Saturday, 31 March 2012

Review: CODE NAME VERITY by Elizabeth Wein

UK Cover
Elizabeth Wein’s novel Code Name Verity is, in part, the confession of a female SOE agent captured by the Gestapo in Nazi-occupied France.  Verity, who keeps her real name hidden for much of the book and is alternately referred to as Queenie or Scottie (she is adamantly not English), has sold eleven sets of wireless code to the Gestapo in return for an end to torture and time enough to write down everything she knows about the British war effort.  Verity’s narrative, however, is also a way to abuse her Nazi captors and, most importantly, to explain how she came to be in France, which means telling the story of her friendship with Maddie Brodatt, the female pilot with the Air Transport Auxiliary who flew her over the Channel.

Through Verity’s strong and distinctive voice, we learn about the ‘sensational team’ that Maddie and Verity make and how they fight to assist the British war effort as pilots, spies, and wireless operators, despite others’ doubts about their abilities and bureaucratic barriers at every turn.  There are moments of transcendent, lovingly described flight in this novel (Wein herself is a pilot), evoking the freedom and responsibility so grudgingly allowed these young women.  Their beautifully developed friendship is structured by Verity and Maddie’s telling each other their ten greatest fears, which change over the course of the novel, as they are faced with increasing danger to themselves and others and must make impossible decisions.  Verity and Maddie are both engaging characters, with individual voices.  The Gestapo characters are complex and human and each responds to his or her role in interrogating spies and resistance fighters in various and realistic shades of grey.
US Cover - Release May 15, 2012

This novel has two narratives, of which it is best not to say too much – ‘Careless talk costs lives’.  However, the second narrative throws Verity’s into sharp relief, providing a different perspective on the events of the novel, and delves into the question of what narrative truth – verity – means.  This is a captivating thriller, as well as a heart-breaking story of friendship in wartime, and it demands to be read over again to see just how wonderfully constructed Wein’s double narrative is.

P.S.  This novel reminded me in places of Mal Peet's fabulous novel Tamar, which also featured British SOE agents behind enemy lines.  If you like Code Name Verity, and I suspect you will, you may well enjoy Peet's novel as well.

Friday, 30 March 2012

The Oxford Literary Festival: Part Two – The Genre/Literary Divide

The Oxford Literary Festival comes to an end this weekend, but my attendance is now complete and I have four signed books to show for it, just as I had hoped.  If there was a pattern to the first part of my experience of the festival, it would have been children’s and YA books and writing.  If there is a pattern to the second part, it would be the literary fiction/genre fiction divide, something I have rather strong opinions about, as a writer of a YA fantasy novel and a doctoral student looking at those very canonical authors, the Brontes.  My reading and writing tends to be, as Lev Grossman might say, rather bifurcated (gosh, isn’t that a great word?).

Tuesday, I attended a panel discussion rather provokingly called But Is It Literature?, at which Christopher Priest, author of The Prestige, and Mark Billingham, a crime writer, spoke.  I had read neither of these authors, but I do like speculative and crime fiction (when done well) and the topic interested me.  I think there are some really fascinating issues to be dug into regarding genre fiction and literary fiction, itself, as Mr. Billingham said, a genre like any other with its own tropes and expectations. 

However, with all due respect to the panellists and the moderator, I didn’t feel this discussion really grappled with the issues surrounding “literariness” and where genre fiction fits into that.  Last year’s Booker shortlist, roundly criticized for including books partly on the basis of readability, was raised and the naysayers lambasted.  The topic of reading for enjoyment came up.  Mark Billingham seemed to suggest that if you don’t enjoy a book, there is no good reason to go on with it.  I read Victorian literature for enjoyment now; when I slogged through Jane Eyre at fifteen, it was much less enjoyable.  However, it was also valuable training for the more difficult books I was going to meet and fall in love with in future life.  Readability and enjoyment cannot be the be all and end all; on the other hand, there is no point to book that is trying only to be difficult (*cough*Finnegan’s Wake?*cough*).

I was also surprised that in a discussion of the literary merits of genre fiction, language and prose style weren’t raised until an audience member asked a question about it.  So, on the whole, I felt there was much more to be discussed on the topic.

