Beloved

Beloved

Title: Beloved
Author: Toni Morrison
Publication date: 1987
Country/culture: African American

Note

For this year’s Book Diaries, in a departure from my usual focus, instead of being inspired in a random fashion, I’m looking for inspiration that I can take to my writing. (See My Creative Journal to find out why I’m doing this.)

 

BelovedWhat’s it about?

Sethe is a slave who has escaped slavery and come to lead a new life in Ohio, a free state. However, her home is haunted by spirits, one of which is believed to be the ghost of her dead baby, known only by the name Beloved. As the novel unfolds, we discover more about the horrors that Sethe experienced back on the plantation – and those which continue to pursue her even now she is free.

What did I find out?

I discovered that, sometimes, you don’t realise how much a book is affecting you until you reach the very end and look back on what has just evolved in front of you. This was certainly the case with Beloved. I read the novel, taking it all in, stopping over certain passages to absorb their full impact and making sure I didn’t miss anything – and yet it was only right at the end, as I came to the closing chapters, that I was able to comprehend the sheer scale of Morrison’s achievement.

It’s very difficult to express how I feel about this story: it’s almost too complex to articulate with mere words. As I was reading, I found out that Morrison won the Nobel Prize for Literature: I’m not sure whether it was for this book, but I can only imagine that it must have played a significant part in the decision. It is a work of tremendous strength and compassion, forcing us to confront difficult questions, and yet also offering us hope for the future, both for ourselves as individuals and for the human race in general.

What do I now see differently?

As someone from, clearly, a very different background to the novel’s protagonist, I am very aware that there are certain subjects I am not equipped to write about. This has been a topic of some controversy recently, as it has been questioned whether any writer can authentically write (about) characters of wildly different backgrounds and experiences to their own.

On the one hand, we’re writers: getting under the skin of different people is what we do; and to some extent we have to do this, otherwise we’d only ever write our own biographies. For example, I’m not a man, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t include male characters in my novel. However, it has been questioned whether writers of, for example, a particular race can ever hope to fully understand a different race well enough to truly represent the lives of its people.

As far as I know, the themes I’m writing about (such as fear of difference, yearning for a life lost, etc) have resonance for the human race as a whole. However, perhaps because this is my first novel, I’m more naturally inclined to stick to what is familiar, and for me that means characters that are essentially Western. That said, it is a fantasy novel, so I’m also including characters that are dead, undead or supernatural: does this give me some leeway to experiment with the unfamiliar? My fae characters have a mishmash of names that I’ve drawn mainly from Norse or Celtic mythology, but my ghosts have an existence very similar to the one I’ve found described for ghosts in Mesopotamian religions. Is such a mashup acceptable? Does it add to the power of the story or detract from it? Will anyone other than myself find meaning in it?

Beloved has made me question whether my novel will have a reach (and engage interest) beyond the confines of the life I myself live; and, if not, whether that matters. Perhaps we can all only hope to articulate our own thoughts on our own world (inner or outer) – and then turn to other voices in order to find out about their worlds.

How will this inspire my writing?

I remember having particular trouble writing one passage in my book, as it was very different in style and tone to all the other scenes I’d written up to that point. It deals with the ethereal experience of one character’s soul flitting around the cosmos, looking for something to fix on to, and being open to connections with other spirits and creatures present in the void. I don’t think I’ve even described that very well – which shows how difficult it was writing the actual scene!

In order to express the fluid, incomprehensible nature of the experience, I’ve used very odd, erratic, disjointed language: not a linear narrative at all. I have no idea whether this will be accepted by readers as a natural way of articulating that episode in the story, or whether it will confuse the hell out of them. I was heartened, therefore, to discover a similar passage in Beloved, where the experience of the baby’s soul is described in a similar fashion: as it flits through what we assume is the spirit world, we’re not quite clear on what is happening, or where, or how, but we can tell who (or what) is involved, and we get a vague sense of what she is going through.

This has reassured me that odd passages like this won’t necessarily put off the reader. Obviously it remains to be seen whether I can find the skill to deliver my scene with the same impact as Morrison delivers hers in Beloved – but at least now I know it’s possible.

A musical interlude

At first I couldn’t imagine a song that would do this book justice. However, I was inspired to browse through the back catalogue of Nina Simone and came across this track – and it’s perfect in so many ways.

