Reading Slowdown

I have three books under the heading “Reading Now” on my current “Reading List” page:

Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death, James Runcie
Green Mars, Kim Stanley Robinson
No Is Not Enough, Naomi Klein

sidney chambers.jpgThe James Runcie book has been there for several months. It’s a book of short stories and so far I’ve only read the first and wasn’t engaged enough to want to rush on to the next one. I leave it on my list because I’ll get a round to the next story eventually.

I got the book because I heard an interview with the author who is the son of a former Archbishop of Canterbury. The stories feature a C of E minister as the main character, who finds himself investigating suspicious deaths. The books were adapted into a TV series Grantchester,  which apparently takes a lot of liberties with the main character. The author mentioned in the interview, something along the lines that a real priest would have been thrown out of the church if he’d acted the way of the televised version.

Green MarsGreen Mars is the sequel to Red Mars, and continues the story of colonists on Mars.

In the series so far there have been some allusions to early America, leading up to the war of Independence; with the colonists growing to feel exploited by their home land (home planet) and developing a growing passion for an independent, self sufficient  new home, free of the exploitation of a distant colonial power.

I started this one several days ago, but have been distracted too much by other (non-reading) things to get far into the book yet. Maybe I shouldn’t have picked this one up straight after reading the first three volumes of the Dune series. Something a little less bulky may have been a better reading option than a 550+ page book midway through another sizable trilogy

noisnotenoughI started on Naomi Klein’s  No Is Not Enough because of some of those (political) distractions. I can only shake my head in disbelief at what has been going on in Australian politics, and I spent far too much time trying to keep up with the last few sitting days of parliament.  The cost of that has been my usual lunch-hour reading time.

Klein’s book shines a light on a lot of what is behind that current political situation from a North American viewpoint. Problems that aren’t restricted one particular nation, but are evident throughout the “western” world.

This book draws together the issues she’s written about in earlier books in greater detail. No Is Not Enough shows how all of those issues have become focused into a single point in the person and Presidency of Donald Trump.

However rather than merely add a negative voice of despair and opposition, Klein wants to look at positive answers to turn around the political and cultural systems that led to Trump’s political rise.

None of these books have maintained my interest enough to make me want to keep reading, so my progress through them has been slow, and my attention has been drifting towards other books. I suspect I’ll be finishing another book or two before I get to the end of any of these three. I’m already approaching the end of one about the manned Apollo missions of the late 60s – early 70s and have tentatively started another about the retrieval of the wreckage of the space shuttle Columbia after it broke up on re-entry in February 2003 (so long ago, how time flies!)

sts 107

 

A Patient Fury by Sarah Ward

“He had the heart of an ox, the specialist informed him, a metaphor that had made the evening glass of cognac all the more enjoyable. The cardiologist had failed to appreciate that even the heart of a beast of burden cannot outlive the ministration of a claw hammer…”

What links are there between the disappearance of a woman decades before and the recent deaths of a Derbyshire family of three? And can discovering those links help or hinder the application of justice?

A clear murder suicide might not be as clear cut as it seems.
DC Childs returns to work after leave taken to recover from injuries sustained in her previous case, and she doesn’t go along with the conclusions being drawn in the investigation.
Her reservations lead her to action that could potentially end her career.

The relationships of the book’s characters are central, and make the story more than a straight forward crime investigation.
Strands of the story are viewed through different character viewpoints, mainly those of DC Childs, and Julia Winson, daughter of one of the victims.
The twists and turns of the murder investigation challenge those relationships and give each participant cause for self examination. To what degree does their work define who they are? What concessions or sacrifices does their work require them to make? And in a case with so many contradictions will the truth ever be found?

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This month Ward published a short story featuring Connie Childs and Julia Winson from A Patient Fury. The story was made available to subscribers to her newsletter (subscribe here).

In The Lamp Men, DC Childs seeks out Julia and her knowledge of local history to make sense of an unnerving experience she has during a night time walk.

Can she find out who (or what) the lamp men are and why are they being seen around Bampton?

