A Concerning (read: amoral) Theme in My Reading

Music: Santana—Amore (Sexo)

I was trying to explain why I love Gone With the Wind so much, when it suddenly hit me that half my favourite reads feature truly awful antiheroines empowered by their amorality. Strong statement, I know. It concerns me.

Let’s look at these books, then. I’ve mentioned a couple of them before.gonewiththewind

Scarlett of Gone With the Wind and Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair are the epitomes (if more than one are permissible) of self-interest. But while Scarlett has a few sensitivities (notably her unrequited crush for Ashley) that make her an interesting character to invest in, Becky is so utterly unredeemable that it must be a conscious decision on Thackeray’s part. Her biggest crime, beyond unvalidated lies and manipulations, is her neglect of her son. The fact that she continues to be fascinating is a testament to great writing—or perhaps she satisfies the guilty, erotic side of readers’ greed.

A recent favourite was Gone Girl. The unforeseeable twists, the utter divided feeling on both Amy and Nick throughout the narrative, ending with a simultaneous hatred of Amy even while you can’t help but marvel at her sheer genius. It’s just a massive ‘eff you’ to happy endings.

An old favourite dates back to my school story collection. For some years my favourite was Winifred Norling’s The Worst Fifth on Record of 1961, which documents an epidemic of illicit smoking, make-up-wearing and boy-dancing at a conservative boarding school. It transpired that the character, Philippa, who’d been dragged into the affair, was nice, but at any rate some of her contemporaries were awful people. Maybe that book was a guilty pleasure, too, a fresh read compared to many of the admittedly priggish depictions of adolescence on my shelf.

thebookoflies

I must mention The Book of Lies, which is set on my own home island. Catherine admits on page one that she pushed her best friend off a cliff, and that she’s amazed she got away with it. The horribleness of the friend, who mentored Catherine in her own image, later goes to explain the action. The second clause is just a delicious admission that she was willing to destroy herself in order to destroy someone else. Immediately, she seems a very human character.

To me, anyway. Others might argue she is sub-human. The thread running through all these books is the amorality of the protagonists. I recently read Francoise Sagan’s A Certain Smile and Bonjour Tristesse and their amoral undercurrent was really quite singular. It was presented in so many ways: as a path to happiness, or at least contentment, as enabling to create adventures and experiences beyond those of the morally conscious—but in the end the character’s apathy fails and leads to her suffering.

These explorations, so often conflicting, are what I love most: ambivalence, self-contradiction and plain confused dismissal of societal morals. These characters don’t reject morality over a lifetime of thought and argument; they simply don’t connect with it. Just as sometimes I struggle to filter what I say, and will more often keep quiet for fear of being unwittingly rude.

That is human, is it not? It is my peculiar interpretation of what it is to be human, at any rate—as I assume I am, if anybody is.

In any case, it explains why I have such a penchant for writing saboteurs, even self-saboteurs. Drina: deliberately destroys her own life to impress her mother, that ultimately fails due to the disillusionment caused by her obsession. Flavie: deliberately destroys her bread-baking family business to ‘feed’ her self-destructive eating disorder (inappropriate verb, I know). My latest protagonist, Dani: deliberately destroys her own social skills to justify her inability to bring her unrequited crush into fruition. It’s a sick list.

thecatcherintherye

Dani reminds me of Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye, in that she is so unpredictable when it comes to activity and passivity—he worships the elusive Jane, but throughout the story is divided between fantasy and action. It’s a page-turning combination. Then there’s Scarlett’s book-long unrequited crush, that acute combination of pain and hope most of us recognise from some point in our youth (says me, at eighteen).

Dani takes me right back to that awkward fourteen-year-old stage. In a comforting, nostalgic way, as well as an embarrassing one. I’m revisiting my old diaries, and it’s a bit of a slap to the face to realise how little time ago I was stuck in those crazy thought patterns. Dani’s soundtrack, by the way, is the Franz Ferdinand album Tonight. Not my favourite of theirs, but I like the way it reflects the evolution of a house party (I could write a blog post explaining why I imagine it this way…), with a couple of fairly insightful musings on the limitations of the teenage mindset. Dani’s climax takes place at a house party, so this album in the background eternally reminds me what the whole story is accelerating towards.

