Tag: book

Review of ‘The Last Runaway’ by Tracy Chevalier

‘The Last Runaway’ was written in 2013 and was selected for me to read by my teenage daughter. She was hovering around the historical fiction shelf, which is usually the least likely location for my own hoverings, and she emerged with this book through an entirely random choice. Our guinea pig was also rather taken by it, as he ate a few inches of its cover when I put it down on the sofa to make a trip to the kitchen.

Anyway, the story’s a good and powerful one. In the year 1850, Honor agrees to accompany her sister on a one-way trip from England to America. Grace dies before she meets up with her betrothed – the marriage being their reason for travel. But she feels as if she can’t return to England, and instead continues her journey and moves in with her sister’s intended. Her own intended, back in England had broken off their relationship to marry outside their shared Quaker faith.

Though life in American isn’t easy for Honor, she meets new people, lives a good life and eventually meets the man she will marry, farmer Jack Haymaker. An article on the Publishers Weekly website summarises as follows: ‘They marry and Honor, drawn by her sympathies into helping the Underground Railroad, is forced to choose between living her beliefs and merely speaking them. The birth of her own child raises the stakes, and she takes a unique stand in her untenable situation. Honor’s aching loneliness, overwhelming kindness, and stubborn convictions are beautifully rendered, as are the complexities of all the supporting characters and the vastness of the harsh landscape. Honor’s quiet determination provides a stark contrast to the roiling emotions of the slave issue, the abolitionist fight, and the often personal consequences. Chevalier’s thought-provoking, lyrical novel doesn’t allow any of her characters an easy way out’. I’ve quoted that in its entirety as it basically covers the entire plot of the book without giving too much away.

What I will say is that ‘The Last Runaway’ won the Ohioana Book Award and was in the Richard and Judy Book Club, autumn 2013. Though it isn’t Chevalier’s most well-known novel (that honour goes to ‘The Girl with a Pearl Earring’ which was made into a film with Colin Firth and Scarlett Johansson) it is certainly popular and well-respected, even amongst other writers. For instance, on Amazon, Rose Tremain says ‘I have always admired Tracy Chevalier’s un-showy brilliance, and this moving story of a young English Quaker girl trapped between duty and conscience in 1850s Ohio is the best thing she’s written since Girl with a Pearl Earring’.

I don’t want to give any spoilers, which can be quite difficult in a book review. So, I had a look on Tracy Chevalier’s website instead and found some really interesting points of reference for reading groups – about the constant sense of movement (from the Underground Slave Railroad), and the feeling that home is not a permanent place, about survival and the importance of silence,  about relationships outside the Quaker community, about the horrors of Honor’s journey and her history, about the differences between the UK and the US and how they are reflected within their patchwork styles, and about dealing with  both loss and hope.

Chevalier’s website also shows us how deeply she was emerged in the world she’d extracted for Honor. She learned to make a quilt in the traditional Quaker style that Honor would have used, and she also undertook masses of research about the town, Oberlin, which was an important stop on the runaway slave escape network – the Underground Railroad, which enabled slaves to move from the south to the safer north.

The story is sensitively written and descriptive, but not boring and self-congratulatory as is often the case with historical novels.  Honor is an interesting and complex character who is living in an equally interesting and complex time of US history. I don’t like historical fiction, but I did like this book very much.

I would recommend this to anyone who enjoys historical fiction, but also to those who don’t. The story is of social expectations, rebellion, love and frustration, and these are universal themes, no matter what your religion or your time of living.

#book #bookreview #chevalier #oberlin #ohioanabookaward #quaker #review #richardandjudybookclub #rosetremain #slave #thelastrunaway #tracychevalier #undergroundrailroad

Review of ‘Moving Times’ by Phoenix Writers

‘Moving Times’ is a book put together to celebrate the decade-long existence of the Phoenix Writers group, from Horwich Lancashire, and the contributors should be highly proud of what they’ve achieved.  

The first thing you notice is that it is a very attractive book with a simple but well-designed and effective cover. This really does the contents justice, which is something not achieved by all small press and writing group books.

As a member of three/four writing groups, I really do identify with the sentiments expressed in the book’s foreword – ‘What moves you, gets you out of bed in the morning, drives you to action? For us on a Thursday, it’s Phoenix Writers. We meet as friends, share ideas and get support and inspiration’. Yes, that’s what a strong and healthy writing group does for the usually lone creative. Such a group provides a stable and caring home for people who, by the nature of their pastime, can feel rootless and isolated. Phoenix is clearly a great base for many thoughtful and interesting writers.

This book contains just over 100 pages of stories, poetry and thoughts, and style/content-wise, there really is something for everyone. When reading a book of this type, I always begin with the poetry.

Ann Lawson’s ‘Iambic Tetrameter Rules, Okay?’ is a clever and amusing poem about the frustrations of forcing your creativity into a restrictive art form, and am sure the sentiments expressed will resonate with most poets.  With a completely different feel, ‘S is for Sharing’ is a short and life-affirming verse by Tony Nolan about all the positives in the world. This joy in living can be in short supply at times, so it’s pleasant to read regular reminders. In a similar vein, Joy Pope’s poem titled ‘Horwich Times’ made me proud to have connections with the town, and even more keen to produce my own book about Horwich – ‘a town of bustling resilience’. Kathleen Proctor’s poem, ‘Alexander, My Grandson’ is the most beautiful recollection of love for a grandchild who is ‘snuggling, nuzzling’ and ‘Chubby, chunky, comfortable’. Jeanne Waddington’s poem ‘The Contrariness of Young Love’ is about insurmountable contrasts between a young couple. It’s a regular enough subject, but the style lends it originality – ‘She’s a summer’s evening, he’s a cloudy day.’

