Pet Peeves In Reading, Writing and Editing

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Today is the first Wednesday of the month, and it’s Insecure Writers’ Support Group day!  We are asked to write about our pet peeves in reading, writing and editing, so please allow me to have a really good moan.

Peeve 1 – Reading

I review – more or less – everything I read on my Dear Reader blog and it peeves me that no one reads my reviews.  It’s not as if no-one reads book reviews online because many other book reviewers blogs do attract interest, so, in an open and non-peevish way, I’m asking you, my fellow bloggers, what could be improved?  (This Dear Reader blog text here is a link, if you wouldn’t mind checking it out.)

Peeve 2 – Writing

No time.  (The really helpful and supportive Facebook friends who read the Facebook post generated by my last post on this blog will have heard all this before.).  The last time I did any proper writing, that is, of my novel, was on a train to Newcastle and back, on 8 July.  In the meantime, I’ve been working, seeing friends and looking after family.  Moreover, on Sunday, one-and-only-husband and I go on holiday to Ireland for ten days.  I love to see my friends and family, because, as I’ve said before, I’m not all writer, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.  It’s just that there aren’t enough hours in the day.  Another blogger (not known to me personally) has given up her day-job, but she, unlike me, is an established womag writer.   Dare I take the plunge?  No.  Could I partly take the plunge?  I’m plucking up courage.

Peeve 3 – Writing and Editing

Author's Cat Sitting by BookcaseMy cat is old, very timid and very loving.  She likes to sit on my knee, between me and the computer.   Actually, she prefers to stand on my knee between me and my computer, so I find myself stretching my arms around her head (one end) and tail (other end) to reach the keyboard and looking over her back to see the screen.  This is distracting when writing.  It also makes editing more difficult, because she sits on the touchpad; my computer is surprising responsive to her paws and bottom, highlighting and deleting whole passages at whim (her whim).

Generally, I am feeling very insecure about my writing at the moment.  A few weeks ago, I saw a flyer for the Mslexia novel comp; the deadline is in mid-September and, if shortlisted, I would have to have the whole thing completed by mid-November.  When I was on a roll, writing on trains to and from Newcastle, this sounded just about do-able, but, now, I know, it’s not.  Ditto, any possibility that I might do Nano again.  At this moment, I feel that The Novel and I are becoming shipwrecked.

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I Wish I’d Learned To Read…

For reasons that made sense in my sixteen-year-old mind, I opted not to take English A Level.  What I didn’t take on board was that this would be my last opportunity to learn literary appreciation, or how much I would need this skill in writing.  I knew I wanted to be a writer since primary school, when it seemed to me that Enid Blyton’s output was not enough.  (Yes, I know she produced loads, but I was even younger at the time.)

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.”  This is the advice Stephen King gives in On Writing, but he didn’t give it until 2000 and, Dear Reader, I was a child and a teenager long before that.  I wasn’t making the connection myself.  Some people might expect me, not being tutored in conventional literary criticism, to come up with new and interesting perspectives… but I’m not that intelligent.

When I read, I read for pleasure.  During the Winter of Discontent in 1978-9, I devoured Dickens in paperback, on heaving, snow-swept platforms, and in draughty commuter train corridors, always (unlike my train) racing ahead, desperate to find out – equally – what was going to happen next, and whether there would be a train to work (or home).  However, there were long periods when I didn’t open a book at all, even though I was writing reams and reams, and in a manner that was supremely suited to me myself personally.  I believed that my novels were pretty amazing (because I wasn’t comparing them with anything else), but, when I came to join online writing groups, I was gently pulled up for not developing characters and for inadequate (actually non-existent) descriptive passages.  In these groups, I was given a lot of very useful advice about writing, which I would not have needed if I had learned to read properly, to analyse structure, character and writing style.  I would like to add to Stephen King’s famous quote.  “…and take it apart.”

