Books

Book Review: The Screwtape Letters

Off The Shelf this April: The Screwtape Letters

The Screwtape Letters: Letters From A Senior to a Junior Devil

by CS Lewis

Published in 1942

Genre: adult; part satirical novel, part mindful self-help book

C S Lewis

CS Lewis is arguably best-known, and best-loved, for his children’s classics the Chronicles of Narnia, starting with The Magician’s Nephew and culminating seven books later in The Last Battle. The Screwtape Letters, however, is no children’s fantasy, so be warned!

The Screwtape Letters

As its title suggests, The Screwtape Letters: Letters From a Senior to a Junior Devil, is a collection of letters from Senior Devil, Screwtape, to his bumbling nephew, Wormwood. It is Screwtape’s job in these letters to mentor his nephew in his role as “tempter”. And in case you can’t guess, the job of a diabolical tempter such as Wormwood is to meddle in the lives of us humans and steer us from the path of right and good, thereby tempting us over to the dark side and along the path to Hell. The human in question, known only as “the patient”, is a young British man, falling in love for the first time and living his life, blissfully unaware of Wormwood’s interventions, against the backdrop of the Second World War.

Letters from a Senior to a Junior Devil

Through Screwtape’s 31 letters, Wormwood is given detailed advice on how to undermine the patient’s good qualities and Christian values, and in this way various facets of human life, along with our many failings, are highlighted.  War, religion, sex, love, pride and gluttony are all put under the microscope. But, coming straight from the mind of a demon, it is – for us – as if this examination is being conducted in a mirror where black is white and good is bad. Get your head round this “diabolical ventriloquism” and suddenly what you have in your hands is a book full of mindful hints and self-help insights.

The Mundane and Ordinary

It is not just the big issues which are tackled in this back-to-front way. As Screwtape gives Wormwood a step-by-step guide on how to ruin the patient’s relationship with his mother, for example, we glimpse the more mundane everyday situations in which our own habits can easily cause arguments and irritation. Perhaps it is to these we should pay most attention. As Screwtape himself says: “the safest road to hell is the gradual one – the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”

I love Screwtape’s understanding of passive aggressive behaviour, wanting the patient to “demand that all his own utterances are…taken at their face value and judged simply on the actual words, while at the same time judging all his mother’s utterances with the fullest and most over-sensitive interpretation of the tone and context and the suspected intention.” You end up with the perfect situation of being able to say things expressly to cause offence and then innocently being able to feign grievance at this when that offence is actually taken. Win-win!

Similarly, I adore Lewis’ depiction of the old lady who believes she is being virtuous when, presented with a plate of food, waves it away declaring “oh that’s far, far too much. Take it away and bring me about a quarter of it.” Her determination to have things her own way, being couched in temperance like this, allows her to feel completely self-righteous without any compassion for the people who brought her the food in the first place. But she would be appalled if you actually called her on it!

Self Help Back to Front

Earlier, I described this book as being a mindful self-help book, which might seem strange given that on the surface at least, it appears to be the antithesis of mindfulness. For example, Screwtape urges us to “enter into” our emotions rather than step back and reflect upon them and to feel without acting. But remember, we are looking into a diabolical mirror and “whatever he welcomes, we should dread”. He advises us to live in the future “which can inflame hope and fear”.  It is the future, he points out, which has the greatest hold over us humans. Gratitude, he says, looks to the past; love to the present while fear, avarice, lust and ambition are all firmly rooted in the future. Wise words indeed! You can see, therefore, that this is far more than just a novel. You need to give yourself time to really digest some of the bigger issues it raises.

Take time to really digest some of the bigger issues it raises.

And, for a few more interesting facts about Screwtape and his letters, check out https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/64351/12-things-you-might-not-know-about-screwtape-letters .

Happy reading and even deeper thinking!

Want to read more? Check out last month’s blog: The Ides of March and Whether you Should Beware!

Need editorial advice or help on writing essays? Jump over to www.tablezard.com for editorial and proofreading services!

Posted by TA Blezard in Adult Literary Fiction, Books, Literature, Reviews, 0 comments

Making Three Days Count: Don’t Be A Politician

It’s November 1st, and until very recently much of Britain believed it would be waking up to a new dawn, a new and scary dawn perhaps, but one which saw us on the other side of this whole Brexit mess. Boris Johnson had declared, after all, that he would rather be “dead in a ditch” than extend our departure beyond Halloween so it was absolutely, definitely, positively happening…until it wasn’t. Ding, ding. And there goes the bell after yet another pointless round.

If We’re Not Arguing About Brexit…

But, before we could even get up to put the kettle on, the great British public found it had ringside seats yet again. This time it was for the less than thrilling and equally deadlocked brawl over the date for a general election. Boris wanted the 12th of December. The Lib Dems and SNP favoured the 9th and nobody was exactly sure what Labour wanted.

Three days. My God, these people will argue over anything! Given that it has so far taken us three years to not leave Europe, I was really struggling to see what difference those three days could actually make to anything or anyone in real terms. But argue and bluster they did.

Rhubarb, Rhubarb…as my Right Honourable Donkey Friend said…

A Long Weekend

Which got me thinking…just what could you achieve in three days? It’s a long weekend. 72 hours. That’s about as long as it takes a steak to pass through your body from mouth to…well you know. 72 hours is also the maximum time it will take to get your ESTA application through for a visit to the US under their new ‘visa waiver programme’ (that is assuming you hail from a non-bearded, non-thobe wearing country which is not on Donald Trump’s hit list). Talking of travel, you can also cover the 240,000 miles to the Moon in about three days if the mood takes you, and just so long as you also have the appropriate liquid hydrogen propelled vehicle to make that a real possibility.

