The Wasp Factory

The Wasp FactoryTitle: The Wasp Factory
Author: Iain Banks
Publication date: 1984

What’s it about?The Wasp Factory

Teenager Frank Cauldhame (who, by the age of ten, had killed three other children) lives on a remote Scottish island with his father, and indulges in a wide range of violent games. The book follows his story as he waits for news of his brother Eric, who has escaped from a psychiatric hospital and is making his way back home. But who will be the most shocked at what they find when Eric arrives?

Where did I get hold of the book?

This one was already on my bookshelves. According to the inscription in the front, it was a present for my 25th birthday – and I’d never read it.

What did I learn from it?

I learned about the power of storytelling, specifically how an audience is gripped by mysteries, and is driven to keep turning the pages to find out ‘what happened?’, no matter how disturbing the journey. Two chapters are, in fact, entitled ‘What Happened to Eric’ and ‘What Happened to Me’, and they occur near the very end of the novel. We are made aware as the story progresses that unspeakable things happened to both boys, and yet the facts unfold very gradually. The exact truth about Frank only becomes apparent in the last four pages, and once it is revealed, we (along with Frank himself) must question what we thought we had known all along.

I also realised I’m a lot more squeamish than I thought – or maybe it’s simply that Banks is skilled in conjuring up visual images that stick in the mind, that won’t let go and can’t be unread, no matter how much you try to forget them. There were scenes in this novel (one in particular) that I found more gruesome than anything I’ve ever read or watched before – and yet I kept turning those pages. That’s writing talent at work.

How did it make me see the world differently?

Despite Frank’s psychotic tendencies and the absence of the usual confines of schooling, the description of his life on the island brought back many memories of an ’80s childhood spent playing outside. Where Frank wanders his territory setting bombs, hunting rabbits, collecting live wasps for sacrifice, hoisting animal skulls on poles, and building dams (and blowing them up), I would climb trees, make dens, and – yes – visit the local dump, inventing stories that I would play out with my friends.

This was the era before computer games took hold. Although I do recall titles such as Donkey Kong and Space Invaders, I was never really a computer girl; when I wasn’t reading books, I was outside making up stories for myself and acting them out. True, my adventures would feature secret societies and tracking in the woods rather than explosives and animal torture, but I can still relate to how Frank spends his time: the sheer joy of being out in the open air, exploring the fruits of his imagination.

The book reminded me of how much fun I had in my childhood, and how much of that was, surprisingly for me, spent outside. I’m writing this in a week where, for various reasons, I’ve not been on my usual morning walks, and I’ve realised that this has made me quite twitchy. We don’t always appreciate the great outdoors until we can’t access it any more, and while it’s easy to hunker down cosily inside (especially in the dark winter months), I’ve realised I still need to make time for fresh air – and to see how it sparks my creative mind.

What changes will I make to my life as a result of it?

Prompted by my musings above, I’ll renew my efforts to get out into the countryside. In fact, I’ll do more than take up my morning walks again; in the New Year I’m going to try out a local walking group, and see if I can get into the habit of going for a proper hike on Sundays. There’s one I’ve found that seems to offer a variety of routes at different levels of difficulty, so I’ll use the Christmas holiday to gather together all my walking equipment (I need some new boots, for a start), and will contact them in January with a view to setting a new habit!

I’m also going to take yet another prompt to crack on with my own creative writing; and inspired by Banks’s storytelling, I’ve decided to set myself a challenge for 2017. In a similar way to how I approach the Book Diaries, I’m going to set myself the target of writing one piece of fiction each month. This could be anything from a short story to a chapter in my novel; or even something completely different – the aim is to give myself a deadline, so that I actually achieve something rather than just sit and think about it.

If I can get walking and writing again – two things I loved to do when I was younger, but which I’ve let slide over the years – I will be a very happy bunny.

A musical interlude

Dogs feature quite heavily (and not in a good way) in The Wasp Factory, and so they’ve inspired this week’s music track.

To Kill a Mockingbird

To Kill A MockingbirdTitle: To Kill a Mockingbird
Author: Harper Lee
Publication date: 1960

What’s it about?To Kill a Mockingbird

Scout Finch and her brother Jem live with their father Atticus, a lawyer, in a quiet Southern US town. Against a backdrop of childhood summers spent inventing games and being fascinated by local recluse Boo Radley, Scout narrates the tale of her father’s most controversial case: one destined to bring out the worst – and also the best – in their friends and neighbours.

