#11 ‘The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas’ – John Boyne

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The Book:

[WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS]

Like ‘Beloved’, this book confronts one of those overwhelmingly large subjects that, I believe, requires writing of extreme skill and subtlety. This time, the focus is on concentration camps during World War Two.

The story is told from the point of view of Bruno, a young boy who moves from Berlin to a place he calls ‘Out-With’ (ie. Auschwitz. Other mispronunciations like this are quite obvious and, I’m sure, are meant to emphasise Bruno’s innocence, although I found them a bit laboured). Looking out of his bedroom window he has a perfect view into the concentration camp next door, which he watches from a distance and does not understand. When he takes a walk along the perimeter fence, he meets a Jewish boy the same age as him (they share the same birthday, however unlikely that seems), and they meet daily at the fence to talk. The plot seems rather too far-fetched – Bruno’s parents let him have a bedroom with a view of a concentration camp? Nobody notices Bruno or Shmeul (especially Shmeul) sneaking off to meet each other, for a whole year? Really?

Bruno’s father is the Commandant of Auschwitz, and this is one of my main gripes with the book. The presentation of ‘evil’ in literature has a long and varied history, and one thing that appears time and again in writing about autocratic regimes is the notion that people cannot simply be labelled as ‘good’ or ‘evil’. How did soldiers murder countless Jews during the day, and tuck their children in at night? Were they inherently evil? No, of course not. In this story Bruno’s father loves his son, is proud of him and wants to do well by him, but he is ultimately distant, disciplined and prone to attacks of anger. This extends to the depiction of Nazi soldiers – when they enter a room, the children physically shiver with cold. It’s not an offensively unbelievable interpretation, but it ultimately ignores the possibility that, perhaps, the reality was a little more complicated than that.

I liked the conversations between Bruno and Shmeul. Bruno is almost deliberately ignorant of the sort of life Shmeul leads in the concentration camp, preferring to talk about himself and ignore his friend’s obvious suffering. Historian Kathryn Hughes wrote: “Bruno’s innocence comes to stand for the wilful refusal of all adult Germans to see what was going on under their noses”.

The relationship between father and son could have been examined more closely. I think it could have been the crux of the entire story – resulting, perhaps, in Bruno finally realising what his father is capable of – but he retains his innocence until the ending, which seems more calculated to tug at the heartstrings than make the reader thoughtfully confront the history.

To give this book the benefit of the doubt, it is not claiming to be provocative literature. It is a sentimental story, written well enough to be entertaining, but not to be taken too seriously. For a novel that deals with the same subject on a much deeper level, I would highly recommend ‘The Reader’ by Bernhard Schlink. For a relatively straightforward, tear-jerking story, ‘The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas’ is fine.

“Heil Hitler,” [Bruno] said, which, he presumed, was another way of saying, “Well, goodbye for now, have a pleasant afternoon.”

The Background:

I bought this book from a book fair at university, quite cheaply, after seeing the film. When a friend and I went to the cinema to see the film, we arrived five minutes late – the man who sold us the cinema tickets filled us in: “Oh, you haven’t missed much. They’ve just moved to Auschwitz.”

– gildius –

Book Binge: Relatives are awesome

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I just got back from a trip to Chichester, to visit my uncle and aunt, who let me raid their bookshelves and take home anything I wanted. There were a lot of books to look at, so here is my selection – plenty to get through for my 50 a year challenge.

Here’s to awesome relatives!

