Month: Feb 2019

It’s a Gamble

Who’s to say why you’re so easily misled and discouraged? There’s no point asking because you won’t answer. It isn’t that you have anything against questions – after all, you bombard me with them often enough. Why won’t I get out of bed? Why do I fall out with the children so much? And  why do I hate sweetcorn?
But you never wait for answers. That’s how you’ve always been. Ignorant. Always.
So, when I said quite innocently that you may as well begin putting money on the lottery – seeing how you already have the numbers, and how you never miss a screening of the National Lottery programme, I should have known you wouldn’t listen. And you didn’t.
But I almost felt guilty. You looked at me with an expression that indicated something new. Something I hadn’t really seen before. I suspected it might be a new form of irritation.
And then you came right out and said it.
‘I don’t believe in gambling.’
Do you remember how you said it? With hands on hips and eyes narrowed in disapproval. I’ve never seen anyone managing a hands-on-hips pose while sitting on a sofa, but somehow you managed it.
‘Why do the lottery if you don’t believe in gambling?’ I asked you.
‘I don’t put money on. I just guess. As you know.’
‘But what’s the point?’
‘What’s the point of anything, Gregory?’ you sneered. Your hands and arms repositioned themselves, octopus-like, and stiffened at your side, as columnar props holding up your furiously hunched shoulders. ‘Tell me, seeing how you know everything else. What’s the point in me drinking this brew? What’s the point in leaving the house?’
When you get that way, there’s not a lot that anyone else can do to calm you. Your face, rarely restive, morphed into a terrifying variety of expressions ranging from obvious irritation and disapproval to something more subtle and intangible. Your eyes crinkled, almost as if in preparation for a laugh – though that wasn’t something you allowed yourself to indulge in too much. Accompanying the crinkle-eyes was a lip-curl, a twitch, and a tensing of your fingertips.
You curved your neck a little to enable better vision of me, and sighed. How to describe that sigh? Passive aggressive? Self-righteous? Patronising? Whatever it was, it was very ‘you’.
‘So, you don’t approve of collection of the proceeds of gambling?’ I asked.
‘Didn’t I just say that?’
‘Not exactly,’ I said.
You huffed and reached for the remote control.
‘Leave me alone. It’s time for my programme.’
It was my turn to sigh and tut and huff. But the difference was that you meant each negative emotion right down to the depths of your soul, didn’t you? But, with me, I was just playing. Messing about. I suppose you could say that I was taking a risk. A bit of a gamble, in fact.
You watched, with your head at an angle, as your programme’s theme music began to ring out of the television’s speakers, and turned to say ‘I told you to go’.
I perfected the trudge up to my room many years ago. My trudge was what you wanted, and were waiting for, and I have always been happy enough to gift you daily in this tiny way. But it didn’t reflect what was going on inside the head of me. Not at all.
I switched on my computer, and immediately logged in to see the most recent Irish lottery number updates. The screen told me all I needed to know.
You may not have ever put money on the National Lottery. But I put money on some of the others.
And, after twenty-eight miserable years of marriage, I thought it was about time for me to reap a secret benefit. After all, you definitely did not want to profit from the gains of gambling. You told me so yourself.

The Question

It’s fair enough, as questions go. All the more so because I’ve been asked it all my adult life.

As soon as people hear my name, and their brain makes the link, they ask it. Their Pavlovian responses have ceased to surprise me.
Last night the question was delivered by the telephone representative of a utility supplier. The young woman with a jolly Newcastle accent rang me at random to enquire whether I’ve ever considered switching to a water meter. She then asked, hesitantly, if I was famous as she vaguely recognised my name. And then she stopped. She apologised. She said ‘I should have known’.
I said it was OK. Just as I always do. And then the question came. I answered briefly, and I could almost hear her stifle a gasp, even over the telephone line. And, as per usual routine, the other questions followed.
Why haven’t you changed your name?
Why haven’t you moved away?
But still, the top spot of questions goes to ‘When did you realise?’
I want to say ‘I just did’.
But it’s not enough. Either for me, or for my questioners.
So, when I am asked, ‘When did you realise your own father was a serial killer?’ my response is well-rehearsed. I say ‘I always knew. He was a bad person from the get go. The killing was inevitable’.
But what I want to say is more.
I want to explain how I realised from my earliest memories that the blonde-haired, blue-eyed man who charmed every stranger he ever met, but who I was forced to live alongside in egalitarian agony, was not quite right in the head.
When he charged at my friends playing rounders on the street. When he  ranted and threatened to kill them because they were playing near his car, I could see it.
When he shut our dog in the plastic laundry basket and hovered it at the top of the stairs, I could see it. When he demanded that the decision on the dog’s future depended on me: whether I would rather have a million pounds or to see the dog be thrown down the stairs inside the basket. I could see it.
When he knelt on my chest and slammed his knees against my ribs, I could see it.
Though I couldn’t name it, I could see it.
He claimed he was ‘angry’… but he wasn’t. He was blank and he was empty. He was cold and dark and detached. But he wasn’t angry.
When he told me I was a terrible daughter because I refused to allow him to teach me to kiss. With manual one-to-one lessons. I could see it then too.
When I was forced to install a lock on my bedroom door…
When he told my friend who had just been raped, that she was a slag…
When he refused to keep any promises…  
To honour any commitments…
To deny them with a self-satisfied smirk. I could see it then.
Oh yes, I knew it. I knew it alright.
And when he was sacked from his job for knifing a colleague. And when he told me thirty years later that I had imagined this event, and was therefore insane.
And when he couldn’t keep a single friend. 
And how we all were desperate to move away. And never see him again. 
Or when he accused me of having some responsibility for my mother’s illness. And death.
I knew it.
But when did I know it most? Was it when he broke into my bedroom or threatened my boyfriend or told me he’d set fire to my hamster?
No. It was when he lectured me on why he had decided to be a professional driver. It was a good career for people who hated other people, he said, and then he laughed. That was the nearest I’d ever seen to an honest and open expression of emotion.
Peter Sutcliffe was a lorry driver, he said.
And I told my friends the following day that if he ever turned out to be a serial killer or mass murderer, then I wouldn’t be one of those people who said, ‘Wow, I can’t believe it. He was such a nice guy. He kept himself to himself. Quiet and well-mannered.’
No. I would say.
‘Yes. I always knew.’ Just as I do now.


