Strange Weather in Tokyo

Strange Weather in Tokyo

Title: Strange Weather in Tokyo
Author: Hiromi Kawakami (English translation: Allison Markin Powell)
Publication date: 2001 (English translation: 2012)
Country/culture: Japan

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.)

 

Strange Weather in TokyoWhat’s it about?

Tsukiko is drinking in a bar one night when she encounters a former teacher; they strike up a conversation, and continue to meet, talk, eat and drink over the coming months. Gradually friendship starts to deepen into something more, and Tsukiko must come to terms with her feelings, both of love and loneliness, in order to find happiness.

What did I find out?

One of the reasons I decided to do the Book Diaries slightly differently this year, i.e. take inspiration for my writing rather than for my life generally, was because of the theme I’d chosen: world literature. I realised that if I didn’t give myself a tighter focus, the ‘new things I found out’ would, for every single book, be the same: learning about a different country or culture.

This is not to decry the value in such discoveries – far from it – but it would have led to some very repetitive blog posts: ‘I found out about life in Nigeria‘, ‘I found out about life in Alaska‘, etc. So, as the purpose of this blog is to use books as a starting point for making personal changes, I chose instead to look for elements that I could relate to my overarching objective for this year: my writing.

However, there have been times when my overwhelming response to a book has had very little to do with writing – and this is one of those occasions. I’m therefore taking a pause, just for a short while, to acknowledge the ‘otherness’ of the cultures I’m reading about, and to reassure my own readers that I’m not oblivious to the impact these books are having on me: it is substantial, and goes way beyond the mere process of writing a novel. The issues I raise in these blog posts are only the ones I’m consciously teasing out: there will be many more cogs turning at a subconscious level, affecting me in ways I can’t yet see – but which will, nevertheless, change me (and, by consequence, my life) from this point forwards.

What do I now see differently?

I’m generally drawn to genre fiction rather than literary fiction; I can read it more quickly, it grips me more and I get caught up in its world more easily. Strange Weather in Tokyo is not what I would call genre fiction; it has more of the qualities that I would associate with literary fiction – a focus on the inner thoughts of the main character, a plot that drifts like smoke rather than running on a set route, and an utter joy in the beauty of language and evocation of setting.

And I found it a dream to read. I didn’t get weighed down with ruminations on the meaning of life and love, as I might have expected to with this kind of work; I merely went with the flow and enjoyed myself.

This was quite a novel experience for me, and it has reassured me that I don’t need to worry overmuch about distinctions of ‘genre’. Even if I am writing something more commercial than literary, I can still aim to imbue it with beautiful language: I needn’t sacrifice style and art for plot. True, this may prove to be more difficult in practice, but I am nothing if not stubborn, and having a high standard to aspire to is merely another challenge I intend to set myself.

How will this inspire my writing?

I’ve been aware for a while that ‘sensual’ details help to bring writing to life – descriptions of smells, tastes, and so on – but it’s often felt like a rather forced procedure: ‘oh, I need to add in a bit about how the ice cream melted on her tongue, how the scent of roses awoke memories of his childhood, etc’. This is not always something that comes naturally, and it’s been one of those things I’ve known I must practise in order to get right.

On reading this book I was reminded of how effective such details can be and why they are worth including. Tsukiko and Sensei frequently meet in a local bar; they eat there as well as drink, and the descriptions of the food are relayed each time in very specific detail. The texture of the sushi, the aroma of a stew cooking, even the consistency of the leftover bones… nothing is omitted. This appeal to our senses helps to embed us in the scene, and everything feels more real and personal as a result.

A number of my characters don’t eat and drink as such, as they are ghosts and don’t have normal human appetites. However, I’m intrigued to think that I could use this as another way of pointing out their ‘otherness’. Humans need and love food, even to the extent that our mouths water when reading about it, but ghosts don’t (or can’t) enjoy it in the same way. How better to distinguish between the dead and the living than by homing in on one of the key things that makes humans ‘human’?

A musical interlude

Sometimes I agonise for days over which song complements a book, but this track popped straight into my head. The life and culture of the performers is a world away from that described in the novel, but there is a strange mixture of beauty and quirkiness in both the song and the book that make them feel like a perfect fit.

It’s Madness, and It Must Be Love.

The Corsair

The Corsair

Title: The Corsair
Author: Abdulaziz Al-Mahmoud (English translation: Amira Nowaira)
Publication date: 2011
Country/culture: Qatar

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.)

 

The CorsairWhat’s it about?

In early 19th-century Arabia, British military forces are fighting the piracy that threatens international trade, and alliances are being sought – and broken – throughout the region. The legendary corsair, Erhama bin Jaber, plays a central role in the conflict, while his rebellious son forges an unlikely friendship with an English major. Personal betrayals mirror political intrigues, and the reader is left pondering the relative success of armed force versus mutual respect in the building of relationships.

