I am a new convert to the short story genre, I always preferred novels – something to get my teeth into. Having been submerged in this genre for the past few weeks, I cannot believe I have denied myself the pleasure of this art form for so long. Admittedly, the stories I have been reading are good, very, very good indeed. Recently I have been reading some short stories by Hilary Mantel. Her writing has me totally seduced, the stories are magical; they twist and turn and bite. Mantel constructs her narrative in such a way that you want to pick up the words and follow them like a trail of breadcrumbs, to find out where they go. Freshly baked breadcrumbs that fill your senses and make you crave more and more.
One fantastic example, is a story called Winter Break. This story was published in The Guardian in 2010, and you can read it here. This story is just under 2000 words. Short and sharp with not a breath wasted. The story is about a couple starting a winter holiday, the other character is an unpleasant taxi, driver who provides the shadow that echoes events in the couple’s lives. The ending of this story is stunning and cruel on the reader. It is like something that I try to pretend I haven’t seen. I want it not to have happened, but it is etched deep in the part of my brain that becomes active at 3.00am.
For someone who has just begun to get into this genre, you really could not get a better introduction. I went on to read many more of Hilary Mantel’s short stories and each time I finish one the word ‘WOW” echoes around my room for several minutes after. Grab a cup of whatever warms you, and go and read Winter Break. You will not be disappointed. Then go and find more of her short stories.
Way back in 1999 I read a book called Skellig by David Almond. I bought the book for my kids, and ended up falling in love with it myself. Fourteen years and a few hundred books later, I still believe that Skellig is one of the most original and beautiful stories I have ever read .
The book may be aimed at teenagers, but it is ageless. It is a fairytale with a twist, well actually it is an angel tale. Skellig is about an angel, but not like any angel you have ever read about before, although he does have wings. I have lent my copy of Skellig to many friends, in both hemispheres, and they have all fallen for it as I did. Sometimes I had to persuade people to read it, but you know how it is when you find something so good that you really want to share it with the ones you are close to?
Apparently, they made a movie of the book in 1999, ten years after it was first published. Because it is a TV movie and I don’t have TV, I had not heard of it before, but I found it recently. The thing is I have been afraid to watch Skellig the movie. I didn’t want to ruin one of my favourite books. Anyway I have decided I will watch it. The part of Skellig is played by Tim Roth, who is one of my favourite actors, so that gives it some kudos. There is a more fundamental reason than the lovely Tim though. I have been studying writing, both fiction and screenwriting, and I want to see how this movie translated from one to the other. In my opinion, it is rarely very successful, hence my reluctance.
I am going to watch it — maybe today. Oh yes I am, and I shall report back!
Today, I took part in a workshop with children’s author Kate de Goldi, during readers and writers week at Founders Park. This event was part of the Nelson Arts Festival program. It gave me a lovely warm feeling to see so many readers and writers and literary types, lunching, learning and listening all around the park. It feels good to be living in Nelson when we have treats like this bestowed upon us.
Kate de Goldi writes for children and young adults, and the workshop focused on getting us to see through a child’s eyes. This is a useful approach to take for all fiction, and its a good way to approach many aspects of life. Looking at something as if for the first time, especially something you take for granted, like your hand, for example, can be enlightening and even mind-blowing. In their innocence children can make some very profound statements about life, which are so sharp and pure that they shine in the more gloomy and muddy world of grown ups. I particularly love this page from a book called I’ll Be You and You Be Me by Maria Popova and illustrated by Maurice Sendak. The book was first published in 1952, long before Where the Wild Things Are,but Sendak’s illustrations are no less delightful.
Kate read from several vintage children’s books from the 1950’s onwards, and I was reminded of how much less patronising children’s authors were back then. In the days before everything became way too politically correct, children’s literature was a far more interesting and exciting place. When my children were young, I read them vintage books and found some new favourites of my own in the process. I found most modern books too icky for words. They would get very upset when I refused to read them books with titles like Bunny in the Bathroom because I could not bear the bad writing, but it certainly hastened the process of their learning to read themselves! I am happy to say that all of my kids now write, have great imaginations and cannot stand bad writing. Sometimes you just have to be cruel to be kind.
I hope that things will start to turn around in the world of children’s literature and people will realise that all this PC stuff is probably doing more harm than good. This is especially true for kids, who only learn prejudice and judgement from adults. Until then, I shall stick to reading the older books, and I will soon have plenty of chances, with a very unexpected new generation about to bless our family!
I will leave you with a favourite book of ours, written in 1912 :)
There is a great post here about this book, which shows many of the covers, both good and bad over the years.
I was probably the only one in the room who felt the tension in the moment before The Luminaries was announced as the winner of the 2013 Man Booker Prize. However, the other members of our graphics class were left in no doubt about the magnificent win by Eleanor Catton. Eleanor is the youngest person to win this prestigious literary award, being only 28. She is only the second kiwi ever to have won, the first winner being Kerri Hulme, who won in 1985 with her novel The Bone People.Watch this clip of the announcement, and tell me your spine doesn’t tingle!
The Luminaries is set in 19th century New Zealand, at the time of the gold rush in a small town on the West Coast of the South Island called Hokitika. I have made several visits to Hokitika, so this story feels close to home, but since I began reading The Luminaries I want to go back and really sniff around, maybe I will save the ending of the book to read in Hoki. There is something almost 4 dimensional about reading a book in a place that is very relevant to either the story of the author. I remember spending many weekends in Broadstairs, one time home of Charles Dickens. I loved to visit Bleak House (as it became known), where Dickens wrote David Copperfield.
Eleanor Catton’s language and writing style in The Luminaries is reminiscent of Charles Dickens. The narrative has a very Victorian feel to it, lots of telling, as was the mood of the era. Now it is very much all show not tell, but Catton does both and does them brilliantly. The book is so well written, I believe it would make a great movie. It would be hard for a good director to go wrong with The Luminaries, which was also the case with Lord of the Rings in my opinion. How exciting it would be, to have the movie filmed on our island. Here is a link to a wee look at how the news is going down in Hokitika:
I am totally enthralled by the book, life being so busy at the moment means I have been forced to savour the story in small snack size portions. I cannot help but linger over some of the phrases, I particularly love the characterisation of a young and proud Maori man called Te Rau Tauwhare. This thought of his grabbed me:
He would not sell pounamu. For one could not put a price upon a treasure, just as one could not purchase mana,and one could not make a bargain with a god. Gold was not a treasure — this Tauwhare knew. Gold was like all capital, in that it had no memory: its drift was always onward, away from the past.
Pounamu is a unique form of jade, or greenstone, found in the rivers on the South Island of New Zealand, and especially around Hokitika It is said to be harder than steel and is a highly valued part of Māori culture. The Māori believe that pounamu has special powers that strengthen as the stone ages and is passed down from generation to generation. This is what is being referenced in the above quote. Mana is a Polynesian word which is hard to translate, but the closest I can come up with, is ‘life force’.
The Luminaries is moving fast. Pre-orders are selling out before they arrive in our local bookshop. Happily I got my copy a few weeks ago. Even the cover is perfect with it’s vintage, stained look.I will be writing more on The Luminaries as I read, I also want to explore the whole astrological symbolism in the book. Look out for more posts.