Every other time, he had come back.  
But that day he didn’t.
We’d arrived as usual, and he’d parked me in a shabby little brick-built garage.
I didn’t know why we were there. It wasn’t my business to ask.
I just did what I needed to do, and waited patiently for him to come back.
He’d always come back. Till that day.
As he carefully checked my windows, then locked my doors, he chatted his usual to me.
‘Be a good girl,’ he said.
‘Don’t go anywhere,’ he said.
‘Don’t do anything I wouldn’t,’ he said, chuckling as he padlocked the garage behind me.
As was usual, my engine cooled and I stilled into fumy silence. I didn’t much like being shut away in these claustrophobic garages, full of my own emissions. But it’s part of the life of being a vehicle. We’re used and left, used and left. But not normally like this.
The year was 1997.
The place was Frankfurt, Germany.
And my owner, driver and friend, was Torsten, a 56 year old man who had loved and cared for me. We’d spent the previous ten years together.
But Torsten didn’t come back. I was alone for 20 years, in the dark.
In those years I’ve changed a lot. What used to be my gleaming paintwork is no longer that way. I’m dulled, rusting and crusted.
I wasn’t even searched for, but was found by accident.
As the garage door opened for the first time in forever, I awakened with a tremor of excitement. Was it Torsten? Finally I’d be back on the road again.   
Torsten was informed that I wasn’t stolen after all. Torsten was 76 years old when he got that call. He was alive and well, and had forgotten all about me.
But I hadn’t forgotten about him.
My heart ached. But it didn’t take long for my rescuers to break it properly.
After checking me out, I was told it was scrap heap time. My engine, already broken, camouflaged the slivers of my broken heart, and I went to the scrap heap willingly. I was more than ready.
This story was inspired by an article I saw in a children’s magazine about a man being reunited with his car 20 years after he reported it as stolen.  It was found in the lockup garage where he left it.

‘The Year of the Runaways’ (by Sunjeev Sahota)

Questions relating to Masters Degree exercise

Sahota’s novel is perhaps less stylistically innovative than some of the other novels we’ve read on the unit. How did you respond to his prose style? How would you characterise it (what key features would you identify)? Does ‘stylistic innovation’ matter to you as a reader?