What did I find out?

I discovered a great deal about the intricacies of politics and diplomacy. In the story, which is based on real-life events, there are many opposing forces who nevertheless agree to make alliances with each other for short- or long-term mutual benefit. Each agreement involves making certain sacrifices, and ground must be given to achieve the greater objective; losses must be weighed against gains in order to determine whether a good deal is being brokered.

Alliances are sometimes instigated by threat of force, and sometimes by genuine mutual concern. Some are broken as soon as one party has achieved what it wants; others are never intended to be kept at all; and there is a recurring theme of mistrust throughout the novel, as each side accuses the others of breaking promises and betraying commitments. A rare few alliances stay the distance.

The need for diplomacy within and between societies and nations has not left us; diplomats are the unsung heroes of peace, teasing out the non-negotiable from the ‘nice to have’ and aiming for a harmonious outcome. That we still suffer conflict on a global scale indicates just how difficult this process is, and The Corsair illustrates this perfectly.

What do I now see differently?

The characters of Erhama bin Jaber and Captain Loch are presented as a striking contrast between two approaches to decision making. Bin Jaber says, ‘I envy people who can forget the past or change their decisions according to circumstances. Unfortunately I can’t.’ Conversely, Loch is portrayed as someone who has no problem changing his mind about a decision whenever circumstances alter or a plan goes awry; it almost seems as if he thrives on change: ‘Loch was happiest when devising a strategy.’

This ability to think on the hoof and constantly re-evaluate strategy reminded me of my own inclinations in this area. I am naturally a ‘big picture’ person; I can see very clearly what I want my end result to be in any project – but this does not mean I am ignorant of the detail required to get me there. On the contrary, as a bit of a control freak, I have a tendency to get bogged down in the detail and struggle to make noticeable progress toward my end goal, even when I can see it dangling there, enticingly, ahead of me.

I struggle because, unlike Loch, I am not very good at delegating, or asking for help. I frequently feel the need to do everything myself, and when my plans and dreams are as big as they are, this turns an exciting challenge into an insuperably difficult task. Reading this novel has reminded me that I need to get my act together and start asking for help more often.

How will this inspire my writing?

The action of The Corsair takes place in a world of political intrigue and diplomatic virtuosity, as described above; men are shown to make decisions and pursue allegiances based on cold, hard concepts such as trade and power. My own novel currently does not give much thought to the political infrastructure of the world I am writing about, and I’m now thinking I need to pay more attention to this aspect.

Even though most of the action in my novel takes place in the ‘Otherworld’ – the supernatural home of ghosts, fae, vampires etc – my characters still occupy positions and fulfil roles that determine their place in the ‘pecking order’ of this society. Vampires are the aristocrats, zombies are the labourers, other characters and species fit into a variety of roles. All of this screams ‘class issues’, at the very least, and I’m not unaware of the risk of potential stereotyping.

So, while I do make reference to the differences between the characters and their perceived status – and the story will certainly feature some clashes and their resolutions – I need to consider whether I should be addressing this more overtly. This will involve deciding how much to include and how much is merely unnecessary back story; I don’t want to bore people with irrelevant facts, but want to ensure readers fully grasp the way this society works. I’m hoping that I will have fun figuring this out.

A musical interlude

Although this song features ships as a metaphor rather than as real physical entities, the lyrics fit neatly with some of the themes raised in The Corsair, i.e. the pursuit of money and power over peace, love and understanding.

The Alchemist

The Alchemist

Title: The Alchemist
Author: Paulo Coelho (English translation: Alan R. Clarke)
Publication date: 1988
Country/culture: Brazil

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 Alchemist

An Andalusian shepherd boy has a recurring dream about treasure awaiting him at the Egyptian pyramids, and sets out on a journey across sea and desert to pursue his quest. Along the way he meets both friends and foes, loses his way and finds it again – and learns how to listen to his heart and stay true to his dreams.

What did I find out?

It may seem slightly prosaic to say that I was surprised to discover this book was only published in 1988. It’s held iconic status on the fringes of my consciousness for a long time now, and I’d convinced myself it had been written decades ago. OK, I realise that 1988 is nearly 30 years ago – so it’s not exactly yesterday – but it’s the year I went to university (and also the year my mother was the same age as I am now, which is not a little unnerving), and recently I’ve been struggling quite significantly with the recognition that so much time has already passed in my life.

So this realisation has given me an enhanced sense of the book’s message: that we need to follow our dreams if we are truly to fulfil our destiny. Just because I am older than I would like to be, and haven’t yet achieved everything I know I’d like to achieve in my life, doesn’t mean it’s too late. On the contrary: having that awareness that time is passing gives me an increased sense of urgency to get the hell on with it.