 

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For more about A Patient Fury.

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher

mantelI usually like Hilary Mantel’s work, but I was disappointed by this collection of short stories.

Most stories started well, showing promise with vivid evocative imagery, but stalled instead of leading to a satisfying conclusion. The writer’s emphasis seemed to be on creating a mood (mostly dark) rather than a completed narrative journey.

For me, the satisfying exceptions are the titular The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, an  “alternative history” with hints of dark comedy, and another called Winter Break which describes a wild, countryside taxi ride leading to a frightening destination.

While the rest of the collection had moments of appeal, they didn’t fulfil the expectations I have for a story. They had a repeated unfinished feel where I was left wondering what the point had been.

I’ve come across story collections like that before where the collection as a whole was saved by the subtle drawing together by cross references and overlaps between stories.

Maybe I missed it, but that saving feature was lacking here.

 

FORTY. (a 1992 short story by Onesimus).

Figments

This is my only surviving story.

It survives because it was included in an anthology of work published by a University writer’s group. The title of the anthology is Figments. It was published in 1992.

The version below is a slightly edited version of the original; amended to fix a couple of parts I wasn’t happy with.

 

___________________________

FORTY
A shadow came from darkness and flecked my face with scarlet as rushing stars twinkled around me. My foot hit the brake and I skidded to the kerb. Did the tyres scream or was it me?
I left the car and ran to the nearby shops. The shadow stained the road with redness as I fumbled with the payphone.

“It’s all right mate, we’ve already done that”. A hand reached across and removed the receiver from, my trembling grip.
*
The police arrived and took control.
“What was your speed at the time of the accident?”
“I…I’m not sure. I think it was around forty.”
“What, forty k’s?”
“No. it was miles. I’ve got an old speedo.”
“Better say thirty-five then. Forty’s a touch over. Could you remove your valuables from the car? We need to take it to the station. We’ll have to keep it for a few days for inspection…”
I removed a few loose items and glanced at the damage. The bonnet was turned up harshly, a circular indentation smeared with blood marred its centre: a head-sized depression.

A twisted shoe on the road mourned the loss of a wearer.
*
The ambulance drove slowly as it left. Dead on arrival the papers would say.
The tow truck driver hovered in the shadows, his presence revealed by the glow of a cigarette. At the policeman’s signal he moved in. I watched as my car was hauled away in disgrace, it’s rear almost dragging on the road.
“We’ll need a formal statement from you,” the policeman said, returning a notebook to his pocket. “Call down at the station in the next couple of days and we’ll fix it all up. Okay?”
I nodded and tried to smile.
*
I didn’t sleep that night but relived the few seconds of the accident continually until daylight interrupted. Later I relived them again for the police statement; for concerned family and friends, for the insurance companies and finally I relived them for the coroner.
*
There weren’t many in the court. Only a routine case. Nothing interesting. A policeman sat next to me, showed me photos of my car and told me not to worry. But that was easy for him to say. What was the sentence for manslaughter anyway?
It didn’t take long. The victim was drunk. Extremely drunk. Lucky he could walk at all with so much alcohol in him. Lucky! That was debateable.

I smiled. I would sleep in my, own bed that night after all.
*
Celebrate, I thought.
It’s all over. It wasn’t my fault.
I left my car at home. No way would I drink and drive. Not with the amount I planned to put away.

I grinned my way through the first four drinks. Laughed through the next three, then silently appreciated the last two.

As the lights dimmed the barman caught my attention.
“Time to go mate. We’re closing. Dýa need a cab?”
“Nah. I’m right…Walking home.” I opened my wallet and took out a ten dollar bill. “Here, have a couple yerself sometime.”
I walked to the door leaving the money on the bar.
“Thanks mate. Sure you’ll be right?”
I waved acknowledgement and pushed out through the door into the cool air.
The street light’s lined the side of the road, marking out the route home. I followed them carefully until I reached the shops where I had to cross over.

I turned to the kerb and looked towards the approaching headlights. I’ll be alright, I thought as I stepped onto the road. He’s only doing around forty.
__________________
©Onesimus 1992.

