Wednesday 27 November 2013

Literary DIY

Here I am in avoidance mode again, five and a bit thousand words to write before Saturday and I just *have* to get this random blog post written.

Mark Crick has the cheek to list himself inside the back cover as a photographer ... I mean he's not even a bloody writer for heaven's sake. I think it is an injustice to refer to these stories as 'parodies', I think 'homage' is much more appropriate, because although each take a mundane task and elevates it to literary significance, and many are very amusing, it shows a deep respect for the strengths of each writer's style. Apparently there is another book called 'Kafka's Soup' in which he writes recipes from significant literary greats, but in this one he tackles the difficulties of those little DIY jobs that everyone neglects. In addition to the stories he does pictures to illustrate each one, in the style of famous artists. (Here is 'The Wallpaperers' after Picasso, illustrating 'Hanging Wallpaper with Ernest Hemmingway')
I have not read all the authors, but having recently read Wuthering Heights I did enjoy 'Bleeding a Radiator with Emily Brontë'. I am not that tempted after all now to try Haruki Murakami but am very curious about Elfriede Jelinek

Going to just have to give you a couple of little tasters because there's not much else to say about the book.
Here from 'Unblocking a Sink with Jean-Paul Sartre':

"Like a throat in paralysis, the sink will not swallow, it will not take any more of the filth that it has been forced to drink for so long. I look into the dark vent, straining my eyes to see what has fouled the pipe. Something glistens in the dark; the filmy surface of an eye, round and wet, is looking back at me. A foul smell emanates from the throat, a odour of sickness, nausea. I won't stand for it. I won't. The glistening surface disappears and the eye closes. There, in the filth it has come, the Blockage." (p.124)

Never read Hunter S. Thompson either, and this is a little scary (from 'Putting Up a Garden Fence with Hunter S. Thompson'):

"At some point after removing the top from the bottle I must have passed out. When I came round I could hear the dry thud of spade on earth and the rattle of pebbles against steel. My attorney was still digging. I looked out into the garden but he was nowhere to be seen. Holy shit, I thought, the sound of digging had burnt itself onto the retina of my ear. I'm cursed to hear it for ever, like the rhythm section of ... Then I saw a flurry of dust fly up from the ground and the sound stopped.
'Help. Somebody fucking get me out of here!'
Either the mescaline had worn off or my attorney had reached a tricky point of law. I staggered out into the garden; as I reached the site of the first post, the empty bottle fell from my hand. The hole was now seven feet deep and the eminent Samoan, still in his business suit, was thrashing on the ground and dancing, like his feet were on fire.
'Snakes, they're coming up out of the ground. As soon as I cut the head off one, another one appears. Get me out of here!' " (p.94)

And more subtle, from 'Reglazing a Window with Milan Kundera':

"All governments oppose transparency. They oppose it because they know that with transparency come fragility. Such is the nature of glass. Windows can certainly be made from material more flexible or less brittle than glass, but what is required more than anything of a window is that it is transparent. All other qualities become secondary, from which Tomas deduced that transparency creates fragility.
The crack in the pane seemed to Tomas the first sign that the fortress he had so lovingly constructed was no longer impregnable. All his adult life he had maintained between himself and the outside world an invisible barrier through which no one was allowed to pass. When he believed that he could keep her at a distance like all the others, Odile had found a way through, and the broken window proved finally that Tomas had been deceiving himself." (p.25-6)

It occurred to me as I read that it would make a brilliant writing exercise, since in many ways writing is about making the mundane fascinating.

Eamonn and Dermot

Way, ways back when I had just started this blog and hadn't really decided what to do with it and I reviewed Catherine O'Flynn's debut novel 'What Was Lost'. It plainly made an impact because her name remained in the forefront of my mind as a writer I wanted to read again. She came to speak at the literature festival this year and was totally enchanting, just such a lovely normal unpretentious person. A hardback copy of her most recent offering, 'Mr Lynch's Holiday' was my one purchase of the festival, which she very kindly signed for me. She made me feel as if I could be capable of writing, that anyone could, that you don't have to have some kind of magical creative quality to write a novel. She wasn't one of those people who had written stories compulsively since early childhood, she had just upped one day when they moved to Spain and decided, since she had time on her hands, that she would write.