I digress. Anyone else see disturbing themes in the books you gravitate towards? (I reiterate, all the books above fall into the LOVELOVELOVEKEEPFOREVERTHISBOOKISMYLIFETHISBOOKWASWRITTENFORME category.)

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Tag: ‘Ten Books That Changed Me’

Music: Dave Brubeck–Kathy’s Waltz

Five months sounds a grossly long time when it’s your final year of school. Long ‘enough to gain a lot and lose a lot, and go through a lot and end up pretty much where you began (goes without saying that I’ve gleaned vats of maturity and general excellence). All anybody needs to know is that I’m still thinking and breathing and most certainly writing, and do not intend to bury this blog in the near future. So, without further ado,

TEN BOOKS THAT CHANGED ME

Miss Alexandrina Brant nominated me for this tag on Facebook a long time ago… The reason I never fulfilled my tag: I couldn’t make do with a simple list of titles. Per book, one paragraph summarising and one paragraph enthusing? That should suffice…

Category One: School Stories

  • However I might fan over Springdale and the Chalet School, the standalone school stories are a better representation of the appeal of the genre. Just so you know school stories aren’t just squealing schoolgirls’ feuds, their authors weren’t imbeciles, and their readers aren’t blind disciples of utter lameness.

1. THE LEAGUE OF THE SMALLEST by Clare Malloryleagueofthesmallest

The new Games teacher notices the irregularity of the school ‘crocodile’ (the two-abreast line in which the girls assemble for walks) and reorganises it in order of height. So the shortest (also newest, youngest and least adequate) Prefect, Jane, ends up marooned amidst the Juniors, and an idle Middle, Eve ‘Lanky’ Lancaster, leads the entire school to church. Big deal? In a traditional boarding school, Hell, yes!

Height: one of the simplest forms of diversity, and rarely addressed in any depth in the literary world. Mallory explores firstly the impact on an ordered society of, well, empirically reordering it—but the real consequence of the height-organised ‘croc’ is an idea: the idea that short means inferior. Thus, the girls at the end of the crocodile form a solemn alliance to prove the idea wrong. (Also: weird. I could’ve sworn this one was by Angela Brazil…)

2. EVELYN FINDS HERSELF by Josephine Elder

Evelyn and Elizabeth are so close they’re like one person. But the day their invincible partnership on the hockey field is split up, a rift opens between them. The book charts their last four years of school, during which they meet new friends—Elizabeth a powder-nosed hockey player, and Evelyn a fungi-loving teacher—and finally drift back together, but as different people, rather than two halves of one.

Evelyn Finds Herself

This is a real coming-of-age novel. It’s about friendship and imitation and compatibility, and the awkwardness of growing up and parting ways with old doctrines, but primarily it exults in human variation and finding one’s own niche. Even the extroverted introverts would relate to Evelyn like a kindred spirit.

  • And did I mention neither of these books have antagonists? Another of my literary turn-ons.

Category Two: Fantasy

  • I’ve never written Fantasy, and never really wanted to, but these three have significantly impacted me both on a personal and writerly level.

3. DRAGONSKIN SLIPPERS by Jessica Day George

When Creel’s aunt abandons her outside a dragon’s lair, hoping it’s the least some handsome prince can do to rescue her and all her family from poverty (oh, and the dragon), Creel is set for a long wait. Instead, the dragon in question invites her to choose a single pair of shoes from his hoard, in return for not bothering him again. Soon she’s on the city road in the hope of finding work as a dressmaker, as she always wanted, starting a war between humans and dragons (not as she wanted)—and, of course, getting her prince.

dragonskinslippers

George is a fabulous children’s author. I can’t read her any more, because I find myself too critical, but SLIPPERS taught me about spunky heroines with unexpected dreams. I don’t know whether it’s the rich, layered (but accessible) world George creates, or the stunning voice, or the undeniable originality of the plot while remaining within the bounds of plausibility. In fact, it may be nothing more complicated than the first paragraph with which I first fell in love: ‘It was my aunt who decided to give me to the dragon. Not that she was evil, or didn’t care for me. It’s just that we were very poor, and she was, as we said in those parts, dumber than two turnips in a rain barrel.’ Tell me it doesn’t have everything.

