Wednesday, 21 January 2009

In Memoriam

George Johnston Fergusson
Elizabeth Hay Fergusson


'What can we do with the lost, the dead, but write them into being?' (Hilary Mantel)

Friday, 16 January 2009

Is it January or is it me?

I think it's January - my least favourite month of the year. The bookshops are full of I Can Make You Thin/Rich/Mindful/Superhuman titles and it's not getting dark quite so early in the afternoons ... but to me, it's still the armpit of the year, with a deep, dark anniversary looming up next week - and I can't wait to get it over with, shake off sluggishness and negativity.

Such was my malaise (and my preoccupation with students and January exams) I couldn't summon up enough energy to blog last week, for which I apologise. It's not that I don't have things to say - it's that I have so much I want to say that the prospect of typing it all up gives me a fit of the vapours. Blogging by Vulcan mind-meld would help.

I also did myself no favours by reading yet another 'failed writer who once had promise is jealous of smug succesful one' type novel, which was full of bitter satire both funny and painful. The book was 'The Secret Life of E. Robert Pendleton' by Michael Collins. I enjoyed it but didn't fall in love with it, though it was very good on the campus-satire front, very thoughtful and articulate, and segued rather unusually into a 'cop investigates secret crime' novel. Pendleton, college professor who once was a shining literary light, has watched his potential ooze into the dirt and has prostituted his promise, selling out for safe tenure at a minor North American college, doomed to grade the papers of aggressively mediocre students. He decides this state of affairs really won't do, especially when he has to host a reading given by his greatest rival, who is rolling in cash, kudos and ego. Unfortunately, Pendleton can't even commit suicide effectively. The novel's focus shifts to Pendleton's female disciple, who because of his virtually vegetable state, has found, at last, a suitable role as keeper of the flame. She discovers a book nobody knew he'd produced, depicting a murder - and that the murder described is identical to a real local murder at the time the book was written. Did art imitate life? Did Pendleton do the deed? Enter a cold-case cop who is driven to find out. The switches of point of view sometimes made it hard to be involved - there was a kind of dislike of all the sad characters that made one not care too much. The cop had the usual maverick/loner problems, heigh ho. However, there were twists and the whole thing was well thought through - just not ideal reading for failed novelists/cops with emotional baggage/teachers who've long since lost any Mr Chips idealism.

My favourite book so far this year is 'I, Coriander' by Sally Gardner. I loved it. Exquisitely written, it's a children's book but don't let that stop you. It's set at the time of the English Civil War and it involves magic - but don't groan. It's not twee. It portrays the alien danger of 'glamour' and draws on traditional fairy tale ideas - the crossover of the fairy and mortal realms, the contraction of time in the fairy kingdom, magical shoes, a shadow that is a soul, a prince transformed - and a resourceful and utterly convincing heroine. Squalor, beauty, enchantment, threat. I enjoyed it so much more than when I laboured through the colossal 'Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell' by Susanna Clarke, a couple of years ago. I wanted so much to admire that book and there was indeed a lot to admire, not least Clarke's marvellous ability to pastiche the style of early nineteenth century. But all along I kept thinking -'What is this story for?' 'When will it really get going?' - and I felt I'd been sold short at the end, in spite of its detail and length. Somehow Sally Gardner does so much more in a fraction of the space. I look forward to reading her novel set at the time of the French Revolution, called, I believe, The Red Necklace.

Looking back at last year's reading, embarrassingly but not unusually, my book purchases came to around double the number of books I actually read. (I'm betting I'm not alone in this ...). My reads of the year were Julia Blackburn's 'The Emperor's Last Island', Simon Gray's 'The Smoking Diaries', Michelle Paver's 'Oath Breaker'. Simon Armitage's translation of 'Sir Gawain and the Green Knight', Dominic Hibberd's biography of Wilfred Owen, Judith O'Reilly's wonderful 'Wife in the North' and C.J Sansom's 'Sovereign'. Disappointments of the year were: Minette Walter's 'The Shape of Snakes' (just could not find anything to believe in there), Michael Chabon's 'Wonder Boys' (I wanted to hit the protagonist. Hard. Frequently.) Manda Scott's 'The Crystal Skull' (failed by a long way to live up to what I thought it could have been) and Joseph O'Connor's 'Redemption Falls' (too much of too much, written in a too-much style).

Right, that's the bitchy bit over. Sad news at the start of the year - the closure of the crime-specialist Murder One bookshop in London. The owner was going to retire anyway but couldn't find a buyer in these parlous times. Good news - that Terry Pratchett has been knighted. I have to confess I've never read any of his books but I enjoy seeing him interviewed and I think he deserves the honour for his campaigning about Alzheimer's. He's drawn attention, in his inimitably bolshie way to the iniquities of funding (lack of) for both treatment of dementia and research into causes and cures.

Last year on, the highest selling book was J.K. Rowling's 'Beedle the Bard'. The biggest writer in the US is Stephanie Meyer, who's written the teen-vampire romances 'Twilight' and so on. The highest selling DVD on and Amazon was, apparently, 'Mamma Mia'. And the best-selling electronic gizmo on was the Kindle, their e-reader. Even though it's hideous and tacky. I will say no more.

Now, I didn't blog last week, but I think I've made up for it now, don't you?

Thursday, 1 January 2009

Happy New Year

So here we are, at the start of another one. I've finished reading my first book of the year (Yay!) - Michael Murpurgo's 'Singing for Mrs Pettigrew', which is an enchanting collection of his short stories and of little essays describing his career as a writer and the reasons he came to write those stories. His sensitivity, his love of nature, his sense of moral responsibility and a sheer love of people and places all come across so well.

I do hope I can do better this year on the reading front - and on the writing front. I want to wish you all good luck if you're writing: if you've embarked on a novel, good luck with finishing it, if you've finished it, good luck with editing it, and if you've edited it, good luck with finding an agent or publisher!

I tend to feel that making resolutions is a hiding to nothing: you know you're going to break them. I'm certainly not inclined to joing a gym! However, in 2009, I want and hope to rediscover joy in writing. For so long the idea of publication has held such sway over me that it has dominated every aspect of what I do. Lately I've felt the tension between the ambitious, market-aware, practical me and the more dreamy, spontaneous creative me has been inhibiting any forward progress. I've also depended too much on the good opinion of others - which hasn't always been forthcoming, even from people very dear to me. It's time to strike out from this. I need to write without The Voice croaking its bleak prophecies about what I write - especially when that voice is my own inner voice of self-doubt and self-criticism.

This may well ring a chord with some of you out there: if it does, let's make 2009 the year when we free ourselves to read and write for pleasure - because when the words are right, there is no greater pleasure and satisfaction.