The stories are also lovely to read and insightful. Bernie Jordan’s story ‘Time Moves’ begins this collection with a vivid recollection of a moment in the life of a crane and a railway bridge at Lostock station. 

‘Turning Left,’ Janet Lewison’s unpretentiously written tale, immediately drew me in with its endearing dialogue about a woman who ends up in a hired home that comes with its own snazzy car. She is changing her life, and the Cobra she now drives provides its own form of liberation.

‘Newfoundland’ by Elaine Hamilton is a short but lovely tale of boats, and it really conjured up a misty and weird atmosphere.

‘Going to Waste’ (by Dotty Snelson) is one of the longer pieces in the book, about recycling, hoarding, skip-diving and the make-do-and-mend ideology of a man, Gordon, his wife Sheila, and their personal tragedy. I really enjoyed this touching story.  

Barbara Oldham’s story ‘Stolen Bikes’ was about that very subject – or was it? Reading it, you really get a feel for the woman behind this very witty monologue.

Terence Park’s story ‘Wild Mouse’ tells the story of Mags and Rebecca on a day out at Blackpool Pleasure Beach. They take in all the pleasures and try to defer their ride on the ‘Wild Mouse’. The characters leapt from the page, especially their dialogue.

‘What the Spider Said’ by Phil Chrimes is an insightful tale of a conversation between Boris, a spider, and Humphrey. Their conversation is simple and so endearing. Pam Hunter provides another spider-related piece of writing as she relates the tale of ‘Little Miss Muffet’ and gives the reader the story behind it. There’s a lot to learn from how fairy tales and nursery rhymes come about.

Alan Gibbs’ piece ‘It Started Well and Just Got Better’ is about a campervan trip to Mull to view white-tailed eagles. This gorgeous personal recollection was good to read and really encourages the reader to visit this area of the world.

Lastly. Margaret Halliday’s piece, ‘My Home is in India’ did bring a tear to my eye. Margaret passed away in March 2019, and also attending ‘Write You Are’ – another Horwich-based writing group of which I am a member. I knew Margaret’s writings well, and this appreciation of her life in India was Margaret to the core, and a lovely, though unintentional tribute to her.

Thanks, Phoenix, for this book. Greatly enjoyed!

Interview with Lesley Atherton about her book, ‘Past Present Tense’

Interview with Lesley Atherton re: ‘Past Present Tense’

A: This book is about hoarding and nastiness as well as being about family and relationships. It’s an obvious question, but why on earth would anyone want to write (or read) about hoarding?!

L: Well, it’s down to my own personality really. I’m a natural acquirer of unnecessary items but have always managed to stop short of becoming a hoarder. I’m more of a clutterer. Give me a wall and I will put things on it.
Give me a shelf and I’ll fill it. I wish I wasn’t like this, but I am.
Waste Not, Want Not. Make Do and Mend.
So this led me to begin watching programmes about hoarding and getting some deep compassion and understanding of the sufferers as well as those who must live with a mess not of their making.

The main character of ‘Past Present Tense’ is Tanya, who discovers that the dad she thought was dead is actually alive, and is buried under his own clutter in his own hoarded house. I was able to put myself in her position. I was able to also put myself in his position. I hope that’s come over in the writing. There is so much misunderstanding of the reasons behind hoarding. I know that one of the fallacies is that the people just need to get up off their bums and start to clean.

But for the majority of hoarders, it isn’t laziness that causes the collections and clutter, it is more a feeling of connection to the items, and to the memories and feelings those items hold. There are elements of anthropomorphism too. Hoarders don’t just feel responsible for the items they own, but also feel compassionate towards them and often their relationships with the objects are more meaningful than many of the relationships they have with other humans.

Like I say, I’m not a hoarder, but I do understand where the hoarding motivation comes from. I currently own 76 musical instruments. I play only 3 of them regularly, and play none of them daily. Why do I not sell them? Because I like them and enjoy the ownership of them. I like them to be there when I’m ready for them. And there are so many other reasons too: creativity, appreciation of beauty, appreciation of usefulness, and the desire to be able to entertain myself!

I know I’ll never be a minimalist. Blank spaces irritate me. But I really do need to have far less stuff. I hoped that writing about hoarding in this way might interest those people who live with hoarding, either their own or that of others.

A: Is the writing based on the work of anyone else in particular?

L: No. Just me, though one of my reviewers felt that the inner dialogues of the early chapters were reminiscent of Sartre’s ‘Nausea’. It’s odd really, but in recent years my reading has definitely taken back place to my writing. On the plus side, it means I’m not overly influenced by new books I’m reading, but on the negative side, I’m also behind the times. But that works for me. I don’t mind being retro. I can’t imagine being anything else.

A: That’s your personality?

L: It is. I don’t really do trends. I am who I am.

A: I understand you’re working on another book at the moment.

L: Yes, I’m finishing the manuscript for my novel, ‘The Waggon’. It requires completion before September 2019 as I will be submitting it as the final assessment for my Masters Degree in Creative Writing. It’s currently at the 65,000 word stage, but there’s quite a way still to go. After that, I’m going to be starting on a book about teenage Aspergers, and will continue with my publication of other peoples’ work through Scott Martin Productions. I have a few ideas for novelettes and many ideas for short stories, and will also be working on my blog.