Her first book is set in Birmingham and this one, her third, has Eamonn, who has escaped Birmingham for the sunny shores of a modern development in Spain, and his father, Dermot, a retired bus driver comes out for a surprise visit - at least it's a surprise to Eamonn because the letter arrives so late he doesn't get much warning. Besides he's having problems of his own because his girlfriend Laura has 'gone home to think' and his job is going rapidly down the toilet. What we have here is two men who have never really talked to each other at the best of times. Kathleen, the wife and mother, was the person who held the family together, and now she's gone, and their relationship has been left in a kind of limbo. The book hops back and forth between their two perspectives as they wander rather aimlessly around the hot Spanish countryside, and spend some time with the various expat residents of the neglected development. People bought the houses in a rush of enthusiasm for a new life, only to find themselves abandoned and trapped, unable to sell up, the last few houses lie unfinished, the swimming pool had sprung a leak and feral cats are taking over. It doesn't sound a promising story but with flashbacks to childhood (of both characters) and the slow breaking down of barriers between them we are given a lovely portrait of a father/son relationship, with Dermot, finally getting to the bottom of his son's malaise, coming up with a neat solution to the situation. 

I think however that Inga, a divorcee from Sweden, manages to capture rather neatly the atmosphere of Lomaverde. Everyone came, she argues searching for 'happiness', that elusive thing to make life better, here she explains to Dermot why she is glad that the place is not some kind of paradise and why she stays:

" 'The point is, no one would want to admit to their disappointment, it would be something shameful, something hidden. Imagine living in such a place? Where failure or regret or despair are inappropriate, where such feelings are not allowed, don't fit with the blue skies and the sunshine. I would have lasted six weeks.' She exhaled a long plume of smoke. 'But that isn't how it worked out. Instead Lomaverde is a failed dream. Do you know the word for it in Spanish?'
He shook his head.
'Ciudad fantasma - a ghost town. It sounds beautiful, don't you think? It is a melancholy place, crumbling at the edges, and I find that I love it. It's a place where you can admit to mistakes, you have no choice but to. I think the lack of people makes it more human.' She paused. 'Is that mad?' " (p.155)

Dermot has his own little secret too however, regrets about his marriage and how happy he may or may not have made Kathleen. He makes this lovely, poignant little speech that pretty much gets to the core of what happens when people spend a lifetime together:

"You know, you can always tell the married couples on the bus. They're the ones not speaking to each other. Everyone else chats, but the husbands and wives sit in silence. It makes you wonder: are they silent because they know each other's minds and there's no need for words? Or are they silent because they're imagining conversations with other people? Or is one doing one and the other doing the other? Two different silences side by side?" (p.241)

Not a startling or unsettling book, more the kind you close with a satisfied sigh that maybe the world will be okay after all.

Saturday 23 November 2013

Techno-wizard strikes again

Creature's computer returned from the dungeon of despair today when I fitted its new SSD hard drive, in a technically demanding exercise that required a deconstruction of the case, removal of various minute screws and plastic restraining devices and the replacement of a small rectangular metal box with an almost identical small rectangular metal box. We pushed the button and waited with baited breath, only to be told to try again, which Dunk ominously said was not a good sign. Fortunately Dunk's technical wizardry far exceeds my own and we reloaded the operating system from the boot disc he had made. Now we can write at the same time and both our NaNoWrimo totals are looking much more healthy this evening.

Fortunately for Dunk my cheesecake wizardry is unrivalled in the northern hemisphere so a treat was enjoyed by all this evening ... apart from weird people who love cheese but do not like cheesecake. 

Friday 22 November 2013

TNT arrives in Manchester

We were informed at the beginning of November that TNT, the Dutch postal company, has arrived in Manchester, doing mail delivery in selected areas. There will definitely not be any friendly cooperation. Even in the first few days people reported seeing them around in Rusholme and Fallowfield, with their smart new orange bikes and their slightly dazed expressions. 