– ‘Eva Luna’, Isabel Allende
– ‘The House Of The Spirits’, Isabel Allende
– ‘The Devil’s Footprints’, John Burnside
– ‘Possession’, AS Byatt
– ‘Burning Your Boats’, Angela Carter
– ‘Wise Children’, Angela Carter
– ‘The Hours’, Michael Cunningham
– ‘The Pleasure Of Eliza Lynch’, Anne Enright
– ‘Requiem For A Nun,’ William Faulkner
– ‘Tender Is The Night’, F Scott Fitzgerald
– ‘Eyeless In Gaza’, Aldous Huxley
– ‘Scar Tissue’, Michael Ignatieff
– ‘When We Were Orphans’, Kazuo Ishiguro
 ‘His Last Duchess’, Gabrielle Kimm
– ‘The North Ship’, Philip Larkin
– ‘The Whitsun Weddings’, Philip Larkin
– ‘The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo’, Stieg Larsson
– ‘Collected Novels’, DH Lawrence
– ‘Black Dogs’, Ian McEwan
– ‘In Between The Sheets’, Ian McEwan
– ‘The Cement Garden’, Ian McEwan
– ‘The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea’, Yukio Mishima
– ‘The Wind-up Bird Chronicle’, Haruki Murakami
– ‘A House For Mr Biswas’, VS Naipaul
– ‘The Uncanny’, Nicholas Royle
– ‘The Little Stranger’, Sarah Waters
– ‘Night And Day’, Virginia Woolf

– gildius –

My writing: Bus Story #3 Changing Narrative Voice

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This is the final version of the bus story, written separately from the other two.

The assignment was to write the same story again, but this time with a narrative voice that changes during the story.

So here it is, revealing a little more about the characters again.

Bus Story #3 Changing Narrative Voice
(October 2010)

I get on the bus to escape from the rain.  It is pulling away from the kerb – I have watched it depart a hundred times before and always walked on, smug and healthy, refusing to spend the money and sacrifice the exercise – but today I take action and run after it, waving.  Inexplicable panic rises in my throat as I picture it getting away.  I see myself dripping through hospital corridors, arriving soaked at her bedside and having to keep my hands in my pockets, rather than allowing them to stroke her hair, which would dissolve under my damp fingertips like paper.

The seat I choose is an accident; for the first few minutes of the journey I am ignorant that somehow I have been drawn to sit across the aisle from you.  Then I feel your eyes burning my skin – I can almost see my clothes steaming under your gaze – and I have to occupy myself with futile efforts to dry myself, rather than look back at you.  I feel the pull of you, within touching distance, but I tether my eyes to the hat I am squeezing uselessly onto the floor.  If I look you will be frightened and maybe you will refuse to look at me altogether.

I cannot be still, knowing you are there.  There is a need to entertain you.  If I stop, sit and stare with the distant expression everybody reserves for travelling alone in public, then I will melt into the background of the bus; I will be camouflaged and you will lose sight of me.  Like a tiger disappearing into the jungle, I will vanish before your eyes and your fixation will wane.  There is only so long you can continue to look at glistening, waxy leaves and pretend there is something lurking behind them.

I pat my hair with my sodden sleeves, I rub my face, I even try to shake the water out of my heavy coat.  I reach into my pocket to check the gift is still there.  Before I know it I am looking at you.  For a second I see the shock in your eyes and then you are staring down at your book, cradled in your fragile hands.  Taking advantage of your fear, I examine you.  You are beautiful, but your hair hangs over your face as if you are ashamed of it.  Perhaps you have noticed wrinkles that the rest of the world will not be able to see for years to come.  Your fingers are bare, but do I see the shadow of a ring?  Something about the way you hold yourself suggests loss.  Was there a man before?  Were you happy?  Did he betray you?

The bus pulls up outside the hospital and I stand up quickly, before you can notice that I have been staring.  I walk down the aisle and feel you following behind.  Thanking the bus driver I step down, but the treacherous middle step wobbles and throws me headfirst onto the pavement.

My envious illusion breaks and I exult in it – how perfect an ending for this little romance!  I watch the fallen man being helped to his feet and I see you looking down at him.  How low he must have fallen in your estimation now; how mortified he must be that you were right behind him to witness his shame.  I no longer have to occupy him in order to feel the burning of your eyes.  Now their glare must have turned to hate; another man betrays your devotion with his clumsiness.  I cannot comprehend how he will be able to stand upright and watch your back disappear into the liquid haze.  I could not.  I was still kneeling long after you left.