I’m still not entirely sure what my dream or destiny is, but I do know that the clock is ticking…

What do I now see differently?

Oddly, The Alchemist didn’t make me see things differently so much as reinforce something I’ve believed for some time but which I’ve recently been questioning. This is the emphasis on spotting omens to guide your path through life as you seek your ‘treasure’ (destiny): the boy regularly pauses on his journey to look for signs to help him decide what to do next, and it is by following the signs/omens that he is able to stay on track and pursue his quest to its successful conclusion.

While I don’t believe in waiting for an external power to tell me what to do, I do believe – very strongly – that what we call omens, signs or ‘messages from the universe’ are in fact indications of what is going on in our subconscious, or our gut. When something is truly important to us, when we know deep down what we are seeking, we see reminders of it everywhere: the trick is to look out for these reminders, and to recognise them for what they are when they appear.

This quote from page 96 of my edition (HarperCollins, 2012) sums it up for me:

He knew that any given thing on the face of the earth could reveal the history of all things. One could open a book to any page, or look at a person’s hand; one could turn a card, or watch the flight of the birds… whatever the thing observed, one could find a connection with his experience of the moment. Actually, it wasn’t that those things, in themselves, revealed anything at all; it was just that people, looking at what was occurring around them, could find a means of penetration to the Soul of the World.

 

The reference to opening ‘a book to any page’ in fact describes exactly what I am trying to do with the Quick Lit Fix: helping people tune in to their subconscious desires by connecting with random words that will have a unique meaning for them because of their own unique life experiences. Recently I’ve been doubting whether this is just a load of ‘cod psychology’ – but reading this novel has made me realise that it is not, and that I am not alone.

It seems that The Alchemist has acted as my own omen for staying true to my purpose. How about that for synchronicity?

How will this inspire my writing?

I’ve been trying for a while now to write up a more detailed exploration of how I use books to help me tune in to my subconscious and stay on track with what I want out of life. This had fallen by the wayside, but I recently decided I’d have another crack at it. Reading The Alchemist, as you’ll see from the preceding paragraph, has reminded me that this is important to me, that it is not a waste of time, and that I need to keep at it. So I will recognise my ‘omen’ for what it is, and make a renewed effort to continue this work.

Secondly, as the novel is described (on the cover of my edition, at least) as ‘a fable about following your dream’, it has re-ignited another latent idea of mine. In my last post I stated that I would start going to my local open mic night again, with the ultimate aim of performing my own work. I now recall that I once had the idea of writing alternative fairytales or fables – and it might now be fun to give these a try, with a view to performing them at Voicebox.

A musical interlude

This track came to mind before I’d even finished reading the book. It’s from one of my favourite bands of all time, and expresses the sentiments of the novel perfectly, thus presenting another beautiful example of synchronicity.

The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly

The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly

Title: The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly
Author: Sun-mi Hwang (translated by Chi-Young Kim; illustrated by Nomoco)
Publication date: 2013
Country/culture: South Korea

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 Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly

Sprout the hen dreams of escaping the chicken coop, gaining her freedom and hatching an egg of her own. Her path towards this dream is a slow and hard one, but along the way she finds love and fulfilment in some surprising and unexpected places – and, perhaps most importantly, she remains true to herself.

What did I find out?

Animals are often given names in stories, but we are not always told where those names come from – or, if we are, it is usually from the humans responsible. I think this is the first story I’ve read where an animal has chosen her own name – and chosen it for very specific reasons.

‘Sprout’ represents the beginnings of life, the promise of new green shoots – and the help offered to that new life by the mother plant. Right from the start of this book, therefore, we have a clear insight into Sprout’s character: her name defines her perfectly, all the more so because she has not acquired it by chance; she has actively decided that this is how she intends to live.

It is a fantastic reminder of the importance of carving our own paths and choosing our destinies, rather than accepting what others thrust upon us. In writing terms, it’s also another prompt for me to consider the symbolism of names: I may be able to use my characters’ names to provide deeper insights within my own stories.

What do I now see differently?

I knew early on that this was a story about breaking free from the herd and honouring one’s individuality. As the book is fairly short, I’d assumed it to be a fable in a similar vein to Jonathan Livingston Seagull, with one clear overarching message: ‘follow your own path’.

However, as I progressed through the book, I came to see that it wasn’t that simple; the story was multi-layered in its treatment of not just individuality but also other issues. For example, in the story of Sprout the hen raising Greentop the duck as her own, we see tolerance – of diversity, of adoptive or step-parenting, and of mixed-race families – take centre stage. Clearly, tolerance is connected to the ability to think for oneself, but it is at this point that the tale seems to veer away from Sprout’s fulfilment of her personal needs and towards how she uses her determination and individuality to help improve the lives of those she loves.