A: You’re unstoppable. Do you still have time to attend writing groups?

L: I do. Currently I go to two weekly groups, and two monthly groups. I also attend two monthly reading groups. Why do you ask?

A: I was just wondering if you still find them of use, now you’re published and have more writing experience. Isn’t it something you grow out of as time goes on and you know what you’re doing?

L: In my case, no. My Tuesday group, in particular, is like family. I don’t know what I’d do without them
socially, and they give me great confidence creatively too. My advice to anyone who wants to write, is to
engage with other interested souls online and in person. Once you get over the first feelings of fear at
sharing your work, it really is liberating!

A: I can see that. Thanks so much for answering my questions!

L: Thanks. It’s been fun 🙂

‘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

‘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.” 

‘Get Rich Blogging’ (by Zoe Griffin from ‘Live Like a VIP’)

‘Get Rich Blogging’ by Zoe Griffin is a chunky paperback book by a Sunday Mirror former showbiz gossip columnist which is touted as the only thing you need (apart from a laptop and an internet connection) to blog your way to wealth. Zoe’s blog, ‘Live like A VIP’ is clearly based on lifestyle tips and superficial celebrity chat. These kinds of celebrity sites do absolutely nothing for me, but apparently they sell.

The book begins with a summary of what Zoe wishes she’d known before she began. Quite early on it became clear that the book wasn’t going to give me what I thought I needed. I’ve never been much of a fan of PR and marketing, even when I’ve really needed to do it. But I LOVE writing and that is why I blog. But, according to this book, it is only possible to make any kind of income from your blog if you include a LOT of advertising and follow some fairly rigorous rules. It also seems to indicate that the only reason for blogging is to make huge wads of cash. Of course, I should have guessed from the book’s title. Durrrr.
 
But this is what gets me down, as does the fact that the blogs the author focuses on are those which mirror her own interests. The final third of the book comprises of sections on different types of blog: fashion, beauty, parenting, technology and business, food and drink, and film, music and celebrities. Of course, this is necessarily reductionist but it was also irritating. What about those who review and test power tools or kids’ toys or those that talk about literature or sport or walking routes?
 
Having said all this, if you were to replace the word ‘blog’ with ‘website’ or ‘business’ then a lot of the advice would be equally valid – and there is quite a lot of decent advice in there. I learnt a lot that I didn’t even think I wanted to know.   
 
I picked up the book, wanting to read about good writing, but what you get in this book is marketing, advertising, engagement and advice on selling yourself. Zoe talks about how it is important to update, to index and to ensure your new posts generally feature at the top of the page. She talks about how important it is to create something readable, with wow elements, how to promote other bloggers so they will reciprocate, and how to look for indirect revenue through collaboration, public appearances etc. She goes into flagship content, consistency, style and so much more.
 
In general, the advice is good, for example, how it is important to know what to blog about, in the same way as businesses have to know their target customers and how to satisfy their needs. Also it’s important (but kind of common sense) to know that if you blog on a subject you love and other people care about, it has far more chance of growing. With this in mind, the book gives readers exercises to work out what they care about then asks them the questions: 1) Can you contribute anything unique? 2) Will anyone care in 12 months? And 3) Can I start conversations about my blog?
 
Though I found it disappointing to read that you MUST have ads on a site to make money from a blog, I was not at all surprised. And much of the other stuff was self evident. Unfortunately when I am confronted with something so prescriptive I always want to rebel. I don’t want to write about things that celebrity-loving people want to read. I want to write what I want to write, and hope that someone interested eventually comes along.  
 
I’m not in this for the money. I’m in this for the fun(ny).
 
With the knowledge that this was definitely where I was going wrong, I closed the book, sighed, and prepared for a big rethink! Perhaps the book didn’t give me what I thought I needed, but instead gave me a way to change and see how things could be if I tried a different angle. I may or may not do anything about this, but – like I said – BIG RETHINK!

#book #bookreview #getrichblogging #review #zoegriffin

‘Light Reading vol 2’ (by Peter McGeehan)


I have heard Peter McGeehan read his work in person on a great many occasions, and his touching and humorous short stories are always worth hearing, especially when read by the man himself.

As you’d expect from Peter’s work, there’s an easy balance to the tales in ‘Light Reading 2’ – from the poignant sensitivity of ‘Ode to the Poor’ to the self-deprecating humour of ‘Knight on the Train’ (the story that kicks off ‘Light Reading 2’). The balance comes from Peter having got the mix right in the variety of styles, the variety of genres, and the variety of emotional states he transports us to. We have his unexpected poetic bent in ‘Celtic Woman Perform Fields of Gold’ and the crazy-beautiful world of ‘Where there’s a Will, there’s a Way’ – in which revenge comes unknowingly and in an unexpected manner.

There’s a lot to this little book – badger stories, a spider story, a dream story, 100-word stories, the suffering of a witch, God meeting the devil and even six traffic light stories (in which the original concept goes off in six different directions).

I’ve always found Peter McGeehan’s writing to be engaging, and the contents of this book are no exception as Peter picks up on some interesting scenarios – the humour of talking sandals, a firing squad action taking place just five hours before the end of World War 1, homophobia, and an elderly gentleman being directed round in circles when his bin goes missing – to name just a few.