When he first climbed aboard I saw how he caught your attention and it made me writhe in my seat.  That look you reserved for me, the private adoration in your eyes, is now no longer sacred, but dished out to unknown men and flung shamelessly around inside a bus.  Now you must surely see why I slipped and let my guard down to that woman, who meant less to me over six months, than this unnamed man has meant to you for barely half an hour.  For someone who could not understand the simple mistake I made, you fall in love far too easily with strangers.

You disembark and I turn to the window to watch you walk away.  It is a small comfort to know that my actions have hardened you against every attack.  You locked the door behind me.  You will crush the fallen man with your indifferent stare – it is still the last thing I see before I fall asleep.  My heart races as you step down from the bus.  The man must anticipate what is about to happen to him.  But you stoop and you pick up his hat.  You offer it to him, smiling, and he takes it.  He smiles and even through the drops racing down the window pane I know that your heart is pulsing out to him through your eyes.

As the bus pulls away I twist around in my seat until I am crouching on my knees facing backwards.  The man is leaving first – how is he making his legs move? – and you are standing, watching him go.  The rain is closing in around you and still you are not moving.  Did you really lock the door after all, or did I only believe you had?  I have ridden this bus every day and watched you from the back seat, but I have moved no further in six months.  I am still kneeling and watching your back as it fades into darkness.

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There are two more versions of this story: far away and close up.

– gildius –

#10 ‘Beloved’ – Toni Morrison

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The Book:

[CONTAINS SPOILERS]

“Definitions belong to the definers, not the defined.”

Slavery. If anyone can tackle the subject, it would seem Toni Morrison can. For me, there are a few subjects so enormous that it is virtually impossible to comprehend them at all, let alone write about them well. Slavery is one, the Holocaust another. Which is why, I suppose, writers must focus on the small, the individual, because the entirety is utterly overwhelming.

This is a book of fragments, and the plot leaps forwards and backwards through time. The reader becomes part of the unravelling complexity, according to the details they remember. It’s a compelling – if occasionally confusing – technique. You are lured in by references to the things that happened at Sweet Home – the characters talk to each other about things the reader is as yet unaware of – and so you have no choice but to read on. (Tip: don’t read the blurb. In the version I read it reveals a major part of the story. It doesn’t ruin it, but probably takes some of the shock away.)

I absolutely love magical realism, and I was not expecting it from this book. So I was very pleasantly surprised when the murdered child, Beloved, walked out of the water and arrived on her mother’s doorstep.

It is introduced gradually – from the brilliant warning Sethe gives her living daughter, Denver, that you can walk down the street and bump into somebody else’s memories – so that when the real magic happens it is easier to accept. I found the style reminiscent of one my favourite writers, Gabriel Garcia Márquez, although I prefer Márquez for the extent to which he sustains and interweaves his magical realism throughout whole novels.

There are some brilliant ideas in this novel: after trauma Sethe ceases to see and remember colours; time drips and runs; the characters must only love small things, like distant stars, because to invest love in a partner or child will only tear them apart when the loved one is inevitably lost or destroyed. Towards the end there are several more experimental chapters – written from Sethe, Denver and Beloved’s perspectives – which are well done but break the flow a little. The ending (Sethe with the ice pick) had my heart racing, and some of the informal, conversational prose is just incredible.

“She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order.”

The Background:

Shortly after reading ‘Song of Solomon’ quite a few years ago, I bought ‘Beloved’, and it has sat, unread, on my shelves ever since. A friend mentioned it to me recently, so I rooted it out and, at last, read it in just a few days.

– gildius –

Signed book: ‘Selected Poems’ – Andrew Motion

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I’d had this book for a couple of years, when Andrew Motion (ex-poet laureate) came to my university for a workshop, talk and book signing.

I attended the workshop – it was a small group of students and lecturers, in which Andrew Motion discussed his writing and answered questions. The talk was in the evening and was open to the public. He read some of his poetry and talked about other things, including giving up the laureateship (which was affecting his work) and appearing on ‘Jamie’s Dream School’.