Thursday, I attended a panel called The Power of the Critic, at which Andrew Holgate and Peter Kemp, editor and reviewer, respectively, for the Sunday Times’ book review pages spoke.  The discourse here was much different from at the genre talk.  The process of deciding which books to review and the dos and don’ts of reviewing were covered, as well as the various ways irate authors can get back at their reviewers following bad reviews (this usually involves killing off or torturing characters who happen to share the reviewer's name in one’s next book).  On this panel, the Booker shortlist of last year was roundly criticized (though I did agree that Alan Hollinghurst’s excellent The Stranger’s Child probably should have been included) and the criteria of “readability” dismissed.  Internally, I went “Ack!” at that point.  What’s wrong with a good story?

Also, if the audience was anything to go by, broadsheet reviewing may be in trouble in this country.  I’m sure I was the youngest person in the room.

Tonight, I attended my final event of the festival.  Lev Grossman, the literary critic from Time Magazine and the author of the wonderful literary fantasy novel The Magicians spoke on storytelling and the new avant-garde of American novels at an event hosted by the Rothermere American Institute.  It was a fantastic talk and it covered a lot of the areas I had hoped would be discussed at the But Is It Literature? panel. 

Grossman gave a brief history of the novel, from Robinson Crusoe (1719) through to Henry James and the High Modernists.  He argued that for the first 150 or so years of the novel’s life, it was a genre that could be both High and Low in terms of art.  Dickens was a popular novelist, after all.  However, he identified James as first putting his work forward as high art only (which is rather amusing, since James referred to The Turn of the Screw, one of his most influential books, as a pot-boiler).  The Modernists, seeking to subvert the realist, linear narratives of their Victorian youths in the aftermath of World War I, created a high art version of the novel with fragmented narrative, difficult language, stream of consciousness, etc., which we now call the literary novel.

And so, since then, the literary novel and the genre novel have been running on parallel tracks, never meeting.  Grossman suggested that with the growing number of literary novelists now using genre elements in their novels (Michael Chabon, Cormac McCarthy) and the equally large number of genre writers exploding their genres and writing literary novels (Neil Gaiman, Susanna Clarke, China Mieville, etc.) that these two novelistic forms might be working their way back toward each other.

The big change here, Grossman submitted, is an renewed interest in old-fashioned storytelling.  As an exemplar of this new avant-garde in novel-writing, he put forward George R. R. Martin, who, Grossman believes, is plotting in sophisticated ways that no literary novelist could match.  The Modernist version of the literary novel is very old; new novelists are fusing genre and literary elements and re-embracing plot.  As a reader of the literary canon and some contemporary literature (mostly historical – more story-based) and a lot of young adult and fantasy literature, this is a trend I can wholeheartedly support.  Long may it continue!

Lev Grossman then very kindly signed my copy of The Magicians – my fourth signed book of the festival.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Oxford Literary Festival 2012: Days 1 and 2

To my delight, the Oxford Literary Festival has begun and will be running through to the end of next weekend.  So far, I have attended three events and had three books signed.  Not bad at all.

The bookish fun began Saturday morning, at a panel discussion about Dickens and children's literature featuring Philip Pullman, J. D. Sharpe, and Christopher Edge and chaired by Mario Dickens Lloyd, an editor and great-great granddaughter of the great man himself.

I was heartened to find out that all three authors had come to Dickens through various adaptations as children and teens and started reading the books themselves as adults, which is much the same way I came to Dickens.  I was afraid they would all be terribly precocious and have read David Copperfield as young children (I think I've heard Claire Tomalin say she did this). 

Perhaps the best part of this talk was having Philip Pullman sign our lovely Everyman's edition of His Dark Materials.  Also, he confirmed that Will's portal at the beginning of The Subtle Knife is very close to where we live.  I will do my best, however, not to slip into alternate universes.