Dylan Thomas's study at Laugharn
Dylan Thomas’s study at Laugharn

I review (almost) every book I read on my other WordPress blog, Dear Reader; this is my attempt to analyse what books are about, how the storyline works, how characters are drawn and to think about written style.  However, when I read a critique of a work of literature by someone who really knows how to do it, I’m gobsmacked at what he/she finds, often angles that I didn’t see at all.  I have paid a heavy price for my decision to take history, geography and maths at A level.  My reason was that I knew, from being in English classes lower in the school, that the English staff were obsessed with Dylan Thomas and D H Lawrence, writers I did not get on with at all.  Actually, I think I was too young for them.  Just recently, I came across Thomas’s poem, ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night’, which I’m sure everybody else knows.  I need no expert here.  The howl of impotent fury against the inevitable is palpable.  Oh, if only I could write anger like that.

Dear Reader Site… and Granddaughter

The book review site, Dear Reader, is now up and running, with a review of ‘Finding Myself in Britain’ by Amy Boucher Pye.  If you’re thinking the new blog’s a bit plain, you’re right, as there’s much more work to do.  But do take a look.

Now for the everyday life bit.  Our granddaughter, Jessica Elizabeth, was born today.  whatsapp_50Unfortunately, I haven’t met her yet, because she didn’t arrive until 2.30 this afternoon.  A very stressful morning, waiting for WhatsApp to buzz on my faulty phone.   Never mind teenagers sexting!  How did we grandparents cope without WhatsApp?  Can’t wait to see her on Wednesday!

Author Interview – Patsy Collins

Firestarter_coverThis week we are privileged to have with us, Patsy Collins, whose latest novel, Firestarter, is being released in Kindle format today (5 November).  Read the first question in Patsy’s interview and you’ll see why 5 November was chosen as the launch date.   Although Firestarter has been available in paperback since September, I have to confess that I haven’t read it yet, because I read everything on Kindle.  I’m looking forward to it.

Patsy is a full-time writer, with 250 womag stories published (plus others in ezines and anthologies) , 4 novels and 2 books of short stories and is a frequent contributor to Writing Magazine.  Even though Patsy Collins, authorshe is now established, she provides helpful feedback to hopeful writers on writing forums and has been a wonderful writing friend and support to me for many years.  Below are the questions I asked her:

  1. Although Firestarter is available in paperback now, its launch on Amazon Kindle is scheduled for 5 November. Any connection with Guy Fawkes Day?
    Patsy:  Sort of. I think of 5th November as bonfire night, and as this book has plenty of metaphorical fireworks as well as a few flames, I couldn’t resist selecting that date.
  2. Firestarter is your fourth novel. Most novelists have ideas for three or four novels going round in their heads at any one time. Is Firestarter based on ideas which have been with you for a while or did it come to you quite quickly?Patsy:  I started writing Firestarter very quickly after I had the initial idea and just kept going. You’re right about having lots of ideas in my head at once though. There are two others roughly planned out and I have another in the very early stages of plotting.
  3. How do you plan your novels? Do you plan your novels, or are you one of those people who love to see a blank Word screen in the morning and to take it from there?

    Patsy: 
    Planning seemed to me like a bad idea before I tried to write a novel. I imagined that if I knew the major plot points and how it would come out in the end, it would be no fun to write. I was wrong about that and now plot first.

    My plots are just outlines really and I tend to add in more scenes as I work. As I learn more about the characters they help me to build up the story and provide extra twists and turns. (That bit will probably sound slightly mad to any non writer.)
    4. In Escape to the Country and A Year and a Day, I see your womag roots very clearly, but Paint Me a Picture – my favourite – is more serious. I once read that you took ten years to write Paint Me a Picture. Why was that?

Patsy:  It’s true – it did take that long. In part that’s because it didn’t start off as a novel. It was a short story which got out of hand. There was no planning at all. Not only did I not know how it would end, I wasn’t sure it ever would – before editing it was over 130,000 words.

5.  How do you fix on names for your characters? Mavis Forthright in Paint Me a Picture sticks in your mind like a Dickensian moniker and sums her up beautifully.