Today we came back from the shops (I'm on leave so have been a bit out of the loop) to find this leaflet from Royal Mail outlining the vague nature of the service that TNT is providing, and reminding everyone of the steadfast reliability of the service that they currently offer. You cannot post a TNT letter, they only collect mass mail-outs from businesses, nor can you pop to your local delivery office to collect your undelivered parcel. They are only delivering a couple of days a week, as yet unconfirmed, and you can bet your life they are not going to be driving out to the outlying villages and farms of the Pennines any time soon. 

So in the run up to Christmas I hope everyone appreciates that we will be around every day, to every house, to deliver your cards and presents, never mind the threat of the worst winter for many years

Thursday 21 November 2013

Encouragement Pie

Just look at that NaNoWriMo total. That was amazing pie. I had it confirmed by several totally unbiased tasters (Tish and Creature) that it was probably the best lemon meringue pie on the planet. And this little tiny slice offered such profound encouragement that I managed to write over ten thousand (that's a 1 with four noughts after it) words yesterday. And about time too, since I was languishing in the realms of NaNo failure and generally just wishing that November would be over so that I could get on with the rest of life and forget I ever started.
In previous years we have had what we referred to as 'encouragement cakes' every ten thousand words. Creature has been storming ahead this year (already at nigh on 40,000, though she has set herself a target of 60,000 this year) and I have been too depressed to bake. I think we need to get in some serious kitchen time in order to make it to the finish line this year.
I have read Catherine O'Flynn's 'Mr Lynch's Holiday' that I bought at the literature festival, review to follow, perhaps if I get another ten thousand done today, and am now reading 'Sartre's Sink' that I picked up at the library and has been fantastic encouragement too, mind bogglingly clever though I am not sure it has tempted me to read any Haruki Murakami.

Knitting is coming on apace (every time Creature emerges and pinches the computer off me ... did I mention her hard drive died) and then we are moving on to projects from this book (Fair Isle Style by Mary Mucklestone, visit her website for even more lovely patterns) that Julie and I invested in jointly. There are some very adorable mittens featuring a squirrel.
Ok, enough prevaricating... back to the writing, or maybe some breakfast ...

Friday 15 November 2013


'Unless' by Carol Shields is the 11th book in my TBR challenge. It is nice to look back and see what a wonderful eclectic mix of books it has been; sometimes I worry that I read the same kind of novel all the time but this challenge has had real variety. Carol Shields seems to have won every prize worth winning on what seems to me to be a very modest output. I sat and read to the end yesterday afternoon in extreme writing avoidance, the further behind I get in NaNoWriMo the more other things I find myself wanting to do ... you see, now I am writing this review instead of getting on ... ok, little self discipline, I'm going to stop now and write at least 500 words.
This book reminds me of 'The Lorax' by Dr Seuss. In it there is a small pile of rocks (all that remains of the Onceler's factory) with the one word 'Unless', and as the small boy learns at the end of the story, "Unless someone like you, cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better, it's not." It feels almost as if Carol Shields could have used this as her inspiration. I recall now how much I loved Larry's Party and I realise in this story too very little happens, Nora goes away and Nora returns, and it feels almost like a 'blip' in Reta's life, nothing, and yet everything, has happened in the meantime. Reta works as a translator for Danielle Westerman, an elderly, well known and respected writer and poet, but on the side has started her own writing and is working on a second novel. She has a 'husband', three daughters, a mother-in-law and a small group of intimate friends. The quiet domestication is thrown into relief by the sudden disappearance of her eldest daughter Nora, who then reappears begging on a street corner in Toronto. She is living at a local shelter and refuses to talk with her family or to come home, but sits with a sign around her neck that says the simple word 'Goodness'. Reta meanders through the ordinariness of her life trying to make sense of what her daughter is doing, searching for an explanations, in her own parenting and their family life and in the outside world. I find myself coming back to the words subtle and understated every time I have really liked a book, and I'm afraid they apply here too, and since it is Nanowrimo I also find myself asking 'how does she do that' and 'what is it that makes this person feel real' and 'why is this seemingly irrelevant digression actually interesting and almost vital to the story'. She tells us the backstory of the house, and it's important because their home is symbolic of the family security and continuity. Even the dog, who features quite prominently, takes on an element of that role; the two younger daughters want to use him to tempt Nora back, one sight of him, they think, will bring her to her senses and remind her of what she has given up. Reta's relationship with Danielle links her to the world of literature and the intellect, the decades of her life that Reta is laboriously translating from the french seem to put in perspective the minutiae of everyday life. And yet nothing is so compartmentalised, everything is drawn together to create the whole:

"Seven o'clock. I reach into the oven and remove the foil from the lasagna, then shut the red kitchen curtains, which is my signal to my mother-in-law next door to out on her coat and walk up the hill and across the leaf-strewn lawn for dinner. She takes her evening meals with us, and we have used the curtain signal for close to twenty years. She'll be watching from her darkened sunroom, waiting patiently, her nose already powdered, a dash of lipstick applied, her bladder emptied, her house keys in her pocket, and it will take her exactly four minutes to travel the hundred yards uphill to our back door, which I leave unlocked. Why do I have red curtains in my kitchen? Because Simone de Beauvoir loved red curtains; because Danielle Westerman loved red curtains out of respect for Beauvoir, and I love them because of Danielle. They serve, when nothing else quite does, as the sign of home and comfort, ease, companionability, food and drink and family." (p.169-170)

Then Reta begins writing letters, to authors and journalists that she reads. To begin with you think she is really sending them, though it transpires that they are not sent, sometimes not even really written, merely composed in her head. She has the need to tell people what is happening to her, what is happening to Nora, and asking them to make sense of it, or sometimes blaming them for being part of the problem. All the letters address the marginalisation of women in our culture's intellectual life. She is not angry, more weary, and even apologetic (which she acknowledges as part of the problem of course) but still feels it is part of her seeking to understand why her daughter seems to be trying to reduce herself down to nothing. (This in response to a magazine article):

"Perhaps you were tired when you ran through your testicular hit list of literary big cats; trying to even out the numbers may have seemed too much of a reach or too obvious in its political correctness. But did you notice something even more significant: that there us not a single woman mentioned in the whole body of your very long article (16 pages, double columns), not in any context, not once? As though these great literary men came into the world through their own efforts. Bean counting is tiring, and tiresome, but your voice, Mr. Valkner, and your platform (Comment) carry great authority. You certainly understand that the women who fall so casually under your influence (mea culpa) are made to serve an apprenticeship of self-denigration." (p. 164-5)

So, in a way, Nora becomes symbolic of all women who perceive the pointlessness of their own efforts, who are overwhelmed by the weight of trying to fight against the world that views them as irrelevant. She makes the point more forcefully when Reta's editor dies in a freak accident and is replaced by a young man with wild ideas for her novel; this involves a rewrite that will take the story away from the woman Alicia and will instead make Roman the focus of both the events and the existential crisis. Reta finds herself unable to resist the force of his uninterruptible flow of argument and explanation, she quite literally cannot get a word in edgewise, and she is almost, almost swept away:

" '...I am talking about Roman being the moral centre of the book, and Alicia, for all her charms, is not capable of that role, surely you can see that. She writes fashion articles. She talks to her cat. She does yoga. She makes rice casseroles.'
'It's because she's a woman.'
'That's not the issue at all. Surely you - '
'But it is the issue.'
'She is unable to make a claim to - She is undisciplined in her - She can't focus the way Roman - She changes her mind about  - She lacks - A reader, the serious reader that I have in mind, would never accept her as the decisive fulcrum of a serious work of art that acts as a critique of our society while, at the same time, unrolling itself like a carpet of inevitability, narrativistically speaking.'
'Because she's a woman.'
'Not at all, not at all.'
'Because she's a woman.' " (p.285-6)