Though Peter’s humour and down-to-earth writing are the backbone of the book, I was surprised to discover the unexpected poetry and descriptive glories of some of the work within. Consider this quote from ‘Rain Forest’ – “Cold air attacks the valley, drawing a new veil of mist over the trees. One orchestra is replaced by another, the symphony of night”. Wonderful.

This is a lovely, gentle and thought-provoking book. Good on you, Peter.

‘How to Enjoy your Life and your Job’ (by Dale Carnegie)

The crux of Dale’s message is that we should all discover who we are – and must become or remain that person. In his thinking, not being yourself is behind a great many neuroses, psychoses and complexes. The most miserable person is one who is longing to be something other than what and who they really are. This inevitably leads to the realisation that each person is unique, with their their own skillsets, needs and so on. A person must make the most of who they are and must  develop more than the standard 10 percent of their latent personality and mental strength than does the standard person. 

So much wisdom is held between the pages of this book. For example, when the writer states that all art is autobiographical, that you can only be what made you, that envy is ignorance and imitation is suicide…

But this is not a book about working so hard you drop or learning to relax and become mindful. It’s more interesting than that. According to Dale, seeing an unending stretch of work ahead of you can breed neuroses. But it isn’t the work itself that’s the problem, it is is the way we deal with this work – people do not die from overwork, but instead die from worry.

The book recommends:
Organise your life.
Solve problems there and then if you can – don’t put things off. Come to decisions.
Get up early, plan your day and do things in order of their importance.
Organise, deputise and supervise.

But it is important also to relax and ask yourself if you’re making your work harder than it actually is – because of your attitudes, and because of the way your body works.  Work in comfort, and measure your accomplishments not by how tired you are at the end of it, but by how tired you are NOT.

I found the section on boredom particularly interesting. He believes that when you have no interest in tasks, they fatigue you, and that metabolism picks up when interest picks up. A person is not tired when exhilarated and achieving. From this it must be inferred that where your interest are is where your energy lies. 

And, from this, we come to some of the most wonderful teachings in this book. Firstly, to make everything a game. Next, to work ‘as if ‘ you love what you’re doing, and look at things in depth to accumulate interest, giving yourself daily peptalks and concentrating on the 90% of what is right in your life. Counting blessings, not troubles.

Of course, this doesn’t always happen because we are naturally inclined to think the worst, especially in the face of negative feedback, but Dale tells us: ‘Remember that unjust criticicm is ofen a disguised compliment’. Also it is important to remember that other people aren’t listening to criticism of you as they are too busy thinking and worrying about themselves. This makes it even more important to ignore unjust criticism and become accustomed to it: ‘If you get yourself and your head above the crowd you will be criticised. So get used to it’.

It is connected with the fact that everyone wants to be important and appreciated – some people even going insane to find the importance that has been denied to them in life.  Dale Carnegie quotes Emerson who said ‘Every man I meet is in some way my superior; and in that I can learn of him’ and we need to recognise this without undervaluing ourselves. 

Many people believe that Dale Carnegie’s writings are outdated, and they have a point to an extent, but his thinking has also very much stood the test of time. You only need to go into Google and put in the title of this book to note a huge number of different book covers, indicative of the huge number of print runs.

People still read these books and find a lot within them. People still underline passages, or highlight them in luminous green. Dale Carnegie still has plenty to say to us and we would do well to listen.

#book #bookreview #dalecarnegie #howtoenjoyyourlife #pleasure #review #work

‘The Heart Goes Last’ (by Margaret Attwood)

Questions from Masters Degree assessment

Make a list of the novel’s strengths and weaknesses. What might you learn, in your own writing, from the strengths? How would you handle the novel’s shortcomings?

Strengths – Funny, inventive.It gets me thinking that sometimes it works when you think outside the box in terms of plot etc.Simplistic writing, not flowery or complex , which works with the feel of the piece.
Weaknesses – Overly long, finishes outside the community when I feel it would have been stronger finishing within it, too many interconnected strands so it is easy to get lost within them.I would have simplified the plot, added more detail for the plot elements which were important and reduced those which were not.I also didn’t feel that the subsidiary characters were always believable.For example, Jocelyn didn’t seem at all feasible as a surveillance character, and the love affair between Phil and Charmaine was patchy and not all that believable either.
 
The Heart Goes Last combines a third-person narrative perspective with free indirect voice. This perspective alternates between Stan and Charmaine, keeping the reader close to one character or the other at different points in the narrative. Why might Atwood exploit this approach in her novel?
Free indirect voice in many ways merges the voice of the author and the protagonists, which inevitably gives an element of intimacy to the rendering of the two main characters in this case.  So, is seems clear that the free indirect voice was chosen at least partly for this reason. 
Add to that, the change of emphasis between Stan and Charmaine, and it seems that the reason behind this is the ability to get into the characters’ heads and see events from each of their individual viewpoints.This is especially important because there is a lot of secrecy regarding work, inner thoughts, affairs and so on.Without using this tool it would have been really difficult to get an overall picture of what was going on with each of the two main protagonists, and the story wouldn’t have been disclosed as effectively.
How effectively are Stan and Charmaine’s ‘voices’ distinguished from one another? What techniques or approaches does Atwood use to make Stan and Charmaine’s sections distinct from each other? Could Atwood have made more effort in this regard, in your opinion?
Stan’s inner voice tends to consider quite a bit of exterior related stuff, for example, he’s tied up with political situations, the future, considerations of philosophies and social issues etc.  Charmaine’s inner voice is more contemplative and every-day.  Because I didn’t really appreciate the differences in style between the two voices (though I did between the two characters) I guess that this indicates the author could have made more effort to differentiate.  However, it wasn’t until I read this question that I realised this is what had happened, so it didn’t detract from the story from my point of view.  The authorial style within the book was consistent and the characters were differentiated, so that worked. 
 