Where did I get hold of the book?

The university library… again… But rest assured some new sources will come into play from next month onwards!

What did I learn from it?

You know how you can suddenly experience a flash of insight, which, when you think about it, you realise is actually something you’ve always known? That’s kind of what happened here.

I was mulling over the character of Arthur ‘Boo’ Radley, and how refreshing it was to see a ‘weirdo’ not portrayed as ultimately bad or untrustworthy, but in fact genuinely nice and kind (if a little eccentric). No evil villain with captive damsels in his basement or terrifying plans to run amok with a firearm – just a timid guy who prefers to keep himself to himself.

It struck me that if anyone is going to appreciate the quirks of the loner, it is likely to be a writer. While some writers may be the life and soul of the party, writing itself is a solitary pursuit, one that is undertaken at a time and in a manner peculiar to each individual. So it should not come as a surprise that a fictional oddball should receive a sympathetic rather than a judgemental treatment from the person wielding the pen.

In our modern world of social media, where every innermost thought is expected to be turned into a post, a meme or a humorous image, and where the introverted, the unconventional and the idiosyncratic are increasingly regarded with suspicion, it makes a refreshing change to see one of the great recluses of literature turn out to be, in his own way, as much of a hero as Atticus Finch.

How did it make me see the world differently?

The joy of To Kill A Mockingbird lies in the childlike perspective of Scout, the narrator. We watch the unfolding of events in her town through a child’s eyes, which naturally do not see as much of the world’s ugliness as those of the adults around her – and yet perhaps they see more clearly than those that have grown tainted with racial and other prejudice.

Scout and Jem, although gradually exposed to the unpleasantness surrounding them (and being personally involved in the final climactic showdown), are essentially kept at arm’s length from the worst of the troubles – and I think this is largely due to the protection they receive from their father. Although we, as adults, are aware of the challenges Atticus must be facing in his work, we read about them with a casual lightheartedness that can only come from a child who is sheltered from the true horrors of what grown-ups are capable of doing to each other.

This reminds me that there are several ways in which even we adults may be protected from the more troublesome elements of life; and how this is so important for finding the strength to go on.

Whether it’s a boss who protects us from the frustrating vagaries of an organisation that it’s not our job to have to negotiate; a parent or spouse who takes care of complicated family relations to smooth the way for us; or a writer who holds our hand through new experiences, so that we get a feel for what is out there without having to walk through the fire ourselves… all these people make it easier for us to navigate the world, to venture on to fresh paths with some of the danger and uncertainty removed, and to have the confidence to strike out in ways we may have been too fearful to attempt before.

This book has given me a renewed appreciation for all the people throughout my life, from childhood to adulthood, who have protected me from things that might have stopped me from becoming who I am now. I am here because of them, and I will not forget this.

What changes will I make to my life as a result of it?

Two things!

  1. Bearing in mind my above comments about how writing can help us figure out a path through life, I’ve determined that next year will not just be the year I write my novel: it will also be the year I get some short stories down on paper. I’ve had several ideas for ‘what if?’-style speculative fiction, and I’d like to think these ideas will encourage my readers to look anew at a familiar subject and consider how the world could be different, and (who knows?) better – and then go and make it so.
  2. I frequently take walks out in the country, and often use this time to work through issues, generate ideas and solve problems. However, I’m very aware that in doing this I’m missing out on the sheer enjoyment of being in nature for itself alone. And so I’m going to take a lesson from the children in To Kill A Mockingbird and attempt to savour the moment. I won’t necessarily be making up games as I walk, but I’ll definitely try to put aside some of my adult cares and appreciate what I’ve got while I’ve got it.

A musical interlude

Totally off at a tangent, this one – and yet at the same time, completely obvious. It’s Wake Up Boo! by the Boo Radleys.

It’s also quite appropriate, as Wikipedia describes it as being a ‘song about the change from summer to autumn’ – which, as I’m writing this on the first day of September, is precisely where we are.

Lolita

Lolita

Title: Lolita
Author: Vladimir Nabokov
Publication date: 1955
Genre: Fiction

What’s it about?Lolita

Middle-aged professor Humbert Humbert falls in love – or at least lust – with his landlady’s 12-year-old daughter, Dolores Haze, or ‘Lolita’. The two embark on a controversial relationship and a journey of discovery (both literal and metaphorical) that spans several years and ends – perhaps unsurprisingly – in confusion and heartbreak.

