Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Twitter, Too Many Magpies, and a nice review

Very pleased to say that William Rycroft has given Too Many Magpies a really nice review. Interestingly, he begins the review by posing the question, Does Twitter sells books? His answer is yes, as he found out about TMM through the #dearpublisher discussion on Twitter, via which he got into a dialogue with my publisher Chris at Salt. Chris, bless his heart, recommended it when William explained the kind of book he liked. Thank you to both of them, and very glad it came up to William's expectations!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Alison Wells reviews Too Many Magpies

After not being to able to make a connection this morning (even though the weather was lovely - maybe it's not the weather!), I've now got 3 strokes on the 5-stroke connection gauge, and as soon as I connected up found this - a really lovely review of Too Many Magpies by writer Alison Wells. It's made my day, especially as what she says at the end is quite the best compliment one writer can pay to another:
As a reader it was the kind of book I have longed to read, as a writer, it is the kind of book I would dream of writing.
I can't tell you how very happy that makes me feel. Thank you, Alison.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Cut off

For days this has been my view in the mornings from my writing desk here in Wales, and as a result I haven't had much internet access. In the past I've thought it was the clouds that interfered with the signals (I think they're bounced back off the ridge in front of the house, as at the back we're shielded from Caernarfon and the masts by a hump of the hill and slate tips, and the ridge attracts cloud), and at other times I've thought it must be the wind. Well, we've had both this week, and as you can see we've been right inside the former. I've lost text messages and emails I've tried to send as a result of signals cutting out half-way through sending them, and for most of the time the web has been impossible. Today though, touch wood, the weather's better and last time I tried the connection was pretty good.

I managed to put yesterday's post up only after a lot of hassle. When I sat down to write it, I couldn't access Blogger at all, so I composed it in Word and when I got a connection pasted it in, and what a palaver that turned out to be: blogger simply wouldn't accept Word HTML, and I had to go through the whole thing deleting and replacing it all. They call it 'mobile broadband', but really, it's worse than dial-up used to be on my old groany desktop computer. And then, I discovered today, my latest version of the post hadn't published at all, although I'd thought it had...

Not surprisingly, I have ended up a lot of the time not even bothering, especially when I've got my novel pressing and that's the main reason I'm here. And I must say, I'm getting plenty of that done. And I've got another 10 days or so before other family members arrive here to join us...

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Reading group: The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

This book was my suggestion, a book I had loved when I read it some years ago. It’s poet Sylvia Plath’s only novel, published originally under a pseudonym and confessedly and verifiably autobiographical.

It opens during the fifties summer that the Rosenbergs are executed for spying and first-person narrator Esther Greenwood, an A-grade literature student, is working out an expenses-paid job on a New York fashion magazine, the prize she has won, along with several other aspirant young women, with her writing. Acutely aware of the hollowness of the fashion world around her, disillusioned with her long-term medical student boyfriend Buddy, and sensing that her lifelong academic goals are equally hollow, Esther begins to be cut off in depression, the ‘bell jar’ of the title, eventually undergoing ECT and attempting suicide and becoming hospitalised. The book is striking for its wonderfully imagistic, witty and energetic prose, and moves at a great pace – the kind of book you really can’t put down.

I told the group how much I had loved the book previously, but said that this time I had a problem with it: I didn’t really know how to take it. The first time I read it I had entirely identified with Esther – apart from her suicidal impulses – but on this occasion I was shocked to find that I couldn’t always sympathise with her and indeed now and then I found I didn’t even like her. For instance, after the opening line, which is so striking that I had remembered it almost verbatim when I suggested the book: It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs… the prose moves instantly away from political engagement to a self-obsessed focus on Esther’s own emotional state: The idea of being electrocuted makes me sick. It’s not the Rosenbergs who have her attention in this paragraph so much as the idea of suffering electrocution herself, which, as Hans would point out later, is fulfilled when her own first ECT treatment goes wrong and she suffers great trauma. Indeed, she goes further in distancing herself from the Rosenberg issue and painting it rather as an unworthy and hassling trauma to herself: That’s all there was to read about in the papers – goggle-eyed headlines staring up at me on every street corner and the fusty, peanut-smelling mouth of every subway. It had nothing to do with me , but I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like, being burned all along your nerves (my bolds).