The prose style is basic but I do view it as a kind of positive in this book.The ways Sahota writes does enable clarity and reduces the ambiguity we’ve seen in many of the other course novels, though I have to agree with certain reviewers who have described it as workmanlike, pedestrian and overly simplistic. The reader can tell who is speaking and won’t need to re-read sentences in order to make sense of them.It is a good job really, as there is already potential for confusion with the lack of clear characterisation and the use of Punjabi.I do find that when a book is complex of plot, or when the characters and places are words you aren’t familiar with, then I, as a reader, do appreciate a simpler format and style.
Stylistic innovation matters little to me when I am reading.What matters more is that the story is well told and effectively written, whether this is in flowery descriptive prose or in short, terse tag lines.Provided the style matches the material rather than overwhelms it, all styles have their plus points.
The Year of the Runaways follows four main characters – Randeep, Avtar, Tochi, and Narinder – through the use of discrete narrative sections. In this regard it might be compared to other novels on the unit, such as NW, Arlington Park, and The Heart Goes Last.
In terms of stranding, what differences or similarities can you see between Runaways and these other novels? Do you feel that Sahota’s approach has any significant advantages or disadvantages in relation to the others?What effects does Sahota’s approach to stranding have upon the way we interpret the novel’s characters? As in most of the other books we’ve looked at, plot and action aren’t always entirely clearly drawn. Clear stranding therefore does help, as does the revealing of character history. Did you find the novel more ‘readable’ as a result of this approach?
I am not sure that I find this novel overly readable.I like the style and structure but the lack of book’s length and its clarity regarding the characters did cause problems for me.One Goodreads review says “it’s as if Sahota has decided that realism demands minute attention to detail, no matter how uninteresting the detail. Yes, the lives of the young men are a grind, often boring, repetitive and exhausting, but the detailing of it puts a serious drag on the book’s momentum”.
The novel utilises third-person narration. As we have discussed in previous sessions, point of view has a fundamental effect upon the meanings generated by a novel. How would the novel have changed had Sahota opted to use the first person for each character?
The use of first person would have given the stories a more personal feel, and this wouldn’t have necessarily allowed us to view the characters in the same way.We’d be much more subjective rather than objective.Also, the novel seems to have been built on the external lives of the characters rather than the internal dialogues which are inevitable as a result of the use of first person.
The first chapter – ‘Arrivals’ – introduces the novel’s four main characters before focussing upon each on in turn. How successful do you feel this opening is? What kinds of expectations does it establish for the reader? How does it ‘frame’ the subsequent story?
I quite enjoyed the opening to this book, though it wasn’t always clear who everyone was.I found it gave a strong sense of how the young men lived and how seedy their lives had become.Yes, it does ‘frame’ the story by rooting its beginning in a time and place, but the reader doesn’t get a clear sense of who the story is about.What I found interesting was the acceptance mixed in with the conflicting interests, the religion and the secular society, loyalty and reasons for being where they were.The beginning of the book gave the reader a window into the kinds of people, the seedy locations, the overcrowding and some of the generalised anxiety involved.
Are the strands given equal weight in terms of length? Did you feel each character was equally well served?
Each of the strands is substantial enough to work as its own, but none of the stories would be enough to keep my interest.I do feel that a novel should be more than a group of interconnected stories, and I don’t think this novel succeeded.I can’t clarify about what element should tie them together, and on the surface it does appear that there are very clear connections between the characters, but to me, it seemed it was only their proximity and their lives.Psychological links are what I want, and I didn’t really get them here.
Narinder is the only character who hasn’t been completely squashed by the way they are all living, perhaps because she’s a local and understands the country’s systems a little better?Who knows?
I also wasn’t sure that any of the main characters were actually fully rounded – perhaps this is what stopped my feeling the links between them.Narinder is the most likeable because of her sacrifice but all the characters have sacrificed themselves quite large extents.All have suffered and all were important to the story’s flow.
How successfully does the novel deal with time (for example, you might think about the sections which employ analepsis, and the ‘present’ of the year in the title)?
It is hard to get into the world of this novel and to comprehend how these young immigrants must be living.We hear about what goes on but don’t get much feedback on how they feel about it.The novel takes place over a year and cover how life treats the main protagonists during that time.During the story, much is mentioned of their pasts, and this use of analepsis is necessary in order to get some sense of what the characters are background-wise in comparison with where they find themselves at the time of the novel’s writing. I don’t feel that the novel dealt with time all that clearly owing to the characters’ lack of inner lives. Though the majority of the novel’s narration and dialogue is in English, Sahota uses a great deal of Punjabi dialect throughout. Some of that usage is accompanied by clarification: ‘Not far from the train station he stopped outside a theka, a liquor store’ (41), or ‘“Vo he tho hai mera naam,” Kishen finished. A schoolyard phrase, about their names being all they owned’ (58). However, the majority of dialect is not defined: ‘So, even in England she wore a kesri. A domed deep-green one that matched her salwar kameez’ (3), or ‘Three days after Navratri, the rains came, blasting the red earth.’ (59)
How did you respond to the frequent use of Indian dialects in the novel? What sorts of effects does it generate? How does it position the (non-Punjabi-speaking) reader?
The frequent use of Indian dialogues can be dealt with in a number of ways.The reader can sit in front of a computer or dictionary and look up each unknown word, as I did when I first began reading this book.However, after a little while this impedes the flow of the book.It gives the effect of making the non-Punjabi speaking reader feel more of an alien, perhaps this being intended because the characters are all aliens in a foreign place too.I quite enjoy the frequent use of Punjabi words, but found the three male characters’ names and characters to not be well defined enough, so I got mixed up almost all the way through the book!A Goodreads review puts it very well- “
Given the presentation of his characters’ speech and thought into English, is Sahota’s use of Indian dialects necessary, in your opinion?
Because there is little interior life for any of this book’s characters, the story is all about who does what – and when.It is left to the reader to work out how the characters are feeling, emotionally.In some ways this makes the reader feel that the characters are more helpless and this draws us in a little into their lives with a sense of curiosity.Few comments are made by the characters regarding how bad their lives are, though they clearly live pretty unpleasant lives.It is my feeling that the static nature of the characters only really comes to life when the Punjabi words give them a sense of racial identity.
In a more general sense, how do these two types of usage (defined and undefined) position the reader, respectively? Is one approach more successful than the other, in your opinion? Might either approach work well, depending on the novel?
When the usage is defined, the writer is assuming that the reader is not a Punjabi speaker or familiar with the details of these lives.This puts the reader in a position of being an informed alien.When the usage is not defined, it gives another alien sense.It’s like being at a meeting where everyone else has a clear understanding of the agenda, specific business-related acronyms etc, and you are lost in a sea of strange language.You struggle on as well as you can but are always looking for clues to make sense of the situation.This book’s approach, using both defined and undefined, does actually work.It is one of the stronger elements of the novel.
Similarly, how important is it for the reader to have a grasp of the contexts of the novel – the Indian caste system, Hindu nationalist violence, the Sikh religion? Does the novel assume that the reader already possesses such knowledge, or does it impart it? How relatable did you find the story and its characters?
It isn’t important to have a grasp of all the contexts, though I think it is vital to realise that when the people come to another country, it isn’t all about economics – it is about family honour, politics, class, and so many other things.If a reader had no idea,then the background writing of India does give some background.Even if we don’t fully understand, we can appreciate some of what these desperate characters may be going through. There is a lot of veiled sociological criticism but, as a Goodreads review reads – “…
We have discussed the language of place and setting in relation to other novels on the unit (most notably Arlington Park and The Road). Think about the way in which India and England are described in The Year of the Runaways. Are these settings adequately distinguished or individualised, in your opinion?
Having never been to India I cannot speak from person experience, but I do feel that the setting is quite well described.I felt about the setting much as I did with that described in “Time for a Tiger”. “The Road” has a strong sense of place, though the details of place are more sordid and person-specific, rather than area-specific.“Arlington Park” uses a location built around a sense of middle class superiority yet simultaneous lack of satisfaction.The settings described by Sahota are specific and vibrant (in the case of India), but damp, drab and unfriendly (in the case of England).What the book lacks regarding character differentiation, it makes up for with the setting differentiation.
How does the novel explore the relationship between the ‘runaways’ and England? How ‘complete’ a picture of the country and its people does the novel offer?
The three male ‘runaways’ have little or no relationship with the country or society of England.Their existence within England seems to have been forced upon them by circumstance, and have become entirely an economic transaction, there being little or no inter-racial integration.This must be intentional, for how on earth could the workers be so exploited if their friend groups were able to defend them and give them a sense of contrast with the outside world of non-immigrant working people in England.Because of this, I didn’t feel there was a detailed or evocative image of England written.England was a backdrop for squalor, as was India, and, though there were clear differences between the European and Asian scene settings, I didn’t get a clear sense of place for the writing about England (though I did for India).Narinder, the only female runaway, was the only one to originate in the UK.She spent time alone, on public transport, at temple and community centre etc.She was able to do this, being a legitimate UK citizen.So, although she still spent much of her time within her own community, she did have more of a historical and current relationship with the country than the others did.
How did you respond to the end of the novel? Did it provide a satisfying pay-off?
Although I generally enjoyed the book’s simple prose, the use of Punjabi and the feel of the novel, I didn’t really feel the plot was satisfying, particularly the ending.  The only main female character seemed inserted into the action.  A man needed a visa wife, and in came Narinder.  Though her character was the most likeable and had the most convincing psychological status, she was required to give legitimacy to her husband but her story was very much too short, especially considering it was one of the major pivots for the whole book.  This was a book which was too long, disconnecting, and which lost my interest very quickly.  Like Narinder, the epilogue seemed added on as an afterthought and as a result it was unsatisfying.  I would have preferred the story to end inconclusively, possibly with the threat of deportations and the promise of a good job giving the reader something to consider about the characters’ future, rather than the reader being presented with a future of little interest. 

