew. Talking about our ideas when we are already pushing forward with our next book was strange. But it was also rather wonderful, thinking that good people of Northern Ireland may be encouraged to think about their retirement in good ways as a result of our brief conversation.

Me on air

Me on air

And what was in the cat baskets? Well, there were three chickens, one of them a cockerel, and the green uniform was Hackney City Farm’s. And something else we never found out was what they were recording. Early morning wake-up?

A link

For a short while you can follow this link to hear the interview. It was the first item on the show.


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Filed under Books, Publishing our book, Writing

My Writing Space

Have you read the advice to find a quiet spot and develop regular writing habits? Does it suit you? It is not what’s needed by all writers.

I am lucky enough to live on my own, so every room is potentially a writing space, including the garden and my summer house. And I write in both of these from time to time, as well as in the kitchen – as close to the doings for making coffee as I can get for my morning pages.

I mostly write in my studio. The Guardian did a feature about David Hare in which he referred to his writing studio. Ah – good name. The word studio lends an element of work, creativity, and older works propped against the wall. I call my loft space, my writing studio. What’s in a name? It also gets called office, study or writing room.

123 studio

My studio

I like to control noise in my surroundings, quiet at times, radio or CDs playing at others. Nothing incenses me so much as the barking of my neighbour’s dogs.

I’m not a very tidy writer. I sit at a much-marked Habitat pine table which I have owned for more than 30 years. It holds up piles of papers, pots of pens, my lap top, a light. I preserve my back with an ergonomic kneeling chair from the Backshop.

123 Writing wall

The noticeboards

In front of the table is my noticeboard, which I use like a notebook. On is for photos. The other holds the schedule for reading, blog posts, some photos, and the odd inspirational saying.

Tell me, what do you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

(Mary Oliver.)

There are several postcards, one of Cornelia Parker’s exploded shed, another some books by Rachel Whiteread. And an annotated post card from a Berlin museum:

Of all the worlds created by wo/man the world of BOOKS is the most powerful.

(Heinrich Heine.)

I’ve pinned up several copies of the Guardian Bookshop bestseller list, in which our book Retiring with Attitude has been featured for several weeks. That spot used to be occupied by encouraging e-mails from our editor. The most recent is a month old, however. I don’t think I even notice these things anymore. I’m not much of a believer in motivational notes to self.

123 viewMy view

It’s a loft room and the view is divine – out over the roofs and trees of my village. On a fine day you can see Dartmoor. But this is Devon, so it rains a lot. I know it’s there. Sometimes when I am walking on Dartmoor I look back and imagine I can see the windows of my studio. ‘That’s where I write,’ I say to myself.



A blog: TanGental The place where I write. It’s a personalised desk.

And see the advice by Irene Waters Writing Tips: Starting the flow about the undisturbed place in which to write, quoting John Creswell’s book Research Design.

There is an interest in where writers write. The Guardian ran a series about writer’s spaces, and these appeared now and again in Nicholas Royle’s novel First Novel.

This blog was a response to a suggestion by Norah Colvin. Can you learn anything from this? Is your writing space important to you?


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Filed under Books, Writing

We are all completely beside ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

It’s nearly time for the media go wild about the Man Booker Prize. The shortlist will be announced on 9th September and the winner on 14th October. Already controversy is brewing. There has been gender-talk. Only three books by women were on the longlist of ten:

  • 122 Man Booker 2O14How to be both by Ali Smith
  • The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt
  • We are all completely beside ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler.

Only two of the six judges were women.

And there has been discussion about national writing, since the prize was opened this year to all novels published in English. Have we been swamped by American fiction? Is British fiction lacking in energy as AS Byatt a Guardian piece called Is British fiction in crisis? A careful reading of her comments suggests that she was criticizing the publishers for failing to find anything exciting to publish, latching on to successful self-published titles instead. I doubt whether it even meaningful to talk about national fiction? I’m going to leave that discussion for a later post.

122 We are allNow on with my thoughts about one of long-listed book by a female, American writer. I’ll start with a ‘spoiler alert’. There is an important plot element that is not confirmed until a quarter of the way through the novel. I don’t believe it will spoil your enjoyment of the novel if you read on. But I have warned you. Come back later if you prefer!

The Narrator, Rosemary, is a sharp young American, who tells us early on that she has lost both her sister, Fern, and her brother, Lowell. Their disappearance is linked. You don’t learn until p 77 that Fern is a chimpanzee, introduced into the family as part of a psychology experiment in the 1960s. The brother leaves to join animal right demonstrators. The FBI are looking for him.

While Fern is with them (about 5 years) Rosemary and her family are subject to observation, to the presence of grad students, to theorising, to comparisons (as Fern and Rosemary are the same age). But when Fern is sent away Rosemary learns to keep quiet about all that, especially as her mother more or less has a nervous breakdown.

As soon as she learned to talk Rose never shut up. People always said to her to talk less. But through the family events she has learned to hide anything of significance. Here is the paragraph after Rose, now 15 years old, has heard where Fern went, for the first time in nearly ten years.

At dinner, I adopted my usual strategy of saying nothing. The spoken word converts individual knowledge into mutual knowledge, and there is no way back after you have gone over that cliff. Saying nothing was more amendable, and over time I’d come to see that it was usually your best course of action. I’d come to silence hard, but at fifteen I was a true believer. (p126)

Photo: Chimp at Los Angeles zoo, by Aaron Logan - from

Photo: Chimp at Los Angeles zoo, by Aaron Logan – from

The action picks up when Rose goes to university in Davis, California, where her brother was last seen. She learns that Fern has been kept in a cage since she left them, and has grieved as much as she has because she was not able to integrate well with other chimps.