It would be possible to read this as self-ironic, were it not for the fact that we are clearly meant to take Esther’s depression and later trauma seriously, and of course should. On the other hand, there are clearly self-ironic moments: I decided I would spend the summer writing a novel./ That would fix a lot of people. There are occasions when we are clearly meant to laugh at, or at least with, Esther: at the way, for instance, she eats with unladylike greed at the Ladies’ Day banquet, and - embedded as a flashback within this scene - the way she cons her way out of taking a science course at college. But then we are not intended to laugh at the consequences and underlying currents: a traumatic food poisoning which symbolises the rot at the heart of this New York world and prefigures the deeper sickness which Esther will suffer, and the fact that, in spite of saying ‘I had to laugh when I thought about [the chemistry course]’, she admits ‘how scared and depressed’ she was about it. The drop in tone made me see the episodes retrospectively in a more serious light, which in turn, perhaps because of the (retrospectively inappropriate) levity of the earlier scenes, made me see Esther as potentially simply greedy and self-centred.

It seemed to me that my problem with knowing how to read the book had something to do with the tone, but I wasn’t sure exactly what. John put in here and said that yes, on this reading he had found the first half too flippant for the grimness of the second half. I wasn’t sure I agreed with this. I wouldn’t say that the tone was ever flippant, and there are dark ironies I really appreciated. For instance, when Esther begins contemplating suicide she thinks that if you are going to jump off a building then the higher the storey the safer
, since you are more likely to kill yourself, and that a gun is dangerous only because you are most likely to bungle the attempt and end up living.

I said that I was also surprised to realize on this reading something that I hadn’t noticed the first time, and which I have never heard or read anyone noting: that this is a story of suppressed grief. Esther’s father has died when she was a child, and Esther says quite clearly, though somewhat briefly, that she began to realize she had never been happy since she was running along the beach the summer before her father died. Suicidal and living with her mother, she visits the town she grew up in and her father’s grave:
…my legs folded under me, and I sat down in the sopping grass. I couldn’t understand why I was crying so hard.
Then I remembered that I had never cried for my father’s death.
It is immediately after this that Esther makes the almost-successful suicide bid that lands her in a psychiatric hospital.

Having become aware of this theme, it seemed the real one to me, but I felt it was somewhat subsumed in (and possibly, indeed, cuts across) the more overt feminist theme. There is the depiction of the brutality of male obstetrics: I thought it was just like the sort of drug a man would invent. Here was a woman in terrible pain, obviously feeling every bit of it or she wouldn’t groan like that, and she would go straight home and start another baby because the drug would make her forget how bad the pain had been. Buddy’s mother is described as turning herself into a floor rug for others to walk on, and there is a strong implication that Esther’s depression is a reaction to the fact that in a world in which she is expected to type dictated letters she wants to ‘dictate [her] own thrilling letters’.

I wondered therefore how aware the author was of this theme of suppressed grief, and if this is the source of an uncertainty I found in the novel. At this point I had become curious to see what others had written about the themes of the novel, and had done a brief bit of Googling. I didn’t find any mention of Esther’s grief about her father but was interested to find a fair amount of disagreement in particular about the end of the novel. While Marjorie Perloff sees the book as being about Esther’s need to find herself in a world that divides women from themselves (she quotes the extensive dismemberment imagery in the novel), and the ending as Esther’s rebirth, Diane Bonds argues that in fact at the end Esther dismembers herself in order to fit into society (quoting the wedding imagery that appears there). Personally, I feel that the ending is extremely ambiguous, and also that it’s hard not to read into it the fact that Plath did commit suicide not long after the book was written, which adds to my sense of the uncertainty of the whole. Therefore, I said, I would be interested in what the others in the group thought.

I was much briefer than this in my introduction and didn’t quote chapter and verse as I have here, so I probably wasn’t very convincing. Jenny said firmly that she had really liked the book, and Trevor agreed. Trevor said, You want to take no notice of that internet stuff, and said what he thought the novel was about, but I’m really sorry to say that I can’t remember what that was. I think he disagreed that the ending was ambiguous (one or two people had agreed that it was), but I don’t remember how he interpreted it.

