Yesterday, I had a surreal experience. While dragging myself round a typical Saturday’s chores, I was waiting for the tumble dryer to complete a 10 minute towel softening stint, when my eye was caught by an adjacent bookshelf. My tumble dryer is located in a cupboard on the upstairs landing – a multi-purpose storage area, home to a mini Chinese laundry, innumerable boxes of family photos, a spare uncomfortable futon for the foolhardy who’ve imbibed one too many, and loads of books gathered over the years, and shelved in no particular order. Or are they? I was taken aback, and taken back through the years by an apparently random shelf of books which seemed to encapsulate the key periods and interests of my lifetime.
Heidi by Joanna Spyri – the mountains in summer, the wildflowers, the alpine hut, sleeping on a bed of straw. It was a far cry from a life in a Dundee suburb, one of my very first loves and prompted a detour to visit Heidi-land while in Switzerland a few years ago.
Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon – a school reader, and the first novel to touch an invisible place where roots, primeval attachment and a burgeoning sense of identity lay. One of the few books I have returned to several times over the years.
Across the Great Divide by Jim Wilkie – a history of professional football in Dundee, evoking memories of pride, excitement and quality time spent at Dens Park with my late father every second Saturday from age 10 to 18.
This year, and from now on, instead of moaning about being too busy, I am resolved to use my time more wisely and for better quality outcomes. For example, I am no longer wearing anything that I don’t like or doesn’t do me any favours – and I don’t care if I have spent good money on an item or if the result is that I am left with very few sartorial options – I am more interested in dressing quickly and not dithering in front of the mirror debating with myself what to wear, trying on and taking off the many impulse buys current residing in my wardrobe. Likewise, I am not wasting time reading anything unedifying, or poorly written. With all those wonderful books out there? It would be madness.
It was reading and revelling in And the Mountains Echoed, Khaled Hosseini’s latest book, which prompted this latest lifestyle decision. I had refrained from buying it, and particularly from downloading it on to my Kindle, in the hope and belief that someone (with a big hint from me) would present me with the book for Christmas. My daughter – and the book – did not disappoint. I have spent a typically reclusive festive season delighting in the quality of his story-telling.
In contrast, I picked up while shopping in a certain supermarket, Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld. It’s not a bad story. Two sisters with certain psychic powers, one who is open about the fact, and the other who denies it – but it fails to charm, inspire or engage.
The challenge is to determine just what is the difference in the way these two writers put words on paper. Does Hosseini write a basic story and then work on improving his use of language and enriching the quality of his exposition? Or does his mind work such that he produces quality straight off? Sittenfeld can construct a decent story. So can Mirren Jones. But can either of us create a literary experience I wonder?
We’re currently trying to complete the basic storyline of Never Do Harm. And then the task will be to transform it into an experience. That will be a true quality outcome.
Mirren and Jones frequently post reviews on Goodreads. Sometimes it is weeks after finishing a book that we get round to expressing our views, and it is interesting to reflect on that process. Speaking for myself (Mirren), I often find that I am left with a lasting impression rather than an accurate memory of the content of a novel, and want to express that impression in terms of a feeling or emotional memory. For example, Helen Dunmore’s book ‘Your Blue Eyed Boy’ has an arresting prologue. Its words captured my interest and imagination immediately, and that gut response has remained with me. Here is what she had to say about blackmail.
Blackmail doesn’t work the way I always thought it would, if I ever gave it a thought. It doesn’t smash through the clean pane of life like a stone through a window. It’s always an inside job, the most intimate of crimes. Somebody in the house has left that little window open, just a snick. The person who leaves it open doesn’t know why. Or else doesn’t want to know. From outside a hand reaches into the gap, and the window creaks wide. Cold air comes rushing in. I see that hand now, each time I shut my eyes to sleep.
In our second novel (in-progress), Never Do Harm, we have tried to grab the reader’s interest and create commitment to read further with our introductory chapter. See what you think. Here are the first few lines as a taster.
It’s an everyday situation for her.
Again and again until demand, or luck, runs out.
Today it’s the same bar as yesterday. Bar Caravelle on Rue de la Partigon. Nothing fancy. And it’s the same drink as yesterday too – vodka, with just a splash of water. It warms her up, and after a few she begins to feel numb, and that’s good, it helps with whatever follows.
A news item caught my eye this week and saddened my heart. Doctors and nurses are to be charged and possibly imprisoned for not providing adequate care for patients. How that contrasts with one of my recent reads – The Element – How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything by Ken Robinson.
Ken recommends an educational system and ethos which helps individuals discover their gifts, talents, desires, passions and then suggests how to help those develop by joining others of a similar mind (the Tribe) and finding a mentor to guide, challenge and further that person’s development.
No doubt many doctors and nurses are born to perform a caring role. For some the job may be a real passion, or use of their innate abilities to the full. How much better then that the working environment stimulates commitment, rewards professionalism and enthusiasm, and uses examples of exceptional practitioners to motivate and inspire.
But no, some people think the big stick works better. Not only ‘Never Do Harm‘, but if we catch you failing, we’ll make sure you end up bitter, defensive and demotivated.