After the talk was the signing. I queued up and handed him my book. We had a brief chat, in which he expressed surprise that a student had bothered to come to the workshop and the talk. I told him what I was studying and he wished me luck. Andrew Motion wished me luck! I walked away grinning like a blithering idiot. Totally starstruck by the last poet laureate. 🙂

– gildius –

My writing: Bus Story #2 Close Up

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Here’s the second version of the bus story assignment. Read the first one here.

The assignment: “A man gets off a bus and slips. A woman sees him fall and they look at each other. Write two versions of this story, with two different narrative voices – one far away, one close up.” This is the close up version – the narrative voice is inside one of the character’s heads.

Bus Story #2 Close Up
(October 2010)

Her hands looked so old these days, it worried her whenever she caught sight of them, reminders of her age, and her youth which stood tantalisingly close, just behind her.  She had noticed them again whilst counting out the change for the bus, so as soon as she found the right coins she cradled them loosely with both hands hidden in her pockets.  Her finger had looked so much younger with a ring.  She felt a drop on her cheek, quickly followed by another, and she retreated further under the shelter.  For the third time this week it was raining!  And had she closed the window in her apartment?  No, she could not remember closing it this morning, so now the sofa was going to get wet again.  Fantastic.

The blocked drain nearby filled up surprisingly quickly; soon it would spill over onto the pavement.  She was just considering taking refuge by standing on the seat, when the 13A came around the corner and pulled up at the shelter – how did bus drivers always manage to stop so the doors were right in front of you?  Automatically she stepped over the middle step as she climbed aboard.  The first few times she had done this journey she had wobbled so precariously that she thought she might fall flat on her face, and she had tactfully avoided it since then.  Now she did not even think about it; her body had learned and carried her obliviously past the danger.

She sat down and took out her book – Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates – which she had decided to read after adoring the film, and made barely noticeable inroads on every day on the bus.  How irritating she had not brought gloves today.  Reading meant that her thumbs were right there, in front of her face, when she would much rather have wrapped them in suede and forgotten them.  Oh well, nothing to be done about it.  No sooner had she opened the book at her page then the bus jolted forwards and ground to a halt, not six feet from the bus stop where she had got on.

Looking up to see why they had stopped so suddenly, she watched a man pull himself aboard and say something inaudible to the driver.  Perhaps he was thanking him for stopping for him.  He seemed, to her, out of breath as if he had run to catch the bus, and he was soaked to the skin from the storm.  Her heart went out to him as he fumbled for his change with wet hands – what a shame that a man who seemed so good and kind should have to run after a bus in the rain!  Grasping his ticket tightly he walked down the aisle towards her.  She looked down at her book, avoiding eye contact in case he thought she was staring.  He sat down in the aisle seat across from her and a tingle ran down her back.

For the rest of the journey she was distracted by him, but she could not understand why.  The novel simply could not hold her attention.  April was not speaking for her today.  Frank was lighting a cigarette, deliberately, but no matter how many times she read the sentence the rain got in, water dripped onto his hands and he ended up clutching a bus ticket, tightly.  Character morphed into stranger.  Before she knew it she was peeking at the man across the aisle, darting her eyes just long enough to catch a brief frame of him.  Water running between his fingers.  Wet hair.  Fabric on damp skin.

As time passed and her inhibitions waned she became more confident in her spying – she turned her head, just a little, to get a better view of him.  She watched him just a little longer each time, safely assured that he did not know she was looking.  The voids in between, looking through the blank page, lasted an age until she felt ready to risk another glance.  She looked again.  He did not seem to have shaved for a few days, and his eyes…  His eyes!  She snapped her eyes back to the book and fixed her stare on the print.  He had caught her looking.  Or had she caught him looking?