The action of the novel follows Rose as she gradually she makes some kind of sense and accommodation to all this family stuff. It provides an interesting exploration of the nature of animal and human-animal communication, and of human-human communication. You can be subjected to a battery of tests but miss the point, about the importance of love for another.

The voice of the narrator is feisty, clever, self-deprecating, like Bee in Where’d you go, Bernadette? (Maria Semple). Some of the scenes are hilarious (such as the mayhem in the cafeteria in the first chapter) and some of the characters are filmic (Ezra, the apartment block manager with aspirations, like the janitor from Scrubs, and Harlow who spreads chaos everywhere). But much of the wiseacre script is designed to reveal the heart of this book at a slow pace, and to show the reader that Rose is a girl who is struggling with facing the truth.

Here’s an example of Karen Joy Fowler’s style in the novel. Rose’s suitcase went missing on her flight from back from her parents’ home in Indiana. The airline delivers the wrong one. It’s all part of the complicated plot, because the suitcase contains … well never mind.

I was just about to call the airlines yet again, demand that they produce my real suitcase and take the pretender away, when Harlow showed up with a different idea. Harlow’s different idea was to pick the lock on the suitcase we did have, open it, and see what was inside. We would not take the stuff. That went without saying. But it was inconceivable to her that we’d return the case without even looking. Who knew what a strange case from Indiana (assuming it had come from Indiana) might contain. Gold Doubloons. A heroin-stuffed doll. Polaroids of some Midwestern city council in flagrante. Apple butter.

Wasn’t I curious? Where was my sense of adventure? (p 142)

In this passage we can see how Harlow and Rose are such different characters, and how Rose’s caution contrasts with Harlow’s rashness. You can hear the conversation between them as they consider the possibilities of the suitcase. And you see that despite her dangerous attitude, Harlow is on the side of the good people. And you can enjoy the list of possible contents. And what is revealed is even more imaginative, and you will have to read the book to find out what it is, and the part it plays. (You see how I have picked up the habit of hiding things from Rose?)

122 JA Book ClubI was surprised to learn that Karen Joy Fowler also wrote The Jane Austen Book Club. That was a clever book, a fun and creative spin-off for ‘Janites’, which I enjoyed. We are all completely beside ourselves is on a different level. I found myself admiring the research undertaken, (not just into primate material, but also about the context in which those experiments took place) as well as the development of the plot and the characters.

You can find an interview with Karen Joy Fowler on the Man Booker Prize 2014 website.

Have you read this? What were your reactions? Do you think it should be shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize? Please comment below.

We are all completely beside ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler (2013) published by Serpent’s Tail; Longlisted for Man Booker Prize 2014; Winner of the 2014 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction


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Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews

Those hard-to-read books

There are books that are challenging to read. I often fail. I’m not talking about impenetrable, long, arcane books (say James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake or William Faulkner’s Absolom, Absolom!). I am referring to the fear of my reactions, my reluctance to explore difficult situations, often involving violence, and violence against women in particular. So difficult subject matter then.

Here are two books I thought I would never start to read, let alone finish.

The Child in Time by Ian McEwan.

121 ChildThis was the book selected by the reading group I had just joined. So I had to read it. I had always thought that the theme would be too difficult for me. A toddler goes missing at a supermarket. She’s gone. A nightmare for the parents. What happened to the child? How could I read a book that raised that terror for me? And that is McEwan’s genius, to take an aspect of middle-class life and subvert it, utterly. I enjoyed the book group.


We Need to talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver.

‘Have you read it?’ my friends would ask. ‘It’s about-‘ I knew what it was about. How could I read about those high school massacres? Why would I want to follow members of the school community who randomly kill their schoolmates? It was bad enough to read about them in the papers, but to explore such an incident seemed perverse. But after some years I did.

121 KevinI found Kevin to be something of a tour de force. The questions raised by a hard-to-love child, about parenting, even when your child has committed the most heinous of crimes. Shriver tackled these bleak themes with creativity and insight and, as in the best fiction, it changed my understanding.




Here’s a book I never thought I would finish, but I did.

Chasing the King of Hearts by Hanna Krall, translated from the Polish by Philip Boehm

121 Kof HI started this novella and laid it aside as too excoriating and then began it again later. It was included in my subscription to Peirene Press. A book from them is always a treasure, even a hard to read treasure. The story follows a woman who was both Polish and Jewish searching for her husband in the Second World War. I was horrified by the erosion of moral behaviour, of impossible dilemmas, all in the pursuit of love. The accumulation of atrociousness is told in a rather bland, flat style – one thing after another – which made it possible to finish it and to ponder the mystery of what humans do to each other.

Here’s a book I started but don’t imagine I will ever finish.

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Another war, more horror, more violence, more unspeakable atrocities. At least that is what I think I am avoiding. I enjoyed the first half, about Nigeria before the Biafran War. But I’ll leave it there, thank you.

Here’s another book I have started and I’m not sure I will finish.

121 W in BerlinA Woman in Berlin, anonymous author.

These are the diaries of a journalist in Berlin as it falls to the advancing Red Army towards the end of the Second World War in Europe. Will I be able to read the first-hand account of what the soldiers did to the women?


Here’s a book my friend says, ‘I’m still not reading’.

The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks.

Well then, I’m not reading it either!

121 Wasp

You can find a list of the top ten most difficult books on a Guardian blog by Alison Flood: The world’s most difficult books: how many have you read? My answer is one!

The same list is described in more detail on the Publishers Weekly website.


Am I a wuss for avoiding and recoiling from the narration (fictional and factual) of humankind’s appalling behaviour, especially in wartimes? I don’t know. What do you think? Are there any books you can’t read?


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Filed under Books, Reading