#india #punjabi #review #sunjeevsahota #theyearoftherunaways #thoughts

‘The Road’ (by Cormac McCarthy)

Questions and answers from Masters Degree in Creative Writing

This is perhaps the most stylistically distinct book on the reading list.  The novel’s typical sentence structure is unlike any others in this unit, matching a pared down prose style with an austere, unadorned world.  Yet despite its literary minimalism, it would also be true to say that McCarthy is a lyrical writer.  Do you think McCarthy finds poetry in sparseness? 
I do feel that McCarthy finds a lyricism and poetry in sparseness.  Sections I particularly felt illustrated this include pg 210 “They left the cart in the woods and he checked the rotation of the rounds in the cylinder.  The wooden and the true.  They stood listening.  The smoke stood vertically in the still air.  No sound of any kind.  The leaves were soft from the recent rains and quiet underfoot” (repetition of ‘stood’, concentration on movement and lack of movement – vertical smoke, still air, silence, quiet leaves, rotation, etc).  The sparse sentence – “The wooden and the true” could be interpreted in a great many ways, so the seeming simplicity doesn’t always simplify intended meaning.  Much seems to be more like prose poetry than standard descriptive prose. 
Also, I consider the following to be really endearing writing – “He’d a deck of cards he found in a bureau drawer in a house and the cards were worn and spindled and the two of clubs was missing but still they played sometimes by firelight wrapped in their blankets”.  It has almost a breathless quality, lacking in punctuation, but it is both sparse and lyrical. 
Many of the other novels we’ve looked at employ elaborate prose styles – polysyllabic, hypotactical, linguistically playful – whereas McCarthy uses a pared down and noticeably paratactical style.** Does this make McCarthy’s language any less charged?  Is The Road’s compression and concision in fact more powerful and/or provocative than the contrasting prose styles on this unit?
Pared down writing of a type referred to as ‘paratactical’ is undoubtedly the intentionally selected style for this novel.  According to an article on, the function of parataxis is that it is “…useful in explaining a rapid sequence of thoughts in poetry and prose.  They could evoke the feelings in a similar way as though they happened at once.  It is a helpful device when describing a setting.  In simple word, parataxis helps the readers to focus on a particular idea, thought setting or emotion.  Also, cultural theorists use it in cultural texts where a series of events are shown side by side”. 
To get inside the mind of a complex person in a complex society (for example, the characters in “Arlington Park”), description and connection are required.  The psychological intensity needs description.  However, in “The Road” the society has been reduced to desperation levels and the human beings equally so.  I feel therefore that the short and snappy prose is both powerful and provocative.  Its lack of description and frippery simply mirrors the world in which the characters all live.  It makes the reader uncomfortable and miserable, and that is how this probably should be.  It also enables the reader to connect with the difficulties of the man and boy, in a way that detailed introspection may not.
Why do you think McCarthy writes in this particular style?  Think especially of the novel’s sentence structure – sentences that often read like individual clauses subtracted from larger sentences, so that something seems to be missing either from the beginning or the end of the sentence.  Does this make the novel’s images seem isolated, or does the prose work by a slow process of accumulation and accretion?  What is the effect of parataxis?
I believe that this style is used intentionally.  The world of the book is fragmented and the prose is too.  To some extent the imagery in the novel is a series of tableaux, but are connected by the isolation and desperation within.  I don’t feel the prose works because of accretion and accumulation but certainly the endless style consistency does add to the numbing effect of the writing.  Perhaps there is some element of accretion owing to the fact that the book does work towards a climax (the death of the man), at which point it ends. 
Can you find any notable uses of simile or metaphor? How does McCarthy use these devices?  Does his minimalistic style lend itself to lyricism, or is a significant effort of modulation required?
The beginning of the book uses these devices when the man is dreaming – “Their light playing over the wet flowstone walls.  Like pilgrims in a fable swallowed up and lost among the inward parts of some granite beast”.  Interestingly, the very final paragraph of the book (pg 307) uses these devices – “On their backs were vermiculite patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming.  Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back.  Not be made right again.  In the deep glens where they lives all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery” – regarding trout in the streams.   
Regarding the rest of the book, there are far less than might be expected in a book of this length and depth.  I wondered if perhaps this encourages the reader to consider that still in the man’s mind there is a lyricism and appreciation of beauty and coincidence etc, and towards the end, we get this again and feel a little more hopeful – as if we may be looking towards new beginnings and new adventures to be had, etc. 
Parts of the book which do use metaphor etc, tend to refer to thoughts of the past or the future – pg 43 at the waterfall – “He’d stood at such a river once and watched the flash of trout deep in a pool, invisible to see in the teacoloured water except as they turned on their sides to feed.  Reflecting back the sun deep in the darkness like a flash of knives in a cave”. 
The novel has very distinct tones (ominous, forbidding, weighty, almost biblical) and textures (rough, hard, mineral), and uses a consistent palette of greys and shades (ashen, leaden, ‘the gunmetal light’ [p. 4] …) How does McCarthy evoke these qualities, and to what effect?