Do you consider The Heart Goes Last to be a ‘stranded’ novel, like some of the other texts we’ve studied on the unit (NW, Arlington Park)? What similarities and differences can you identify? What advantages and limitations do these various forms of stranding offer to the novelist?
To some extent, many novels are stranded novels, as the reader is controlled by the author regarding what they can see and where they can travel within the created world etc.  Some books are more stranded than others.  NW – stranded within an estate which is hard to escape from even when you have, and stranded within one’s own unsatisfactory lives.  Arlington Park – stranded within comfortable confines, but just as much locked in as others.  Road – stranded within an almost limitless physical environment, but within the limitations of availability of food, of safety etc.  This book?  Stranded in the car, stranded in Consilience, stranded again in the world of the Positron Survivors support groups etc. 
 
Is that all we are? He thinks. Unmistakable clothing, a hairstyle, a few exaggerated features, a gesture? How credible are Stan and Charmaine, their desires, their ambitions, their relationship? They are clearly presented as fallible by Atwood. Do their flaws make them difficult to like? Did your opinions of them change as the novel progressed?
That definition ties in with the way a writer might begin to create their characters – with a few defining and interesting features.  However, these features are not what makes a character – a character is made more rounded and more believable with the addition of flaws, quirks, and unusual character traits.  Stan and Charmaine initially seem to be likeable characters, and I fully understood how they both ended up where they did.  Their reasons seemed perfectly understandable.  Once they settled in Consilience I stopped caring as much about them, because their lives seemed not as real and as interesting.  By the end of the book I really couldn’t care less about the marriage and other events.  The only thing which I did care about was that Charmaine hadn’t had the brain adjustment forcing her to love Stan.  It had come naturally.  That was quite sweet.  It was also good that Charmaine, who appeared not all that strong at the beginning of the book, strengthened as time went on, and became a little more liberated.  But I have to say that I didn’t really care about the characters even though I quite enjoyed the book.  Charmaine’s initial acceptance of their new life at Consilience is quite believable too.
What purpose do the frequent reminiscences about Grandma Win serve in the narrative? How does she affect our understanding of Charmaine, for example?
Grandma Win is a hearkening back to better and easier times, when the minutiae of life were as important and the bigger issues.Pg 377 “It’s better to close the lid when you flush: Grandma Win told her that.Otherwise the germs fly around in the air and go up your nose”.These are such small issues, in comparison with what else is going on in the world of this novel.
“Smile and the world smiles with you, Grandma Win used to say.Cry and you cry alone” (pg 129).Grandma Win represents a simpler time, when truisms did apply.Perhaps it works so well because Consilience is also outwardly looking backwards to simpler times (1950s/60s America) though it fails because it isn’t real and because it isn’t true to the implied aims.
But also, Charmaine’s references to Grandma Win make her seem more human and more likeable as a character. I could understand why this element of her character might be perceived as an annoying naivety, but I felt it also gave a good narrative tool as she was obviously more easily caught up in what’s going on around her, and more easily taken in than other characters might have been.
 
Comedy is so cold and heartless, it makes fun of people’s sadness. She prefers the more dramatic shows where everyone’s getting kidnapped or raped or shut up in a dark hole, and you aren’t supposed to laugh at it. You’re supposed to be upset, the way you’d be if it was happening to you. Being upset is a warmer, close-up feeling, not a chilly distant feeling like laughing at people. (17)
Taking the above quotation as a starting point, how would you characterise The Heart Goes Last? What is the overall mood of the novel? Is it a work of comedy, tragedy, something else? Does the increasingly slapstick tone of the novel detract from your experience of reading it, or from the novel’s more serious messages?
I wanted to say that this was a work of black comedy, but that isn’t strictly true.  Black or dark comedy usually makes light of or fun of a subject matter that’s either taboo or untouchably serious.  Well, this book doesn’t really do that.  Neither is it a typical bleak apocalyptic horror novel, a technology-based futuristic book, a romance etc.  In other words, it is difficult to classify.   
The Marilyn Monroe lookalike who has been programmed to fall in love with the first thing she encounters on waking (a teddy bear), the Elvis impersonators and so on, also bring to mind a 1920s farce, and I think that’s relatively near the mark.M John Harrison reviews the book online for The Guardian and says “Jubilant comedy of errors, bizarre bedroom farce, SF prison-break thriller, psychedelic 60s crime caper: The Heart Goes Last scampers in and out of all of these genres, pausing only to quote Milton on the loss of Eden or Shakespeare on weddings. Meanwhile, it performs a hard-eyed autopsy on themes of impersonation and self-impersonation, revealing so many layers of contemporary deception and self-deception that we don’t know whether to laugh or cry”.Farcical comedy of errors with elements of crime and prison break in a dystopian setting.Not straightforward but it does work, despite itself.
 
Is Atwood’s novel a work of genre fiction? Literary fiction? Both? Explain your reasoning.
Wikipedia’s definition of genre fiction is: “Wikipedia’s definition of literary fiction is”…
So, the question we’re being asked is whether this book is more about sharing a story (genre) or about giving us a message (literary).Upon initial reading I did feel that the message was stronger than the story, but the story itself does definitely stand up in its own right, despite its flaws.Two people begin the story in a dystopian world, living in their car.They are drawn towards an alternative which is half prison and half utopia, and that is the option they select.I suspect most dystopian and post-apocalypse novels contain this combination of literary and genre, but by their very nature, the message is just as important as the story.
 
