Books Read in 2014 – 2. Beautiful Losers – Leonard Cohen

Genre – Erotica, Experimental

Date of Publication – 1966

Narrative Style – stream of consciousness. Non-chronilogical

Format: Paperback

Published: 1966

Synopsis – A three part story about three friends / lovers – the first part is a first person narrative after the death of his wife and his lover, F, the second part is a letter from F to the first narrator and the third part is a thrid person summing up of their stories. 

Rating: 3/5 047533-fc222

I’m a big fan of Leonard Cohens music but I hadn’t read any of his fiction before this one so I was quite excited when I got Beautiful Losers for Christmas. Certainly, I wasn’t expecting to read something quite so erotic and quite so experimental.

One of the things that is immediately apparent about this book is that it is written by a poet. Quite often the language and the rhythm take precedence over meaning which leads to some beautiful imagery but like a lot of poetry, I didn’t always understand what was going on.

This is an intensely erotic book. Indeed, one of the original reviews called it ‘verbal masturbation and another suggested that it was the ‘most revolting book ever written in Canada’. There is more than one love triangle in this book as the three lovers experiment. However, it is never merely sex for the sake of it. Quite often it is described in an oblique way or involves body parts that aren’t necessarily thought of as erotic.

What I found more difficult to deal with were the long passages about the Catherine Tekakwitha and her religiosity. I didn’t find the historic information as interesting as the events in the present day, maybe because I have very little sense of religion myself. Also, I have a low tolerance of miracles and pilgrimages.

There seemed to be a preoccupation with ownership, with occupation of lands and with colonialism – the Indians by the Catholics, the French presence in Montreal, for example. I must admit to a lack of knowledge of the history of Canada but this book did make me think I might like to know more.

Finally, I found it a little unsatisfying. I was reminded of reading Joyce or Amis, maybe. Masters of language and they may be but they left me feeling a little lost and disappointed with myself. I don’t like to feel I may have missed the point.

The perfect implications of an imperfect world.

The recent edit of Choose Yr Future has seen some chapters disappear, some change and some needing to be written. When I first started writing some of the details of my future world weren’t as clear as they are now so obviously there have been some pretty big changes. For me, this is the one enjoyable thing to come out of editing. Until you read through the whole of your work, you don’t always realise you have been sidetracked. Sometimes the sidetrack becomes the main road. Sometimes you have to find a way back to the path you actually want to follow. But at the end, the destination should be clear.

One of the things that became clear to me was that while I was concerned about gender and sexuality issues, I hadn’t realised that I was writing about class so much. My future society is very much a class based world with no social mobility at all, apart from the lucky ones who get to win talent shows of one type or another. The sort of thing that gives the impression of mobility when in fact the majority of people are stuck with in the same place as they ever were; the same place where their parents were stuck; the same place their children will be stuck.

Of course, a lot of people believe that class divisions no longer matter and that social mobility is easier than it has ever been. And maybe that is true to an extent. After all, in my suburban house, with my job in education, I’d have a nerve to still call myself working class (although there is no doubt that I still do). If I had children, they would be born into a middle class world. But when a recent study showed that elite surnames still dominate in universities such as Oxford and Cambridge and that underlying social status is more strongly inherited than height, there may be not as much cause to celebrate as you might think. Maybe there is more movement in the middle but as soon as you start to move to the extreme of either end, it becomes more and more difficult to move upwards at one end, less and less likely that you will lose your privilege at the other.

As I have mentioned in an earlier blog, I am currently reading Margaret Atwood’s In Other Worlds. She discusses her own dystopian world and also the way that she feels that dystopia and utopia are not really the opposites we take them as but ever present within each other. I hadn’t thought about it before but it makes sense that if you create a perfect world then there must be the implication of an imperfect one and vice versa. What about the perfect world implied in my dystopic one? My future humans are caught up with voting on everything, they have no spare time as the government controls their every waking hour with work, exercise, recreation, and so on. They have health plans that they must keep to, they have roles that are chosen for them. They have a place in which they must stay, a time to get married, a time to have children. So I suppose my ideal world would be one where people were able and allowed to think for themselves, where they were given the freedom to be themselves and where you could actually choose your future.




A Year Already

I can’t really believe it. A year since I first wrote my first blog. I can’t decide whether that seems like an awful long time ago or if it has flown by. Is it possible for both of those statements to be true?

In terms of my writing and this blog in particular, it seems like a long time ago. When I look at my early posts, they aren’t terrible by any stretch but I wasn’t sure of my own voice. I wasn’t really aware of my audience.