Patsy:  In that case you’ll like the Bakewell sisters, who’re sweet (and whom Mavis would probably consider a little tarty) Tony Salmon who’s a bit of a cold fish and Hamish Mustarde who’s hot stuff!

To start with I just pick names, especially first names, almost at random. They might be ones I’ve recently heard, or which come to mind as I type. Then if they don’t seem to fit I change them to something more suitable. Actually, it’s fairly rare that I do change names once I’ve started writing. Like people, characters seem to grow to fit their names, or sometimes react against them in a way which helps form their personality.

Surnames aren’t usually created until I need to put them in the text, so I know enough about the characters to select something appropriate by then.

6.  So far, all the main characters in your novels have been female. Would you ever contemplate writing a novel with a male main character, or do you take Jane Austen’s view about not knowing how men speak when women aren’t present?

Patsy:  Odd you should ask that, as I’m working on a novel for NaNo with a male main character.

I’ve written short stories from a male point of view and not found it to be a particular problem.

I take JA’s point – but I don’t know how fashion conscious young women or middle-aged spinsters talk when I’m not about either. If I stuck to only using characters who think and speak as I do, then I’d write nothing but my autobiography.

7. You always write with a third person point of view and in the past tense.  Is this because you feel more comfortable writing in this way?  Or do you have specific reasons for avoiding first person point of view and present tense? 

Patsy:  I suppose I do feel more comfortable with past tense. I’ve written short stories in present, but it’s harder (for me at least) to sustain it over a longer word count and I feel it can be more demanding to read too.

The choice between first and third person is down to the story. Some just seem to work better with one than the other. I use first quite often in short stories and my NaNo novel is currently in first person too.

8. We’re told over and over again that womag stories must convey lots of emotion.  Have you any hints for us about ramping up the emotion?   

Patsy:  Our own experiences can help us imagine how characters feel and act. Generally we won’t have been in the exact same situation, but that’s what imagination is for. When our character is in love, pain or danger then we should think back to when we were and recall and adapt the details.

I build up in layers. The first draft of the scene might just say ‘she fancied him’. Later I’ll think back to my nearest memory and add in what exactly attracted her – his smile perhaps. Then I’ll explain how that makes her feel and show her reacting to him. It wouldn’t matter if I’d never actually been attracted to a man’s smile. My emotions would be very similar if it had been his voice which I’d liked, or if I preferred women’s smiles.

When it comes to painful emotions, pick your time to write them. It will be upsetting, so make sure you can either do, or write, something more cheerful immediately afterwards.

Try to think of characters as real, complicated people. Even when we’re madly in love, our partner can annoy us. In the saddest of situations a funny incident can still raise a smile.

*****

Thank you very much, Patsy.  I’m very proud report that Bachelor Boy, one of my favourite stories, has this week been published by A Long Story Short.

Review of ‘A Place in the World’ by Cinda Crabbe MacKinnon

Available from Virtual Bookworm.  The author also has a WordPress blog.

Born to American parents working in the diplomatic service, Alicia Collier had never felt sufficiently settled in any one place to call it home.  The nearest she came to it was when attending high school in Bogota, Columbia, and, when she was required to move back to the US, to university in Virginia, she fell for the only Latino around, Jorge Carvallo.  At the first opportunity, Alicia rushed back to Columbia, believing Jorge’s vague promise of a job in tropical biology at Bogota University, only to find that no such post existed and that in Latin America women’s careers were considered not to be important.  Soon, Alicia and Jorge, now married and expecting a baby, moved to the remote coffee plantation, Las Nubes, on the edge of the rainforest.   At first all was well, but with volcanic ash (ceniza) suffocating the coffee plants and family profitability and the strain of parenthood, Jorge started to feel restless, wanting to do a Che Guevera on his motorbike, whereas Alicia couldn’t bear to leave the coffee plantation, because at last she’d found somewhere she belonged.