Midnight’s Children

Midnight's Children

Title: Midnight’s Children
Author: Salman Rushdie
Publication date: 1981
Country/culture: India/Pakistan

Note

For this year’s Book Diaries, in a departure from my usual focus, instead of being inspired in a random fashion, I’m looking for inspiration that I can take to my writing. (See My Creative Journal to find out why I’m doing this.)

 

Midnight's ChildrenWhat’s it about?

Saleem Sinai is born at the very moment India gains its independence, and later finds himself gifted with extraordinary telepathic powers. He perceives his own life as inextricably intertwined with that of his country, and we see their stories develop in parallel as the young country and the young boy begin to find their purpose and their way in the world.

What did I find out?

I started to read this book on a warm afternoon, sitting outside in my garden with a glass of cold lemon by my side and the sun toasting my back. As I read on through pages describing life in India – a hot country – it felt somehow appropriate to be absorbing this story in such weather. Obviously there is a vast difference between British heat (especially in April) and Indian heat, but it was a gentle reminder that appreciation of a book can be enhanced by one’s reading environment.

The books on my list for this year have been selected from around the globe, and I have tried to alternate longer books and shorter ones; I’ve not actively attempted to fit them in at a time of year when the weather suits the country of origin of the work. This would probably put too many limitations on what is already a big scheduling issue for me (and not least because the British weather is so unpredictable). However, it’s something I will bear in mind for the future.

What do I now see differently?

Midnight’s Children is undeniably a work of literary fiction, a genre I don’t usually gravitate towards – but it also has a strong element of magical realism, in the depiction of the special powers and abilities of the ‘midnight children’, from telepathy to time travel to sorcery, and more. This perhaps shifted the novel into territory I am more familiar with, thus making it a slightly easier prospect than it otherwise might have been (not least because, at over 600 pages, this is the longest book on my list this year).

I realised (or was reminded) that ‘genre’, while sometimes a helpful concept (particularly in libraries and bookshops, where items have to be shelved in a single physical location), is also an artificial construct. Books can happily overlap genres without necessarily confusing the reader; indeed, it is perhaps by insisting on a label in the first place that we throw up barriers where none need be. Magical realism, to my mind, is a form of fantasy; and while fantasy is sometimes looked down on by readers of literary fiction, the fantastical elements of this novel intrigued me and made me pick it up – thus introducing me to a work I would probably never have considered otherwise.

This is a reassuring realisation, and I’ve decided not to worry (yet) about what genre my novel fits into (supernatural? paranormal? fantasy? horror? medical? thriller?) and just write the thing. The time for finding readers will come later.

How will this inspire my writing?

Midnight’s Children is an incredible tale, interweaving personal stories with national ones and layering themes, leitmotifs and imagery with supreme skill. This can only be something to aspire to! The length of the book, the period of time it covers and the subject matter make the intertwining of recurring elements particularly compelling, but I think that even shorter, less ambitious books can learn from it. I am only 26,000 words into my own novel, but I’ve already made a start at using imagery in my presentation of certain characters, as a kind of shorthand to illustrate their lives and relationships.

My novel won’t reach the dizzying heights of Midnight’s Children, but I’ll certainly be taking a deeper look at how I use themes and imagery to underscore key parts of the story.

A musical interlude

Although this song doesn’t exactly reflect Saleem’s specific narrative, I feel that there are enough similarities between its content and his experiences to at least make it worthy of a ‘Discuss!’ essay question. You may discuss if you like – or just listen.

Cold Storage, Alaska

Cold Storage, Alaska
Title: Cold Storage, Alaska
Author: John Straley
Publication date: 2014
Country/culture: Alaska

Note

For this year’s Book Diaries, in a departure from my usual focus, instead of being inspired in a random fashion, I’m looking for inspiration that I can take to my writing. (See My Creative Journal to find out why I’m doing this.)

 

What’s it about?Cold Storage, Alaska

Two brothers – one a hero, one a criminal – are reunited in their sleepy Alaskan hometown, where fishing, gossip and hanging out at the community centre are the most popular activities. When Clive’s drug-dealing past threatens to catch up with him, town life is turned upside down – but ultimately, in this beautifully drawn novel, the poetry in people’s souls wins over evil.

What did I find out?

