Archive | January, 2014

If You Could Save Only Eight Books… Part Six

31 Jan

And so we come to the fourth of my guests to take up the challenge to rescue just eight books from their collection, the Canadian writer, Lisa Pellecchia. As with my previous guests, she found that the choice was a hard one.

“My books are the only material things that I treasure, and listing only eight of them would be a gross understatement,” Lisa says.

Ah, but that’s the whole point, Lisa. She explains what books mean to her.

“They were the only luxury my parents would allow despite the wrath of poverty we endured for several years. The library became my refuge, where I could change my mind as many times as I wanted, and the librarian would smile patiently. Books were my companions during the lonely hours of my awkward childhood. The stories that poured out of the pages put things into context for me, and gave me time to sort out what mattered. The ideas I read about could not possibly exist only in these pages, my mind would say. I could feel these emotions too. I used the characters in the books I read to help me understand people, and it became easier to make friends because kids were interested in what I had to say. I was more confident.”

There are a couple of writers who might have made it on to my list – Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Kurt Vonnegut – had I compiled it on another day. And there’s also a John Irving title on there. I have to confess at this point that I’ve never got around to reading Irving, even though he’s the favourite author of several people whom I know. Here are Lisa’s choices.

After my sixth grade teacher told me to read a real book (she saw me reading one of the Sweet Valley Twins serials), I felt ashamed that I had chosen such a frivolous novella to feed my brain.  I knew that she was right, and so I abandoned Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield in favour of the kind of books that were like Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass (Lewis Caroll) and Anne of Green Gables (L.M. Montgomery).  In retrospect, I think that Anne Shirley is the literary character with whom I most identified, because she was naïve and curious, cherished friendship and had a wild imagination. The Canadian landscape made her even more accessible because I played in it every day.

Heeding my teachers’ advice, I went to the library and found a tattered copy of Jane Eyre (Charlotte Brontë). The English countryside and wild weather bewitched me, and would forever hold me in its clutches, not to mention the torturous life circumstances and emotions that Jane experiences gave me a different perspective. I believe that my capacity for adversity stems not only from my own life, but also from a deeper understanding of how much more difficult many others lives’ can be, thanks to this story.

I loved watching the Italian news, soaking up every bit of vitriol and controversy that they could squeeze out of the bespectacled figures hurriedly making their way from one old building to the next, pressed by reporters for comment on the latest topic. I read everything about government and philosophy that I could find, trying to make sense of De Tocqueville, Plato and Hannah Arendt while sinking into Kurt Vonnegut’s Jailbird as though his words were quicksand.  It was this book that created a sort of ethereal mystique about Harvard College, and the way Vonnegut writes is why I felt that I could engage this story. His sentences can be short, but they are heavy with purpose. He had no use for the excessive descriptions of Thomas Hardy nor the thought to be politically correct. Jailbird is about a guy who was involved in the Watergate scandal and is now out of prison. The story uses the main characters’ life to show how absurd certain aspects of America could be.  Sacco and Vanzetti (the Italian-Americans who were convicted of a murder and robbery in 1921 despite evidence being disproven in court) are an example of a historic event that influences the protagonists’ psyche. But this story also presents some “a-ha!” moments, such as why Urdu was developed, and the underlying taste of diplomacy is drizzled throughout, despite the presence of JD Salinger-like phoneys.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez succeeded in making me sob over a book like no other writer because he chose the most impossible love to craft a story that needed to be told. Of Love and Other Demons left me wanting more words to somehow explain the intense emotions stirring inside me.  His stark descriptions of the human condition appeal to the basest layer of my instincts, as though I could smell the rancid flesh of rotting morality. The passion that the priest feels for Sierva Maria is wrong but I want their story to go on. Then I read this book in Spanish… and I was hooked. The language is figurative and scathing in its depiction of emotion, social etiquette and bizarre beliefs held by the characters.

My next choice would be The Little Prince (Antoine de Saint Exupéry). It was on the curriculum for twelfth grade French.  Our teacher had a nervous breakdown halfway through the semester, so our only course work was to read and analyse this book. I spent every day talking about the possible meanings of the short parable-like vignettes with my dear friend who is no longer with us. His ideas were so different than those of anyone I knew, and he seemed to see through the words to grasp the apple bobbing in the barrel without so much as flinching. I learned to notice how people can be graceful even though they are dealing with personal turmoil. My friend will always be a Prince. The stars at night will always remind me of his shy laughter.

I have never thought of myself as a feminist, only because I was never told that I wasn’t allowed to do what I wanted unless it was rude or illegal. My family always let me be who I wanted to be. My mother let me wear makeup when I turned 12, because she realized I loved dressing up. As a result, I never looked garish because I could always ask for help. Conversely, I was encouraged to ride my bike and play in the fields with the other kids. If my upbringing had been different, perhaps my interest in feminism may be greater.  When I read The World According to Garp (John Irving), I was fascinated by the relationship between Jenny (a woman of means who becomes a single mother and later writes a book that would inspire a generation of women who don’t feel they need a man) and her son (a boy who grows up without a father, and lives the most conventional life possible). I thought it was so interesting to read a female character written by a man. I had no idea what a transsexual was until I met Roberta Muldoon in this book. Garp wanted to be a writer, like I did, but he was growing up in a very different time. I am grateful to Mr. Irving for teaching me the word lasciviousness, and to appreciate handwritten letters.  His writing style continues to appeal to me, and the stories he chooses to tell address sensitive issues with bold matter of fact simplicity.