Then, in the evening, there was a panel called Life, Death, and Other Grown-Up Subjects, with YA authors Patrick Ness, Moira Young, Tim Bowler, and Sally Nicholls.  There was much discussion of the necessity of a certain degree of darkness or extremity in constructing stories with high stakes and that won't come off as "humbug" to teens.  Tim Bowler pointed out that even tragedy with the everyone-dead-on-the-stage ending has its place in our literature; after all, if we didn't have Shakespeare's tragedies, we would be missing quite a lot.  There was also interesting discussion around the benefits of writerly doubt and terrible, lovely difficulty of writing novels.  Teri Terry over at Notes from the Slushpile has blogged about the panel in much more detail.

After this, it was off to the pub for an evening of chatting books, writing, and publishing with some lovely Oxford-area Society for Children's Book Writers and Illustrators members (I became a member about a month ago - a great decision!).

Then on Sunday morning, I attended a three-hour workshop called Bookcamp: How to get a Children's Book Published, with Julia Churchill from the Greenhouse Literary Agency and Leah Thaxton, publishing director at Egmont UK.  Julia and Leah gave similar talks at a recent SCWBI Professional Series meeting in London, which has been blogged about in much more detail by JE Towey and and Caroline Hooton.

However, some general observations.  First of all, it's really lovely to know that agents and publishers, apart from anything else, are really just looking for great books they can fall in love with.  Of course, then the challenge is to write a really great book.  Yikes.

Julia explained that for writers, there's really not much point in paying attention to publishing trends, because the timescales involved in selling and then publishing a book are so long.  By the time your book comes out, say, 2 years after signing with an agent, the field will have changed a great deal anyway.  Leah described the ideal editor for one's book, as well as a publisher's ideal author (in part, a writer who is willing to work hard to improve the manuscript!).  Also, apparently people within the industry are getting worn out by vampire novels, unless they have a humorous spin to them (perhaps like Eat, Slay, Love).

Because the Bologna Book Fair was just last week, I asked if there were any interesting trends that had come up there.  Leah said what she is looking for in particular is joyful, life affirming stories and humour, especially for a younger audience.  Julia said the only trend she discerned was the publishers were looking for contemporary romances with a twist.  Very interesting, even just from the standpoint of a reader who loves children's books.

I came away from the morning with a head packed full of information and a keen desire to get back to editing my MS.

P.S.  That last event was held at Queen's College, which is beautiful!  I must go back soon with Tim and play tourist.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Chapter-Writing Survival Kit: Chapter One Edition

  1. Coffee - with caffeine, not from instant crystals.  Preferably fresh Tim Hortons (what I am drinking right now)
  2. Tea, preferably chai
  3. Hot chocolate
  4. Real chocolate
  5. Laptop + narrow gauge lined paper
  6. Black Bic pens + red and blue gel pens
  7. Sympathetic partner for back rubs and for keeping ethernet cable away from me
  8. Healthy snacks: fruit and yogurt
  9. Mind-clearing walks
  10. iPod loaded with music to distract me from the agony of the writing process

Monday, 19 March 2012

When Is It Time to Start Writing?

As I embark on actually getting the words down for the first chapter of my doctoral thesis (on heroes and hero-worship in Charlotte and Branwell Bronte’s early early writings), I’ve been thinking a bit about taking the leap from research and planning to actually writing.  I’ve realized that my process for academic writing is in many ways similar to my creative writing and since I suspect some other grad student and writerly types may be reading this, I thought I would attempt to explain how this works for me.  As with everything concerning the writing process, this is highly individual.

Before I start writing, I need to know where I’m going.  If I start in on an essay or a novel without having worked out what my end goal is and, at least in general, how I’m going to get there, I flail around hopelessly.  I'm totally lost in the woods.  Generally, I just don’t go in to a piece of writing until I know my major road markers, unless I’m trying to write an abstract or a proposal, when getting my ideas down messily and then shaping and cutting for word count after seems to work quite well.

I know some writers can go into a book and not know what’s hiding behind each corner (I’m thinking about fiction writers particularly here, but I know students who write this way too – it boggles my mind).  But then they go back and revise and work their book, essay etc. into a workable shape after the fact.