Note. The reference to “speedo” in the above story has nothing to do with swim wear :), but is an Australian colloquialism for speedometer.
Likewise the term “bonnet” is not describing headwear 🙂 but refers to the part of a car Americans call the “hood”.

The story was inspired by personal experience.

At the time of writing it, I was using favourite song titles to name my stories, even though the songs themselves usually had no link to the story’s content. This title came from a U2 song.

Stories What I wrote III

I tried a few different genres of writing but found I was getting the best response with “horror” stories – or at least those that leaned towards horror. These were especially successful when I read them at monthly “poetry readings”. I still recall the squirming, uncomfortable laughter of one of my lecturers when he realised where the story was heading. Seeing that honest response in person was far more satisfying at the time than reading a few complimentary comments he’d written on some of my assignments.

I don’t want to go into the sordid details of the story. It’s not something I’d write today, but I will say something about the inspiration that led to it. It came from a Stephen King short story I’d been reading. I thought I could see where the story was heading but found I was wrong. His conclusion was totally different from the one I’d anticipated, so I took the ending that I’d assumed would happen and worked backwards to create a completely different story from the one King had written.

To conclude this little trilogy of articles I want to mention two of what I considered my best stories of that time. The first came out of a suggestion by a fellow student. He said when he was stumped for ideas he’d look to bible stories for a spark of inspiration. He’d do that with no more religious intent than anyone doing the same thing by referring to Shakespeare for an idea.

I thought of the story of David and Bathsheba, how David’s sight of her bathing led to all kinds of trouble. My story started with the protagonist seeing his new neighbour lying beside her swimming pool. I read the first draft to the class and found myself under attack from the group’s feminists who objected to a story beginning with a man’s lustful gaze. Maybe referring to the bible for story inspiration backfired.

After revisions and editing I had a story I was happy with – a kind of obsessive love story that included references to my interest in film-making and my experience with animation. It has no happy ending. The romance comes to a sudden end when the woman discovers her feelings for the man may have been manipulated through “supernatural means” and she turns the tables on him.

The other story came from a memory of my grandad. When I was a young child he was often very sick and spent a lot of time bedridden, sometimes becoming very confused about where he was and WHEN he was. At times he thought it was still the time of WWII.

During one of these confused episodes he held a conversation with the faces he could see in the rose pattern of the wallpaper. And that was the initial inspiration of my story of a bed-bound man being nursed by his wife. But his experience goes far beyond conversations with imagined faces. He finds himself taken into a world contained within the wallpaper pattern. There he meets a seductive but dangerous woman with thorn like claws. He wakes and realises it’s all a dream, until he finds some physical evidence that the woman might not be a mere product of his sleep induced imagination… or maybe something else is going on. Could his wife be tormenting him, fuelling his imagination with drugs? Is it really prescribed medication she is giving him or something else?

That’s the end of this little exploration of my past fictional writings. It might be something I come back to at another time. I could write about the plans I had to write stories (and even a novel) based on my experiences in church, but those ideas are something I am more likely to put to use in the future and I don’t want to give away too many of my ideas before I have the opportunity to write those stories.

The other things, those that I’ve written about in these three articles are well and truly in the past. The actual stories are dead and buried with no hope of resuscitation.

Stories What I Wrote II

Acceptance into the Creative Writing course was the easy part. Presenting a portfolio of writing fragments (written over a long period) helped me get in – but from that point I needed to do something I’d not done since leaving High School more than a decade earlier. Write completed stories, regularly, to deadlines.

And something entirely new: write things of substantial length. No more one page essays and half page “short stories”. No more token, last minute scribbles to get homework in on time. I was doing the course out of choice, and living on a tiny income for at least three years, so I couldn’t afford to settle for the easy way through it all. What would be the point of doing that?

The first story I remember from the first semester is one I wrote about the birth of a young couple’s first child. Most of it was quickly handwritten between lectures, and then edited and polished as I typed it on my computer. It is still the only time I’ve handwritten a story since High School. For me making changes on a written page is a messy and confusing business. I wouldn’t get anywhere without the simplicity and neatness of cut and paste.