Too far? Well, you could walk from London to Liverpool in about three days and still have a couple of hours in hand for loo breaks and tea breaks. Better yet, you could take the train up there and have time to actually enjoy the city once you arrive: visit the Beatles museum at the Royal Albert Dock perhaps, catch a band at the Cavern Club or take a ferry across the Mersey and pretend to be Gerry and The Pacemakers. Or with three days to play with you could head in the opposite direction and find yourself in the mystical town of Glastonbury. I’ve been researching this spiritual hideaway for a writing project just recently and this is definitely on my to-do-soon list. You can climb the tor, the tiered, conical hill which looks dreamily out over the Somerset Levels, whispering of the legend of King Arthur. Or, while you’re in the town you could get your recently deceased pet ethically stuffed or buy a cauldron at one of their wonderfully bonkers magical stores. And if you happen to be there on the 16th of this month, then you can even watch their spectacular illuminated carnival as a bonus.

Bring Back the Magic.

Prefer staying in to going out? Three days is not enough to watch the entire boxset of Friends (with 236 episodes in total) but you could certainly do the whole of Game of Thrones. You might struggle to finish War and Peace (ten days is apparently the average length it takes to finish that tome) but you could definitely devour Lord of the Rings as well as The Hobbit and still  have time to tweet about it as you did so.

A Short Book

In fact, you only need about 45 hours to read the complete works of Jane Austen so you could also have a look at the Sparknotes while you’re at it to see if there are any salient points you might have missed. Interestingly (or not), I bought myself the complete novels of Jane Austen back in 2007 at Singapore Airport (because obviously there is nothing better to buy at an airport, right???) and when I opened the book in 2019 to research this piece, I found my bookmark wedged a mere 79 pages into Sense and Sensibility…the first novel to be collected. Ah, well, obviously having the time is one thing; doing something with that time is another thing altogether.

Is time running out?

So, Until the 12th of Never…

Time is precious. We have to make it count. I suspect debating a withdrawal agreement bill for an extra three days will not count in the end and ultimately nothing is going to change after the general election. Sure, it would be nice to believe that on December 13th the country will wake up to the new dawn we were supposed to get today but I have a strong suspicion that you will open your eyes as the bell rings yet again for another pointless round in the political ring.

Pride and Prejudice anyone?

Posted by TA Blezard in Books, Goals, Opinion, 0 comments

Wimbledon BookFest is back in Town!

Stop playing with your food!

It’s October and that means many things. Pumpkins won’t just find their way into soups and stews but out onto window ledges and doorsteps. Questionable American traditions will be imported to the UK for the last night of the month. (Okay, okay, that’s just me being a bit bah-humbug about it all but honestly I’ve never truly understood this Trick or Treat malarkey.) But most importantly, to my bookish mind at least, October means Wimbledon BookFest returns once more to the common!

This annual charitable event, which has been going since 2006 starts off on the 3rd October with Joanne Harris (author of Chocolat) talking to Jennifer Cox about her new novel in the Chocolat series: The Strawberry Thief. The festival closes ten days later with the equally sweet Nadiya Hussein (our Bake Off hero), with fewer strawberries but more self-reflection as she discusses her new and very personal book: Finding My Voice.

From Politics to Poetry

Sandwiched between these two delights (I think I’m done with the food analogy now) is a plethora of diverse and interesting events. We have politics with speakers such as James O’Brien, Gavin Esler, Emily Maitlis and Lord David Owen. (Mmm, I wonder if Lord Owen is pleased that the satirical puppet show Spitting Image is making a comeback? Who remembers the two Davids of the 80s: David Owen pushing David Steel around in a shopping trolley?) There’s a host of topical environmental talks such as Climate Change Poetry and Performance and Mike Berners Lee tackling the hot green issues of the day: should we all become vegetarian? How can we fly without leaving a giant carbon footprint on the face of the earth? There are workshops and walks and even a gin tasting event (though I shall be pouring it rather than tasting it on that particular night, unfortunately). The organisers have lined up sports-themed events with the hugely popular Brian Moore (Rugby) and Alistair Cook (Cricket) in conversation with Mike Atherton, as well as cramming in live music and various children’s events. (The Moomins make an appearance and are a favourite of mine. I even have a Moomin cookbook, with recipes for such fancy Finnish delights as Snufkin’s Thinking Bouillon, Moomintroll’s Chanterelle Temptation and Little My’s Peppery Spaghetti.) There are also two comedy nights featuring the likes of Adam Kaye and Rachel Parris, amongst others.

With 2 comedy nights you’re likely to…

With close to a hundred events to choose from, you are definitely spoiled for choice. If your interest is the Middle East, say, you have Hannah Lucinda Smith’s Battle for the Soul of Turkey, Levison Wood’s Journey Through Arabia and Ed Hussain’s The House of Islam to pick from. History buffs can gorge on William Dalrymple’s The Relentless Rise of the East India Company, Sir Max HastingsThe Dambusters Story and Natalie HaynesTroy Story to mention just three. There’s poetry from Ben Okri and Simon Armitage, a celebration of African voices in the New Daughters of Africa event and a chance to hear from literary crowd-pleasers such as Patricia Cornwell, Tracy Chevalier and Alexander McCall Smith.

Getting Better All The Time

Personally, I’ve always had a bit of a girl-crush on gravel-voiced Mariella Frostrup but I would also love to hear from the creator of Tracy Beaker, Jacqueline Wilson. I could go on, but you get the point: there’s loads to choose from, which is probably why the festival has gone from 1,000 visitors in its first year to over 15,000, with any money that is raised being ploughed back into the festival and its education work with local schools. With that in mind, you can enjoy yourself and feel morally good about it too.