One of the things I’m always trying to communicate through the Book Diaries is that different people will see different themes in the same book, depending on their own circumstances and worldview; The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly is a perfect example of this. It also illustrates that, even if a book seems to be short and simple, it may yet prove to be beautifully complex.

How will this inspire my writing?

My inspiration this time came almost instantaneously. I’d previously decided to write a short story for a competition being run as part of our local literary festival, but the plan had been on the back burner for a while: my novel had stalled, and I was trying to get myself back into the habit of making progress on that. However, on reading Hwang’s book, which (although definitely a novel​) is a fairly short read, I was filled with renewed enthusiasm for writing my own short story. Maybe it would even kick-start the novel again…

Since finishing the book and writing this post, I have now completed the first draft of my story. It’s still rough around the edges and needs editing for sense and storytelling (not to mention word count), but I’m happy with my little tale. I’ve also got a fresh writing schedule in place for my novel – and I know it wouldn’t have happened without The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly.

I will be sure to report back on my general blog if the story places in the competition! Watch this space…

A musical interlude

This song is for Sprout rather than Greentop – I feel it describes her journey. 

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.

Nausea

Nausea

Title: Nausea (original title: La Nausée)
Author: Jean-Paul Sartre
Publication date: 1938 (original French); 1949 (English translation)
Genre: Existential novel

What’s it about?Nausea

Historian Antoine Roquentin becomes increasingly disturbed by existential angst. He feels that the mundane, indifferent physical world is placing limitations on his ability to find intellectual and spiritual meaning in life.

Where did I get hold of the book?

Yet another checkout from the university library!

What did I learn from it?

I learned, rather hearteningly for this blog, about the value of stories.

I found Nausea quite heavy going: not because I couldn’t grasp the philosophical concepts, but because not much ‘happens’ – and this made me realise just how much we use stories as a means of remembering or making sense of things. Trying to retain all the narrator’s (sometimes quite wild) observations on life was much more difficult than trying to remember a plot with a defined beginning, middle and end. I would go over passages again and again to make sure I’d fully understood them, fearful that I’d get to the end of the novel without a clear picture of the direction Roquentin’s thoughts had taken. Because if that happened, I knew I’d experience my own existential crisis: what exactly did I read the book for?

It was also interesting to perceive that Roquentin sometimes finds meaning (or at least the illusion of meaning) in the connections we make between ourselves and other humans: the relationships we have with the rest of society, or the stories we tell ourselves about our purpose and our place in history. Telling stories is perhaps the only way we can define ourselves and make sense of our lives, which are essentially just strings of random occurrences that we only link together after the event.

Stories, therefore, are key to our understanding of the world and our ability to find meaning within it.

How did it make me see the world differently?

The book was a salutary lesson in how we have limited time and opportunity for finding purpose in life – and how it’s possible, ironically, to waste that time by agonising overmuch about it. Whilst I’ve not exactly had an existential crisis any time in recent years, I’ve certainly found myself pondering, with alarming frequency, ‘what it’s all for’ and how I can balance my need for personal freedom with a need to play a valuable part in society.

Nausea has reminded me that life is a work in progress, and that we need to run with whatever inspiration we find at any given time. Just as, when you stare at a word for too long, the letters start to become jumbled, if we stop and think about life for too long, we risk losing sight of the many little stabs of meaning that we encounter on a daily basis and which are what propel us forward. Seize your purpose – and your human connection – when you find it, and the rest will follow.

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

Pick any day and you’ll find me agonising over which of my many creative projects to focus on: should I do one this month, then another one next month? should I try to do a little bit on each of them every single week, and accept that means progress will be slow? or do I eliminate all but one and concentrate on that alone until it is complete? The thought process involved in all this is exhausting, and more often than not I end up going round in circles, failing to achieve anything.

So I will learn my lesson from Nausea, and stop agonising. I will figure out what the absolute priorities are in any given week, and do those – and then see how I feel about what comes next. Maybe one week it will be one project, and the next week something completely unrelated. The point is, I will do what I am inspired to do – and I hope that this means I will find an energy and an enthusiasm that have so far been sorely lacking.

One of the things I’m working on will even factor in this new understanding of how we use stories to give shape to our lives. But I’ll wait for the inspiration to strike and the words to flow before I make any promises as to when it will be released into the wild 🙂

A musical interlude

As I was reading a particular passage in Nausea, the following song sprang to mind. I’m not sure why, as I’m not entirely certain what it’s about, but it’s surreal enough for me to feel that it could be about just the kinds of concerns meditated on by Sartre in this novel…

Les Liaisons Dangereuses

Les Liaisons Dangereuses

Title: Les Liaisons DangereusesBook Challenge
Author: Choderlos de Laclos
Publication date: 1782
Genre: Epistolary novel

What’s it about?Les Liaisons Dangereuses

The Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont are former lovers, each taking pride in their ability to carry out sexual intrigues for their own purposes. The novel follows two of their current ‘projects’, and is narrated through a series of letters exchanged between the two and a variety of other players in the story.