4. FLY BY NIGHT by Frances Hardinge

flybynightTwelve-year-old Mosca is on the run. She burned down her uncle’s mill, and the word-wielding swindler in the town stocks is her ticket to a better life. But when Mosca discovers that her guide is under bribe to accost the pirate printing press goading the public to rise against the Guilds, she is embroiled in the world of lies and crimes she knows best.

The plot of this book is exceptional, but it’s Hardinge’s style—the imagery, oh, my gosh!—that blows me away. I have never read a book so packed with mind-bogglingly original similes and metaphors, without ever becoming cringy or overly poetic. And the style writes the world, the characters, the tone, and everything else. I can’t praise it enough. Plus, floating coffee-houses…a writer’s dreams on water…

5. GIFTS by Ursula Le Guin

Orrec Castro is supposed to have the gift of undoing like his father. But when he accidentally ‘unmakes’ his own dog, his gift is deemed too dangerous and unpredictable to be left to chance. Orrec’s father blindfolds him for three years so he can learn to control his power. But Orrec doesn’t have the gift of undoing at all—he has the gift of doing, of making…of writing. So who killed Orrec’s dog?giftsleguin

Again, the world-building is incredible. But this is an extremely different world to those in the books above. Le Guin’s Western Shore does not have the fantastical creatures of George’s Feraval, nor the bitter strains of poverty, class jealousy and corruption in Hardinge’s Fractured Realm. The Western Shore is a vast continent made up of a host of different people: it is a fantasy of race and cultural relativism, analogous but for the whisperings of sorcery to the City States of Ancient Greece.

I might as well say, GIFTS is the first in the Western Shore trilogy, and my favourite is really the third one, POWERS. It takes freedom, grief and madness to depths that make me shiver simply in remembrance.

Category Three: Contemporary

  • My choice genre. Wide spectrum, though.

6. CUTTING LOOSE by Carole Lloydcuttingloose

This appeared in my room one day, thin, with a faded cover and brown pages. I picked it up because that’s what I do with books—and had finished it by the end of the day. It’s about a normal girl with a normal life and normal, fairly mediocre problems. It takes place over three days, during which she looks back on the previous week and resents everything in her life. And finally she gets to the end and…lets go. Cuts loose. This book took my angsty teenager-ness and let me breathe.

It implements another of my choice techniques: the anti-climax. And it taught me that it’s totally okay to write about the mundane, as long as you have something interesting to say about the uninteresting.

7. THE BOOK OF LIES by Mary Horlock

thebookoflies

Cathy pushes her ex-best-friend off a cliff, gets her favourite teacher fired and eventually escapes the island in secret. Dual narrative with her uncle, who lived (ahem, subsisted) on the starving and tyrannised island during the Occupation in the 40s.

This book captures everything I hate about the place I live. Mary Horlock went to school with my mum, as a matter of fact—and this book was a huge surprise to me, because I’ve never read anything decent that came out of Guernsey (except Les Mis, if we can claim any credit for that).  It explores all the horrors of living in close proximity with your enemies, the madness of private girls’ schools in the 80s, and the lies that keep a small island from civil war. Microcosmic settings get me so excited.

8. THE GIANT GOLDFISH ROBBERY by Richard Kidd

giantgoldfishrobbery

Roughly, two boys trying to apprehend the robbery of twenty enormous koi carp end up locked in the van with the carp. A wall of boxes (full of clocks) screens the stolen fish (and boys) from view. Across the journey from Wales to Dover, the boys set eight thousand alarm clocks to go off at the same time, to alert Customs to their predicament.

