November 20, 2011

Recent Reading

In my last post, I promised another one soon about some of what I have been reading. Here it is.

I’ve had a Henry James jag, reading four of his twenty or so novels. Portrait of A Lady was my first read and my favourite. Isabel, its protagonist, wants to be an independent, free-thinking woman and to be good, by her own lights, which means authentic and real. Of course this is doomed in the long term. But how interesting for a protagonist of that time (pre WWI) in a book by a man to be so concerned with her own identity. This carries into The Wings of the Dove, about another independent, rich woman, this one ill.

The protagonist in The Ambassadors is male, though concerns with authentic identity, and an authorial focus on introspection rather than plot, remain. There is plenty of plot in all these books, but it is almost secondary to the characters’ thoughts about themselves, their motivations and their relationships. The same applies to The Spoils of Poynton, the fourth book of my James-jag. Of course, he is much studied and discussed in sophisticated ways I don’t even touch on here, and he writes beautiful sentences.

I think Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending is a worthy winner of this year’s Man Booker Prize.
It’s a novel that deals with the complexities of memory, and how we reinvent and reinterpret our past actions. It’s beautifully written. I hadn’t read any Julian Barnes before and now I will.

Carol Birch’s Jamrach’s Menagerie was also short-listed for the Man Booker. It’s a good read, but harrowing in the gruesome details of harpoon-whaling and a long lost-at-sea stretch . Jaffy, in whose voice the story is told, is on the whaling ship as one of a small group of men seeking exotic animals for wealthy collectors in England at the time.

Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table is set largely at sea, and is written from the point of view of a young person, but those are the only similarities with Jamrach.
Three unaccompanied boys meet by being sat on a passenger ship’s most lowly dining table on a voyage from (then) Ceylon to England. The story is told by Michael, looking back. There are flashes forward to his later life, but the action of the story takes place on the ship. Great writing, great characterisations, great insights from the point of view of the young Michael.

My son lent me The Watchmen, a (mostly) graphic novel (is that the right word?) written by Alan Moorhead, with visuals by Dave Gibbons and John Higgins, first published by DC comics in 1986. This is satire at its best.
I had to concentrate hard to follow what was going on, but it was worth the effort. Graphic novels require a different kind of reading from straight text. I’m not sure what exactly that difference is, and have never read anything about it, but suspect it’s got something to do with paying as much attention to the images, and how they are arranged, as to the words.

I picked up Marilynne Robinson’s Absence of Mind because I so admire her novels. Absence of Mind consists of four essays in which she argues, more elegantly than I can say it, that “mind” (introspection, belief, self-consciousness and so on) is more than “brain”. It’s a dense and fascinating read. She argues for “…the odd privilege of existence as a coherent self, the ability to speak the word ‘I’ and mean by it a richly individual history of experience, perception and though.”
There is, she says, a human mind and consciousness that is more than can be described by closer and closer descriptions of the human brain. This is a fascinating book that I will read again.

Over the summer, I plan to read David Foster Wallace.

November 12, 2011

A writing fragment that grew, and the work of self-publishing

The writing ideas that come to me lately are fragments, bits that don’t seem to go anywhere. Most of them get written down somewhere, so maybe one day some of them will come to life and grow. A fragment that grew into something, I think, is at the end of this blog entry. It’s called Sentences, and might well end up in the collection I am making, that might be called, Stones Gathered Together.

With the help of my friend Jill, I have devised something that might do as a cover for the ebook version of my finished novel, Where the HeArt is.

I’m still gathering permissions for using the quotes in that book. And the copyholders of A A Milne’s material said, “No.” I can’t use three lines from his poem “Disobedience” because, as they say in their letter, “The Trustees for the Estate of Milne feel strongly that quotes for the poems should be restricted to matters directly relating to children or in children’s literature.” This is the first time I have been turned down. Other copyright holders (most notably for Emily Dickinson) wanted to be paid rather a lot for quoting two lines, in an earlier book, so I changed the quote. In Where the HeArt Is I refer to ED’s poems, but don’t quote any directly.

Because there are a number of references to works of visual art in Where the HeArt Is, and because I don’t have the resources to either get permission to reproduce them or print them, I have put a list of where each one can be found on the internet at the back of the book. In the ebook version, this is hyperlinked to the text.

I am about halfway through the formatting needed to upload the book to Smashwords, which is a vehicle to get books distributed to all the major ebook retailers except Amazon. There is a way to get onto Amazon’s Kindle listing, but I haven’t sorted that out yet. And then there is the business of accepting that one third of anything I earn from online sales will go to the US tax department, or going through a daunting process to get an exemption, as someone who does not live in the US. There’s a great deal of work in self-publishing! Then there are blurbs to write, and online "marketing" to figure.... I have dome some work on how to let people know my book is there online. More of that in a later post.

There is also a whole lot of reading going on in my life. I’ll put some of that in a separate post. Soon.

Here's the fragment that grew:

This is a sentence. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200.
Full stop. (Fool, stop!) The noun, the name, is the anchor, the key. The article tells us it’s one. Solitary. A verb is existence or action.
(‘Is’ is bang in the middle of prison.)
‘This’ is a word. Not naming but definite. This, not that. This only. This ‘this’ only. Contains ‘is’. Existence contains ‘is,’ appropriately. ‘Lives’ contains ‘is,’ only with some rearrangement. Gone, dead, death, no ‘is’ in there. Gone has ‘no’, or strictly speaking ‘on’. ‘No’ is ‘on’ backwards but can you go backwards from gone? But finished has ‘is.’ You can take any idea too far.
‘I am’, said Descartes and McCahon and no doubt many others. Well, me too. I write this, therefore I am. If I don’t write this it doesn’t prove anything.
Gertrude Stein wrote ‘Rose is a rose is a rose’ in a poem. In this line, the first ‘Rose’ is purported to be a person. Later, she wrote, ‘A rose is a rose is a rose,’ which, according to Wikipedia, ‘is often interpreted as meaning “things are what they are,” a statement of the law of identity.’ Later again, in Four In America, she said, ‘Now listen! I’m no fool. I know that in daily life we don’t go around saying “is a … is a … is a …” Yes, I’m no fool; but I think in that line the rose is red for the first time in English poetry for a hundred years.’
With Gertrude it’s hard to tell exactly what she meant, you have to ride along with her sentences, waiting for the occasional sense of something to float into your mind. She wrote: ‘I really do not know that anything has ever been more exciting than diagramming sentences,’ (And had a passion for the full-stop.) Gertrude wrote about paragraphs as well as sentences, which is getting way too complicated.
‘To be or not to be [a mother] that is the question.’ And a sentence. Either way, in the end, you have to live with it. And, either way, it’s a life sentence.