Thursday 19 February 2015

Reflection on Reading

Having just finished The Year of Reading Dangerously by Andy Miller, and how 50 Books changed his life as a person and as a writer, I considered the books I have read recently and their influence on me. If as Stephen King says, in reading books we find the tools for writing, then I should be a better writer the more I read.
Page Opened at Random in To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
With this in mind below is a list of what I have been reading (and why) since September when I started this blog. As Miller and Stephen King contend, this should influence my life and what I write. This can most obviously be seen in this post, and anywhere I have mentioned the books below, but I wonder how much of what I've written has been influenced in subtle ways I don't realise.

52 Quotes List of Books:

1.  Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier. This was a Book Club book. I'd joined the book group to keep in touch with a friend and to push myself into reading books I wouldn't read otherwise. However this was a book I'd read years ago and I'd also seen the 1940's film with Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine. Even so, I'd completely forgotten the plot (a gift of mine which means I can enjoy again and again) and only remembered the haunting atmosphere created in both book and film. It has one of my favourite openings of all time, which encompasses the whole trial of what is to come in the rest of the book.  'Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again' hints at a momentous time in our heroines life but it is only if we read on we find out why.

2.  Make Good Art by Neil Gaiman. This was a lecture Gaiman gave to students at Philadelphia's University of the Arts in 2012. This book is innovatively illustrated by the graphic artist Chip Kidd, with a play on words and typography throughout. In it he tells us: 'Go and make interesting mistakes, make amazing mistakes, make glorious and fantastic mistakes. Break rules. Leave the world more interesting for your being here.' More on Gaiman and mistakes in 10 Reasons We Should Make Mistakes. A thoroughly inspiring speech and book for anyone trying to 'make good art', or just anyone.

3. Stephen Fry, Selection of Anton Chekov's Short Stories  Recommended by L, a friend of mine, I have tried to read Chekov before and never quite grasped the tone until listening to Stephen Fry. It was a pleasure and delight and I laughed at the brilliantly painted scenes and dialogue which came to life with Fry's voice and vitality.

4. Life after Life by Kate Atkinson. This was another Book Club book, with an interesting premise of following the lifes and deaths of Ursula, and the many variations of lives lived. It reminded me of Schrödinger’s Cat, and how we the readers get to look inside the box. It also prompted a friend to recommend The First 15 Lives of Harry August by Claire North, which I read later and comment on below.

5. & 6. Out of the Ashes and Adolphus Tips by Michael Murporgo, were books we had in our centre library and ones which I thought short enough not to put off a young person into her first foray into personal reading. When I suggested, as part of her alternative curriculum, that we read a book, M asked me why. Yesterday,  having read a number of books, M wanted to know when we were reading the next, she was looking forward to it!

7. Regeneration by Pat Barker. This book was chosen as the book to read, by the library community book group, for around the time of Remembrance Day. The book was memorable, as an exploration of the mental battles soldiers and doctors fought in and out of the trenches of the first world war. The psychological effects of warfare are treated in a hospital, using methods from counselling to electroshock therapy, all in an effort to get the men back in the trenches. It reminded me of Catch 22 by Joseph Heller. Catch-22 told the story of how those who were proven to be insane were relieved of duty. The idea was that you would have to be mad to constantly fly into almost certain death, over and over again, but if you asked to be relieved of that duty, that would prove you sane, so hence the term 'catch-22' - there was no getting out of it. Another story about the insanity of war.

8. The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne. This was another book in our young person's book club. I chose it because, like the other two books, it was first person narrative, which M was able to identify with. I had to cover the book so that the cover picture would not give away the plot and so that M's reading wouldn't be ruined by spoilers because people would be familiar with the name of the book. For some time M just called the book, the yellow book, because of its yellow cover. Usually I am not so cautious but I had seen Of Mice and Men spoiled for M at school and didn't want to take any chances.  This was the first book M could not put down.

9. Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner. I chose this book as research for my main character in my novel. I needed to figure out his age and the appropriate first person narration for that age. Moon boy was far too young which I was glad of as I had been afraid my character seemed young, but was reassured. The story itself had a great worldview, reminding me of a children's version of 1984 by George Orwell, and had a great version of moon-landing propaganda. This was also the beginning of my training in listening to an audio version of a book. I'd not quite got the hang of it before and I wanted to try again.