So check out the full listings at https://www.wimbledonbookfest.org/Events/EventsCalendar2019.aspx

And get yourself up on the Common!

See you there.

We’ve got some work to do!

Posted by TA Blezard in Books, Literature, Opinion, Reviews, 0 comments

What Richard Powers’ ‘The Overstory’ means to me.

A Book About Trees

A story like no other…

At the risk of sounding like an M&S advert, this is not just a novel, this is Richard Powers’ ‘The Overstory’–and if you have not heard of it and are not frightened off by the fact that the paperback has over six-hundred pages– then I’d urge you to read it.

Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2018, this is an epic tale of trees as well as of nine individuals all with their own unique connection to them. It is a story which spans centuries in the telling, thereby giving us the most incredible sense of time and which will leave you in an altogether different place at the end to where you began. Most importantly, it puts our lives into a new and not particularly flattering perspective. Yet I think we need to be reminded, now more than ever, that “to be human is to confuse a satisfying story with a meaningful one, and to mistake life for something huge with two legs.”

A Book About Time

It takes time to grow this gnarly.

The story opens (and closes) with the Hoel family: Norwegian immigrants moving west from Brooklyn to take up land in Iowa that is being given away free to anyone who will farm it. There they plant a chestnut grove, the Hoel Chestnut becoming a local landmark, which can be seen for miles. This prompts the son to start a project that will continue for generations to come: with his black and white Kodak no.2 Brownie camera he photographs the chestnut on the twenty-first of every month documenting “what time hides forever in plain sight”.

And the true magnitude of time is one of the many wonders which this book slowly reveals to us, a lesson that is particularly pertinent to today’s world. These days, we are so caught up in the frenetic rush of our own lives. Everything is about now. We capture our ‘nows’ and post them on social media so that everyone else can see how well we are doing, how happy we are, how photoshop-perfect we look and how gorgeously filter-fabulous is our ‘now’. But unlike the flip book of images of the Hoel chestnut, the sheer weight of posts flooding down our feeds 24/7, and the transitory nature of social media, mean that our moments are all but forgotten a week or a month from today, buried under a new ‘now’.

Trees, however, have a different sense and scale of time and this is captured, so eloquently, by Powers on any number of his pages. For example, when Nick Hoel beds down on the severed trunk of Mimas, an ancient redwood that he has spent over a year trying to protect from loggers, he lies across its giant girth “his head on a wadded jacket near the ring laid down the year Charlemagne died. Somewhere underneath his coccyx, Columbus. Past his ankles the first Hoel leaves Norway for Brooklyn…”. What a wonderful way to visualise and really appreciate time! But Powers is right: more often than not, we don’t! People think, he writes, of time being a “line spinning out from three seconds behind them, then vanishing just as fast into the three seconds of fog just ahead. They can’t see that time is one spreading ring wrapped around another, outward and outward until the thinnest skin of Now depends for its being on the enormous mass of everything that has already died.”.

It’s time for us to start thinking more like a tree! This is your three-second warning, people!

A Book About Happiness

Not only does this wonderful book give you a sense of everything that has brought you to this one single moment of where you are right now, but it also encourages you to re-examine what is truly important in life. Happiness is not about how much you have or how fast you can get it, or how many likes and followers you can attract in the virtual world. Nor is it about searching for that next big fix, be it a pay-rise, a holiday, an adrenaline-rushing hobby, a more exciting lover or moving to a bigger house. The real freedom you seek is “to be equal to the terrors of the day”, no more, no less as Dorothy Brinkman discovers only later on in the novel.

Dorothy Brinkman and her lawyer husband, Ray, are in some respects minor players in this story. They are introduced to us as they put on an amateur dramatic production of Macbeth, in which the forests are on the move (if you know your Shakespeare) and which is initially their only connection with nature. Dorothy is having an affair while Ray is resolutely trying to ignore this reality. In between so-called ‘rehearsals’ where she nips out to meet her lover, they fill their time pretending nothing is wrong, reading books and planting out their garden. That is until Ray suffers a stroke and becomes an invalid, frozen inside his own damaged body. Of course, now Dorothy can never leave! And yet, over time (tree-time perhaps more than people-time) they discover a passion for identifying the wild plants that grow outside Ray’s window. The freedom and happiness they have both been robbed of was actually there inside their ‘prison’ all along.

Take time to enjoy nature.

‘Plant Patty’ who lives most of her life ‘off-grid’ gives us a similar perspective on what is truly important in life, as does Neelay Mehta. Having broken his back falling out of a tree at the age of eleven, Neelay dedicates his life to his passion for computer programming, ultimately developing a global, online, world-building game that makes him one of the richest men in the States. Millions are addicted to it. His company, Sempervirens, grows way beyond his control so that when he finally questions what the point of continuing to play the game is, he is powerless to stop it. The game, it seems to him, has become “faithful to the tyranny of the place it pretends to escape”, people forever searching out more, building more, filling their world up with things until someone comes by to destroy it or the gamers introduce a new continent for them to spread into so that they can mindlessly continue their quest.

A Book About Saving The World

Sound familiar? We are using up the world’s resources faster than we can replenish them, all in the name of progress and happiness, with the aim of having rather than being.  Or as Richard Powers writes: “We’re cashing in a billion years of planetary savings bonds and blowing it on assorted bling.”. This isn’t a call to halt progress, to stop felling trees, but as Olivia Vandergriff (one of the eco-warriors committed to saving the giant redwoods) tells the loggers “cut like it’s a gift” and make sure that “what you make from a tree should be at least as miraculous as what you cut down.”. What a great way to evaluate the things we bring into our lives!