For whatever reason, I can’t do this.  For essays, I need to know each major point I’m trying to make before I start.  I need to see the shape of the argument in my head.  I also know it’s time to start writing when the essay, in a sense, begins writing itself, when I hear random sentences in my head that belong in the essay, when I come up with a way to describe something I’m trying to prove.

I used to plan out my essays in great detail, writing down every point and every quotation and page reference in a gigantic outline, then typing everything onto the computer.  That way I got to put off the actual writing for as long as possible. I think I’m better at embracing a bit of mess now, and have found that roughing out a paragraph or a section on paper and then typing and refining seems to work quite well.

I seem to need less detail going forward on a novel, but like an academic paper, a novel also needs to have enough complexity in the ideas and plot to move it forward.  Now that I am hopefully coming toward the end of revisions on my current novel, I’ve begun thinking about what the next one might be like.  Over the last couple years, I’ve had about three reasonably novel-like ideas, but none of them is tugging at me, shouting at me to write them now.  I suspect they are rather half-baked.  I don’t think there is enough imaginative force there to propel me through an entire novel.  I started, and even finished, so many longer stories that were really just dead inside as a teenager and discovered in the process that novels need a critical mass of ideas, so that a chain reaction occurs and ideas spark new ideas and pull up old ideas and rework them for the new context.  I think that’s what I’m waiting for at the moment.

And even then, when will I know when to start writing?  Well, I’ll need an idea of the plot structure and my end point.  And, as occurred with this novel, I’ll know it’s time to start when it begins writing itself in my head.

I remember this quite clearly.  I’d had the original idea for this novel back in March of 2006, and then on August 17th, after I had just finished a summer Latin class and put another old (and frankly not very good) novel to bed, I was sitting on my bed, eating strawberries, listening to CBC radio, and reading Wuthering Heights, and I think the cadences at Emily Bronte’s language set something going in my mind and the book began writing itself.

At that point, you really do just need to start.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Televisual Escapades: The 1970s (ish)

Tim and I have begun a strange trend in our TV watching lately.  We've been catching up on TV from around the 1970s, primarily British and primarily documentaries.  In theory, these are all shows our parents might have been watching, if they had aired in Canada.

1)  The Civil War (1990)
This is of course the massive and spectacular Ken Burns documentary, spread over 10 parts, and it began our documentary craze.  We both watched documentaries on TV from time to time and the odd feature-length documentary, but we are now gobbling up huge multi-parters.  We actually started watching this back home, but had a bit of a hiatus, because, both in Saskatoon and here, I kept falling asleep during the Gettysburg episode.  Shame on me.  However, once I managed to stay awake through Gettysburg, we really enjoyed the rest of the series.  We will definitely be tracking down his The War, which I saw parts of when it originally aired on PBS.

2)  The World at War (1972)
This gigantic and very famous World War II documentary was our next foray into the world of documentaries.  Wow.  We recently finished this one (it took awhile - it has 26 episodes!) and it was wonderful.  For one thing, it's narrated by an aging but still beautifully voiced Laurence Olivier.  For another, it's amazing the events they have footage of, and often colour footage too.  It's amazing how much more real and recent World War II looks if you have colour film of it, even if the colour isn't very good.  I learned so much more about the Pacific, Eastern, and African fronts, as well as the Japanese home front.  We put off watching the episode on the Holocaust for awhile, until we were in the right mood for it, but the film makers handled the material really well, with first-person accounts from victims, Germans who were involved, Germans who hid Jews in their homes.  Anyway, it's a massive documentary, but it's a really fantastic account of the war, with a great variety of witnesses looking back at the events of 30 years before.

3)  Connections (1978)
This is a ten-episode series on the history of science and change, hosted by the inimitable James Burke.  One small change or invention in the distant past is tracked through many evolutions down the ages until something important to our daily lives is reached: the atom bomb, the telephone, the fighter plane.  The various historical connections are fascinating (Burke is, at bottom, a great storyteller), unpredictable, sometimes dizzying to follow.