The Vicomte is planning the seduction of Madame de Tourvel, who is renowned for her religious faith and her happy marriage. The Marquise hopes to achieve the corruption of Cecile de Volanges, who is engaged to the Comte de Gercourt – a man who once betrayed the Marquise and on whom she desires revenge.

The interweaving of these two plots sees the development of many conflicting relationships between the characters in this social circle – and many powder kegs threatening to blow. The two protagonists become ever more vicious in their desire to win their game, and the conclusion of the novel sees a mess of death and despair – but also a surprising redemption.

Read more information on Goodreads.

Where did I get hold of the book?

I’ve owned this book in the original French since I studied it at university 27 years ago. Being as disorganised as usual, I failed to get hold of a translation – and so I decided to set myself the challenge of re-reading it in French.

I am proud to announce that I managed it 🙂

What did I learn from it?

I learned that my French is nowhere as bad as I thought it was! Although I didn’t understand every word, and I certainly couldn’t ‘skim read’ it in the same way I could an English book, I was able to read pretty quickly and figure out not only the general gist but also the nuances of most of the text. Knowing the story beforehand undoubtedly helped, but I still felt I was being led anew by the words I was actually reading, rather than my memory of the plot.

I first started learning French when I was about 10, then pursued it all through my secondary school and up to undergraduate level at university. I think the turning point came when I spent a year in France as part of my degree course, and during that time became more or less fluent. My accent wasn’t great, and I obviously wasn’t up to the standard of a native speaker, but I was totally comfortable with reading, listening, writing and speaking the language.

I’ve not really used my French since then, and it has certainly got rusty. I’d struggle to write or speak it to the same level – but reading this book has made me realise that, having once acquired fluency, it is perhaps like riding a bike: once learned, never forgotten. Many words came back to me as I read them, and I found myself even remembering and understanding idioms that make sense in French but which I’d have difficulty finding an English equivalent for.

It’s a salutary reminder of the value of education – and how much we retain even when we’re not conscious of it.

How did it make me see the world differently?

Firstly, I realised how much I enjoyed reading a book in another language. Languages were my best subject at school, and I’d forgotten what a joy it is to understand something written by someone from another country or culture, in their own words. Not only is it like solving a puzzle, but the different idioms and phrases used also give you an insight into other ways of thinking as well as speaking: the heart and soul of a nation, if you like.

Secondly, I realised how exhausting it must be to live in a world of social machinations, keeping track of lies and intrigues, relationships and pecking orders. I am an extreme introvert, and one of the ways in which my introversion manifests itself is to avoid social interaction. Just being in company – even good company – is exhausting for me; the main reason I left office work and became a freelancer was to escape from having to be with people 9-5 Monday-Friday.

These days I can (mostly) live and work according to my own schedule, and limit the time I spend with others so that I am not overwhelmed by social necessities. The office politics I had to deal with in my years of the 9-5 were nothing like the schemes we see played out in Les Liaisons Dangereuses, and yet it was still all too much for me.

The book has reminded me how lucky I am to have created this life for myself where I can avoid unnecessary stresses and strains – and where (I hope!) my relationships are relatively straightforward. Perhaps appropriately for my last book of the year, it has me once again counting my blessings.

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

For a while I was seized with an urge to write this blog post in French! However, I’m a bit overrun with various ‘life duties’ at the moment (lots of freelance work, pre-Christmas household arrangements, etc), so I’ve decided not to give my brain anything too productive to cope with. Perhaps I’ll try a translation in the New Year…

I have, however, renewed a promise I made to myself way back in 2014, which was to read more in French. One book on my ‘to read’ list is Oksa Pollock: The Last Hope (L’Inespérée) by Anne Plichota and Cendrine Wolf: a kind of French, female Harry Potter (or so I’m led to believe). Definitely my kind of book!

As this is the last Book Diaries post of 2015, I’m already looking forward to continuing my challenge in 2016, and have come up with my list of 24 books for the new year. (See my advent calendar for a day-by-day reveal of my choices.) This year I’m hoping that I will also find more time to read around my official list – and I am determined that Oksa Pollock will be one of the ‘extras’.

A final word

Yes, it’s the end of the Book Diaries 2015. I’ve read 24 books in the last year, which is more than I’ve read in a very long time. Did I meet all my challenges? Did I fulfil the objectives I had in mind when starting out? I will be writing a round-up post sometime between now and January, in which I look back over a year of reading – and look forward to where it will take me in the future.

Stay tuned…

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!