One of the novel’s sub-plots features Billy, a resident of Cold Storage, who decides to kayak from Alaska to Seattle to see the Dalai Lama, who is visiting the city. Without wishing to give too much away, he ends up on a cruise ship – and this is where I learned that cruise ships have librarians!

As a former librarian myself, this was fascinating: in all my years in employment I never saw a job ad for a cruise librarian. It’s not enough to tempt me back into the field – I’m happier out of an office, and I’ve never fancied going on a cruise even as a passenger – and I’m also aware that this year’s Book Diaries are meant to be about taking inspiration for my writing.

So, what I will take from this is the realisation that there are many potential audiences for a book that we writers may not even be aware of when we are writing. One of my jobs if/when my book is finally published will be to think laterally and see what alternative audiences I can come up with for my own.

What do I now see differently?

One of the joys of this book was the way in which even hardened criminals demonstrate that they have poetry in their souls. Clive’s former drug lord boss, Jake, has a ‘second life’ in which he (usually unsuccessfully) writes screenplays for Hollywood; and a wonderful storyline sees him offering writing advice to one of Cold Storage’s indigenous (Tlingit) residents, Lester.

In particular, Jake talks about the importance of the story arc, explaining the difference between plot and story: ‘what happens in the film’ is not necessarily the same as ‘what the film is about’. I was already aware of this, but it was interesting to have a reminder, especially with the example that Jake gives: that of Jurassic Park.

Lester thinks that Jurassic Park is about humans realising they shouldn’t mess with nature, but Jake explains that it is actually about a man realising that he doesn’t hate kids but, actually, rather likes them. The story, in other words, is about a personal journey.

This is something I’m trying very hard to practise as I write my novel. I think I’ve got my main character’s journey figured out – but it certainly helps to have reminders like this along the way.

How will this inspire my writing?

Funnily enough, I’ve already implemented this week’s change!

If you received my February newsletter*, you may remember that the ‘idea’ I shared this month was about potentially featuring a supernatural cat in my novel. My first iteration of the idea involved giving my protagonist a ghost cat as a pet: she ‘lives’ on her own, and I thought this could be a way of introducing her by means of dialogue (everyone who has a cat talks to it, right?), which would be more interesting than simply a stream of consciousness.

I’d put the idea to one side, thinking it was cute but maybe a bit of a cliche (single woman with a cat). Then, reading Cold Storage, Alaska, I came across (a) a character with a cat and (b) the concept of talking animals. While it didn’t exactly feel like a sign, it did bring the idea back to the forefront of my mind.

Yesterday, I had to write a scene that needed to go in for the sake of the plot, but (bearing in mind the above advice on story arcs) I knew it also had to make sense in a character’s personal journey. So, more as an experiment than anything, and certainly with no expectation that this scene would even last the distance, I started writing about a cat: not in the way I’d initially intended, but from a completely new angle. And, weirdly, it worked.

I now have a scene that not only introduces one of the main characters (who was, previously, woefully underdeveloped), but which also adds a new dimension to both the plot and the overall complexity of my invented world. And all without resorting to the cliche of ‘single woman with cat’. I call that a win.

*If you’d like to subscribe to my newsletter, with insights into where I get my ideas from, sign up here.

A musical interlude

This time it was Anchorage by Michelle Shocked that sprang to mind. Although the song is not about murderous drug dealers, and comes at its subject from a female perspective rather than a male one, the theme of reconnection with someone in a remote part of the world is one that feels very relevant to Cold Storage, Alaska.

Due to the privacy settings on the video of Anchorage, I can’t embed it in this web page, but you can view it on Vimeo.

The House of the Spirits

The House of the Spirits
Title: The House of the Spirits
Author: Isabel Allende (translated by Magda Bogin)
Publication date: 1982
Country/culture: South America (Chile)

Note

For this year’s Book Diaries, in a departure from my usual focus, instead of being inspired in a random fashion, I’m looking for inspiration that I can take to my writing. (See My Creative Journal to find out why I’m doing this.)

What’s it about?The House of the Spirits

The novel tells a tale spanning four generations of a family, focusing in particular on the women. Their intertwining personal narratives are set against the background of political upheavals in an unnamed South American country – events from years back are seen to have vital repercussions in the future – and we are led to muse on the cyclical nature of life, love and hate.