I was only eight or so, but I have never forgotten ROBBERY. It taught me that wackiness makes for memorability, and it’s for that reason I write whatever extraordinary situations my brain comes up with, and try to live at least one every day; that way, anytime someone asks me how I am, I have an immediate list of unexpected responses.

Category Four: Classics

  • Inevitably.

9. GREEN DOLPHIN COUNTRY by Elizabeth Goudge

greendolphincountry

Distracted by the delights of China, William accidentally deserts the Royal Navy. Now with a warrant on his head, he escapes to New Zealand, where he can fund himself a new living, and writes back to Guernsey for his wife-to-be. But out of the two sisters Marguerite and Marianne, who both love him, he can never remember which is which. He writes for Marianne, the sweet, happy golden girl; but doth sail halfway across the world to him the real Marianne, ambitious and fractious. Their marriage is fraught with murdering natives and shattering earthquakes, as well as quarrels, whereas heartbroken Marguerite, stuck on the island, takes up the habit.

Quite apart from the tragic mistake that composes the premise, the unrestrained passages of quiet exalting imagery that infuse the text, and the unexpected tale of fierce survival lurking behind the first few hundred pages of ordered Victorian society, Goudge’s chief feat is Marianne. Marianne is irreconcilably despicable and relatable. She is so, so flawed in her intense, famishing passion. She has all confidence that she can achieve anything she wants…except happiness; and in that respect she has zero self-esteem. No matter she’s two centuries old, she’s the most accurate depiction of a teenage girl I’ve ever read.

10. THE WOMAN IN WHITE by Wilkie Collins

thewomaninwhite

The instant that drawing master Walter Hartright meets his new student Laura, he sees an uncanny resemblance with the young woman who recently escaped a nearby asylum. When Laura’s new husband falls into financial difficulties, and plots to switch her for the terminally ill Anne and gain Laura’s inheritance, it’s up to Walter to restore Laura’s identity. And there’s someone who’ll burn churches to keep him quiet.

Mystery above mysteries! In legal style, Wilkie Collins writes a succession of narrators in a grand roll of testimonies. Scandal, insanity and arson (and an Italian Count): they’re all there. Apart from the unusual structure and complex plot, Collins’ characters are beautiful. Walter is more willpower than archetypal sleuth, and even Laura, whom one might imagine to be a passive victim, is likeable enough to drive the emotional journey. Every secondary character is distinct; most especially Laura’s half-sister Marian, whose devotion and intelligence are a wonderful testament to Collins’ stance on women in the nineteenth century. Well, the entire book, if it comes to that, declares the disadvantageous position of women, whether clever, married or mad.

  • I dare you to pick one of my ten—any one!—and add it to your reading list.

Post coming soon: music and writing, as part of the TCWT February blog chain. I intend to have a decent crack at keeping this blog up to date, so don’t leave me just yet!

My First Confession: School Stories

I’m a sucker for school stories. Real school stories. The old-fashioned type. The ones with the improbable coincidences, long-lost heirs and hidden treasures. I don’t mind how ridiculous they get, or how corny, or how unlikely—I just love them.St Clare's by Enid Blyton, being colourful

I started with St Clare’s and Malory Towers. Easy reads—I still come back to them when I’m ill. And what eight-year-old girl doesn’t think ‘Darrell Rivers’ is the most wonderful name she’s ever come across?

 
St Clare’s by Enid Blyton, being colourful

Then I moved on to the Chalet School series by Elinor Brent-Dyer. And that…well, it’s more like a cult than a series. There are over sixty full-length novels, for a start, with surely over twenty fill-ins by fan authors detailing any terms missed out over the course of the thirty or so years spanned by the series. And most of the fill-ins match EBD’s style pretty impressively, too. I’ve read every single one of the books…three times.

The Chalet School has its own magazine, run by Girls Gone By Publishers, and my mother has written a few articles for it, over the years. I expect I’ll get involved with that someday, too.