In terms of my fiction writing, I have published Shattered Reflections, had some good reviews and feel like I can call myself a writer now. It is strange, how it feels now to be writing Choose Yr Future. It’s no longer a secret thing. People ask me how it’s coming along. Not only that, it’s no longer just for me. Potential publication. Less hypothetical than before. It makes it more serious, I suppose but that is a good thing. It’s less like a hobby, more like real work.

Of course, time has flown by at it’s usual speed – too quickly. Too often, I am writing at the end of a long day. I don’t necessarily believe that you have to hit a quota everyday. I do try to write everyday but sometimes that comes down to ensuring I have a note of all the possible ideas that have come to me rather than lovingly crafted sentences. But there is not a moment when I am not thinking or planning and as long as I make a note, I know that I will get it written eventually.

So I can’t help but wonder what the next year will bring. It is certainly exciting. With the six weeks holidays coming up, I should get the first draft of Choose Yr Future finished. (Also on the cards, a career change. Teaching is eating up too much of my time. At least part of the summer needs to be spend trying to find something new.) And then it will be editing, beta readers all the way through to a final draft. I can’t wait.

Why is it so hard to pick a favourite?

I was recently asked about my favourite book. I don’t know why but this question always makes me feel a little uncomfortable. Part of me really believes that it is unfair to pick a favourite – as if the books were going to be offended when they weren’t picked. But it isn’t only that. It depends on the questioner. For example, if a pupil asks should I say something they are likely to have heard of or stick with what has become my stock answer, The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. If I say that, do people think that I’m just trying to one-up them by picking something not particularly well-known and Russian.

When I say this has become my stock answer, I do not mean that I do not love this book. I do. And I would recommend it to anyone. I have read it a number of times but the last time was at least ten years ago. Has there really been nothing in the last ten years of reading to knock it off the top spot?

In fact, I haven’t really thought about this at all. Most of the things I would say are my favourite things are from a long time ago, when I suppose we were more likely to be sitting in the pub and debating the relative merits of It’s a Wonderful Life (my favourite film) and Casablanca (My husband’s favourite). More likely that someone would say top ten albums from Manchester or whatever. (Obviously The Stone Roses debut would come top of that list and there would be no Oasis.)

As a result I have a top ten novels list which is as follows:

  1. The Master and Margarita – Mikhail Bulkagov.
  2. Cat’s Eye – Margaret Atwood.
  3. The History of the World in 10 and a half Chapters – Julian Barnes.
  4. Trainspotting – Irvine Welsh.
  5. Nights at the Circus – Angela Carter.
  6. Dancer from the Dance – Andrew Holleran.
  7. A Disaffection – James Kelman.
  8. Strange Meeting – Susan Hill.
  9. The Catcher in the Rye – J D Salinger.
  10. The Life of Pi – Yann Martell.

All of these novels I have read more than once and some I have studied or taught. I can think of a number of books that I could place on this list that I have read more recently (The City and the Pillar – Gore Vidal, The Virgin Suicides – Jeffrey Eugenides, The Book Thief – Marcus Zusak, for example). Putting aside the issue of what would come off the list, if these books were added could I be sure they would stand the test of time? I must admit I don’t tend to re-read books as often as I used to but there is little more annoying then returning to a book or film that you really enjoyed at the time to discover it isn’t how you remember it. (Recently, Pretty in Pink played at our local cinema – one of my favourite films when I was a teenager. I think I made the right decision in not going to see it although I was tempted. I would hate to be disappointed in it. It would be like losing an old friend.) Of course, I am over thinking it and perhaps having a favourite book really isn’t that important. Still, I know I make judgements based on these things. And if it does come up in the pub or the classroom, I want to have the answer ready.

The other thing that I notice now, is the lack of genre fiction. No detective fiction. No science fiction. No fantasy. Although plenty of magic realism. Part of this is due to reading series of books. Which Discworld novel would you pick out of what is a thoroughly excellent series? Which Rebus novel? Which from Douglas Adams? Or George R. R. Martin. But it is also true that I read detective fiction and fantasy particularly as a break from literary fiction. It wasn’t intentional to not include them and perhaps it was unconscious snobbery that caused me to not include any.

So has this got me any nearer to answering the question? Not really. I tend to hedge my bets. Maybe give the top three books. Ponder briefly what impression I’ve just given of myself. Hope it is vaguely similar to the impression that I hoped to give.

Eclectic Reader Challenge – Dystopian – The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers

Dystopian fiction is always interesting to read so I was pleased that it was one of the categories for the Eclectic Reader Challenge. A vision of the future, based on the problems in ours, maybe offering solutions, maybe only disasters. I am always curious to see what it is that makes other people angry and worried. So the premise of this novel interested me straightaway. The idea of women dying in their millions as soon as they become pregnant and the response of the scientists and governments to this problem was certainly intriguing (although you might say it is not a completely new idea) and I was expecting to enjoy it a lot.