McCarthy evokes the darkness and misery of the novel not only by the use of stark sentences, but also by the use of stark words – bleak, black, limp, long, cold, grasping, grudging, scared, shuffled, frail.  It just goes on and on.  The first time I read this book I was completely unable to finish it as I was very vulnerable at the time.  Finishing it this time, feeling stronger, I nevertheless did find the tone of the writing to be biblical in its inevitable apocalyptic portrayal and the ultra down-at-heel nature of the characters.  There were no kings in their towers, and no slaves etc.  Each person is as miserable and scared of each other as the next.  Also as one example, there were many little things – like when the man goes through a house and finds an apple on the ground outside. Pg 127 “He’d stepped on something.  He took a step back and knelt and parted the grass with his hands.  It was an apple.  He picked it up and held it to the light…”.  There is an air of miracle and of the parting of the red sea: the apple symbolises the purity of fresh food (now dried and withered) and the fall of humanity in the garden of Eden. 
The novel isn’t broken down into chapters, but is instead made up of short blocks of text.  Why do you think McCarthy has chosen to structure his narrative like this?  And what affect does this have on you as a reader?  How does it affect narrative qualities like pace and suspense?  Does it add or remove a sense of scale (e.g. a sense of the relative importance or impact of specific moments)? Does it make it harder for the writer to modulate between different moods, emotions, experiences, different levels of significance?
There is no end and no real beginning to the story.  The short blocks of text give us a feel of a lack of structure to days and to lives, and to the grim monotony of their daily misery. 
I am not sure if pace and suspense are altered as a result of the block rather than the use of chapters etc.
Perhaps it does make it harder to discern the different moods, levels, emotions, significance etc.  But I actually think that the sameness of absolutely everything makes even small real events stand out a little more. 
How does McCarthy use dialogue?  What effect does containing snatches of dialogue in short isolated sections have?
Dialogue is presented as part of the prose, with no defining punctuation.  Unlike “NW” and “Arlington Park”’s treatment of dialogue, I did not find the unusual treatment in “The Road” to be pretentious and irritating.  I actually found it to be the absolute best option. 
Using the short dialogue sections does make things interesting.  It makes the reader feel that silence is the status quo and conversation of any kind is exceptional so therefore deserves its own section.
Why the removal of some punctuation (particularly in words like ‘cant’, ‘didn’t’ etc)?  And what is the effect of removing speech marks?
The effect of removing speech marks almost seems to be a depersonalisation of the humans, and mixes their utterances with standard prose.  The people are as much a part of the desolate scenery as the deserted houses landscape is. 
I suspect that punctuation was removed in order to make the reader more aware of the sliding effect of the misery – in other words, all senses of grammar and punctuation is lost because civilisation is also lost. 
How do thoughts of the man’s past life filter through into the present?
They tend to filter through regretfully as dreams, more than as positive reflections. 
How does McCarthy fill us in on the past, on both a cosmic scale (e.g. what has happened to the earth) and a local scale (the past life of the man and the boy)?  Is the narrative method oblique or direct?  What role does mystery play in the novel?
There is a lot of unclearness regarding what has actually happened to the earth and the people on it.  The mystery element is actually beneficial to the way the story plays out.  We don’t need to know about the people and the places and what happened.  We just need to know that it did.  We also need to know that everything, even the earth, has lost its identity and the oblique narrative expresses this well. 
How does McCarthy frame the book’s philosophy, ideas, symbolism?  Is there profundity in the novel, or is it too strained/forced? Does the narrative slip into allegory at all (e.g. the boy and the man stand for something larger)?  (The section pp. 178-85 listed in the close-readings below is worth looking at in these respects. Is this a parable?  A fable?  Or just a story?)
I don’t feel that the profundity of the novel is strained and forced.  Yes, I believe that the boy and man do stand for something larger – but they don’t need to.  They stand on their own as characters.   The quote on pg 179 is interesting “People were always getting ready for tomorrow.  I didn’t believe in that.  Tomorrow wasn’t getting ready for them.  It didn’t even know they were there”. 
Who says this on p. 209: ‘Do you think that your fathers are watching?  That they weigh you in their ledgerbook?  Against what?  There is no book and your fathers are dead in the ground.’ ? And the section on pp. 279-80 beginning ‘He got up and walked out to the road’ to ‘To seal my mouth with dirt’; and the novel’s final paragraph? What is happening to the voice in these moments?
My first assumption was that the man had been responsible for the quote about fathers watching.  My afterthought was that it could have been the narrator breaking through. 
In these sections, the novel becomes more allegorical and more fantastical.  It is harking back to better times and looking forward to better times – temporarily removing the characters from the misery. 
How is time treated?  Think of the many painful moments that last and linger, and then how suddenly a series of days will simply pass in a clause (‘In three days they came to a small port town’ p. 280); or how the harrowing thought of the boy unable to leave his dead father is stated with no ornament (‘He stayed three days’ 301).
Time is treated as a fluid entity that is almost incidental.In a place where there is no reliance on jobs, on punctuality, or keeping appointments etc, the time itself is not necessary to be considered.So, the boy staying with his dead father for three days indicates that’s the time it took him to deal with it, rather than some arbitrary boundary that needs to be bidden.
**(Parataxis is when sentences and/or clauses are kept short and declarative, usually orchestrated by coordinating conjunctions [most commonly ‘and’] rather than subordinating conjunctions [‘therefore’, ‘because’, ‘so that’, ‘which…’, ‘perhaps’ etc].  Hypotaxis occurs in more complex sentences, often made up of multiple clauses which use subordinating conjunctions and qualifications.  Henry James’ writing is a prime example of the hypotactical style, and Ernest Hemingway’s of the paratactical.)