4)  Cosmos (1980)
Tim had previously listened to Carl Sagan's 13-part documentary on, well, the cosmos, our world and its place within the solar system, galaxy, and universe as a whole.  What's interesting about watching this documentary now is learning that so much of what we take for granted about space - that Jupiter has rings, the details of of Jupiter's moons - had only recently been discovered at that time by the Voyager missions.  Also, they had only just figured out that the mass dinosaur extinction had been caused by a meteor.  The accompanying background music for the series ranges from wonderful classical, like Holst's The Planets, to gratingly synthetic.  But, it was the 80s after all.

5)  Fawlty Towers
This is of course not a documentary, but it is from the 70s and I had never seen it before.  No, not even the "Don't mention the war" episode.  Tsk, tsk.  John Cleese and company are hilarious and without fail, every episode had me cringing delightedly as Basil Fawlty's schemes spiralled out of control.  Also, I think Prunella Scales' "BASIL!" will forever be imprinted on my mind.

6) Civilisation (1968)
For one thing, this show is a joy to watch because it lingers lovingly on great art and architecture in colour and, as of recently, HD.  Because the picture quality is so good, in many respects this does not look like a show that was made in the 60s.  In fact, it was one of the first big colour productions of the BBC.  It follows western civilization through its art.  I find Kenneth Clarke may be reading a bit too much into changes in art and he has some things to say about civilization and history that strike me as being slightly wrongheaded now (also, in the first episode anyway, there were a number of slightly off-putting references to "barbarism"), but the series is really very interesting.  We're just about to enter onto the Renaissance episodes now.

If you happen to be looking for good TV, you can't do much better than many of this classic series.  How I wish more huge documentary series were being made today.  (Maybe they are and I just don't know about them.  Recommendations?)

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Tricking Myself Into Writing: 5 Strategies

This post is brought to you by ... Procrastination!

Well, here I am.  Tomorrow, I have to turn in a conference paper to my supervisor, which is great, because that means I'll have the rest of the week to tweak and improve.  However, this also means I have to finish the darn thing in the next 24 hours.  (I'm sitting at 3 pages at the moment.  I have at least 7 to go).

In the old days, by which I mean, undergrad, I would think and plan and collect primary source quotations and usually write papers in the last day, maybe two before they were due.  They were always done on time, but they were also usually completed at a bit of a sprint, over the course of a few very painful days.

Toward the end of my Master's thesis, a much longer and more involved process, I began to come up with some strategies to help myself approach writing, an activity that I love and hate, that is easy and brain-achingly hard, and that I will apparently avoid at all costs.

1. I figured out that if I could convince myself to refine and enlarge my outline enough times, I would end up accidentally starting a draft.  That draft would also be relatively easy, because I would have laid out all my points and page references and quotations ahead of time.

2.  A bit later, I discovered that writing longhand, especially at the beginning of the paper worked well.  I couldn't obsess over word count; the white page seemed less foreboding that the flickering white screen.

3.  A bit later, I learned the trick of "messiness".  This works especially well if I'm writing to a constrictive word count for a proposal or abstract.  I tell myself, well, I'll just get my ideas down first, and then I can shape the proposal later, even if my sentences don't make sense or are hugely wordy.  If I start on paper, I can easily refine as I type everything up.

4.  Cannibalize from other documents.  Starting an a paper is hard.  If I can steal an opening paragraph from a related essay (even if I have to change it around a fair bit later), I can skip the difficulty of opening and play around with tweaking and shaping raw material instead.  Afterwards, continuing is much less difficult.

5.  Rewriting.  I discovered today, yet again, how hard transitioning from one part of a paper to another can be.  Answer?  Rewrite the previous paragraph or section and then write what comes next.  I know that once I get back into the flow of writing, words/ideas will probably show up in my head without too much more effort.  Rereading previous material can also serve the same purpose, and is something that has worked well in the past for novel-writing too.

I'm actually feeling pretty good about this paper (on male homosocial bonds and sibling rivalry in Charlotte and Branwell Bronte's early writing).  It feels like the ideas are snapping and sparking against each other.  I've got primary and secondary sources ready to be referred to; I'm surrounded by my books and papers; I actually have a firm argument (hurrah!).  So... now I guess I really just need to get back to it.