“Cut like it’s a gift.”

I don’t want to spoil the story for you but some of the eco-warriors come to a bad end. Adam Appich, for example, a respected psychologist, initially plans to spend no more than a day or so studying the eco-warriors camped two-hundred feet above the ground in the branches of the giant redwoods. But he is irrevocably changed by the experience and ultimately pays the price for their actions with his freedom when he is finally sentenced to two consecutive life-sentences for the damage inflicted trying to protect our natural world. But one hundred and forty years is nothing, he thinks, in the real scheme of things. “A black willow plus a cherry. He was thinking Douglas-fir or yew.”

A Book You Really Need to Read

So we need to make our time really count. After all, we as human beings have considerably less of it than our woody counterparts. My advice in all this? Slow down. Hug a tree. And whatever else you do, read Richard Powers’ ‘The Overstory’ to discover what wonderful lessons this book has for you. (Of course, if you are worried about the carbon-consequences of buying a paperback, I guess you could give it an e-read instead!)

Posted by TA Blezard in Books, Literature, Opinion, Reviews, 0 comments

Your August-Themed Reading List!

It’s a Word-Nerd Kind of Summer

Back in February I wrote my Ode to February…a bleak month in many senses coming as it does in the middle of winter–a month which needs as many odes as it can get to cheer itself up as it shrugs off the financial drains of Christmas along with the regrets of January’s broken resolutions. Poor February, sluggishly crawling along in its winter coat, never quite believing that there will ever be another spring. But that was six months ago. Spring arrived just as it always does. And now we come to August, an altogether different affair as for years this month has signalled the complete freedom of our summer holidays. An entire month not nibbled away at either end by homework and assignments. Yay! No more school. No more college. Its days are long and sunshine-filled. It is robust and healthy and needs no odes to feel good about itself.

The Word-Nerd’s Perfect August Accompaniment!

So how do you fill these long sunny days without the structure of school or college? Well, if you’re a word nerd like me, you take the time to do projects and read books, of course! Oh happy days, August, thank you! But what to read, I hear you cry. Well, how about these five offerings, brought to you (in no particular order) courtesy of the month itself, for they all have August-named characters waiting to entertain you.

Travels with my Aunt by Graham Greene

(1969)

 This hilarious novel charts the travels of Henry Pulling, a retired bank manager who up until now has lived a suffocatingly safe life, and his elderly but eccentric Aunt Augusta whose life, in direct contrast, has been wildly adventurous. Henry’s safe cocoon is blown wide open when he reconnects with this woman, the catastrophic chaos starting when the urn containing his mother’s ashes is used as a dope container for Aunt Augusta’s lodger and lover. Well, the book was written in the late sixties after all.

Augusta persuades Henry to leave behind his dahlias and the rest of his safe suburban world in order to accompany her on her adventures, giving the pair of them a chance to reconnect after fifty years apart. Travelling to Paris and Istanbul and South America, Henry learns about this free-spirited relation of his. Augusta is the original wild-child, having affairs and children out of wedlock, mixing with hippies and war criminals, showing a complete disregard for authority and laws and many of the social norms of the time. Given that she is in her 70s, she’s not exactly your typical elderly aunt from the 1960s. In fact, as Henry is about to find out, she’s not really an aunt at all…

But don’t take this amoral auntie too seriously. The book is great fun and a good summer read!

Wonder by R J Palacio

(2012)

In this children’s novel you will meet August “Auggie” Pullman, a young  boy with severe facial differences which have been bad enough up until now to keep him out of mainstream school.

Wanting him to experience as normal a life as possible (hard when you have had 27 operations on your face to date), his parents have now enrolled their son in Beecher Middle school at the start of the new academic year. All Auggie wants from this is to be treated like everyone else, but that might be a tall order for a ten-year-old kid who looks nothing like his classmates. And as you would expect, the children react in different ways to the boy with the facial deformity. While he makes some good friends, most closely with Jack and Summer, another boy, Julian (who the headmaster has assigned to help Auggie fit in) sets about bullying him.

What is most wonderful about this book is its complexity. It is not just a question of Jack and Summer = good and Julian = bad. We all have times when we act less than heroically, when we side with the wrong people through our own desperate need to fit in. And so do these characters: Jack allows himself to join in with the bullying at one point and Auggie’s older sister, Olivia, also struggles at times to be her own person whilst also being the sister of the boy with the facial disfigurement. Then Julian’s friends unexpectedly come to the rescue one night in the woods when Auggie is being beaten up by older boys. There is good and bad in everyone, clearly.

This novel is heartfelt and thought provoking and will most certainly make you cry. But that’s all right. It’s just the mark of a really excellent book!

The Fault in our Stars by John Green

(2012)

 Now, talking of crying…what better subject to shed tears over than kids with cancer? But what a book! This young adult novel is a love story between sixteen-year-old Hazel Grace Lancaster and seventeen-year-old Augstus ‘Gus’ Waters who meet at a cancer-support meeting that Hazel’s parents have forced her to attend.

After a rocky introduction, the two hit it off and agree to lend each other a copy of their favourite books. Hazel gives Gus a book called “An Imperial Affliction” by her favourite author, the reclusive Peter Van Houten. “An Imperial Affliction” is a book about a girl called Anna who is also afflicted by cancer and whose life appears to parallel Hazel’s own. Gus is intrigued by the novel and its frustrating lack of conclusion, but more intrigued by Hazel for whom the book is so important, and with whom he is clearly falling in love. And what better way to show your love for someone than to use your dying wish for a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Amsterdam to track down the author himself?

You may have seen the film, but I urge you to read the novel. It is wonderful and heart-wrenching and contains one of my all-time favourite lines:

“I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly then all at once.”