That story became the first in a very loose trilogy. The second part was written the following year and the couple’s relationship had taken a turn for the worst, the only thing holding the fragments together was their young child.
Neither of the above stories was anything special. I was trying to find my feet in a strange world struggling with books I wouldn’t normally read and writing essays full of ideas that wouldn’t have occurred to me in “real life”. But eventually I settled into this foreign routine, enjoying the exercise my flabby brain was now getting, and my story writing started to improve.

The third part of my “trilogy” came out of a writing exercise. The class had to compile a list of the characteristics of ghost stories. Creaking doors, rattling chains, sudden mists, deserted and ruined houses, bumps in the night – and all of the other clichés we could think of. After compiling the list we had to take several of those elements and incorporate them into a non-ghost story.

My story centred on the husband/father from the two stories mentioned above. His relationship has ended and he has taken off alone to stay in a friend’s isolated lakeside cottage, drowning his sorrows with Irish whiskey. His intended time alone is disrupted. He is woken from a drunken sleep by the unexpected appearance of a young mysterious woman whose presence has an unwanted effect on him and his attempt to escape his problems.

The end of the story took an unpleasant turn with an attempted rape and an act of arson and if I remember correctly the man’s (possible) suicide. Optimistically I submitted it to a literary magazine. They rejected it, saying it became too melodramatic after a promising start.

(coming later “Stories What I Wrote III)

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(I’m assuming that most won’t understand the reason for the bad grammar in the title of this series of posts. As a child one of my favourite TV shows was a comedy variety programme starring an English comedy duo Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise. Each week in this series Ernie Wise presented his “play what I wrote”, in which respected guests starred – routinely becoming the butt of Eric and Ernie’s jokes in a mock drama. I recall at least one High School writing assignment in which I unashamedly ripped off and adapted a Morecambe and Wise routine. With this title I give a nostalgic nod to that teenage act of plagiarism.)

Stories What I Wrote.

Bachelor of Creative Arts. That’s the course I started mid-1990. But within a week I’d applied for a transfer to a plain, ordinary Bachelor of Arts degree.
My intended major was Creative Writing, but as a BCA student I was required to do other Arts related subjects that I wasn’t keen to study at that time. Things I thought were irrelevant to my reasons for being at University. So I added Literature to my major and increased my reading obligations by a ridiculous amount. By the time I graduated my love of reading had been undermined (but that’s another story).

To be accepted for the BCA I had to submit a portfolio of work to assess whether I was a suitable candidate for the school. Whatever I submitted must have shown potential because I was accepted. I no longer have any of those old pieces of writing. They were thrown out many years ago.

My memory of that portfolio is hazy, but I’m sure it contained a few fragmentary stories very loosely based on nostalgic memories of my teens. Actual experiences were spiced up and combined with a lot of “what ifs” – “What if I’d done this instead of that?”… I also had my characters doing some of the things my friends and I WOULD have done, if only we’d been less restrained by thoughts of consequences.

The only complete stories I recall from around that time were two fantasy/science fiction short stories.
One involved the crew of a space station who one by one were being killed, until the last man standing, realising he must be the killer (though he can’t recall any of the murders) is suddenly confronted by the truth. The story touched upon the subliminal effects of advertising. And considering no one will ever get to read the story which no longer exists – I’ll spoil the ending: the cat did it.

I’m not sure why a cat would be included in the crew of a space station. Maybe that’s a question the writers of Alien can answer.

In space no one can hear you meow!

In space no one can hear you meow!

The other story started off with the discovery of an unconscious woman on the beach. I no longer remember details, apart from the contrived “twist” at the end where she it is revealed she is a mermaid. Clearly her rescuer wasn’t the brightest “knight in shining armour”, not noticing that the woman he was carrying to safety had a tail instead of legs.
So my first fully formed stories weren’t works of literary art, but I had enough naïve hope at the time to keep discouragement at bay.

(to be continued… maybe)