#cormac #cormacmccarthy #desolation #dystopia #review #theroad #thoughts

‘Get Everything Done and Still Have Time to Play’ by Mark Forster

I love books like this. They basically buy into what I’ve always felt – that work and play are seriously allied. Work is best when seen as a form of play, and play benefits from being taken as seriously as work. It is all about getting a balance. The book recommends we all increase our ‘depth’ activities such as walking, yoga and reading, but mainly it is about useful activity.
As is the case with many of these books, much of the advice seems logical – like decide on one thing you’ll do the next day (work or leisure related) without fail. Or start small with organisation and become a little more demanding with yourself day by day, pushing yourself only to your maximum capacity.
One of the statements that really resonated with me was that you can’t manage time (because time just ‘is’) but that you can manage what you give attention to. It is easy to be busy without achieving much – because you’ve been taken over by trivia. We need to know the big picture and where we want to be. This way, we don’t avoid trivia and stress, we just deal with them in a focused way.
What I took away from this book was the importance of dealing with your own resistance to the big, scary, important tasks. I know that I can spend happy hours on paperwork, but when it comes to something more scary, I always feel like I need a clean desk before I can even approach it. Hence important stuff does not get done with the priority it deserves.   
Real effectiveness depends on the ability to cut through to what really matters and to concentrate on that. I know this, because the alternative is unthinkable…
When you follow the disorganised path of least resistance, the way you live your life is almost completely the result of outward stimuli – connected with other peoples’ disapproval and expectations. But if you overcome resistance and take action before resistance builds up, if you break large tasks into smaller ones and increase the pains of not doing the task, resistance is more pointless. You need to get resistance working for you by setting up good routines and as much automation as possible.
Say NO, in order to make space in your life for new projects. You need to focus on the right things – not the insignificant busy-making tasks which take attention from the bigger picture.  The author recommends you cost out the activities you deploy your attention on. Split things into must do, should do and could do, and do the ‘musts’ first! Start a daunting project TODAY. Do the thing you fear most first, and this just makes everything else seem relatively easy. We will only change something if the pain of doing it is greater than the pain of changing.
Free-flowing tasks which don’t have time scale are often those for which we have the most resistance. Natural inertia prevents us from starting, but it is also what keeps us going thereafter. The best antidote for fear is action.
When you use resistance as a guide and a motivator, what is important gets actioned first, days become easier, anxiety and tension are dispersed, procrastination is eliminated, real work gets done, ‘busy’ work withers away, concentration is maintained, and crises are prevented. If you don’t use this as a guide, the entire opposite happens.
I took a lot from this book the first time I read it. I still listen to the advice now.
Resistance is FUTILE!

#book #bookreview #geteverythingdone #markforster #organisation #review #time

‘The Harmony Silk Factory’ (by Tash Aw)

Questions relating to this book as a set text for Masters Degree

‘I’ve always been drawn to novels with complicated structures, richly textured stories that don’t reveal everything at first glance.’ – Tash Aw.  The Harmony Silk Factory is notable for its tripartite structure – ‘Johnny’, ‘1941’, and ‘The Garden’. Each section is narrated by a different character and characterised by a different genre of writing: investigative research; a diary; memoir/confession. Which strand do you think is the most successful, and why?
The three parts are narrated by 1) Jasper, Johnny’s son 2) Snow, Johnny’s wife, and 3) Peter Wormwood, Johnny’s best friend.Although I didn’t love the character of Snow, I found the journal entries to be relatively compelling, though I had little interest in the chaperoned honeymoon.For some reason, Snow seems more in-the-minute than does the seedy Wormwood.However, I preferred the factual elements of Jasper’s strand.He seems to tell a fuller story, and one that is not limited to a few events only.His historical recollections seem more readable.
How does Aw modulate language, technique, syntax, sentence structure in each? Is there, in your opinion, enough differentiation between the voices of the novel’s narrators?
The use of the diary for Snow (with “Still no sign of Honey” short sentences), the use of the posthumous reflection on his father’s history for Jasper (and resultant semi-respectful thoughts of his father), and the rambling, over-exaggerated drunken Wormwood’s obsessiveness do differentiate to some extent.However, it was difficult at the beginning of each section, particularly the final one, to understand who was speaking and this did detract from the overall effect of the novel.
How does each strand relate to the others? Is the ‘implied reader’ of each strand the same?
The implied reader of Snow’s diary, is herself.It doesn’t read like a journal aimed at as-yet-unknown ancestors, or ramblings laid down for non-specific posterity.Jasper’s gives his account in order to make history aware of the true nature of his father, therefore he speaks to those in the future regarding the past.The implied reader of Wormwood could be the entire audience for a staged tragedy.Jasper is telling us what actually happened and justifying why he hates his dad, Snow is giving details of events in her life, and Wormwood is romanticising the past in nostalgic ramblings.
How do we evaluate the reliability of each strand?
Jasper has a point to prove, as does Snow.Wormwood has a life story to back up.As such, all are reliable to each character.But whether they tell the ‘true’ story or not, is a different matter.
To what extent does each strand ‘reveal’ the personality of its narrator (Jasper, Snow, Peter), as well as those of its central characters?
Jasper is bitter, confused.  Snow is introspective and a bit sneaky.  Peter is flamboyant and a dreamer.  Yes each strand does reveal the personalities of the writers, best in the first and last, less strongly with Snow as her journal is less retrospective story telling and more reflective of the way the character feels at that moment in time. 
Finally, why does Aw arrange the novel in this way, in your opinion?
The novel is arranged in this way, likely because we would feel far differently if the last section became the first.  We would see Johnny as a romantic anti-hero rather than as the very flawed and unstable human being he clearly was.  Also, the historical section does need to come first to give a context in time and space.  Snow’s section seems to fit perfectly in the middle.  She is writing in the present and the others are writing of their pasts. 
Zadie Smith’s NW shares some formal similarities with The Harmony Silk Factory: three lengthy ‘strands’, ordered serially (rather than recursively), with a voice, style and perspective peculiar to each strand. What else might this comparison reveal? Do you feel that one novel combines these features more convincingly or successfully that the other? Do these similarities produce the same results/effects?
In addition to the comparisons already mentioned regarding Harmony Silk and NW, I noted a few others.In particular, the sense of time and place is strong in both, as is the need for escape from surroundings which may not be sympathetic for the characters.
Also, like Johnny, Natalie was neither saint nor out-and-out sinner (certainly Wormwood seems to have seen the good in him more than others might). Another connection I felt between both books, and others probably won’t agree with – “As in NW, the language, dialogue etc was good, but the whole book just didn’t appeal to me.
How important is the order in which we meet the narrators? How might the novel have altered had Aw elected to reorder these long chapters? How might the novel have been altered had the narratives appeared recursively and in smaller sections?
Jasper’s section gives the character of Johnny a contemporary stance, and also allows the reader to connect a little with Johnny as a villain.The other two sections do not allow for as much connection or empathy.It is interesting how, when the story arrives with us in chunks, we fit right into that mind set for a substantial period of time.Then, the chunk changes and our attitude changes also.
A small cast of characters (Johnny, Honey, Peter, Snow, Kunichika) reappear throughout the novel. Does Aw reproduce these characters consistently from one section to the next? What risks might this approach run in terms of character development?
I did not feel that the characters were consistent.In fact, in many ways they were also not strongly drawn at all.For example, Peter and Honey became interchangeable to me, and it was only in the final section, when Wormwood got his voice, that I realised who and what he was.
For example, Kunichika’s character (and Snow’s reaction to him) do not seem similarly drawn in the different sections.He is described as a scholar as well as a vicious killer.Snow appears as an angel, an adulteress, confused, a child, and a responsible woman.Johnny is a bad man but also a good enough man to warrant Wormwood planting a garden in his memory: all this for a gangster, an inscrutable businessman, communist and textile merchant. Each of his narrators sees him differently.
The Hickling article says that “Aw makes a credible job of modulating the varying tones of voice by which the smiling villain of the first part comes to be seen as the weeping cuckold of the third”.The inconsistency of the representation is not particularly dangerous.Most readers are mature and experienced enough to know that narrators are largely unreliable and at best are subjectively reliable.
In your opinion, how important is it that the reader of HSF has some prior knowledge of Malaysia? How successfully does the novel introduce its world to the reader? How vital to the novel’s story is its setting? Might this approach pose any challenges to the reader or the writer?
I have no prior knowledge of Malaysia or of its social and political history and neither do I tend to find books of this type to be particularly gripping.In this novel, the story’s setting both in time and place is quite essential: the travelling fabric seller, the social insecurity etc.The challenges I would think relate mainly to the lack of empathy of understanding from those readers who know nothing of Malaysia.On a related point, I thought it interesting that neither Snow nor Wormwood were involved in the Harmony Silk Factory’s brothel story.I had expected this setting to be a major one for the entire plot especially as the book’s cover displays a beautiful women with a flower in her hair, looking seductively over her shoulder.In reality, the setting is not the brothel, it is about the valley, the country, the islands and the boat, and, once Jasper finishes telling his tale, it almost feels as if the Harmony Silk Factory never existed.So, the major, Factory is more of a starting point than a backdrop which permeates the entire story.I didn’t find this particularly satisfying.