The bus pulled to a stop outside the hospital and the man stood up.  She slipped her bus ticket between the pages, slipped the book into her bag and followed him down the aisle.  He left a trail of footprints on the rubber and she stood on them, exactly where his feet had been, as she walked.  He thanked the driver – how kind! – and she had just decided to do the same, when the man tripped on the middle step – damn that middle step! – and fell spread-eagled onto the pavement.  The bus driver shouted and some of the other passengers moved, but she could not do anything.  She wanted to go to him, pick him up, dust him off and ask him if he was alright.  But her feet would not move.  Her body had learned and held her, protesting, away from the danger.

Somebody else helped the man, and he turned and looked up at her.  Shock forced her features into a compassionate smile.  She could not read his face – she hoped he was embarrassed for making a fool of himself in front of her, but it was more likely that he was surprised she had done nothing when he fell.  Oh, how rude of her!  If only she had helped him!  But the seconds were ticking by and she had not even asked if he was OK, the moment was passing, had passed.

His hat had fallen off and come to rest in the gutter, where it was gathering dirt and more water.  Thank God!  She could do something after all.  She reached down, picked up the hat and, without shaking it or attempting to reshape it, she handed it back to him.  He took it and put it on.  He smiled.  Their momentary relationship was repaired.  He buttoned his coat, nodded and hurried off down the road.  She watched him leave, his back hunched against the rain.  She wanted to follow and apologise, or tell him that he need not feel embarrassed, or offer him a warm cup of coffee, or…  With a start she realised the bus had already driven off and she was standing in the pouring rain.  Wonderful.  Now she would have to wash her hair again when she got home.  But the shower was leaking so she had better call a plumber.  Hopefully he could fix it tomorrow.  She turned, put her hands in her pockets, and walked away up the street.

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There are two more versions of this story: far away and with a changing narrative voice.

– gildius –

#9 ‘Flappers and Philosophers’ – F. Scott Fitzgerald

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The Book:

Done right, short stories can be masterpieces, throwing the reader into existing lives and engrossing them enough to want to stay (and to feel the wrench when they have to leave). Having read this book – which is made up of stories taken from several of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s collections – I have to say he is one of the best short story writers I have ever read.

This could be to do with the the fact that I love the era in which the many of the stories are set: the Roaring Twenties. Fitzgerald creates the mood so beautifully in his love stories, of young men and women drinking and dancing into the night, and falling into seemingly casual romantic entanglements that end up affecting them for the rest of their lives. In this world few people seem to end up happy. Sensitive men who fall in love tend to lose the object of their desire to colder, more logical men who seem incapable of any real emotion beyond self-love. The female characters are thoughtful and intelligent, often choosing security over passion (or, at least, struggling with the choice). This is from Two Wrongs: “Her voice was flip as a whip and cold as automatic refrigeration, in the mode grown familiar since British ladies took to piecing themselves together out of literature.”

The atmosphere of the romantic stories is summed up perfectly by the title character in Josephine: A Woman With A Past: “One couldn’t go on forever kissing comparative strangers behind half-closed doors.” And yet, they do.

There are common threads throughout the stories, certainly, but they aren’t repetitive. The romantic tales are interspersed with brilliantly surreal stories, such as The Diamond As Big As The Ritz and The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button, and more light-hearted comedies like Gretchen’s Forty Winks. The final section is mainly composed of a series of humorous stories about Pat Hobby – an ageing Hollywood ‘writer’ who hangs around the studio he has worked at for years, and constantly ends up in trouble.

Fitzgerald’s dialogue is stunningly sparse and natural. Making the characters speak to each other, rather than to the reader, is absolutely essential for good dialogue, and Fitzgerald not only achieves this, but also layers what they say with wider symbolic meaning.

I absolutely loved this collection and I’m sure I’ll return to it again and again. I highly recommend this book.

“Then we left our napkins and empty glasses and a little bit of the past on the table, and hand in hand we went out into the moonlight itself.”
The Last Of The Belles

The Background:

Before this, the only other book by F. Scott Fitzgerald I had read was, of course, The Great Gatsby. Because I had spent so much money at Waterstones, I had a gift voucher and when I saw the striking black and gold cover I had to buy it instantly.