In fact, I did enjoy it. Particularly the ideas about protest and what the proper response should be to the state that our world is in. There are groups that protest violently, some peacefully, some who turn to religion, some who are willing to sacrifice themselves and the novel turns on the relative success of the different types of protest. Unfortunately, the heroine Jessie turns to noble self-sacrifice as her chosen method and I found it quite hard to get behind her after that. In fact, her actions seemed typical of a teenager, assuming that she was right, that she alone could change the world. I couldn’t be sure whether this was the point- that such self sacrifice was an immature response – or whether this form of protest was privileged because the author believed in this

The symbolism in this novel is not very subtle. Jessie’s surname is Lamb and apart from the connotations with innocence and sacrifice, I think this represents the Lamb of God – i.e. Jesus Christ, further linking her to the idea of noble sacrifice. There were suggestions that the future was with the youth, rather than the older generation who clearly ruined everything. Which is fine expect then we are returned to the idea of youth sacrificing itself for the future of the world and that does not seem like a valid solution.

This book made me think about protest, about feminism and about science and religion so it was enjoyable in that sense. But in the end, I felt that the way the story unfolded was not what I would have expected and did not really sit well with me.

Writing Letters Home – a story set in the trenches

I first read poetry from the first world war when I was in sixth form (more than 20 years ago now). I still remember reading some reading some of the poems for the first time and being impressed by how vividly they had captured the atmosphere of the horrific nature of trench warfare. Lines have  stuck with me –  ‘You are too young to fall asleep forever, and when you sleep you remind me of the dead’ from The Dug Out by Siegfried Sassoon, for example, is a poignant reminder of how close the soldiers were to death on a daily basis. My favourite Owen poem was Strange Meeting which has the soldier meeting the enemy he has killed in hell with the famous line ‘I am the enemy you killed, my friend’, although I loved all the Owen poems that we studied.

The era has held its fascination for me and I have read some of the classic literature set in that time, Strange Meeting, Birdsong, The Regeneration trilogy, for example. So when recently my A Level class had to write a story based on a war of their choosing, I decided that I would also try to write a story and I would set it in the first world war. They had to first of all find style models and read as much from their chosen era as possible, in order to gain an idea of context. They had to keep a diary of what they read and what they gained from it.

It was interesting to work so rigorously through the steps of research into writing and producing. I must admit that my normal habits were a lot less organised. I made lists. I made notes. A habit I have tried to keep to although there is still part of me that thinks that I should just be able to keep it all in my head. I read more poetry, more novels. I knew exactly where I was going.

The resulting short story – Letters Home –  owes a lot to the poetry of Owen and I tried to uses some strong imagery to describe the daily horror of life in the trenches. It also owes a debt to Strange Meeting by Susan Hill which is one of my favourite novels. The novel is about the friendship between two contrasting men in the trenches which ends with one of them missing in action. This was the inspiration for the relationship between Mark and James in my story, one of whom is open and friendly, the other more reserved, finding all relationships difficult. I decided to take this a step further than Hill and have one of my characters be unsure about his sexuality. In fact, it isn’t even as conscious as that. He is unable to acknowledge any of the feelings he has for James but also does not wish to return home to the girl who is waiting there for him.

In the end, what this exercise taught me is that influence and inspiration can come from two places – from factual knowledge of a given time and from reading fiction of a similar style or set in the same era as what you are trying to write.

Letters Home is up on my website under short fiction if you would like to read it and give me your opinion.

Another week goes by…

It has been a strange week. I have now read Shattered Reflections three times. Just when I thought it was almost time to move to the next step, approve the proofs and then it would be the excitement of sales and marketing. Then, some inconsistencies were pointed out to me and I realised I needed to check through it all again. Square one, hello, here I am again. Starting to wonder how I ever thought this manuscript was ready for public consumption. Hello, also, nerves.

So, I have neglected everything else. No twitter. No facebook. Barely read my e-mails. No writing on exciting new project. No working on website.  No point in having a snazzy website if I have no book to sell. That makes sense, right. But I worry that having taken the first tentative steps towards marketing myself that I am now instantly disappearing. Its taking too long. Furthermore, Shattered Reflections is starting to feel like a piece of coursework that I have marked too many times. I’m thoroughly sick of it. I want to work on something new.

Still I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. This next week should see the proofs ready. The website should be up. Facebook page should be ready. Hears hoping, anyway.