The story arc for A Place in the World is straightforward, albeit understated against a backdrop of volcanic eruptions, bandits, narcos, wild animals and, above all, the ever present danger of getting lost in the rainforest.  Many things might have happened yet didn’t.  This is a very honest novel, which seeks to chronicle a young woman’s battle with old fashioned social attitudes and male waywardness, her battle to keep the plantation going, against the elements and accepted ways of working which went against what she understood about ecology.   The author, who is herself an American environmental scientist, did not go in for hype or thrills.  Viewed negatively, you could say that this is a story about an American woman who came to sort out the backward Latinos, but this would have to be balanced against Alicia’s love of all things South American and her accepting attitude towards the indigenous people.

Hut in village in Amazon
Hut in village in Amazon
Kitchen in hut in Amazonian village
Kitchen in hut in Amazonian village

I was persuaded to download A Place in the World after reading about it on Hilary Custance Green’s  blog, Green Writing Room, at a time when I was feeling somewhat fragile because my own son had just departed for several months in Ecuador and that part of the world generally.  I suppose I was seeking out a ‘feel’ of Latin America and I certainly got it, the terrain, the climate, the people and the attitudes.  He is still there and to the right are a couple of photos of what it is like in the rainforest further south, beyond a town called Pulo.

On another topic, an article in the Daily Telegraph yesterday (Monday, 21 April 2015) about writers confirmed my worst fears.  According to a study carried out Queen Mary College, University of London, only ten per cent of writers are able to live on their writing alone and seventeen per cent of us earn nothing at all.   Do read the article.

Review of ‘Double Take’ by Annette Siketa

Available from Alfie Dog.  (This is the review I’ve posted on to Amazon and Goodreads, as a member of the AlfieDog reading panel.)

Mrs Ada Harris, an elderly lady apparently working as a cleaner, is sent to investigate two murders in the traditional seaside resort of Upper Markham. Based at an old fashioned hotel, the reader is served up a table d’hote menu with a fixed number of suspects, but not everybody is who they are supposed to be. Moreover, there is a practical joker at work, causing much dissension amongst the elderly guests. Unfortunately, I guessed who the murderer was very early on, although after this reveal there follows a lengthy and complicated explanation of why, and more of who was impersonating whom.

This is cosy crime as its cosiest, tinged with Fawlty Towers and James Bond. There is even a Major! The setting is firmly based in what Lucy Worsley (‘A Very British Murder’) calls ‘The Golden Age’, with characters addressing each other as ‘Mr’ and ‘Mrs’, even ‘Miss Elizabeth’ and ‘Miss Katherine’; and saying things like, ‘I’m forgetting my manners’. However, although none of the characters has a computer or a mobile phone, we are given to understand that the action all happened in the twenty-first century. This just doesn’t fit very well.

The author’s vocabulary was in places bizarre, as were her commas. The word ‘covetously’ was incorrectly used several times, as was ‘waiving’, and in one sentence a character ‘nodded in ascent’. In the blurb introducing this book, we are told that Annette Siketa is blind, so presumably she ‘wrote’ this novel using voice recognition software (such as ‘Dragon Naturally Speaking’), which is notoriously unreliable with homophones – or anything approaching a homophone – so we must not make too much of this. On the other hand, she deployed lovely earthy phrases such as ‘When she condescended to speak, her mouth was little wider than a coin slot’ and ‘Miss Katherine had stared at the floor, as though inspecting the carpet for fleas’.

Nevertheless, I read it. An easy and undemanding story.

Review of ‘While No One Was Watching’ Appears in The Copperfield Review

My review of ‘While No One Was Watching’ (which I referred to in my post of 5 June 2014) has been published in The Copperfield Review.  Hurray!  Many more cheers, though, for Debz Hobbs-Wyatt for writing the book.  (I just did the easy part.)

Imo, writing reviews of other writers’ work is a win-win for all hopeful writers.  Firstly, and very obviously, it is necessary to read the novel/short story first, all the time thinking about what is pivotal to the story, characterisation, use of language and, generally, what you will include in your review – which is very different from reading a book casually, for pleasure.  Analysing other authors’ work in this way shows me how to tackle storylines and characters;  the way Debz drip-fed the back story into ‘While No One Was Watching’ was inspirational, something which I will attempt to emulate when I get back to writing The Novel.

