I’ve registered for the Goodreads challenge for a fifth year and, although my totals have increased year-on-year, I’m sticking to a goal of 100 books. Even though it’s hardly a challenge to curl up with a novel most evenings, in a business that is mostly about failing, why not give myself a target I know I can beat? Besides, this isn’t a marathon. Reading is more about the experience than a numbers game. That’s why I’m setting myself some specific targets in relation to quality and diversity, building on my analysis of 150 books read in 2017.
I’m sharing my reflections on two novels in which sensitive men share their reflections on life and love. Both begin with the narrators at a loose end during the university summer vacation, the first in Barcelona, the second in London. Wabi-Sabi is the lighter of the two, in which a university lecturer travels to Japan where he is beguiled by a young woman. In The Only Story, a man’s entire life is shaped by a ten-year relationship with a vulnerable older woman he began as a nineteen-year-old student.
If it’s irritating for novelists to be told by friends and acquaintances that they too could write a novel if they weren’t so busy doing more important things, then think how it must be for poets. Anyone with even a passing interest in words, or emotions, is likely to have composed a poem at some point, whether inspired by a sense of occasion or adolescent angst. You don’t even need a pen or a keyboard when you can juggle those lines in your head.
Blogger and memoirist, Irene Waters, has been collecting memories of ordinary activities across the generations and across the world. Last October’s theme, collections, sparked some interesting reminiscences about stamps, birds’ eggs and the dysfunctional parts of ballpoint pens, to name but a few. The latter came to mind when I was reading about Cathy, the protagonist of the second novel reviewed in this post, and I’ve linked her with Julia, whose unusual life, and posthumous career, is the subject of Orphans of the Carnival, who was less a collector than an object of curiosity herself. I hope you’ll be curious enough to read on.
Every novel is comprised of different parts that writers, readers and reviewers hope will combine into a satisfying whole. My last two reviews of 2016 – before I reveal my favourites of the year – are of novels for which finding that coherence is a particular challenge, but extremely worthwhile if achieved. Both published this summer, neither seems to have attracted many reviews on Goodreads, but I’m impressed with both (albeit one more than the other) so I hope you’ll at least give my reviews a chance.
Following last month’s post on reading for my reviews, I thought I’d share a little of what I do with them once they’re written. Obviously the appear on Annecdotal, but where else? Well, there’s Goodreads which drew me in initially as an attractive way of keeping tabs on my reading. Another way I keep track is through the listings on my reading and reviews page although, because I’m better at remembering the book than the author, the alphabetical ordering doesn’t always help. Then there’s Twitter (along with the myriad hashtag days) which can generate some lively discussion and Facebook which, probably because I still don’t know how to work it properly, tends not to. Also, because most of the books I review come from the publishers, I tweet and email them the link; if it’s from one of the Hachette companies involved in Bookbridgr, I also log the review there. That’s quite a lot of admin, but there’s still one glaring omission that troubles me somewhat; it’s not exactly the elephant in the room, but the huge empty space where that elephant should be.
Today’s the day that the internet is going to zing with antidotes to the mammoth cruelty and indifference to suffering that exists in this world. The 1000 Voices Speak for Compassion blogathon, launched by Yvonne Spence just over a month ago, has rocketed through the airwaves (or do I mean fibre-optic cables?), enthusing a galaxy of bloggers and tweeters to join in. As a warmup, Charli Mills compiled a virtual anthology of the Carrot Ranchers’ compassion-themed 99-word stories. Mine focused on compassion within marriage (after all, it was Valentine’s Day when I posted) and the self-compassion that’s needed for compassion for others to thrive. My contribution to the 1000 Voices is to elaborate the ideas behind that flash.
It might seem contradictory to focus on the self when the genesis of this movement was to combat the despair at an apparent lack of compassion for others. Yet one of the examples that Charli gave in her post introducing the compassion prompt made me think about how people can find compassion for others difficult because they haven’t experienced sufficient compassion themselves. Even if compassion doesn’t require them to do anything, it might feel too big a burden to take on, especially if they’ve been shackled with caring for others when they were desperately in need of care themselves.
What do you understand by the term “a good child”? Does it imply a particular proficiency in getting up to mischief and other childish things? Or does it mean, as for the Saddeq children growing up in Lahore in the new nation of Pakistan, suppressing their own inclinations and desires in favour of their mother’s strict demands? In a divide-a-rule regime reminiscent of the British Raj, the boys, Sully and Jakie, are destined to be doctors, their learning beaten into them by a tutor they nickname, appropriately, Basher, while the girls, Mae and little Lana, hug their mother’s shadow, dressed up like dolls in scratchy frilly dresses unsuitable for the suffocating heat. Until the day they can escape their manipulative mother through marriage for the girls and education abroad for the boys, they have no choice but to comply.
How well-prepared are such good children for their future adult lives? As the novel explores, children who are discouraged from questioning authority might struggle to protect themselves by appropriately saying no. On the surface, the Saddeq offspring are successful: they have careers, relationships, children of their own. But, in different ways, they are still, even in late middle age, the insecure children their mother created, maintaining as wide a distance as they dare from their parents, still scared of their mother when duty calls them “home”. Compulsive helpers, workaholics, conflicted about intimacy; even into old age they continue striving to be good rather than happy.
Writers learn early to be wary of mirrors. It’s painful to have to score through that purple passage eloquently describing our protagonist’s physical appearance from the top of their head to the tips of their toes. When what we took for writerly innovation is revealed to be a cliché; the first time we allow our narrator to look in the mirror, could be the last.
Yet a character who never caught sight of their reflection would be an odd kettle of fish indeed. Plate-glass windows, stainless steel doors: the built environment abounds with reflective surfaces, never mind the mirror above the bathroom sink. Should these be totally out of bounds for writers? Our protagonist’s relationship to mirrors can be useful way of illustrating their character or mood. Are they obsessively drawn to mirrors or avoidant; are they anxiously checking their appearance, or an ordinary woman using lipstick and mascara to compose her outdoor face? Surely it’s the information dump that’s the problem. After all, Elmore Leonard preached against detailed description, not mirrors.
A skilfully employed shiny surface can reflect more than is apparent to the eye. For example, in Harriet Lane’s debut novel Alys, Always, Frances sees
Annecdotal is where real life brushes up against the fictional.
Annecdotist is the blogging persona of Anne Goodwin:
slug-slayer, tramper of moors,
author of two novels.
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