We have already seen how Cormac McCarthy reveals the world of The Road elliptically (indirectly, suggestively rather than through exposition) and the effects that this has upon the novel. How directly, or fully, does Atwood reveal the conditions of, and causes for, the status quo in The Heart Goes Last?
I did not note that Atwood reveals the causes of the fictional word state particularly in this book, but the conditions resulting from the breakdown are fairly well explained.Personally, though, I always prefer when there is little or no explanation.For example, in The White Horse by Alex Adams, I found that the lack of explanation for the state of affairs in the world was actually beneficial.I preferred it, as I did with The Road.Too explicit, and it runs the risk of losing reader interest because the reader would then concentrate their criticisms and efforts on stuff like saying, well that could never have happened.

On a related point, how convincing did you find the fundamental contrivances of the plot: the Positron scheme, and so on. How convincing was this vision of post-recession America? Does Atwood do enough ‘world building’, in your opinion (Positron, Consilience, Las Vegas?)

Las Vegas is not well detailed, but that’s understandable as it is a place of which most people have their own opinions.Love it or hate it, LV has a reputation of freedom and excess, so seems a fitting place of emergence after the discipline of Consilience.
Consilience – according to Google, is “an agreement between the approaches to a topic of different academic subjects, especially science and the humanities”, and it was a well chosen name. Consilience is the name of the commune town with a 1950s ethos and atmosphere that has been deliberately created (as this was a ‘happy’ era for many).So, Consilience fits with all of that.
Interestingly, a positron is “I feel these names are really well chosen and appropriate for the places and concepts involved.The names fit whether we’re aware of their meanings, or not.
 
How did she get into the Surveillance business? he’d asked her, for something to do at the breakfast table.“I was an English major … It’s where all the plots are. That’s where you learn the twists and turns. I did my senior thesis on Paradise Lost.” (110)  How did you respond to the pace of the plotting in The Heart Goes Last? Is it evenly paced? Did you find the story to be as compelling throughout?
I am not sure about the pace of the plotting.  At times it seemed too speedy – for example, the transition between living in the car and moving to the town, and at other times, it just seemed to go on and on and on  – the period of time when Charmaine was in the prison for an extended period of time, for example, didn’t work for me, and I lost interest in the story for a while. 
What is the novel about, in your opinion? Does it seem to have a clear ‘theme’? Is it overstuffed or confused?
I felt the basic theme of this novel was quite simple.  It was a choice between a dystopia and a pleasant prison, and the choice wasn’t always cut and dried.  However, I do think that there was a lot to it.  The love affairs, the weird sex robots, the escape, organ harvesting, Charmaine and her administration of lethal injections, etc etc etc.  I do feel the plot would have benefitted from being somewhat streamlined and simplified.   
 
What did you make of the ending of the novel? Are the loose ends tied up too neatly, in your opinion? Did you find anything problematic in the ending?
The injections which Charmaine administers ensure that the heart is the last organ to stop functioning.  I actually feel that Atwood wrote this book without much heart, especially towards the end.  It was one of the first things to go.
I remembered most of the novel a week after reading, but didn’t remember the ending.I had to re-read it, and when I did I wasn’t surprised that it hadn’t stuck in my mind,.The voluntary re-imprinting just seemed unfeasible, the fact that Conor was involved all along, equally so, and the character of Lucinda Quant felt as if she’d been added to the mix earlier on just so she could assist at the end.It was an eminently forgettable ending.
I would have much preferred the book’s conclusion to have been more open ended, with Charmaine and Stan still Positron-based, and considering options for the future.
#book #dystopia #margaretattwood #review

‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’ (by Moshin Hamid)

Questions as part of Masters Degree

I’d like to begin the discussion by thinking about style. The Reluctant Fundamentalist is notable for its use of dramatic monologue. This style involves the use of first-person speech, directed explicitly towards an addressee whose presence is felt only through the discourse of the narrator. Dramatic monologue has a long tradition in poetry – Robert Browning, Tennyson, and T. S. Eliot are famous exponents of the form (Mathew Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’ (cf. McEwan’s Saturday) might also qualify) – but is less commonly found in the novel. What do you feel might be the advantages of employing the dramatic monologue form in novelistic writing? What sorts of effects can it generate for the reader? What potential drawbacks might it bring? Might it be something you would consider adopting in your own writing? Are there any particular styles, genres, or story forms, which you feel lend themselves to this address?
Dramatic monologue is a narrative style in which the story is spoken or thought aloud by an individual character.One of the main advantages of this form is that it is able to accurately impart the life history and feelings of that character and to impose them onto the story unraveling.There is little sense of the other characters involved.In some stories, this could be a major disadvantage, but in “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” it adds to the dramatic tension.The speaker speaks and he hears the replies the American makes.We, the reader, do not.
I have written one piece, a monologue by a middle aged neighbour, who is commenting on weirdly criminal events going on next door to her.It worked because it told the story from a single viewpoint, and it was presented in the form of a lady giving her story to a newspaper reporter.Any story form which requires some knowledge of the feelings or actions of another party would not suit the dramatic monologue this form, unless multiple narrators are used.
 