I use ‘notes and highlights’ on the Kindle menu to pick out passages for putting into the review, although I rarely refer to them; if I make the effort to make a note about something, it is retained in the best note-taking application in the world – the human brain.  (Tell it not to Evernote!  Or to my students, whom I’m always telling to use Evernote!)  Writing reviews didn’t come easily to me at first, but doing them here, on this blog, when I’m my own editor and therefore more relaxed, I have developed my own style, which helps me to write more fluently when I’m composing reviews for (other) publication.

Secondly, reviews do generally get published and your name appears in well-regarded mags (like The Copperfield, which is at the top of its field (historical)) alongside good authors.  And the editor is used to hearing from you and knows your name when you do a proper sub – that is, a story.

Go on, Dear Writer.  Review something.

Cat Reading Kindle

 

Review of ‘The Schoolgirl Ethic: The Life and Work of Angela Brazil’ by Gillian Freeman

I was about to start this post by reporting that this book must be out of print.  I actually found it for £3 on a secondhand bookstall in St Mary’s Market, Cambridge.  However, I am very heartened to learn that it’s still very much out there, and available to purchase from World of Books and also obtainable to borrow from WorldCat.org.

So who was Angela Brazil? Why is she important? Why is someone bothering to read and review a biography written in 1976? Especially when she is on holiday. Is it the rain pouring down from the Alps, or the parties of bored Austrian teenagers doing karaoke in the bar across the road, in German, to songs I’ve never heard before, and never want to hear again? To all of this, I can honestly answer No… apart from never wanting to hear karaoke in German again.

Angela Brazil wrote school stories for girls, beginning at the turn of the 20th century and was still writing at the time of her death in 1947. As a pre-teen, I lived and breathed school stories: Mallory Towers, St Clare’s, The Naughtiest Girl in the School, the Chalet School series (all 60 of them!) and many, many more. My mother recommended the Chalet School, and Angela Brazil, but, whereas I was readily able to obtain copies of the former from the local library, I never really embraced Angela. I do remember bundles of hardback Angela Brazil books with their faded red and yellow covers, at the bottom of my mother’s wardrobe, below the folds of her flowing New Look dresses, but – children are funny things – I was put off by their general dusty smell and ‘old’ feel. I think I read one; it was about a girl called Nesta, who was adopted by her mother’s rich, childless friend, then returned to her real mother (‘Nesta’s New School’, which is still available on Amazon).

‘The Schoolgirl Ethic’ recounts the very full life of Angela Brazil: not just a writer, but a naturalist and painter, philanthropist, antiquarian, and local dignitary in Coventry, where she lived for most of her adult life. She studied the schoolgirl frame of mind by involving herself in every sort of activity which involved young people in her city, becoming a benefactor to local schools, involving schoolgirls in her new museum and giving massive and elaborate children’s parties. She never married, living, as single, middle-class people did in those days, with her elder brother and sister. The author implies, several times, in so many words, that Angela never actually grew up, that she was a perpetual schoolgirl. Maybe she was on paper, but, in real life, she was grand and domineering. Local poet, Abe Jephcott’s tribute to her after her death (quoted at the end of ‘The Schoolgirl Ethic’) begins like this:

‘At the head of the grand staircase
She received me.
Angela…
Ah! She stood as a statue would
New found in huge Isles of Greece,
Enrobed in gold and jewelled fold
Of emerald green and bright cerise.’

It is clear that her biographer, Gillian Freeman, didn’t like her subject very much, although her analysis of Angela’s work, and of the times in which she lived, is thorough and insightful. She quotes frequently and knowledgably from a wide range of Angela’s books, although sometimes her text is confusing to follow, because the layout on the page makes it difficult for the reader to work out whether he/she is reading a quote from one of Angela’s books or Gillian’s commentary. Also, she doesn’t cross reference fictional characters and real life personages enough; one is left wondering sometimes who exactly is the ‘Mildred’ or ‘Dotty’ about whom she is making such a strong point.