Inside the book jacket, at the back, there is a tear-off bookmark in the style of the cover, with the quote: “He was in one sense the richest man that ever lived – and yet was he worth anything at all?” I used the bookmark, although it did feel a bit odd tearing a chunk out of the book.

This beautiful edition is by Penguin Classics – definitely a keeper!

– gildius –

My writing: Bus Story #1 Far

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I’ve created a new page – The Writer – because I thought it was about time I put some of my own writing on this blog. I did a Masters in Creative Writing so, of course, I have quite a large collection of stories that I wrote for the course. It’s just sitting in my computer, not being read, so I may as well put it out there where people can see it.

Of course, these stories were all written over a year ago (2010-2011), and I’m notorious for looking back at everything I’ve done and cringing, but I’ll give it a go anyway. The temptation will be to edit, but I take any excuse to procrastinate, so I’ll just say now that I won’t change what I post – it will go up exactly as it was when it was first written. (Typos removed, obviously. I’m a dyed-in-the-wool proofreader after all.)

So, here’s the first one! This was the first assignment on the MA course:

“A man gets off a bus and slips. A woman sees him fall and they look at each other. Write two versions of this story, with two different narrative voices – one far away, one close up.” This is the far away version – by which I mean the voice is distant from the characters. We see their actions only, we are not inside their heads.

Bus Story #1 Far
(October 2010)

Boiling grey clouds had been gathering above the city since the early morning, and as the sun reached its peak they closed in, shoulder to shoulder, and blocked out the light.  As fat, smutty drops of water began to fall from the blackened underbelly of the sky, people ran for shelter.  An old man, clutching his cane, hobbled into a sports shop.  A child slipped on the slick pavement, picked himself up and ran away rubbing his muddied hands on his trousers.  A woman, standing under a bus shelter, drew back from the encroaching puddle caused by a blocked drain at the edge of the road.

A small bus pulled up and the woman hopped quickly onto it, missing out the middle step.  She put a handful of coins in front of the driver, waited for her ticket and sat down immediately in one of the few vacant seats as the bus began to move.  She took out a book from her bag, with bus tickets tucked into every other page, and opened it just as the bus jerked to a halt and reopened its doors with a squeal.

The woman looked up.  A man used the handrail to pull himself on board.  He leaned against the little counter and said something to the driver, while counting out the fare from a large handful of coins.  Water dripped from the brim of his hat onto his hands, and a small puddle was forming around his shoes.  Her eyes followed him as he made his way up the bus and sat down heavily in the seat across the aisle from her.  She brushed away some water from his coat that had rubbed against her as he passed; he leaned over and apologised with wide eyes and his hand raised.  She smiled.

For twenty minutes the bus lurched through the driving rain.  For twenty minutes she held the book in front of her but did not turn the page.  Every now and then her eyes flicked across the aisle.  The man had taken off his hat and was squeezing it out on the floor, little rivulets trickling between his fingers.  She looked at the page and back again.  The man was tousling his hair and patting the soaked clumps with the edge of his sleeve.  She watched as he rubbed his face and shook out his coat, carefully, without getting any water on the thin woman seated directly next to him, reading a fashion magazine.

She looked up from her book for longer and longer each time.  His coat was not buttoned all the way up to his neck and the rain had got in, drenching the collar of his shirt and sticking it to his skin.  Seated, his trousers rose up above his ankles, revealing dark blue socks.  There was some growth on his chin, the outline of a beard in stubble.  Suddenly her eyes snapped back to the book and remained there, fixed.  She turned the page and continued to stare at it.  Whilst rummaging in one of his coat pockets he had looked back at her.

The bus stopped outside the hospital and the man stood up.  After putting her book away she also stood and followed his damp footprints down the aisle.  The man thanked the driver and stepped down, but the middle step wobbled under his weight and he was pitched forwards, off the bus, onto the pavement.  His hat rolled into the gutter.  The driver shouted and several of the passengers looked out of the window with worried faces.  A young man waiting to board the bus rushed to help the man back to his feet.  The woman was standing on the top step when the man turned and looked up at her.  His face was flushed and as he reached up to tousle his hair again the scraped palms of his hands were visible.