What did I find out?

I’d been aware of the genre ‘magical realism’ for some time, but had never really seriously appreciated the difference between it and ‘straight’ fantasy. In all honesty I think I’d completely misunderstood it, assuming it to encompass any story set in the real world that has a fantasy element. By this definition, something like Harry Potter would be magical realism – but I’ve now learned that this isn’t the case.

Magical realism is at play when the magical elements of a story are accepted as a natural part of the world as experienced by all the characters in the novel. So Harry Potter doesn’t fit the bill, as the magical world of Hogwarts and the Ministry of Magic is secret: hidden from Muggles and known only to those select few who are inducted into it. This is in contrast to The House of the Spirits, where Clara’s clairvoyant abilities are presented merely as one of her character traits, rather than a strange mystery to be solved. An oddity, perhaps, but no more than that.

I really should have got to grips with this terminology a year ago, when I was reading Kafka’s Metamorphosis, which also falls under the heading of magical realism: man turns into beetle; family are more concerned that he’s not pulling his weight around the house than how he turned into a beetle in the first place. Better late than never, I guess.

My own novel may or may not turn out to fall into the category of magical realism – I haven’t quite finalised the world building, and am currently unsure how ‘unusual’ magic will turn out to be in the human side of my world. Something else to add to the creative to-do list!

What do I now see differently?

I’ll admit that, although I enjoyed this novel, I found it a little harder going than Lagoon, my first book of the year. I suspect that this may be down to the nature of the storytelling, in that the tale spans several generations of a family, and so the usual ‘what happens next?!’ plot hooks didn’t function in quite the same way. There are frequent hints that events will have repercussions down the line, but it could be 100 pages before we discover what form that resolution will actually take.

This meant that I experienced a lot of what might be termed ‘delayed gratification’: letting events wash over me rather than champing at the bit to get to the next page (or even chapter) to find out how they play out. However, I was relieved to find that this didn’t stop me from absorbing myself in the story; I merely had to take it at a slower pace and appreciate all the seemingly unconnected details presented to me in the interim, knowing that they were building up to a much greater picture than I could see at the time.

I suspect that my own work won’t follow this model; I want to tell a much faster paced story (indeed my main fear is that it will end up being too short). However, it is hugely helpful to be introduced to different styles of writing, if only so that I can become clearer on my own tastes and more defined in my plans.

How will this inspire my writing?

The four women from the different generations of the Del Valle and Trueba families all possess names that have the same (or a similar) meaning: Nívea, Clara, Blanca and Alba. This had the effect of giving them a special connection, and reminded me of several characters I will be developing, to some extent in my first novel, but mostly in my second.

The characters in question are witches, and it’s common for witches to congregate in groups of three (not four, admittedly – but then Nívea doesn’t play as large a role in the book as the others). Specifically, the individuals in such a group would traditionally mirror the three ‘faces’ of the Triple Goddess: maiden, mother and crone. The relationship between the women in The House of the Spirits (daughter, mother and grandmother) reminded me of this connection – and I’ve now realised that (a) I need to do a lot more research around the Goddess, to see how far I want to incorporate this aspect of witchery into my work, and (b) I need to give serious thought to the naming of my characters. In magic, knowing the true name of a thing (or person) gives you a measure of power over them, and as magic will feature strongly in my books, this is something I can’t afford to ignore.

At the moment the three witches aren’t planned to appear until book 2, so I may have some time to read up about this – but I still need to have my world building in place before the events of book 1 kick off, so perhaps I need to get going sooner rather than later!

A musical interlude

I’m not sure that the musicality of this track quite conveys the vibe of the novel, but the lyrics (throughout the song, not just in the title) seemed perfect, so I’m running with it. It’s the Police: Spirits in the Material World.

Metamorphosis

Metamorphosis

Title: Metamorphosis (original title: Die Verwandlung)
Author: Franz Kafka
Publication date: 1915
Genre: Modernist fiction; absurdist fiction; magical realism

What’s it about?Metamorphosis

Gregor Samsa wakes one day to find himself transformed into a gigantic insect, and his life changes drastically as he and his family try – with varying degrees of failure – to come to terms with this.

Where did I get hold of the book?

I borrowed this from the local university library.

What did I learn from it?