An absolute must-read for this month!

The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow

(1953)

If you liked Huckleberry Finn, or you love the characters of Dickens, then you will surely be drawn to Saul Bellow’s Augie March. Opening in Chicago during the Depression, we meet the March family: Augie and his older brother Simon and their other brother George, who we would describe today as having “learning difficulties” (not a phrase you’ll find in this book). They live in a household with their down-trodden mother and overbearing grandmother, Grandma Lausch, originally from Russia and described as being “as wrinkled as an old paper bag”.

Through Augie’s eyes, the novel describes his scrapes, trials and tribulations as he grows from boy to man, delightfully detailing a series of odd jobs and the host of colourful characters who populate his life. Revel in this very different world…at a time when Sundays saw “balloon pedlars” on the street and one of Augie’s jobs was to go with Mr Einhorn senior to the beach for his daily swim and feed him lighted cigarettes while he floated near the pier in his stripy swimming costume!

I reckon the book is worth reading for that image alone.

And finally, for a bit of light relief, return to one of your childhood favourites with:

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl

(1964)

 Again you may have seen the film–either with Gene Wilder (1971) or Johnny Depp (2005) as the great Willy Wonka, owner of the Chocolate factory–but as with so many great films, first there was the book!

You know the story: eleven-year-old Charlie Bucket lives a poverty-stricken life with his parents and grandparents but is a jolly nice kid who happens to have the kind of good luck that falls upon such jolly nice kids. In his case luck means finding a ten-shilling note in the snow, which he uses to buy a Wonka Bar, and which then just so happens to have the fifth and final golden ticket inside the wrapper inviting its recipient onto a tour of Willy Wonka’s famous factory. As you already know, the first four tickets have gone to less jolly nice kids, namely the TV obsessed Mike Teavee, gum-chewing Violet Beauregarde, spoiled and abrasive Verucca Salt and gluttonous Augustus Gloop (whom we have to thank for getting this book, however tenuously, included on our August-themed reading list).

In the way of such books from this era, you just know nothing good can come to someone like Augustus Gloop and sure enough, greed leads him to fall into the Chocolate River after which he gets eliminated from the tour by being sucked up into a pipe which squeezes him thin before spitting him out again. Similar nasty ends then befall all our similarly nasty children leaving Charlie and his grandfather to finish the tour safely and learn of the true reason for Willy Wonka’s competition: that he was looking for a successor for his chocolate empire. Charlie and his family now get to live with him in the factory (every kid’s dream, right?) and Charlie goes on to have more adventures in glass elevators.

Perfect!

So that’s August all sewn up for you. What more could you want? Happy reading!

Posted by TA Blezard in Adult Literary Fiction, Books, Literature, Opinion, Reviews, YA, 0 comments

I Wish I Had Written That: Benign Book Envy!

The Green-Eyed Monster

Jealousy is never a good thing!
Jealousy is never a good thing!

According to psychologists, there are two types of envy: malicious envy and benign envy. In the former, we feel tormented by another person’s superior position or good fortune and, in an attempt to make ourselves feel better, want them to fail or suffer in some way as a kind of warped payback for our own perceived shortcomings. With benign envy, we are able to appreciate the other person’s elevated position without it burning away at our insides like acid and thus use it as a motivational, aspirational force for ourselves, helping us to be better and strive further. Yes, it is possible to be such an evolved being! Of course I’m not saying I haven’t ever experienced that first kind of twisted jealousy but in this piece I am talking strictly benign envy, Benign Book Envy to be precise— that moment when it strikes you: God, I wish I had written that!

And The Book I Would Most Like to Have Written Is…

The Aaahh Moment

It might be at the end of a fabulous novel, still sitting with it clasped in your lap, reluctant to let go of that fictional world which has captivated you for the last day, week, month or however long it takes you to finish a book. You are awash with a feeling of fulfillment…a bit like the hot bath effect when you slip a little deeper under the scented bubbles and have an ‘aaahh’ moment. Or it may strike without warning right in the middle of the story as you suddenly come bobbing up for breath and gasp ‘God this is so good I don’t ever want to finish it….also, why couldn’t I have written this?’

Maybe it’s not books that get you this way but poems or songs; maybe it’s films, or box sets or some other creative genre. It doesn’t matter. What’s important is that moment of benign envy where you can do nothing but bask in the glory of the creative genius of A.N. Other whilst secretly wishing it could have been you who had invented the rules for Quidditch or imagined ‘all the people, living life in peace…’

Benign Not Malicious, remember!

My Top Five Writer’s Envy Moments

So, could you list five things you really wish you had written? Here’s mine.

  • The Outsiders by S.E.Hinton
My Much Loved Copy!

This young adult novel was published back in 1967, before the genre of YA fiction even existed, before the term ‘YA’ had even been coined. In fact, it was a time when SE Hinton herself was just a teen. Despite being more than 50 years old, this novel still resonates with young (and ahem…not so young) people today and is the single book I credit with my wanting to become a YA author.

It is narrated by 14-year-old Ponyboy – a ‘greaser’ from the wrong side of town, who just happens to have a love of literature and school and sunsets. Getting caught up in a murder with his best friend, Johnny, they go on the run as tensions between the greasers and the wealthy ‘socs’ escalate. It culminates in a brutal ‘rumble’ as the two sides come together, fighting for honour and for their dead ‘brothers’ and all those things that gangs fight for. Yet ultimately Ponyboy realises they are all the same when you look beyond the superficial trappings of money or class. As Cherry Valance says ‘Things are rough all over’ but it’s easy not to recognise that when you are used to being judged and dismissed for your clothes or the length of your hair.