From a social history point of view, this biography is a valuable resource on life in England in the first part of the twentieth century, how people lived, their emotions, standards and attitudes. What Gillian only touched upon was the fact that education for girls was only just beginning at the time Angela was writing; it was both ground-breaking and a novelty for young girls to be together, away from home and able to get up to ‘jolly japes’ like their brothers. Her next point, however, was well-made, that Angela’s world view was otherwise old fashioned, even at the time she was writing it, that Picasso, the Bloomsbury Group, fascism and communism had all wafted over her.

Gillian also discussed in detail the physicality between the girls and their teachers, and their extravagant language, how they frequently referred to being ‘in love’ with a friend. Moreover, one of Angela’s heroines was named ‘Lesbia’. But Gillian knows and understands her subject, and the age in which she lived, well enough to recognise innocence and naivety. Women in the nineteenth century (the era where Angela belonged) did have very intense friendships and used very emotional words.

Well, dear Reader, are you still with me? Sorry this post is so long. Do I recommend this book – yes. Did I enjoy it, on a personal level – yes. More than that, though, I believe that Angela Brazil is very important in literature and in women’s literature in particular, because she wrote the first proper school stories for girls. Everything that came after – your Enid Blyton and your Chalet School, possibly even Harry Potter – developed the theme that Angela began, even if we haven’t read her output.

Please bear with me a bit longer, if you can. One of the reasons I’m now in Austria, in the Tyrol, close to Innsbruck, is because of Elinor Brent-Dyer’s Chalet School, which started off here. I can confirm that the area is every bit as beautiful as Elinor said it was and, after a bit of Googling, I discovered that Elinor has a memorial in Pachenau, which is close to here, and also that there is an organisation called ‘Friends of the Chalet School‘.  They don’t make school stories like they used to.

Plaque to Elinor Brent-Dyer in Library in Information Centre at Pachenau, Austria.
Plaque to Elinor Brent-Dyer in Library in Information Centre at Pachenau, Austria.

Review of ‘Mad About the Boy’ by Helen Fielding

Available from Amazon.

A few weeks ago, one of my posts could have been summed up in the phrase ‘I HATE CHICKLIT’, so why, oh why, did I download and then read the latest by Helen Fielding, the author who, arguably, invented the genre?  Well, Dear Reader, I have to confess that I did enjoy Helen’s previous two Bridget Jones novels, ‘Bridget Jones’s Diary‘ and ‘Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason‘ and I have a particular affection for Cause Celeb, Helen’s before-she-was-famous novel about famine relief in Africa.  However, I did read all these books when they came out, about a decade ago.  My then teenage daughter enjoyed them together.  I watched the first Bridget Jones film on a cross Channel ferry with my son, the revolutionary, and he even laughed at it.  I suppose I committed myself to ‘Mad About the Boy’ out of a sense of loyalty and because I’d read the others.  However, it seems that my tastes have moved on, but Helen’s literary style hasn’t.

As this book has been widely reviewed in the newspapers, I’m not revealing anything I shouldn’t when I write that ‘Mad About the Boy’ opens with Mark Darcy – the man of Bridget’s dreams, who she eventually married – dead, and Bridget herself a fifty-five year old widow.  However, even though she has two primary school children, she hasn’t changed a jot; still she writes about her calorie intake and how she’s exceeded it, worrying about the rules of dating and behaving like a love-sick schoolgirl over various unsuitable men.  Even the least mature fifty-five year old grows up a bit, methinks.  And, how is it that Bridget and Mark, having married when she was about thirty-five, waited so long to have children?  By my reckoning, their offspring should be starting university, not be at primary school.