We have this big theme; women in society, their place, their contribution, and it's lack of acknowledgement, being played out both by Nora and by Reta in the book she is writing, but beside it all is the relationship between mother and daughter. For me the novel is also about separation, as a parent, from your child, and how hard it is to let them go off into the big bad world. It's not that you don't trust them, you hope you have armed them with all the weapons they might need to defend themselves, but you don't trust the world not to have something nasty up its sleeve that will catch them unawares and crush all the spirit out of them. Reta sees Nora being crushed, but is unable to help her, she revolts against the feeling but there is nothing she can do, and it is the powerlessness that is at the centre of the book:

"They are both studying for exams. Just because their older sister is living the life of a derelict doesn't mean there will be no exams. French, history, maths, language arts. This is monstrous: that exams are being scheduled, that George W Bush exists, that Mr Scribano fell downstairs, that people are booking flights for their Christmas holidays, that Danielle Westerman accuses me of insufficient sorrow, that I am calmly wiping down the kitchen counters after a dinner of shepherd's pie and spinach salad, while at the same time plotting what Alicia all say to Roman about the need to cancel the wedding, and observing that outside it is snowing and the drifts are building thickly sculptured walls against the north side of our house, and Tom is settling down in his favourite chair with a new book on trilobites that arrived in today's mail. The wind is blowing and blowing. I am still I, though it's harder and harder to pronounce that simple pronoun and maintain composure." (p.196-7)

I have 'Dressing up for the carnival' and 'Small Ceremonies' both loitering on the shelves. I would probably be safe in saying, pick up anything Carol Shields has written and you would not be disappointed.

Sunday 10 November 2013

NaNoWriMo and all that

NaNoWriMo started ten days ago now, and as you can see from the word widget in the sidebar I am trailing behind rather miserably. On the plus side I did vast quantities of overtime this week and so will be pretty rich come Friday when I get paid for it all, but I have been too tired to get on with any writing when I finally got home. The other disaster of the week is Creature's computer dying .... with 15,000 words of her novel hidden somewhere on it's corrupted hard drive. Dunk has found a programme that is very torturously trawling through every file on the computer to try and identify anything that we might be able to salvage, so currently all breath is being held and all fingers firmly crossed in hope of a more positive outcome that seemed likely a couple of days ago.

I realised the other day that I was in danger of failing to complete my TBR Pile challenge so I picked up 'Kissing the Witch' by Emma Donoghue and positively whizzed through it over a couple of bedtime reading sessions. In fact the book would make a lovely week or two of bedtime stories even for children as they are a slightly feminist twist on a selection of traditional fairy tales, each linked to the next by means of the characters inviting the next to tell their story. What I really like about it is that the alterations are very subtle, a change of emphasis or perception, that turns the women in these stories from mere victims of circumstance into real protagonists. It is a book full of princesses, witches, early deaths and first bleedings. The landscape is full of light spilling from the great doors of castles, jangling harnesses on hunting horses, candlelight on creaking staircases and round bellied copper pots. So Cinderella, Snow White, Gretel, Beauty and Rapunzel exchange tales of woe and redemption, they live their stories but refuse to be bound to the outcome we have come to expect, they become characters of cunning and resilience, determined to forge a different path for themselves.

"I had barely time to wipe my mouth before the prince came to propose.
Out on the steps he led me, under the half-full moon, all very fairy-tale. His long moustaches were beginning to tremble; he seemed more like an actor on a creaking stage. As soon as the words began to leak out of his mouth, they formed a cloud in which I could see my future.
I could hardly see him. The voices were shrieking yes yes yes say yes before you loose your chance you bag of nothingness.
I opened my teeth but no sound came out. There was no harm in this man: what he proposed was white and soft, comfortable as fog. There was nothing to be afraid of. But just then the midnight bell began to toll out the long procession of years, palatial day by moonless night. And I leaped backwards down the steps, leaving one shoe behind." (p.7)

An excellent read and a very clever story collection, beautifully crafted to usurp and embellish the originals. The language and atmosphere preserves the original feel but the underlying message is utterly transformed. 
I have now moved on to 'Unless' by Carol Shields, which I realised I had started before, probably only the first few pages, but I think I am really going to identify with ... middle aged woman agonising over the intersection of parenting and societal influences on her children.