Brilliant, authentic, moving…as good a read today as it ever was and still gives me chills.

Check it out for yourselves on Wikipedia!

  • Half Bad by Sally Green
The First in an Amazing Trio

This is a 2014 YA fantasy novel set in modern-day England, though not as we know it because in Green’s world witches live right alongside humans. They are either White Witches (who are deemed to be good) or Black Witches (who are thought to be evil). Then there is 16-year-old Nathan Byrn who is something of an anomaly: with a father who was (or is) the most powerful and cruel black witch there has ever been, and a (dead) white-witch mother he is a notorious “half-code”: half-black and half-white. In a world where everyone is coded by the age of 17, when they become a fully-fledged witch, the world is anxiously watching to see which way Nathan will develop.

For me, I was utterly hooked from the very first page, which is strikingly written in the second-person allowing us to get deep inside Nathan’s head as he is being held captive in a cage, handcuffed, beaten but determined to escape back to his family.

Followed by Half Wild and Half Lost, the story continues and takes you on a gripping journey into this magical, dangerous world.

The Brilliantly Written World of TV

Writing For TV is in no way Inferior!

For my next two selections I am looking at the world of TV series, where the writing is no less brilliant nor should be thought in any way inferior to the writing of a novel.

  • Gilmore Girls created and sometimes written by Amy Sherman-Palladino
Families at their Best…and Worst!

The show originally ran from 2000 to 2007 through seven seasons, and while perhaps it should have called it a day after season 3 or 4 (my opinion only), it was – and is – still a brilliant comedy-drama, exploring family and relationship dynamics through its trademark non-stop, fast-paced, dialogue peppered with literary, pop and cultural references. For this reason alone it really deserves to be watched four or five times so that you can truly appreciate its rich complexity!

It opens with sharp-as-a-tack, thirty-something Mum Lorelai (played by Lauren Graham) and her bookish teenage daughter Rory (Alexis Bledel). This self-sufficient duo live in the close-knit community of Stars Hollow, New England, where Lorelai fled in disgrace after getting pregnant sixteen or so years earlier. She is proud of the life she and Rory have since carved for themselves away from her rather stuffy, wealthy parents Emily and Richard (Kelly Bishop and Edward Hermann). But when Rory is admitted to a prestigious private school Lorelai is forced to go back to her parents for help with the tuition fees. And just like that the past comes crashing back into the present.

The mother-daughter relationships of Rory and Lorelai and Lorelai and Emily are so beautifully crafted they become the defining theme of the show. And once you have watched all seven seasons five or six (or more) times you even start to appreciate that maybe Emily is not the wicked witch you initially had her pegged to be.

Oh to be able to weave such a delightful web! And there’s even a Netflix sequelGilmore Girls: A Year in the Life set nearly a decade after the finale of the original series. Heaven. Watch all seven seasons and then the finale. You deserve it!

  • Finding Carter by Emily Silver & Terri Minsky
A Richly Complex Family Drama

This MTV show first aired in 2014 and I came across it by accident, as you do, whilst channel surfing. Within minutes I was enthralled. The complex family relationships that unfold bear more than a passing resemblance to Gilmore Girls. The Wilson family, Mum Elizabeth (Cynthia Watros) and Dad David (Alexis Denisof), twin sister Taylor (Anna Jacoby-Heron) and younger brother Grant (Zac Pullman) have spent years trying to rebuild their family after one of the twins was abducted as a toddler. Thirteen years later, the missing daughter, Lyndon–or  Carter as she was renamed–(played by Kathryn Prescott),  is reunited with her birth family after a prank lands her in jail and her cop birth-mother discovers her whereabouts.

Once more, as with the Gilmore Girls, the web of relationships is so richly complex. Carter (who naturally resents her real mother for tearing her away from the only ‘mom’ she can remember) is determined to make contact with Lori, her abductor, but is watched like a hawk by cop-mum who is naturally on a mission to bring this criminal to justice. Meanwhile her birth-father, a struggling writer, secretly pens a novel detailing the return of his long-lost daughter, which his agent is going nuts for, but which he promises Carter he would not write/publish without her permission. Factor in the incredible strain on their marriage that the intervening thirteen years have had and you also get cop-mum having an affair with a fellow-cop whilst also wanting to play happy families now that her long-lost daughter has been returned. Add in the awkward dynamic between the two twins, who are in effect strangers, and the youngest sibling who feels he was little more than a ‘replacement brother’ for his missing sister and you have an explosive, complex, multi-layered family drama.

A second series followed, but in 2016 MTV announced there would be no season 3 as viewer numbers had dropped. Such a shame!

And Finally, a Trilogy to End all Trilogies…

And for my fifth and final moment of Benign Writer’s Envy, I return to book-format with a novel I would never have had the imagination to write, so wonderfully elaborate is the fantastical world that has been created.  In fact, it’s not even a book but a trilogy of books, to which prequels and sequels are now also appearing…so it is even greater than a trilogy…

  • His Dark Materials Trilogy by Philip Pullman
A World Beyond Imagination

There are some books that you read and you know instantly that they have changed you forever. Northern Lights, the first of the three (published in the US as The Golden Compass) is one such book. Set in a world reminiscent of a Victorian version of our own, it features 12-year-old Lyra and her spirit daemon Pantalaimon (daemons being the physical embodiment of our inner selves, or souls, and a constant companion throughout a person’s life in this alternative universe). It does the book a disservice to try and condense the labyrinthine plot to a couple of lines but basically Lyra and her daemon live an almost feral life amongst the scholars of Jordan College, Oxford, until she is ‘adopted’ by the sinister socialite, Mrs Coulter, who is anything but what she seems. Before Lyra leaves, she is entrusted with a complex truth-telling device that she instinctively knows how to read. She learns about children disappearing, of a strange thing called dust and that Mrs Coulter is not to be trusted. She sets out on a perilous journey to the arctic to rescue her friend, Roger, and a growing group of abducted children.