I learned that the urge to find meaning in even the most surreal of narratives is very strong indeed. As I was reading this story, I kept trying to figure out if Kafka intended it as an allegory of some kind. He may well have done, but I have deliberately not attempted to find out, as the purpose of this blog is to find my own meaning in the texts I read and translate that into action in my own life.

However, as I read, I found that I kept pausing to ‘try out’ one interpretation after another. Was the story about how we treat the disabled? the lack of direction felt by anyone who is not a breadwinner? the ultimate selfishness inherent in even the closest human relationships? Every time I tried to pin one of these theories down, it took something away from the story I was actually reading and enjoying – and yet at the same time, the uncertainty made me feel a little adrift.

Most of the books I read for this blog are fairly clear in their intent and themes, while at the same time being completely open to multiple alternative interpretations and personal epiphanies. Even The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which dealt with similarly existentialist themes, didn’t leave me feeling quite as bemused as Metamorphosis.

I think this is the first story I’ve read where I’ve been uncertain as to what I’m ‘supposed’ to have taken away from it. In theory this shouldn’t matter, as I am not attempting to write a critical appraisal – but it has certainly been disconcerting to realise just how much I still expect the author’s intention, at least, to be relatively clear. But I have to admit: it has made me keen to read more Kafka, to see if any further enlightenment comes my way!

How did it make me see the world differently?

I guess as I was trying on my different interpretations for size, I started to see a little more of life from those perspectives. For example, what happens if someone we love becomes disabled, through no fault of their own, and is reduced to having to be cared for utterly by the family? I recently saw the film The Theory of Everything, about the relationship between Stephen Hawking and his wife and the development of his illness, and it raised similar questions.

I’ve no idea how I would act in such circumstances, and I don’t know that I’m any the wiser for having seen that film or read this book. However, it has made me consider what choices I might have to make if this happened in my own life, and maybe this will serve me at least a little bit if that time ever comes.

One other interpretation that I found particularly interesting was the view of the Samsa family and the ending of their financial dependence on Gregor. As a freelancer, I’m aware that it’s entirely possible that at some point my work may dry up and I will be reliant on my husband’s income. While I am sure we would manage, the idea of not being self sufficient is pretty unpleasant for more reasons than purely monetary ones.

Gregor’s family are shown as being listless and next to useless all the while he is in work – but as soon as he becomes incapacitated, they force themselves to go out and find employment, and in the end prove themselves surprisingly capable of it. How much could they have done for themselves before? How much was Gregor himself to blame for keeping them in a dependent state? Or were they merely taking advantage of him?

All of these questions leave me with the firm certainty that I want to be able to continue earning my own living for as long as I can possibly manage it – because who knows what might swoop down one day to change things completely?

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

This is perhaps the second time since starting this blog that I’ve made a decision and taken action even before writing the post (the first was The Three Musketeers).

Once I’d pondered on the above issues for a little while, I realised that if I am to remain independent for as long as possible, I need my health. I am pretty sedentary and, being an introvert, don’t get out much except for limited, carefully chosen activities that don’t over-exert my social nerves. This means that I am probably (OK, definitely) not as fit as I would like to be.

So I decided that this had to change. I need to start taking more exercise, so I have joined my local gym and will be trying to go there regularly, in a serious attempt to improve my health and fitness. I’ll probably aim to do some cardio work in the gym before hitting the swimming pool for some relaxation and a wind down; and maybe the odd yoga class.

In addition to the physical benefits, I’m hoping this will also improve my mental health. I’ve been ridiculously busy recently, and last weekend in particular I had real problems switching off and getting my brain to calm down after a long work session. So by getting out and about to do something physical, fingers crossed it’ll give my mind something else to focus on other than the next ingenious idea I have to turn into reality.

That’s the plan, anyway. And in three months I’ll be writing an update to report back on whether I’ve stuck with it! (Not for publication on the blog – you’ll have to buy the book next year to find out for yourself…)

A musical interlude

There was no competition for this week’s music video. It’s a celebration of the late, much-loved David Bowie – who, as luck would have it, just happened to write a song about Ch-ch-ch-changes…

Over to you…

Has this post inspired you to read the book for yourself?

If you’ve read it, do you agree with what I’ve said? Did you have insights that I’ve not mentioned?

Please share in the comments below!