I’ve been to Pertisau in Austria, twice, in fact, where the Chalet School was first begun. (I’ll do plenty more posts on the Chalet School and its circuit of Europe, so I won’t go into detail now.) My background and header images (actually, it’s the same photo) were taken a mile or two West of Pertisau. Three years on, it’s still my favourite place in the world.

The Chalet fans have even coined the expression ‘EBD-isms’, which relates to all the (many) inconsistencies across the books. Yes; this does aggravate my sense of balance—but it’s such a feat to write a series of over sixty (with other books on the side), I think I can forgive EBD.

Plus…one of the Chalet books was set in my homeplace. Many of the details may be inaccurate, but I feel almost as if that book was a personal compliment, since so few people have even heard of where I live.

And then there’s Dimsie and Springdale by Dorita Fairlie Bruce, both of which I love to bits, and St Ursula’s, and… (I expect I’ll do review posts at some point.)

My beloved collection of school stories. The top left shelf consists of two rows of the Chalet School series.

My beloved collection of school stories.
The top left shelf consists of two rows of the Chalet School series.

Many of the people whom I’ve attempted, over the years, to infect with my enthusiasm for school stories, found them embarrassing and patronising. Which is true, to some extent. There’s the language to get past, and the improbability of the plotlines, and the complete lack of modern romantic overture would put off most teenagers these days.

Of course, there are some which aren’t at all like that. The girls might ejaculate ‘top-hole!’ or ‘simply marvellous!’ every time you turn a page, but there are a few truly genuine stories which depict girls from fifty years ago in such a way that we can relate to them.

Recently I reread Evelyn Finds Herself by Josephine Elder, which is considered by some to be the ultimate girls’ story. And yes, as I was reading I found myself marvelling at how well-done the characters were, and how quickly I found myself hurting with Evelyn as Elizabeth began to drift away from her…(sorry, spoilers). It is just the same girls as today, and many of the same issues; but in a different time, when a certain manner of things was accepted, and others about which today we wouldn’t think twice were vehemently discouraged.

And besides that, there’s something so simplistically innocent about these books that really appeals to the dreamer in me. There’s very little elaborate imagery or unnecessary depth, and after a while so many things become cliché, but when I find a really well-written school story, I love it second to none. (Or maybe it’s just the nostalgia…)

Evelyn Finds Herself by Josephine Elder

Evelyn Finds Herself by Josephine Elder

How does this impact my own writing? Before I turned ten I wrote school stories—exclusively. I still have books and books of long-hand manuscript—perhaps ten or fifteen novellas set in boarding schools. Of course, that wasn’t so good for my writing.

But it was good for me, myself. You may laugh, but it influenced my way of life—taught me to ‘play the game’, about honour and friendship and how to get along with all sorts of people. Perhaps it even turned me into a ‘prude’, for years scorning romance and make-up and all those things which weren’t considered ‘decent’.

After Year 5 I did make an effort to get away from my own cliché, and turned out a number of novellas with themes ranging from theatrical direction to athletic instruction. I knew nothing about either at the time, it must be said. But I did know about school stories…

And it certainly hasn’t been lost on me. The novel I’ve been working on is set in a boarding school. I wouldn’t say it was a ‘school story’, despite its setting, and it does have rather more modern and mature themes than those I used to read, but it’s useful to use the model of a setting so deeply ingrained in my brain I could apply it anywhere.

And dialogue! I can’t believe I nearly forgot to mention it. As soon as I begin reading school stories again, my dialogue starts oozing out my ears, it’s so eager to get out. My characters’ voices just seem to come alive again. And, you know, that never happens to me with any other genre.

I could go on about old school stories for a very long time, as you may have gathered. I’ll cut it short tonight, however, since I’ve made my confession, and warned you as to the likely content of some of my posts and certainly reviews, if I choose to do any.

But I think it’s the same with all of us. We each have a genre we keep coming back to, because, for whatever reason, it stimulates the creator inside us, and reminds us who we really are.

(I can feel brain stirrings upon the subject of ‘for whatever reason’, but I’ll save that for another post.)