How successfully realised is this style in the novel, in your opinion? Think about how The Reluctant Fundamentalist might have altered had Hamid used one the following points of view: direct first-person narrative (without recourse to an auditor); third-person omniscient; third-person limited, or free indirect. Don’t worry too much about demonstrating the exact distinctions between these styles; what matters is that you can identify how and why the choice of PoV might fundamentally impact upon the novel.

Had the protagonist been presented to us in, for example, a free indirect style, his voice would have automatically been tempered by the authorial voice itself.That would mean that readers wouldn’t have been relating to the character, but to an authorial interpretation of the character.The author or narrator would therefore have been free to pass judgements on the character, thoughts and actions of the protagonist.This way, using direct first- person narrative, gives the tale a strength and sense of reality that it may not have had otherwise.
Had multiple POVs been adopted, the work and message would have been diluted.I feel this is a very successful piece of writing, in some ways BECAUSE of the style used.The style accentuated the book’s message.
 
 
How would you characterise the unheard auditor to whom Changez addresses himself? How does Hamid reveal this silent interlocutor? What effects might this addressee generate, compared with, for instance, the implied reader of a traditional first-person narrative?
Hamid reveals the “American” by a series of questions following which an answer is implied – “How did I know you were American?” and “Your disgust is evident” etc.Their initial meeting seemingly takes place by accident, though as we get further through the book, this seems less probable.The interlocutor is silent to us, but not necessarily to Changez, who clearly hears or otherwise experiences responses from the American.This addressee is a hearing ear and acts as the silent audience in Changez’s monologue.The implied reader of a traditional first-person narrative doesn’t necessarily seem to interact with the narrator.In this case, there is interaction, and the interaction allows Changez to tell further tales and expand on the story.
 
“It’s more of a novella than a novel,” she said. “It leaves space for your thoughts to echo.” (p58)
Does the ‘claustrophobic’ relationship between Changez and the American allow your own thoughts to ‘echo’? What is the relationship between yourself as a reader of the novel and the ‘you’ to whom Changez speaks? How closely did you identify with this mysterious character? What might the use of dramatic monologue imply about creating meaning and the coercive nature of story-telling?
The echoing of my thoughts does tend to occur more regularly when I am reading a shorter piece of work, as it allows me to concentrate more fully on each word written and read.In longer works I do find myself skimming over the surface rather than reading in great depth.That said, the relationship between Changez and the American does allow a further form of echoing.Changez makes statements and the American ‘answers’, leading Changez to make further statements.This ‘dialogue’ leaves lots of room for the reader to wonder what exactly was said or implied, and whether either or both of the characters actually have additional agendas that are under the surface.
There is no relationship between us as readers and the ‘you’ (the American) of which Changez speaks, other than in two ways.Firstly, we are being addressed and informed, as is the American. And secondly, we as readers in the Western world, could be argued to be on the same ‘side’ as the American and therefore take a more partisan approach.
I did not identify with the American at all.So little was disclosed of this person that he became a storytelling device, cipher or nonentity, rather than a living man.
The coercive nature of storytelling does come to the fore in books like these.We are steered as readers in the same direction as the American is steered.We are led to believe in all that Changez says.
 
The confession that implicates its audience is – as we say in cricket – a devilishly difficult ball to play. Reject it and you slight the confessor; accept it and you admit your own guilt. (p80)
What was your attitude towards Changez? Were you sympathetic to his ‘confession’, or critical of his motives? How does the novel aim to position your response? For that matter, did you feel that Changez was a reliable narrator?
Many believe that a firs person narrator can’t, by definition, be reliable as there isn’t any distance from the characters and events described, and nor can there be any kind of objectivity in the narrator’s responses to them, being themselves usually part of the story.  Was Changez a reliable narrator – yes, from his point of view.  He doubtless narrated what was going through his own mind, and his own version of the story.  I felt he was an interesting character, somewhat deeper than usual, and complex.  I could not imagine a young man like him having such a formalised conversation in front of an anonymous American.
I wasn’t particularly sympathetic to his ‘confession’ as it was less of a confession than I expected.  The reaction to the Twin Towers disaster was interesting.  He didn’t jump up and down in joy, but he felt some positive emotion, but the fact that he also experienced guilt at that feeling was also very interesting.  I have no idea as to his motives for the confession or for befriending the American.  Various reviews I’ve read give different responses to the reasons why.  Was it non-accidental, political, was it the actions of the American rather than Changez which forged the ‘friendship’? 
 
Without recourse to the inner thoughts of either Changez, the American, or the insight of a third-person narrator, The Reluctant Fundamentalist relies upon the simulation of direct address in a (largely one-sided) conversation. How convincing did you find the ‘speech’ of the novel? How did you respond to Hamid’s prose?
The speech of Changez is extremely formal in style, much of the kind of speaking you’d expect from someone trying to impress or perhaps training a younger person etc.  The speech style was almost clichéd English as you might expect from a stereotyped student of English who had learnt only the formal forms of address, or a semi-Victorian style of speech and expression.  It didn’t seem particularly convincing given that Changez had spent so long working in America and had embraced many elements of American culture as a result, but, oddly, that actually added to my enjoyment of the book.  It made him seem more Pakistani and less Western and worldly and that worked well for me. 
I enjoyed Hamid’s prose, finding this book one of the more compelling on this course. 
 