Some saw the book as being simply about mental illness, I think, including Hans who said, But there isn’t a feminist theme in it, is there? I said, Well, what about the fact that Esther immediately identifies Marco whom she meets at a party as one of those men who hates women, and Hans said, Well there are men who hate women – implying, I think, that Plath wasn’t making any particular feminist point about this. Someone (maybe Trevor) pointed out to me that Sylvia Plath would never even have heard of feminism, and I said that that didn’t make her message any less feminist, but I didn’t get the feeling that I convinced. Jenny said that this book was taken up as feminist during the seventies and eighties because it hit a chord, and I think she was implying that its feminist slant was over-emphasised then. There was a fair bit of discussion about mental illness and its changing treatment, and changing definitions of depression and schizophrenia, which Jenny as a one-time sociology lecturer knew a lot about.

Jenny said that when she read it in the seventies she hadn’t liked it as much as everyone else, but that this time she had liked it a lot because now she can see how it fitted in with something which I think she called Symbolic Interpretation, which she said was a theory very current at the time of the writing of the book. She said that that thing about the Rosenbergs, for instance, was a comment on the world around Esther (ie as opposed to the way I’d analysed it). No one else knew what Symbolic Interpretation was, and I asked her to explain. She said it was a way of looking at the world in terms of symbols, and although I momentarily thought I understood, I don’t in retrospect: it seems to me quite simply that all writing is symbolic interpretation, although Plath’s imagery is certainly heavily symbolic.

All these different interpretations were serving to emphasise my sense of an uncertainty at the heart of the book. I asked people what they thought of Esther’s mother, as Diane Bonds interprets her as monstrous, which I hadn’t myself. Everyone agreed with me: they thought the mother was simply inadequate and over-conventional, and some even said that at moments they could feel sorry for her. Trevor said again that I shouldn’t bother with internet stuff, but I think it’s instructive that Bonds could interpret such statements of Esther’s as ‘My mother wasn’t much help’ as indicative of monstrosity, ie that this may be symptomatic of a difficulty in getting to grips with the tone of the narration.

Ann said that she had enjoyed the book very much, but that she too had had a difficulty in knowing how to read it. Mainly she felt that it was just about impossible to read it without knowledge of Plath’s suicide very soon after writing it, and impossible to know how one would read it without that knowledge.

Jenny and Trevor said that they thought it was entirely possible to read the book without injecting that knowledge into it, and I felt that they thought it was wrong to do so.

Ann said, though, that she suspected that Plath's depression at the time of writing had actually affected the tone of the book: that the book was an attempt to rise above the situation with wit and a resolution, but it was undercut by her continuing depression, which also gives rise to the ambiguous ending. This, I think, hits the nail on the head.

Trevor, though, reiterated that you could read it without knowing about Plath’s suicide, and someone, I think Jenny, said, But it’s brilliantly written! – which, having taken it for granted, I had failed to say, and I quickly agreed, as did everyone. People then spent some time talking about the bits they’d particularly liked, especially the funny bits. Trevor loved the bit about Esther thinking her finger-bowl was soup and drinking it all up, the little flowers and all. Hans said he found it really funny when Esther was walking around with a yellow scarf tied to her neck, her first attempt at suicide, but was unable to find anything to hang it on to, and others agreed. I said, But that wasn’t meant to be funny, was it? And Hans readily agreed, as did the others, and I said, Well, this illustrates that there is a difficulty with the tone of the book.

Then Doug spoke up. He said that when he first read the book years ago he thought it was absolutely marvellous, maybe the perfect book, but that his reaction this time was far stronger than mine: he didn’t like any of the people in it. I said, But aren’t they all seen through Esther’s eyes? And he said, yes, but that’s what he didn’t like, the sneery, snobby tone of the whole thing - a quiet bombshell that more or less ended the discussion.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Champion of Ben Judge's World Lit Cup!