Faust

Faust

Title: Faust (Part One)
Author: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, translated by various
Publication date: 1808
Genre: Drama; tragedy

What’s it about?Faust

Goethe’s version of this classic tale sees Faust, a brilliant scholar, feeling dissatisfied with his life. He makes a pact with Mephistopheles, who in his turn has made a wager with God that he can win the soul of this mortal.

The devil will help Faust access areas of learning he could only previously dream of, and also convince him of the desirability of more worldly pleasures. Faust is unconvinced of Mephistopheles’ power, and says that if he can achieve this, he will happily offer up his soul.

Faust is taken on a whirlwind tour of the world and its seedier pleasures, eventually falling for a young girl whom he seduces. Her life falls into ruin, and although she is ultimately redeemed and admitted to Heaven, Faust is left distraught, pondering the calamity he has wrought.

Read more information on Goodreads.

Where did I get hold of the book?

I was considerably more organised this time round, and managed to get this out of the university library. However, I wasn’t quite organised enough to realise that the book I’d found was Part One: Part Two is a separate work. So I may or may not decide to follow up this week’s read with Part Two at some point – but this blog post is only about Part One. Sorry.

What did I learn from it?

I learned – or, rather, was reminded – that this version of the Faust story is just one of many. Up to this point I was really only familiar with the Christopher Marlowe version, The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, which I’d studied for A-level and enjoyed very much. But it plays out in a very different way to Goethe’s tale.

In Doctor Faustus, the majority of the story concerns Faustus’ explorations and experimentations in the world; we see him causing havoc and mayhem wherever he goes. In Faust, 200 years later, we see less of this; more emphasis is given to the unfolding plot of his seduction of Margareta (Gretchen), and the effect his actions have on her life and those around her. The two plays also present very different endings for the Faust character.

As well as these two classic works, there are many other variations on the Faust story: some are overt, using the name, and others merely draw on the theme of a pact with the devil. Clearly – and unsurprisingly – it is a topic of perennial human interest…

How did it make me see the world differently?

The play is written predominantly in verse. Now, even though I am familiar with verse drama and know that you don’t have to pause for ‘breath’ at the end of every line, there was a part of my brain that kept wanting to do that! In other words, I wanted to be swept along by the rhyme and the rhythm of the piece rather than focusing purely on the sense of it.

This was a real wake-up call as to the power of poetry, words and rhythm. One of the things I’m trying to do with the Book Diaries is to demonstrate how personal a response a story can evoke. A single word, image or allusion can spark an association in someone’s mind that wouldn’t occur to someone else – and when those words are backed up by the hypnotic power of poetry… wow.

This is a reminder of the power of stories to transport us into another world, where we can escape our daily cares and let the story carry us through until we emerge, blinking, into the daylight.

The other purpose of the Book Diaries is to encourage you to think about what you will do next. Certainly, enjoy each story in its own right – throw yourself in, let it sweep you away! – but then come back to reality; pick out the bits that have particular meaning for YOU, and act on them. Figure out how the story makes you feel about your own life – and make changes accordingly.

Maybe something as simple as a rhyming couplet will spark that association…

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

Two things, one that I can do this week and one that will have to wait until next year:

  1. Realising that I’d only read Part One of Faust reminded me that I have a bit of a backlog of unfinished jobs (in addition to reading Part Two…). There are a couple of 3-month updates for Book Diaries posts (which will go into the published book next year, so you can see whether I made all the changes I said I would!); and there is a bunch of ‘urgent but unimportant’ stuff that has now mounted up. So I will make every effort to clear these off my to-do list this week.
  2. I’ve been getting increasingly interested in doing some more writing for theatre. There may even be the opportunity to do some short works for performance in a more informal setting than my am dram group – and so I’m going to make this a priority for exploring as a sideline to my Book Diaries work. Past experience suggests that this may be just another pipe-dream that will never manifest – but then I’d have to admit that to all of you in the book of the Book Diaries, and that wouldn’t look good, would it?

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!

The Three Musketeers

The Three Musketeers

Title: The Three Musketeers (original title Les Trois Mousquetaires)
Author: Alexandre Dumas, translated by various
Publication date: 1844
Genre: Historical fiction; adventure; political thriller

What’s it about?The Three Musketeers

The young D’Artagnan sets out for Paris with dreams of making his fortune and joining the King’s Musketeers. He quickly becomes firm friends with the Three Musketeers of the title – Athos, Porthos and Aramis – and the four of them embark on a series of adventures that brings them into conflict with the King’s advisor Cardinal Richelieu.

Although the story – and the world in which it is set – is a very masculine one, characters such as Constance Bonacieux, Milady de Winter and the Queen of France play no less important a role than do our heroes. The plot is chock full of intrigue, deception and political manoeuvring; but also love, honour and loyalty.

Some of the good end happily, some unhappily; the same is true of the bad: this is not a sugar-coated romance with an all-round happy ending. It is a real swashbuckler of an adventure, with enough politics thrown in to engage those with an interest in the historical developments of the time.