Where did I get hold of the book?

I was happy to discover this one in the public library. It occurred to me that I was spoiled last year, with a number of my older book choices being available for free on the internet; this year, as I get gradually closer and closer to the present day, I’ve realised that if the local libraries don’t hold the books I want, this could get expensive. So I shall be doing my bit to support my local libraries whenever I can!

What did I learn from it?

As this was set in late 1940s/early 1950s America, I got a snapshot of what life was like there at that time. Humbert and Lolita spend a great deal of the book travelling around the United States, and there is plenty of lyrical description of the small towns and villages they pass through and spend time in. Motels, in particular, feature heavily, and this is an aspect of American life that fascinates me. We don’t have quite the same thing in the UK; I guess Travelodges are the nearest thing on this side of the pond…

The constant moving around from place to place, the overnight (or longer) stops not just in motels but also hotels, both drab and luxurious – this tells of a life on the road that, due to our much smaller geographical area, is not such a feature of British stories. Funnily enough, my next book is On the Road by Jack Kerouac, so I’ll be interested to compare the experiences of a middle-aged paedophile and his companion with those of Kerouac’s narrator (of whom at the moment I know absolutely nothing).

There is a strong explorer’s streak in me; I do not go on many holidays myself, but my mind is always wandering off around the world, and any tales of travellers cannot fail to grab my attention. The fact that I got this from Lolita was a most welcome surprise.

How did it make me see the world differently?

As I don’t have children, the need to protect them isn’t something I grapple with on a daily basis. I work from home, and I rarely go to places where there are children. It’s therefore easy to forget how small that window of childhood is, in particular that period of early puberty, when adulthood starts to beckon but is still some way off; and how much this semi-innocent state can be threatened by hostile outside forces, whether paedophiles, poverty or peer pressure.

Lolita was a sad and scary reminder of how quickly a girl can grow up, how sudden the exposure to adulthood can be, and how much damage can be caused if she is pushed too far too soon. It’s unpleasant to remember that there was a period when women were considered property and when it was normal for young girls to be married off to adult men, who would presumably use them in much the same way that Humbert uses Lolita.

It’s notable that the book suggests Lolita has already had sex with at least one boy before Humbert, although as Humbert himself is the (unreliable) narrator, this point can perhaps be disputed. Is Humbert trying to make his crimes seem less severe? How much difference is there between the boy trying it on and the man trying it on? How much has changed between 1940s America and the present day in terms of the roles we expect children (and adults) to play?

There are more questions than answers here, and it is not a palatable subject – but I guess this in itself is a reminder that sometimes we need to ask the difficult questions, to figure out why we believe what we believe, and to determine what our moral values and limits are.

What changes will I make to my life as a result of it?

A quick note. I’ve spent several blog posts talking about my quest for the perfect reading schedule, i.e. when I’m going to try to fit my Book Diaries reading into the rest of my life. While this seems at the time like a tangible target, I tend to find that my habits change so frequently that what works one week will fall apart the next.

From now on I’m therefore going to refrain from making any commitments to changing up my schedule, as chances are, by the time of the next blog post, the ‘perfect routine’ will have been thrown out of the window!

The thing that has stayed in my mind from reading this book is Humbert and Lolita’s road trips across America. This may be because my husband and I will be undertaking a road trip of our own in September: we’re flying out to Los Angeles, then driving up the west coast via Portland and Seattle, and finishing up in Vancouver, Canada. I’ve left all the booking arrangements to my husband, as he’s good at that sort of thing and I’ve been busy – but I’ve realised that, in the process, I’ve completely forgotten to get excited about this amazing trip we’re going on!

I’m therefore using this novel as a prompt to start making time to (a) plan and (b) properly look forward to our holiday. Whether that’s checking out places to visit, shopping for clothes, or yes, even figuring out when I’ll have time to do my Book Diaries reading, I’m going to make sure I enjoy the anticipation as much as I hope I will enjoy the actual vacation.

A musical interlude

I usually don’t pick ‘obvious’ tracks for my musical interludes, but this time I felt a little uncomfortable at the thought of connecting a completely innocent song with such a book as this. So I’m going for the song that was not only inspired by but also directly cites ‘that book by Nabokov’.