Can you believe it, I am the champion of Benjamin Judges' World Literary Cup!!
I won the final and the quarter-final purely on random words (!) but along the way I beat Katherine Mansfield, James Joyce, Nicola Barker and Jorge Luis Borges, and not entirely according to spurious criteria but to some extent Ben's own literary judgement, and he said some very nice things about Too Many Magpies.

Thank you, Ben! And all respect to my opponents including my fellow north-west writer Jenn Ashworth who only fell on penalty shoot-outs!

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Reading group: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Hans suggested this book because when his wife, who doesn’t normally like crime novels, had tried it, she’d found she liked it. He was interested therefore to know what the group members thought of it, and since it has been such a phenomenal best-seller, along with its two sequels, we were interested to know why, and chose it over the alternative suggestion.

It concerns Swedish investigative journalist Mikail Blomkvist, editor of the political journal Millennium, who is brought down by a capitalist he tried to expose and as a result becomes involved with Henrik Vanger, head of a business family with a shadowy past including Nazism and the disappearance in the sixties of Vanger’s sixteen-year-old niece Harriet who has never been seen again, presumed dead. Vanger engages Blomkvist, who has had to leave his editorship, ostensibly to write a history of the Vanger family but in reality to investigate Harriet’s disappearance. He is helped in this quest by an unconventional private investigator, the tough punk Lisbeth Salander, a computer hacker and previous problem child who in her twenties is still, according to the Swedish system, under state care.

It’s a long book – 538 pages - and one of the strange aspects of its success is that it seems to be generally agreed (on Twitter etc) that for the first 100 pages or so it’s pretty boring, with lots of expositionary backstory concerning the court case and the investigation which led to Blomkvist’s conviction and downfall.

Well, the gist of the meeting was that everyone thought it was pretty rubbishy but everyone liked it apart from John who found he couldn’t read it, and me, although I have to admit that for the sake of argument I was more negative in the meeting than I actually felt, as outlined on my Fictionbitch blog.

The first person to comment was Jenny, who has read all three of the books, and who said she absolutely loved the character Lisbeth Salander, and there were murmurs of agreement. In fact, I didn't find Salander entirely convincing as a character, though I didn't say this: there seemed inconsistency rather than complexity in the way she was portrayed as streetwise yet now and then naive. Everyone pretty much agreed that the book was poorly written, and that indeed for the first 100 pages or so Larsson seemed to be learning, in a very fundamental way, to write. There is far too much exposition, much telling the reader instead of showing, and Larsson will suddenly launch into a non-novelistic essay informing the reader about such things as the Swedish state care system. Not to mention the author’s relish in the tedious details of computers which may have been state-of-the art at the time of writing, but which are now outdated. Although people had said they liked Salander, they all agreed that there was no real psychological insight in the book. And everyone, even accountant Doug, agreed that the end of the book, which deals with Blomkvist’s comeback and the details of the financial scandal he finally does expose, is even more boring than the beginning.

I said that it reminded me of nothing so much as reading Enid Blyton when I was a child, especially the way the food is described in such painstaking and often inappropriate detail. I read out this passage which occurs just after Blomkvist and Salander have escaped from a torture chamber, Blomkvist himself having been tortured:

She helped him off with his clothes and propelled him to the bathroom. Then she put on water for coffee and made half a dozen thick sandwiches on rye bread with cheese and liver sausage and dill pickles (my italics)

and everyone fell about laughing.

As I said on my Fictionbitch blog, this is probably the first book we’ve read for the group that I didn’t find in any way disruptive to my own creative writing process, and everyone agreed that that was the point, it was meant merely as a diversion. Clare said it was like chocolate, just something easy to swallow, and Ann said she’d had some long train journeys recently and it had been great for that, to pass the time. I said that that was my objection, really: ultimately, I really didn’t want to read a book just to pass the time, but for something much more fruitful; to me it was a waste of time. John said I was precious, and from the reaction of the others he was speaking for them too, but it was really rich coming from him since he hadn’t even read past page 50 or so. And Ann added that she’d liked reading about the food and finding out about the things Swedes ate, and the fact that they drank so much coffee, and others agreed.