Read more information on Goodreads.

Where did I get hold of the book?

Like The Origin of Species, this came from the collection on my late grandmother’s bookshelves. It has a lovely, musty, old-book smell, which added considerably to my pleasure in reading it.

What did I learn from it?

I learned a lot about the political history of the period in which the novel is set: 17th-century France at the time of Louis XIII. One of the key plot twists even works the fictional story of the Musketeers into a real event (which I won’t reveal for fear of spoilers!). I was so fascinated by this that I had to go and look up the details of the historical event, to see which parts Dumas had invented and which were fact.

I also made some more observations about the ways in which stories are adapted for other purposes. As I myself have been involved in adapting a classic novel for the stage, it was interesting to see how the plot of this one book has been modified to suit the framework of the recent TV series The Musketeers. Some of the events in the novel are very conclusive (i.e. people die), so it’s clear that the story has been tweaked so that characters who might prove to be popular can continue to draw the TV crowds.

(Obviously the story has been through a number of dramatic adaptations. Have you read the book and want to comment on its treatment in film and TV? Please share below – I would love to know what you think!)

How did it make me see the world differently?

My sense of feminism got a real workout when observing the character of Milady. Although at first it was pleasing to see a female character play such a dominant, active role in such a masculine story, I couldn’t help but wonder whether (spoilers!) her ‘bad end’ was an indication that any woman who steps beyond the bounds of traditional feminine decency will be duly punished.

I’m still not entirely sure, but the extraordinary detail with which Dumas describes Milady’s many crimes does make me incline to believe her a true villain. She portrays herself as a victim when she isn’t one, and although it could be said that her original position in society left her with no option other than to commit crimes just to get by, I’m not convinced. Her offences are against other women as much as men, and she is motivated by greed and revenge rather than by a desire for right and liberty.

If nothing else, her part of the story has helped me become freshly aware of the difficulties women still face in the world, especially the male-dominated parts of it. Action needs to be taken – but precisely what form that action should take is still debated to this day.

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

One of the overwhelming messages of this book is the importance of standing up for what you believe in, no matter how much antagonism or enmity this awakens in others. It was brought home to me after I finished the book just how difficult this can be. Last weekend I shared on Facebook some thoughts on the political situation in the UK – and was stunned by the level of vitriolic comments this attracted from a very small number of acquaintances.

My reaction at the time was to ignore this, deeming the comments unworthy of a response (in Musketeers’ terms, not worthy of a duel). However, afterwards, I felt disturbed by my lack of action: should I have stated publicly that I found them unacceptable? My usual boundary for deleting comments is if they sink to the level of personal insults – and these didn’t stoop quite that low. They weren’t duel-worthy: just unpleasant and unconstructive. But my lack of input – i.e. allowing them to remain on my timeline – left a nasty taste in my mouth.

I realised that, although I am not scared off voicing my opinions by a few naysayers, it is exhausting having to spend time dealing with the fallout. There are some people who will never agree with what I say, and although I am happy for them to express their own views in their own space (indeed, I rely on having access to other perspectives so that I can constantly measure mine against them and see whether I agree), I do not wish to expend energy having to deal with them, unasked for, in my space.

What I have therefore already done – possibly the first time I’ve made a change even before writing the post – is to unfriend these people on Facebook. I won’t actively avoid them in real life, as it’s conceivable I could have a meaningful discussion with them there – but I will not engage in unproductive to-ing and fro-ing on comment threads. I will instead use my online presence to build up relationships with people who are amenable to my views – and who, I hope, will help me to share them more widely. And if these views reach anyone who feels the same way, but who is feeling bullied into keeping quiet by similar loud critics, I hope they will realise that they are not alone.

I am not a fighter, like the Musketeers. I am not a politician, like Cardinal Richelieu. I do not like conflict, and I do not enjoy manipulation. All I can do is share what I believe, in the hope that my constancy, positivity and determination will ultimately make waves. The changes I may be able to effect may be small – but that does not make them any less worthwhile.

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!

Les Misérables

Les Miserables

Title: Les MisérablesBook Challenge
Author: Victor Hugo
Publication date: 1862
Genre: Epic; historical fiction

What’s it about?Les Miserables

The peasant Jean Valjean is imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread, and the novel follows the subsequent fall and rise of his fortunes and experiences in the impoverished and criminal underbelly of Parisian society.

Intertwined with Jean’s story are the tales of many other characters, from priests to prostitutes, lawmen to lovers, and rogues to rebels. Fantine, Javert, Cosette, Thenardier, Marius… these are merely the most well known. There are many more.

The action covers the period of French history from 1815 to 1832, and running alongside the labyrinthine plot are Hugo’s observations on a vast array of topics such as religion, politics, education, revolution, philosophy, justice, family, love, and Paris.