Jude is still there and apparently ‘running the City’, also Daniel Cleaver, now a (partially) reformed character.  Bridget’s mother remains a caricature.  Shazza Picture of moon on dark skyhas been pensioned out of the story.   Of Bridget’s two children, the youngest, Mabel, little more than a tot, is by far the most interesting, with a lisp, saying things like ‘The moon followeth me’, and her massive conscience mortified when she discovers that she has given her class nits.   (Perhaps this ‘Mabel’ will inspire a resurgence in the name, one of the few Victorian monickers which hasn’t made a come back.)  In the background were a bevy of private school mothers, who might have been funny, but there were too many for us to get to know, and the fact that Helen didn’t didn’t get on their side indicated that she didn’t properly know them either.

Roxter, the toyboy, was a well-drawn character and very believable, a man with a great sense of humour and, as a contrast to Bridget’s constant dieting, a trencherman, but he figures in less than half the story.  Moreover, the timeline is confused, Bridget with Roxter at the beginning, then not with Roxter, and further on we read about how Bridget and Roxter meet.   Towards the end of the book, Bridget appears to act her age at last… but then she loses her maturity again in the last hundred pages by running after another male, who has only had a vague, walk-on part up until now.

It was an easy read, making no demands on the reader at all.  The book contained some vivid descriptive passages.  Helen stuck to scenarios she knew and understood well (the media), hamming up the sex and the humour.

So, Dear Reader, would I recommend it?  I wrote, in an earlier post, that I wouldn’t review books I didn’t like and that my silence must speak for itself.  I’m afraid I’ve broken my rule.  I am, however, not the best person to review it.

(Image copyright free from Wikpedia.)

Review of ‘My Antonia’ by Willa Catha

Available from Amazon.

Apparently ‘My Antonia’ is one of the staples of the American school English literature syllabus.  If so, good on them.  Much better than the tripe my very right-on English teachers got me to read – mainly Dylan Thomas and D H Lawrence.  I hated them then and I haven’t looked at their work since.  As I have said in a previous post, I read the nineteenth century classics in my twenties whilst commuting on trains up and down to London – but, Dear Reader, I didn’t come across Willa at that time, more’s the pity.

‘My Antonia’ is supposed to be the reminiscence of New York lawyer, Jim Burden, of his days as pioneer in Nebraska, Willa’s favourite stamping ground. The story starts with Jim and new immigrant, Antonia, as children, attempting, with their families, to make a living on the barren, uncultivated land, where the red grass grew. They learned to survive the harsh winters, although Antonia’s poor father, a delicate musician from ‘the old country’, did not see out even one. The story spans several decades as the children grow up, enjoying life as teenagers in the small frontier town of Black Hawk and Jim moving on to the big cities to university and to practise law.

Red grass, NebraskaWilla Catha’s work is always charming and innocent and the people so sweet and gentle that you wish that you lived amongst them, despite the harsh conditions. This is a very old fashioned work, which meanders circuitously through the years, with little or no plot except that of young people growing up and taming the harsh, virgin land. Loose ends abound. Antonia’s mother was clearly demanding and difficult, and the reader might expect her disagreeable character to affect the course of the story in some way, but she just fades from the pages. The same happens with her domineering brother Ambrosch, and Krajieck who overcharged her family for their land and the cave they lived in. Characters move in and move out, mirroring the structure of real life, more than a novel. Towards the end of the book, Larry Donovan figures largely in Antonia’s life but is probably mentioned less than half a dozen times. The writer, who appears in the first chapter only, doesn’t like Jim’s wife, but this theme isn’t developed either.

It is unclear who is the main character. The title would predicate Antonia herself and certainly she features largely, but Jim tells the story in the first person, with large portions of it to do solely with Jim himself and other characters, without Antonia. The relationship between Antonia and Jim is an enigma not properly resolved; at first playmates, then good friends, although they both had many other friends – lovers, never.

If ‘My Antonia’ had been taken to a modern writers’ workshop, it would’ve been torn to shreds by so-called experts, but yet, Dear Reader, I felt more in tune with the characters in this book, more involved and generally more interested, than in anything that written to the ‘rules’ we writers have to abide by now.

So would I recommend ‘My Antonia’. Yes, definitely.