Then Ann addressed the question of why this book, above other crime thrillers, has been so very popular. She thought that certain crime series are popular because they happen to hit particular chords in the societies and times in which they are written, and there was a fair bit of discussion about other crime writers members had read. Jenny said that this book was about violence to women: indeed, the parts that the book is divided into are subtitled with quotes from Swedish statistics on violence to women, and the original Swedish title of the book was Men Who Hate Women. I said that in fact it ticked several of our current concerns to which the theme of violence towards women is somewhat subsumed: corruption in big business, the Nazi past with which we continue to be obsessed, and big-brother surveillance and computer hacking.

But I didn’t think it actually really addressed these issues, not on the psychological level I want from novels (in spite of what some critics have said about Larsson’s anatomization of the mind of a serial killer). What for instance, was Larsson saying about Nazism? (I can’t explain any further without giving the plot away.) There was a pause as people thought, and then someone said, ‘Nazis are bad.’ And I said ‘Exactly. Nothing deeper or more psychological than that.’

Our archived discussions can be found here, and a list of all the books we have discussed here.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Things you sometimes see from your writing desk VI

I took a photo of the view I had most days from my window in Wales, but I must have accidentally deleted it. It showed the cloud right outside the window and the nearby trees ghostly, which was very nice in a way: I felt cosily shut in with the world of my novel, and I made good progress, although the overall progress is pretty slow, I'm finding. Like Nuala Ni Chonchuir, who visited this blog recently, I seem to be a more contemplative writer these days, and I think it's bearing fruit...

Anyway, before I went away, the view from my Manchester window was filled with shrieking swifts teaching their young to fly. They kept swooping past in gangs inches from the glass, but they were impossible to catch with the camera, I found: by the time I'd clicked, the window was empty again. This was my best shot: the very last swift about to fly out of view.

And now I'm back and the swifts have gone. They come for such a short time: they don't arrive until the first week in May and they've already gone by the end of the first week of August, and in that time they've nested and their young are fit to fly south. And their departure is so striking: right up until they go the neighbourhood rings with their screaming, and then you wake up one morning and there's silence, they've gone, and you can't help thinking of the end of summer, even though the school holidays have not long begun and the corn's not yet ripe, as we could see at close quarters when the footpath we were following one afternoon in Wales suddenly went right through a cornfield:

On the other hand, the blackbirds are still busy with their belated nest outside my Manchester window, I'm glad to say.

And here's the latest ambitious window display in Palas Print, the Caernarfon bookshop: a display of camping and travel books:

Too Many Magpies wins semi-finals of Benjamin Judge's Literary World Cup

What a hoot. Unbelievably, I have beaten Jorge Luis Borges in the semi-finals of Benjamin Judges' World Literary Cup! I really think Ben must have been a bit biased there ! (which is very nice!). Here's what he says:
reading Borges is a whole lot of fun, and yes there are interesting questions of reality and the like in our modern world but…
…but when you read Too Many Magpies (and I use the future tense purposely, you are going to read it) you read it thinking yes! That’s right! That is what life is like. That is how people speak and think and act. It is real and as such it reflects reality far better than a cracked mirror or an invisible tiger ever can.
Blimey. I don't know what to say, apart from thank you Ben!
I'm up against Tove Jansson, author of the Moomin books in the final. Can't imagine how that will go...
(I wrote this post in five minutes - links and all: I'm back in Manchester and back to my broadband which is such a relief: in Wales it would have taken me half and hour with the links and maybe in the end it wouldn't have loaded up at all! Now I just have to be more disciplined with myself about writing, though, what with broadband and shops and mates to see..)

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Reading group: Cloud Street by Tim Winton

As well as failing to keep up with blogging on account of being so involved in my novel, I've also been struggling to do my scheduled reading. When the group met to discuss this book in June I hadn't managed to find time read it - and John, who had already read it, dissuaded me from bothering , as he felt it would put me off my stride: there are enough similarities with the book I'm writing, he felt, to make me feel I ought to change mine (which he didn't think I should). In fact, of course, this made me curious enough to have a sneaky peek, and I immediately felt I would love it. And now I've read it - though it took me ages! - and it's true there are things which chime with my own, but not enough I feel to matter.