I wasn’t even aware of how immersed I had become in this gripping, magical tale until I encountered the part where the abducted children were being forcibly ripped from their daemons. In Pullman’s society where it is inconceivable to even touch another person’s daemon, the idea of physically separating them is abhorrent. Experiencing the shock and outrage at this ‘intercision’ I suddenly realised just how deeply I had fallen into his world.

The story continues with The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass and we now also have The Book of Dust which will be a further trio of novels surrounding His Dark Materials. La Belle Sauvage was  published in October 2017 and features Lyra as a baby; then in October 2019 we can look forward to the second of the three: The Secret Commonwealth, which follows Lyra as a 20-year-old undergraduate.

Oh to have written just one of those epics….

What about you? If you could put your name to anything, what would it be?

Posted by TA Blezard in Books, Creativity, Reviews, Writing, YA, 0 comments

Tips and Hints For NaNoWriMo

Tips and Hints For NaNoWriMo

 

Just type Chapter One at the top and start!

NaNoWriMo: in case you don’t already know, this is an annual competition, or challenge, or challenging competition, designed to inspire you to write a novel (or 50,000 words of one) in just one month. That month is November, hence the name…National Novel Writing Month or NaNoWriMo as it’s become known. The competition has been going since 1999 and last year had 394,507 participants across 6 continents. It sports a Young Writers Programme which brings the whole NaNo experience into the classroom too and supports all its entrants, whatever their ages, with a host of resources including weekly pep talks, access to mentorship and interactive webcasts all with published authors. And best yet, absolutely anything goes as far as genre and format, even poetry or fan-fiction using someone else’s characters!

Sounds great, doesn’t it? I promise that one of these years I too will give it a go, especially now that writing has become my full-time focus. I would have done it this year, honest guv, had I not booked a holiday in the sun slap bang in the middle of the month (and, like driving, I never write drunk).

Advice for NaNoWriMo

Congratulations then to all those writers who have been so much braver than me and picked up the literary gauntlet at the start of this month. The internet is peppered with advice as to how to approach this incredible experience, but summarised below is what looks to me (from this year’s side lines) to be the best:

  • Not everyone plans a novel before writing it. Those that don’t are generally referred to as pantsers while those of us who do are called plotters. Given that you can plan as much as you like before the start of the competition this seems like a no-brainer to me and must be an easy way to make the month’s task just that little less daunting. Plan the outline for your story. Plan your characters. Just don’t start to write your novel until the clock has struck midnight and October is officially behind you. Mind you, if you’re reading this on the first of November, it’s probably a bit late for that little nugget of advice.
  • Ok, so…Plan your Time. Build into the calendar days when you know there will be absolutely no other distractions or drains on your time so that these can be your catch-up days if you have fallen short by then (remember that to make the deadline you have to average 1667 words per day).

    Even you pantsers can benefit from making plans.

  • Write more when you can. Don’t just limit yourself to 1600 or so words if you’re in full flow (but hey, as a writer you probably don’t need to be told that, do you? It’s bloody obvious! Sorry.)
  • Write every day. People report that missing a day leads to a loss of momentum…and obviously once that juggernaut slows down it takes time to get it to speed up again.
  • Edit later. This is all about getting words on the page, people. Don’t worry about bad spelling or bad grammar or even whether the story is actually a pile of garbage or not. You can deal with all of those fine details later once you have written through the finish-line.
  • Plan a reward for yourself when you reach a particular milestone…the middle, or a pivotal scene perhaps. Obviously if you haven’t planned any of it and are just writing by the seat of your pants then you may not recognise this milestone-moment and won’t treat yourself either. Shame. No Tunnocks Tea Cake for you then.

    Treat Yourself!

    Have an idea of where your writing is going tomorrow!

  • When you stop, make sure you’ve got an idea of where it’s going to go tomorrow. What brilliant advice even if you are not in the middle of NaNoWriMo! There’s nothing more stultifying than the blank page reflected back in your blank staring eyes and that blank mind as wet and white as a sheet of photographic paper pulled too early from its tray of developing solution.
  • Write in the cloud, or at least have a foolproof back up system in place. Oh my god, the consequences of not backing up almost don’t bear thinking about…but let’s take a moment to imagine it anyway! It’s November 29th you sit down at your laptop and….can’t log in/can’t find your folder/can’t open the file/can only find a version of your work from 3 weeks ago. Aaagh!
  • Be comfortable. For many of you who don’t sit tapping at a keyboard as part of your day-job for hours at a time you may suddenly develop neck, shoulder and/or wrist aches. Similarly make sure you’re not straining your eyes. Don’t know if it’s any good but there’s a Chrome extension which casts an orange shade over your screen to reduce eye strain and fatigue. Just google F.lux.
  • Take full advantage of the community of support that is out there for you NaNoWriMo-ers. Check out NaNoWriMo.org and retreat to Camp NanoWriMo. Find yourself a writing buddy who can keep you accountable and chivvy you on when things are getting tough. It can be a buddy in the real world as well as the virtual one. There are plenty of us writers out there and we’re mostly very supportive of each other’s struggles!
  • Look after yourself. I know there’s a certain romance to the image of the deadline-haunted writer holed up in their room, an over-flowing ashtray beside them, dark circles round their eyes and nothing but a stack of empty pizza boxes to photograph for your #foodie Insta posts. If it were me, I would feel like crap after a month of living off junk food so perhaps a supply of healthy options squirrelled away in your freezer for NaNo emergencies is in order. Something to think about for next year, perhaps…or ask your mum/partner/house-mate etc to see to it!