Read more information on Goodreads.

Where did I get hold of the book?

Due to lack of time I’m afraid I simply downloaded this one, for free, to my Kindle app.

At the start of the year I’d had grand hopes of reading the French books on my list in the original French, to revive my skills in that language. But given that it took me every spare moment I had over the fortnight to read the English version, I’m very glad I didn’t pursue my original aim…

What did I learn from it?

As is becoming more the case now that I’m reading older novels that are very much rooted in the history of their period, I learned a lot about nineteenth-century France – not to mention the geography of Paris. How much detail will stick over time, I’m not sure, but at least now I have an awareness of lives and experiences I knew nothing about two weeks ago.

I’ve also learned – again – a lot about my own life and my way of experiencing the world.

Because I didn’t plan ahead, I didn’t twig until the last minute that two weeks was going to be quite tight for a novel the length of Les Mis. Consequently, in order to meet my deadline, I found myself having to spend practically every waking moment (that wasn’t dedicated to work) ploughing through it.

Whilst I ultimately achieved my goal, this preoccupation prevented me from making much progress on any other projects; and I realised that devoting myself to one activity at the expense of everything else (except work) was really quite exhausting.

Well, not quite ‘at the expense of everything else’. During that fortnight we also, as a family, had to deal with the loss of my grandmother. While this was not entirely unexpected – she’d reached the ripe old age of 101 – it was nevertheless a sad and emotional time. Work can occasionally be postponed; creative projects almost always can; but grieving must occupy its righful place and time.

And so, as I was spending my spare moments reading about fictional characters’ experience of life, love, family, legacy and death, I was at the same time facing these very things in my own life. What would we remember about Grandma? What will people remember about me? Why do we suffer? Why do we bother? What – and who – is it all for? What is the meaning of life?

Heavy stuff. No wonder I was exhausted. And I concluded that, although I am capable of pushing myself to expend vast amounts of mental and emotional energy when required, it will eventually take its toll. Much as I would like to think I have superhuman strength, I do not: if I do not recoup that energy and take time out to recover from the demands placed on me, I will crash and burn.

Fortunately I now have a few days ‘off’. And so, rather than trying to push myself to catch up with everything that got sidelined during the last two weeks, I will instead use this time to breathe, rest up, and gradually return to my normal pace.

How did it make me see the world differently?

Les Misérables had a similar effect on me to The Lord of the Rings. Perhaps because they are both epic in scale, and deal with not only personal tales but also wider societal issues, they have instilled in me a greater awareness of the effect we, as individuals, can have on the development of civilisation.

It was particularly interesting to read Les Mis against the backdrop of the Labour leadership campaign here in the UK. The emergence of Jeremy Corbyn as a surprise frontrunner has brought to the fore a debate on the kinds of issues that would not be out of place in nineteenth-century Paris: poverty, austerity, hunger, protest, unity, personal responsibility…

Hugo’s asides on these subjects, and their resonance today, are a sharp reminder of just how cyclical society can be. Issues that it was once thought possible to deal with through the simple pursuit of ‘progress’ still raise their heads. How much has really changed?

Considered at the same time as the musings on life and death occasioned by my grandmother’s passing, I can say one thing. We can never stop pursuing what we believe in; we cannot assume the ‘fight for right’ will ever be over; we all have a responsibility to do what we think is necessary for the betterment of society.

Was Hugo an idealist? Probably. Overly optimistic about human behaviour? Almost certainly. But does this mean we should abandon our ideals and adopt a cynical view? Absolutely not. My grandparents were educators, a path also followed by my parents; I am neither an educator nor a parent, but I still have a responsibility to stand up for what I believe in and (to quote Gandhi) ‘be the change [I] wish to see in the world‘ – if only so that others who feel the same way can know they are not alone.

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

My vow after reading Anna Karenina was to schedule my time better, in order to fit in my other creative projects. However, with a book as long as Les Misérables, this isn’t always an option. And while that’s probably the longest book I’m going to read this year, I can’t rule out unexpected life events dropping on me from a great height and throwing out all my best-laid plans.

So the attitude I must now strike is one of acceptance: of recognising that, although I have so much I want to do, I can’t do it all – at least, not yet. The year – and the book challenge – so far has been truly amazing for helping me get focused on what I want to achieve; but now I need to remember that I am not just here to work but also to live. If I try to rocket through the working day, taking no time to smell the flowers, I think I will be missing part of the point.

Les Misérables has been a salutary reminder of the power of doing good and standing up for your beliefs. However, when time is lacking, it’s a huge challenge to meet these self-imposed expectations. The past fortnight has taught me that, if I am to succeed in my aims, I must look after myself and not wear myself out. So, here’s hoping that ‘slow and steady wins the race’…

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!