Like my WIP, it's a kind of family saga. In this case it's the story of two Australian families, the Pickles and the Lambs, who live one each side of a rambling, ramshackle house in Perth, bought with a win on the horses and inherited by Sam Pickles whose own life is directed and misdirected by a compulsion for gambling and a quasi-religious belief in luck. The Lambs arrive in the wake of a tragedy - one of their sons, the previously bright Fish, has been brain-damaged through near-drowning - and in the half of the house they rent they set up a grocer's shop. For many years relations between the two families are fairly strained, particularly between the two wives, beautiful drunkard Dolly Pickles and plain, hard-working Oriel Lamb with her Protestant ethic, but inevitably the lives of them all become entangled. There's a rich, rumbustious realism to this novel: as one critic has said, it's as vivid and concrete as a soap, and the character depiction is to my mind sublime; yet there are ghosts and hauntings. There's a windowless room with a piano that rings out middle C when no one's in the room, and the shades of the pianist and original owner, a cruel woman who once ran a missionary for black girls in the house, and the sobbing black girl who died there, probably from a beating; there's a singing, talking pig, there's an unearthly aboriginal man who haunts the family, especially Fish's brother Quick, and the whole story is watched from another dimension by Fish after his death, the true drowning he has in the end (and at the beginning of the novel).

As far as I remember everyone present for the discussion liked this book, though none were quite as bowled over as I'd expected them to be after dipping into the beginning. What was clear to me then was the impressive language: the use of a vivid and energetic Australian demotic, and the most striking and apt images: 'diesels throbbing like blood', 'the water was a flat bed of sunlight', 'the sky kiting over', and when I came to read the book, for much of its length I was hooked on this language and the way it successfully combines the earthy, realist elements and the surreal.

However, some people in the group didn't find the mix so seamless: it seemed to be agreed that the aboriginal man, for instance, was 'plonked in', someone suggested as a political sop, and some hadn't found the fact that the story is narrated by an after-life Fish particularly significant or memorable. In fact, there wasn't really much discussion at all: Doug said he also very much admired the language and Clare said that the book was notable for its generosity, the lack of judgement of the characters that you so often find in English novels, with which I heartily agree. But the conversation petered out, and John noted that the book hadn't given rise to the discussion of any issues, and it was generally agreed that there weren't really any issues to discuss; it was just the story of a pair of families.

Having now read the book I'd say that this is a book in which as in a soap much happens on the level of event - as you would expect in the story of two generations of two families - but as in a soap nothing much happens in terms of development of theme. The structure of the book is circular, beginning and ending with Fish's death, and you do very much get the feeling of not having moved on in insight, rather having simply watched a vivid tableau and got to know and love a set of characters. There are themes, those of luck and autonomy, guilt and responsibility, betrayal and loyalty, and the novel proper begins with a situation in which Sam Pickles and his family are in thrall to his sense of luck (the 'shifty shadow'). But the novel shifts focus (if entertainingly and excitingly) to other characters and other story strands, and any resolution of this theme is forced and indeed sentimental: the birth of a child which banishes the malignant ghosts of the house. In fact, I found the last part of the novel disappointingly sentimental, with a telling loss of rhythm in the prose and a certain coyness or perhaps formality creeping into the previously gritty diction. And I found I agreed about the narrative device: ultimately, I couldn't see any thematic point in the use of an after-life narrator.

At the time of the discussion it seemed to me that this book was likely to be great in the most serious sense of the word, and I asked the others if they thought it was. They didn't think so, but they thought it a great read. For much of its length while I was reading it I couldn't imagine how they could be so lukewarm, but having ended up disappointed I'm afraid I have to agree.

Our archived discussions can be found here, and a list of all the books we have discussed here.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Wikio Top UK Culture Blogs for August

Here's a sneak preview of the new Wikio Top UK Culture blog rankings (to be published on 10th August).

I see this blog has slipped some, and no wonder: so sorry, folks, I'm totally immersed in my novel and it's taking up most of the day and I'm just not getting time for blogging! Also I'm still up the mountain and the weather hasn't been good and as a result the internet connection is dire. Anyway, here are all the great blogs I'm thrilled to be there with (if the mobile broadband sees fit to upload it):