Would you describe The Reluctant Fundamentalist as a ‘thriller’? How does Hamid integrate aspects of unease, suspicion, or suspense into the novel? How many threads does the narrative encourage the reader to follow?
I would find it difficult to categorise this as a thriller.  The definition of a thriller is (according to Google) “a novel, play, or film with an exciting plot, typically involving crime or espionage”.  This book is more a re-telling of a man’s past and the main danger or action is in the man’s head itself, with very little happening between the American and Changez.  So it doesn’t appear to fit into the thriller mould, particularly as it is not exciting or cram packed with action and activity. 
However, Wikipedia also describes a thriller as “characterized and defined by the moods they elicit, giving viewers heightened feelings of suspense, excitement, surprise, anticipation and anxiety.” So from this definition, the novel does seem to fit into the thriller category, especially when you think of uncertainty, apprehension, doubt, dilemma, eagerness, expectations, hesitation, etc.  All thriller trademarks, and this book has them all. 
Unease, suspicion and suspense are integrated into the novel by means of storytelling which leaves out as much as it expresses, by the use of ongoing uncertainty, particularly with regard to Erica and her mental state, and also by the expression of reader anxiety to the confused Changez losing his job etc.  The change in his psychological state becomes more evident throughout the book, as does the  constant talk of armed conflict, political instability etc – all adding suspense. 
 
Did the novel keep you intrigued? What kept you reading? Was the relationship between Changez and Erica, for example, of sufficient interest to hold your attention?
I enjoyed this book, and yes, there was sufficient in it to keep me reading.  I did want to find out more about the shady American but this never happened, and my questions weren’t answered, but this left me interested and wanting more rather than being unsatisfied with what I’d got.  There is a subtle distinction. 
Changez and Erica’s relationship was interesting.  I would have expected there to be a little more racial tension, but there was little or none. 
Despite all the positives as previously mentioned, I actually found it unfeasible that Erica’s fall into deep depression and hospitalisation happened so speedily.  It just seemed too fast and I would have preferred her to hold onto Changez for longer.  Would it be usual for such a young woman to have taken the death of her husband in such a way, and for so long?  I would also have been happier if she had, for example, been in a mental institution when the pair of them met, as it would not have seemed as contrived.  Also, the scene of making love while Erica pretends that Changez is Chris, seems weird.  Would a young man go to such lengths?
 
Islam and religious radicalism seem conspicuously absent from Changez’s monologue. Is this a ‘political’ novel, in your opinion? To what extent does Hamid intertwine the personal and the political? How explicit is the novel’s critique of, for example, America and the West?
Yes, there was very little mention of Islam in the book.  Similarly, though, there was little explicit mention of politics, apart from as general critique of nations, current events and thought patterns.  It was more of a sociological book, or rather a book of social comment.  The 2001 Indian parliament attack is mentioned and is necessary backdrop to the rest of the book, but it isn’t what it’s all about, unlike in “The Harmony Silk Factory” where politics seems to permeate more fully, despite the book not being as explicitly political.  I felt that this was more a book about people and thoughts rather than about bigger issues. 
 
How clear, convincing, or compelling did you find the account of Changez’s conversion across chapters 10 and 11?
Changez’s ‘conversion’ reads more to me of a person experiencing a mental breakdown than a life changing religious or political epiphany, but I am guessing that it does happen that way for many people.  Still, I found it more compelling than I found it clear or convincing.  Pg 153 – “I must admit, Jim’s words gave me pause.  I had great admiration for him; he had always stood by me, and now I proposed to betray him”.  This is a man torn in two directions rather than a man who is ready to sacrifice all for a new thought pattern.  Read a few pages later Pg 157 = “But I must have been in a peculiar emotional state, in a sort of semi-hypnotic daze, for when I woke in the morning my feelings were entirely different.  It was then that I was hit by the enormity of what I was giving up”.  This isn’t just about his good job and impressive income – this is also about the country of America that he’d made his home, his friends, his colleagues etc.  He is giving up much, but for what? 
Did you read the novel as a literal narrative, or do you feel that it contains allegorical elements?
Most critiques of the book do not take it as a literal narrative, and instead find multiple allegories – Erica is America, Changez = changes.I think it can be read as both a literal narrative and an allegorical work, and that’s what makes the novel so strong.
 
How did you respond to the end of the novel? Did you feel it to be a satisfying conclusion?
I responded to this book pretty well as a whole, but do feel the end let it down just a little.The lack of conclusiveness regarding Erica was bad enough, but the oddness of the final events didn’t really tie things up for me on first reading.
When first considering this, I wondered if I would have preferred an ending more similar to that of “Keep the Aspidistra Flying£.In the book Gordon Comstock takes stock of his everyday life and rebels in a quite serious manner.By the book’s ending he has moved back to the everyday life with increased gusto as circumstances have conspired against his rebellion.Perhaps this as an ending would have been more corny or predictable, but it would at least have been clear.The ending we are presented with could have the American pulling out a gun or business cards.Either would fit in with the story.However, because we don’t know, we lose some grip on who or what the American character might have been.Clearly, Changez is aware that the American isn’t always entirely enthralled by his chatter, and does warn him to stop looking over his shoulder.He perhaps feels that Changez is a liar or a potential terrorist.I feel sure that the American, whoever his is, does know how to react to Changez and precisely who he is, even though Hamid clearly never intended for the reader to know for certain.The interesting part is that we are left guessing to the final moment. What is Changez doing by befriending the American? Why is the American listening to his ramblings? What is the ultimate aim of their meeting? We don’t know, but that’s ok.

#book #bookreview #reluctantfundamentalist #review