Street hockey is a Canadian tradition. We played until the street lights came on, and even we girls were accepted by the neighbourhood boys because there usually weren’t enough kids to make two full teams. Everyone loved the Maple Leafs. When real hockey was on television, the streets were empty and we were face-first into the screen, listening to Don Cherry rant or give praise, wishing we were sitting in the first row so we could jump when Wendel Clark slammed someone into the boards. It was no surprise that when I saw The Hockey Sweater (Roch Carrier) on the shelf at school, I picked it up. It was then that I became aware of the rivalry between the Maple Leafs and the Montreal Canadiens hockey clubs. Hockey had never been about rivalry, except when my older brother didn’t want me tagging along. I became obsessed with learning enough French to be able to follow the play by play on Radio Canada, learned the history of the team and soon enough, I was under the spell of the legends who were really just men who used to be boys, like the ones I played street hockey with in my youth.

The eighth book I would take is my Falcon Guide of Knots for the Outdoors (Cliff Jacobson).  I can never remember exactly how to tie certain knots, and you never know when you’ll need to have the instructions handy. That’s all I have to say about that book.

It just remains for me to thank Lisa for sharing her eight books with me. I hope that you enjoyed reading about them too.

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A Question of Style?

21 Jan

Dreams and Inspiration

15 Jan

I’ve written before on this blog about the mysterious nature of inspiration and its connection to the unconscious. And so this morning I woke up quite early – it must have been the excitement of its being my birthday – at the tail-end of a dream. As I did so, a woman was singing a melancholic, country-inflected song. I was aware of the verse playing but as soon as I’d woken up I could no longer recall it, leaving me with only the impression that it involved some kind of minor-major transposition. Lying there, though, I found that the words, chord progression and melody of the chorus remained inside my head. The lyric was pretty banal, but the melody wasn’t bad at all. All in all, it was a half-decent piece of Americana. How on earth does that happen? How can the unconscious mind compose a song, and one for somebody else to sing at that? It leads one to wonder how much of what we create consciously has actually been worked through at a subliminal level or during sleep. Answers on a virtual postcard, please…

Connected to this is a recurring dream that I have. The same old dream series are repeated on the cable TV that constitutes my slumbering mind. I shan’t bore you with accounts of them all – I’ve no wish to turn into one of those party bores who trap you in a corner and tediously recount every last detail of their dreamscapes. Every so often, though, a variation on the ‘dream band’ makes its appearance. In a nutshell, I’m the bass player and songwriter – as I was in the waking world, but here the stories diverge – in a mind-blowingly brilliant band, on the eve of making its debut appearance. For some reason, though, matters never progress beyond this. And can I remember any of these earth-shattering compositions? You’ve guessed it… I’m pretty sure that my unconscious mind is giving me a message of some kind here.

even longer ago...

A rock star playing in a dream band (well, that dress sense is a nightmare, anyway)

And how much of this morning’s melody can I now remember? Not a note of that either, I’m afraid. It seems that I shan’t be sending it to Lucinda Williams in Nashville, after all, and it’ll never top the country charts over in the USA. Ah, well, another dream shattered… At least, I should be able to fulfil my dream of winning the Nobel Prize in Literature – it’s just that there’ll be nobody else inside my head to see it.

My day off coinciding with my birthday and meeting up with my parents for lunch may go some way to compensate for all of this. And since I’ve been talking about anniversaries and remarkable music, I should also note that it’s 37 years today since the UK release of David Bowie’s Low album. It’s playing as I write this post and sounds as good to me as ever.

All text and image © PSR 2014

Another Year, Some More Resolutions…

7 Jan

I’ve been away from the Internet for the past ten days or so. As is my habit, I’ve been spending time at my rural writing den. I spent more time carrying out repairs on the old place than I did on writing, but the change from townscape to countryside always does me good.

I read quite a lot too. And it was a week over which the ghost of George Orwell loomed large, even though I didn’t actually read anything by the author. After all the hype about John Williams’ fifty-year old novel, Stoner, I found it on my local library shelf. I had to read it within the three-week loan period, though, as it turned out that there was a waiting list of sixty-six readers for it. Grudgingly, I’ll admit it was very well written and rather moving. And though it was set in a Mid-Western university and concerned the life of an unsuccessful assistant professor, there was something about its style and tone that put me constantly in mind of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Having admired the idea of Julian MacLaren-Ross, I finally got around to reading Of Love and Hunger, also surprisingly sitting there in the library. Although I enjoyed it, I had serious reservations about it. The stylised dialogue was rather too much for me – I wonder if it worked even back in the 1940s – and the nihilistic, egocentric protagonist was so unsympathetic that I simply couldn’t care about his broken heart. As D J Taylor pointed out in the introduction to the edition that I read, it owed a lot to Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying and Coming Up for Air, both of which are far superior books. It strikes me as little more than an entertaining footnote to the period. The idea of MacLaren-Ross remains for me, then, more interesting than his work. And lastly, I re-read my writing friend’s recently finished novella and was once again, deeply impressed.

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The revitalised study space at the writing den

I did manage to get some writing done. I have some 72,000 words of my work-in-progress written now, so I suppose that’s very nearly novel length. I’m currently going through a sceptical phase with regard to it. It’s all part of the process for me (see Mari Biella’s recent post on this topic), allowing me to question my work and jettison parts that don’t seem to fit in or function. It’s always possible, of course, that my feelings towards it won’t change and that the entire concept is flawed… That’s the high-wire act that we have to perform as writers. There’s no safety net guaranteeing that several years of endeavour won’t end in spectacular failure.

I was out at the den over New Year, so I made a few resolutions. I like to do this so that I can congratulate myself on my under-achievements at the year’s end. Foremost among these was an ambition to see my work-in-progress finished before the year is out. Time will tell… Anyway, may I take this opportunity to wish a Happy New Year to my little band of readers, hoping that it will be a successful year for you all.

All text and images © PSR, 2014