On a related point, how important to the novel is the time in which it is set? How essential is the novel’s primary setting during the Second World War to its plot? To what extent is The Harmony Silk Factory a work of historical fiction?
Historical fiction is a genre of writing where both plot and setting are located within the past.The book is mainly set in Malaysia before the Japanese invasion (true place, true events), but the story (being fiction) also inserts made-up events, characters and places to this truthful framework.As such, this is therefore a work of historical fiction, as well as one of conjecture, fantasy and imagination.It’s interesting that so much is going on but it is not a crucial part of the story.The “demise of colonial rule in Malaya, the fledgling rise of communism, the impending Japanese occupation. Nothing is set. Neither the circumstances of the story, nor the characters” (from a Goodreads review). The setting in time and place is crucial, but any accuracies don’t make it a better or stronger story.
To varying extents, all three strands revolve around Johnny Lim. How consistent was the portrait of Johnny throughout the novel? Given the extent to which Johnny is described by the three narrators, how complete was your sense of the character? Did you respond to this feature of the novel? What might Aw have been trying to achieve?
The character of Johnny was definitely not consistent.He is variously described as innocent, sweet, interesting, criminal, violent, psychopathic etc.I feel that Aw was trying give the readers an awareness of the characters narrating more than the characters being described.I am unsure about this feature of the novel, though it almost felt that the reader was being treated as a gullible bystander, so it did wind me up a little.I agree more with Hickling’s comment about the book’s “maddening inconsistency” more than its “mysterious appeal”.
Johnny, like all the other characters, was unlikeable, no matter who related his tale.
What other themes does Aw foreground in the novel, and how does he do this?
Hinkling believes that it is the binding image of silk that holds the book together.I can understand why he might write this, but I did not feel it at all.It is interesting that the character the story revolves round is not allowed a narration of his own – intentionally, as I am guessing that this is about the way that one person can be perceived differently by everyone he encounters, even himself.
The themes of the novel include love, hate, betrayal, obsession and greed. The author displays this by having all three narrators take independent attitudes to these themes.According to Time magazine, the book is a “tale of love and betrayal that transcends mere location”. Again, I do not entirely agree, and all the themes are not of equal strength, just as not all the writing is equally compelling.

#historicalfiction #honey #johnnylim #malaysia #multiplenarrator #nw #peter #review #secondworldwar #snow #theharmonysilkfactory #zadiesmith

‘Past Present Tense’ – Brilliant Review Comments

“Good pace. Takes its time to reflect in intriguing fashion.”

“May not suit readers of the ‘Wham Bam’ genres. Will suit readers wanting more depth and more 3D characterisation. A lot of interior verbalisation and feeling.”

“Motifs ; Sartrean existential angst. No way to anticipate direction of story because of unpredictability of players.”

“Fear, insecurity. anxiety. loneliness v aloneness. strong but vulnerable characters causing conflict within and outwardly.”

“House belonging to Edward, another ‘character’ in its own right, reflects mental turmoil and needs at the time. For father it is an anchor to a wavering reality. It is a symbolic order (in a Kristevian sense ) but a symbolic disorder. Abject. Revolt. Chaotic thoughts and action or non-action.”

“Search by all characters for Home or sanctuary. For the villian, Craig, his is violent efforts to control or he is lost at sea.”