    George Orwell doing it tough.

  • And finally…remember that the end is just the beginning! You’re a writer now even if (perhaps) you weren’t at the start of the month. So come December or January or February, you’ve got to start sifting through those 50,000 words to see if anything’s salvageable; you must re-work and edit and add to and subtract; then put it away in a folder on your computer for another six months to come back to with fresh eyes and new ideas and start over again. Welcome to the world of the real writer!!!

I of course will be following all of this good advice….next year! Over to you, what are you writing this month? In the spirit of NaNoWriMo everything is allowed…including shopping and bucket lists.

Posted by TA Blezard in Books, Goals, NaNoWriMo, Writing, 0 comments

Rewrite The Ending To Your Favourite Novel?!

Or…And They All Lived Happily Ever After.

Willy Vlautin’s fabulous 2018 novel.

I have recently finished reading ‘Don’t Skip Out On Me’ by one of my favourite authors, Willy Vlautin. And what a wonderful, heartfelt book – exactly as you would expect from such an awesomely gifted writer. But oh my God, the shock of the ending! Out of nowhere, on the very last page, came a kick to the guts that left me reeling and chastising myself for actually reading those last couple of paragraphs, because if I hadn’t, I could still believe in my desired fairy-tale finish.

Saddest ending ever?

It affected me in the same way that the brilliant film ‘Remember Me’ did the first time I watched it. You know the one: the 2010 movie where Robert Pattinson plays a young man left bitter and rebellious after his brother’s suicide, struggling to maintain his family ties until he falls in love with Ally (Emilie de Ravin) who slowly starts to thaw that ice-cold heart of his. If only I had got up five minutes before the end, I could tell myself that everything was actually going to be OK for the Hawkins family. But first time round you don’t know this! How can you? Endings like that should come with a warning. (I have since watched ‘Remember Me’ three or four more times and now will routinely exit the room before the last five minutes, just so I don’t have to suffer that agonising finale again.)

And they all lived happily ever after.

So is this just me or are we all programmed from an early age to expect a happy ending? Is it something we learned from Disney which means that we now can’t help but yearn for the simple nostalgia of yesteryear? Or perhaps it is just a natural longing to escape the harsh realities of modern life with a dreamy denouement, and who could blame us in these totally crazy Trump-tastic, Brexit-burdened days?

You do, after all, invest a lot of time in the worlds (and words) created by your favourite authors. Had Harry, rather than Voldermort, died in JK Rowling’s ‘The Deathly Hallows’ I suspect I would have felt royally cheated that I had lived with – and cared about – him for so very long. In David Nicholls’ ‘Us’, having travelled the train around Europe with nice-but-slightly-boring Douglas Petersen, watching as his marriage unravelled and his teenage son became increasingly despondent, I couldn’t have come back to England with him without some glimmer of hope for his poor middle-aged love-life. Because let’s face it: that might have been too close to reality. And I don’t need to be reminded that things may not work out for the best in the end. If I wanted that level of depressing realism, then I would switch over to the crime investigation channel and get my voyeuristic thrills following murder cases in small town America. For me, that’s not what escaping into a good book is all about, thank you very much!

It seems my much loved fairy-tale finish even has its own acronym: HEA (for Happily Ever After) so I suspect I am not alone in wanting an upbeat ending every time (let’s call it that because “happy finish” smacks of what some ‘special’ massages are all about…allegedly). Interestingly, and moving swiftly on from the image of the obliging masseuse,  a number of books with less than HEA endings have been made a little more ‘sunny’ for the big screen. Take ‘Jurassic Park’, for instance (yes, it was a book first!). In the film the main characters are all able to safely flee the island after the park’s T-Rex kills the raptors who had been hunting them (phew!) deviating somewhat from the book in which the island is nuked by the Costa Rican Air Force and Richard Attenborough’s rather hateful character (or John Hammond as he was solely at that point) is a gonner.

In Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’, the doctor’s wife is killed by the monster but the couple are allowed to live happily ever after on screen. Similarly (if there can be any similarity between them) in David Morrell’s 1972 novel ‘Rambo’, John Rambo dies from gunshot wounds yet ten years later he survives to advance Sylvester Stallone’s acting career with a further four sequels. I can’t say whether that is four too many…I only survived the first.

With Jodi Piccoult’s book ‘My Sister’s Keeper’, it’s not so much a sunny ending as a cloudy one because the road from page to picture kills off the other sister and sees a more black-and-white HEA outcome, (though with one sister having succumbed to cancer, it’s perhaps stretching it to list this as a typical Hollywood HEA ending). And finally, let’s talk about ‘The Little Mermaid’. We all know how that turns out (collective aaahh). But what you may not know is that Disney’s animation is based on the Hans Christian Anderson tale in which the little mermaid fails to get her man (and ends up killing herself) which according to Disney just wouldn’t do!

The perfect finish.

So clearly me and Walt are not alone in our desire for the HEA. For me, a happy ending is the perfect finish. It’s the coffee and after eight mints that follow your meal, the red sky at night as the sun slides out of the day, and the joyful tune played to me by my Samsung washing machine at the end of each wash cycle. For Walt Disney it’s money in the bank.

Let’s remember that brilliant quote from Deborah Moggach’s ‘Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’. “Everything will be alright in the end so if it is not alright it is not the end.” I hereby give myself permission to re-write unhappy endings in my own head so that I can live HEA.

Over to you. What ending would you like to rewrite?

 

Posted by TA Blezard in Books, Reviews, Writing, 0 comments