10. Wonder by  RJ Palacio. This was another research book for my novel, but again the narrator, aged ten was too young. What was especially interesting though was that we didn't just get the experience of the central character August and what it was like to negotiate a new school life with a facial disfigurement but we also got that story narrated from the points of view of the other people in his life, giving the novel layers, multiple perspectives and a depth of understanding of life which is normally impossible from just the one point of view. What also added texture to the audio narration was the different voices for the different characters. I was finally getting the hang of audio books.

11. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King. This I read for obvious reasons. And I read it and didn't listen to it. Mainly because I bought it last year in the New York City Library (I even got it stamped!) and had bought it for the motivation and inspiration I knew I needed for my next stage as a writer.  Yesterday's Fear was a post where I describe some inspiration I got from the book. However, the best lesson I got from reading the book was that there is time to write. If someone could write between the wash cycles of an industrial laundromat I certainly can find time to write.

12. 1984 by George Orwell. I read this years ago in my final years at school, probably even in 1984. I wanted to revisit it, after reading Maggot Moon and also as research for the alternative worldview of my novel, to check what I was missing. I decided this time to listen to it, trying to train myself to be able to listen/read at times when I usually wouldn't be able to pick up a book, like walking to work, shopping, cleaning. I was amazed by how much time I could reclaim for reading. A brilliant revelation. Room 101: We Are Our Greatest Fear is a post based on what I read, but it really only barely scratched the surface of what I learned every time I've read it. Still what resonates with me is how words hold power, how they mould thought and control the masses in a sort of mind control of our own making.

13. & 14. & 15. Divergent, Insurgent, and Allegiant  the trilogy by Veronica Roth, was again reading for YA research. I'd seen Divergent, the film and liked the main character Tris and the way the world was split into factions, different groups promoting the skills and characteristics of five virtues: selflessness, peacefulness, bravery, honesty and intelligence. This was again a first person narrative and from the perspective of a 16 year old Tris (a similar age to my main character) who has to chose her path in life and finds it to be divergent. I listened to all three books, read by Emma Galvin as Tris and was able to move the speed of narration from 2.5 of the previous book to 3. I was reading now all the time and getting through books in no time.

16. The Children Act written by Ian Mc Ewan, read by Lindsay Duncan. A brilliant book, brilliantly read by Lindsay Duncan (who years ago, when my partner briefly dipped his toe in the shallow and unprofitable end of script-writing, played a part in a short film he wrote, called Late at the Office). The Children Act is something I'm familiar with from a legal perspective as I work with children and young people and much of what McEwan had to say really hit home with me. The Cement Garden and On Chesil Beach came to mind at times reading this book, not least because they are other great stories from McEwan but they spark moral dilemmas and raise questions about what it means to be a man, woman or child trying to find our ways in the world in our intricate networks of people, situations and feelings, and the sometimes slow, sometimed fast, domino fall of consequence.

17. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer.  I began listening to this and loving Oskar as a character, laughing out loud, as he described his encounter with his jujitsu teacher and was really excited to get to know this character. Slowly but surely, the book sucked the life and joy out of Oskar and made him into a caricature, nothing like a real 9 year old. I watched the film to see if I'd missed something, but the film made the Oskar character even more unlikeable. I was disappointed, he was not believable, the other characters all seemed more realistic than Oscar, so I lost faith in his truth and in the end only believed them.

18. The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North. This book had some interesting concepts and time-travel themes. It set the scene and set out the rules at the start, and went headlong into a battery of lives and life and world events and then faded a bit in the middle, with a barrage of more of the same and constant digressions but picked up again at the end. It seemed to come together with the plot of the Cronos Club, which without would have been just a string of lives and deaths. But it did come to a satisfactory ending and was worth sticking with.

I wonder what my reading says about me. Or more importantly I wonder what my writing says about my reading. I have certainly learned more than I've read. In the end I can't say how much I have been influenced by what I've read, as my very thinking, language and writing of it will be shaped in ways I cannot separate from my thinking, language and writing. When I reflect on my reflection its no longer the same relection. Its like holding a mirror and seeing the opposite. Its not me, just me looking at me.

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