“Action is woven into interior monologues. In the case of Craig it is difficult to detect any residual charm that had first won Natalie but his violence paradoxically shows weakness.”

“Concept of Home = Concept of identity. Gregarious human need v Need for individual creativity and protection of one’s integrity.”

“Finally there is an acceptance and value of valuable pluralist connections, choices and ideas.” 

Migraine Breaks all the Rules

My eyes cling to the inside of their sockets with gritty and excruciating agonies, as my fingertips tentatively probe pulsing temples and press, release, press, release…

Close eyes, open eyes, close eyes, open eyes, as the icepack shocks against my flaming forehead.

I wonder at what point I might succumb to this pressure. Might weaken for good. Might transform into nothing more than the physical manifestation of a migraine. Another being.

A grey mass appears within my peripheral vision, and moves closer. Each action of this blurred shape makes me wince.

A cat. My cat. It makes a sound – a high-pitched yowling – and my foot automatically kicks out to make it stop. My cat cries and scurries off, its footfalls thudding vibrations throughout my frame. Later I’ll feel sorry, but for now, no.  I am suffering the self-obsession of the unwell. 

Blue light. White light. Speckled orange clusters. I beg for my vision to normalise. I beg whoever or whatever is out there to take away this feeling and to take me back to my ordinary self. 

My lids close. But it’s no relief. I’m painfully aware that my eyes still see, though their curtains to the world are drawn. Speckles of light. Blotches of light. Lightning flashes of agony.

I lay my head, as gently as I am able, onto my pillow. It has already been scented with a lilac night time spray. It is supposed to prevent headaches, or heal them as you sleep, but now the smell is stifling. I can’t bear it.

I carry my soon-to-explode skull tentatively to another unscented pillow, and as it lays itself down, the pressure behind my dulled orbs threatens to pop like a boil of badness.

Neck pain. Nose pain. Cheek pain. Socket pain.

Shoulder pain. Back pain. Chest pain. Fingernail pain. Ear pain.

Scalp pain.

Hair pain.

Each and every follicle pain.

A dull, heavy ache in my heart pain.

The ‘wearing my soul in a crash helmet’ pain.

The ‘wish it was all over’ pain.

The ‘floating above it all’ pain.

The ‘ceiling hovering’ pain.

The ‘wait and see’ pain.


The Fabtastic Four

I’ve loved them with every cell of my being for more than forty years.

Ever since I heard the Beatles on the radio. Ever since those first twangling guitar chords reverberated against my eager ear drums.
Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t live in Liverpool. I didn’t even live in England, and can’t claim the credential of being one of the first to purchase their music, or of seeing them in the Cavern Club. I didn’t go to school with John, Paul, George or Ringo. I couldn’t have done – I lived on entirely another continent. But the fab four were as much as part of my life as were my next door neighbours. Music gets inside your head and permeates your whole being, and that’s closer than any neighbour could ever be. The Beatles were inside my head as often as I could put them there. Via the means of my transistor radio, my dad’s gramophone, or my HMV portable record player. Even on the streets my friends and I would chant in three part harmony, ‘Love, Love Me Do’.
It’s a cliché to say it but their music really was the soundtrack to my early years – and has never left me. Instead it led me directly here to this place on this day. Not to Liverpool’s Beatles museum, but to St John’s Wood tube station in London. In England. On the other side of the world.
I can almost analyse your personality based on your favourite Beatles album. Many claim they prefer the white album. It’s minimalist. Stylish. Elegant. Some say ‘Revolver’ because they claim it’s edgy. It’s probably just down to the title and the gun cover image, because the music isn’t. Well, not to me. To me it’s sweet and epitomised by ‘Here, There and Everywhere’. Many fans like ‘Sergeant Pepper’ the best because of the huge, sweeping psychedelic orchestration. But most of the purist fans prefer the band’s earliest two.
I can’t agree. Other albums take my top spot on the hit parade. ‘Let it Be’ is up there on the prize winners’ podium for me. ‘Long and Winding Road’, ‘I Got a Feeling’ and ‘Across the Universe’ – these tracks in particular have consistently gifted me joy, though in other ways I’ve changed so much over the years. When I was a kid I loved the wild and wacky John. Then my puritanical phase appreciated the down to earth, unpretentious Ringo. Later, through my introspective years, it was George and his gentle contemplation who spoke to me. But now, in my older years, it’s Paul. And for some reason I think there’s more of Paul on ‘Let it Be’ than the others. It’s gentler. More traditional. Sweeter. Without as much of John’s darkness.
I am like ‘Let it Be’. I’m a sweet old lady whose previous sharp corners have been gradually eroded and rounded out. I no longer possess my previous edge, and I don’t know if I should be sad or glad at the fact.
London always means walking. That’s what people always say. From hotel to tube. Down to tube. Back up to reality. Then the final stretch. At least I got a sit down between times.
The walk’s not so easy. But we get there. Me, my friend Sal, my daughter Emily, her boyfriend Eric, and my son Joe. As we get closer, Joe pokes me in the ribs and says ‘Nearly there. How you feeling?’
‘Excited,’ I say. ‘Can we slow down though?’
And then I saw it. Oh my God, I saw it. This defining place. This beautiful place. This touristy, and ridiculously popular place. My steps hastened towards it, and my gorgeous Joe turned to his sister. ‘Emily, who’s who?’ She reeled off a list. But I knew. I had always known my role in these proceedings.
I reached down and removed my sandals, watching as Eric pressed the crossing button.
Along with one other excited little quartet we stood in place. First was Sal in her white trouser suit, then Emily, hesitant, self-conscious and uncomfortable. Next I stood, jubilant and giddy, and behind me was Joe fluffing out his curls.
The lights changed and the four of us took our planned steps. Finally, after all these years, we were doing the ‘Abbey Road’ walk across the most iconic black and white zebra crossing in the universe. ‘Abbey Road’ – my top album of all time. I sang out loud ‘Something in the Way She Moves…’ as Eric snapped our fab four poses over and over and over!