She smiled and, missing out the middle step, descended to the pavement, where she bent down and picked up the crumpled hat.  She held it out to him and, as he took it and put it on, he returned the smile.  Then he buttoned up his coat, all the way to the top, nodded to her, turned his back and hastily walked away.  The young man and several others boarded the bus and the doors hissed closed as it pulled away.  The woman remained standing on the pavement for a moment, her hair sticking to her face, until finally, with small, quick steps she hurried off in the opposite direction, under the sullen bank of cloud.

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There are two more versions of this story: close up and with a changing narrative voice.

– gildius –

I love social media

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It’s been a great few weeks for Jessica Augarde’s brilliant photograph of me, levitating in front of my bookshelves.

For World Book Night I tweeted the photo to Penguin Books UK, and they featured it as the cover photo for their ‘Book Love Photos’ article on Storify.
http://storify.com/PenguinUKBooks/world-book-night-book-love-photos

Then this evening Jeff Elder, marketing director at Storify, used it in his post ‘My Week on Twitter’.
http://storify.com/jeffelder/my-week-on-twitter

For the last three months I have been working at an SEO company, and consequently my online social presence has increased dramatically. Seeing this photo do the rounds has been an amazing way to see how online social media works. The conclusion? I love it!

– gildius –

#8 ‘The Wasp Factory’ – Iain Banks

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The Book:

I love books that throw you in at the deep end and force you to kick your way to the surface. Take The Wasp Factory‘s opening lines:

“I had been making the rounds of the Sacrifice Poles the day we heard my brother had escaped. I already knew something was going to happen; the Factory told me.”

Reader, are you floundering? Absolutely. And Iain Banks doesn’t stop the narrative to explain – instead the first person narrator, Frank Cauldhame, gradually feeds you more information and you grope your way into his repulsively believable world. I think this is a sign of a really good writer – one who has the confidence to keep going without explaining himself, and who doesn’t lose the reader on the way. Banks doesn’t hold the reader’s hand; he seizes it.

Frank Cauldhame is sixteen years old and has already killed three people (in my opinion the most horrifying murder is that of his cousin Esmeralda). His “greatest enemies are women and the sea”. His brother, Eric, has escaped from an insane asylum, where he was sent after witnessing a(nother) mind-blowingly awful death. And there’s a life-changing secret locked in his father’s study.

Frank’s is the narrative voice throughout, and he is a complex and well-drawn character. The Wasp Factory (I was dying for a description of it for ages – be patient, it’s brilliant), and the rest of the occult rituals he has developed from living on a remote island, beautifully demonstrate the machinations of his disturbed mind.   Even the way he washes and dresses (at the start of chapter 3) has a ritualistic quality.

But he’s not an erratic character – quite the opposite. He is calm, calculating and gently sinister to read. This is best shown by his reaction to death. He separates himself into two parts: putting on a show for the benefit of others, whilst seemingly watching himself from a comfortable distance.

“The death of somebody close gives you a good excuse to go a bit crazy for a while and do things that would otherwise be inexcusable.”

This is a brilliantly squeamish book, with a healthy dose of unexpected plot twists. It lures you into a place that is both uncomfortable and irresistible. And one thing’s for sure: the kids are not all right.

The Background:

This was another of the books I bought as part of my Kindle book binge.

There are a number of books in my life that I come across in bookshops or see in windows, that I walk past for weeks, months or even years and never quite get round to buying. Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino was one such book – it took me four years from first seeing it in a shop in Venice and writing down the name, to finally reading it.

The Wasp Factory was another of these books (a matter of maybe six months in this case) – every time I went into Waterstones I picked it up and put it down. I’m glad that I finally decided to keep hold of it.

– gildius –