Swiss poet treads the line between love and loss

If you’ve ever had your heart broken, felt crushed, used and discarded, Swiss poet Angelia Maria Schwaller has something to say to you. I recently interviewed the award-winning poet for swissinfo.ch – my first introduction to Swiss-German poetry.

Angelia writes in her unusual Freiburg dialect, which is not taught as a written language in Switzerland. Her first collection of poetry dachbettzyt was published last year. If you’ve never heard the Swiss German language, it’s worth listening to the clip of Angelia reading her poem crumbs (‘verbroosme’ in Swiss German) below. The desolation in the sparse lines written by this 25 year old reminds us that everybody hurts sometimes.

crumbs (unofficial translation) by Angelia Maria Schwaller

I am dry and old bread
lie enclosed in your hand
being crushed by you

afterwards
when it’s all over
you throw me
in crumbs
on the stone floor
as fodder

scattered, I fall down
the cracks
and get lost

© dachbettzyt, Knapp Verlag 2012

Listen to Angelia read crumbs here. She has a lovely voice:

https://clareodea.files.wordpress.com/2013/06/schwaller-verbroosme.mp3

Like to know more ? Read the full interview with Angelia published last week. It’s interesting that Angelia is a self-taught poet who picked up most of what she knows online, starting at the age of 12! Shows what a great resource the internet is for writers.

http://www.swissinfo.ch/eng/culture/I_never_imagined_writing_would_pay_the_bills.html?cid=36117988

And one more translated poem:

drops (unofficial translation)

delicately
drop after
drop
is lost

at the low point
a puddle
is collected

I flow
into it through
my racing heart

© dachbettzyt, Knapp Verlag 2012

Angelia’s homepage (only in German):
http://www.angeliaschwaller.ch

Five Days by Douglas Kennedy

Five Days

After reading Five Days by Douglas Kennedy I now know what it’s like to be inside a toxic marriage. The miracle is how many people stay in failed relationships and it’s an interesting human weakness to examine.

The question could have been more compelling though if the main character Laura wasn’t so saintly and her husband Dan so despicable from beginning to end. Most husbands have some redeeming features!

This is a book of the economic downturn with a compelling portrayal of the financial struggle of the American middle class. For this reason it will resonate with a lot of readers in the United States and elsewhere. Another major point many readers will identify with is the disappointments of middle age – the sense of missed opportunities and time running out.

After the more exotic settings of his previous novels in places like Berlin, Paris and Hollywood, I like that Kennedy has set this story in such a low-key environment. Most of the action takes place in small-town Maine and a cheap hotel on the outskirts of Boston.

The book is a page-turner but unfortunately the strong plot is not always matched by great writing. The interaction between the Laura and her love interest Richard gets a little too sickly sweet for me. OK, the two of them are literature and language buffs and delight in finally meeting someone they can flirt with on an intellectual level but the constant synonym sparring and literary references get tiresome.

The fact that husband Dan is totally unsympathetic takes away some of the tension when Laura is faced with the choice of having an affair or not. Richard also has a horrible wife at home by his own account (or could this be what everyone says about their spouse when they are about to cheat?) so you feel no sense of protectiveness towards either of their spouses.

Kennedy squeezes the action inside five days, although they are not all consecutive so we do get to jump forward and view the outcome of the characters’ choices. There is quite a lot about Laura’s relationship with her children but as you don’t get to know the kids outside their mother’s adoring gaze, they don’t become very interesting as characters.

The best thing about this book is its depiction of the limitations people place on their lives. Kennedy actually says “don’t lock yourself into an existence that you don’t want”. Hopefully it will inspire some people to seize the moment. (On a side note I find it cruel that Americans get so little annual leave.)

Although Five Days fell a little short for me I remain a serious Kennedy fan – I’ve read everything of his so far and State of the Union is one of my favourite novels. I pushed really hard for my book club to choose this novel at our last meeting but it was voted down (we’re reading Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife instead). Looking back now I think it was for the best.

Writing lessons from Charles Dickens

Oliver amazed at Dodger’s mode of ‘going to work’ – George Cruickshank
Oliver amazed at Dodger’s mode of ‘going to work’ – George Cruickshank

The first draft of a story is just the raw material, right? It will need to be revised, reworked, perhaps even radically overhauled, word by word, plot hole by plot hole. This is the fall back that makes writing a slightly less daunting endeavour. Thankfully everything you put down can later be improved, reordered or deleted.

That is the stage I am at now, trying to enhance my novel to the best of my abilities – and there’s a lot more work to do. But once in a while, a writer of genius come along who breaks all the rules, someone like the giant of 19th century English fiction Charles Dickens.

Last year being the bicentenary of Dickens’ birth there was a lot of Dickens talk and I happened to hear a radio discussion about the great writer in which one of the experts named Our Mutual Friend as the author’s best book. It had been years since I’d picked up a Dickens novel but he’s always been close to my heart. My grandmother, who shared my childhood home, was a lifelong Dickens fan and was always willing to read to us.

So I got my hands on a copy and tackled the near 800-page opus. At the back I was delighted to discover Dickens’ plot plans and notes included. It’s a fascinating insight into his working method and brain. He had worked out (monthly) number by number how the action would unfold, weaving all the storylines together and leading his characters on a merry dance through to conclusion.

Courtesy of Claire Tomalin’s suberb biography – Charles Dickens A Life – which I’m currently reading, I have discovered a lot more about Dickens. From the very beginning Dickens did not have the luxury of letting his stories evolve organically as they were serialised in monthly or weekly issues. Tomlin quotes Dickens as saying: “My friends told me it was a low cheap form of publication, by which I should ruin all my rising hopes”. He triumphantly proved them wrong.

For ten months in 1837 two of his serial stories, The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist, ran simultaneously. Dickens was producing the chapters for two different publishers and coordinating with two illustrators – an incredible juggling act, on top of which he was also editing and contributing to a monthly magazine Bentley’s Miscellany.

“Managing this double feat was an unprecedented and amazing achievement. Everything had to be planned in his head in advance. Pickwick had started as a series of loosely rambling episodes, but he was now introducing plot … and Oliver was tightly plotted and shaped from the start. There was no going back to change or adjust once a number was printed; everything had to be right the first time. … Each number of Pickwick and Oliver consisted of about 7,500 words, and in theory he simply divided every month, allotting a fortnight to each new section of each book. In practice this did not always work out as well as he hoped, and although he sometimes got ahead, there were many months when he only just managed to get his copy to the printer in time.”

Just four years earlier, aged 21, his first piece of non-journalistic writing was published – a ‘sketch’ or short story, published anonymously and for no fee in a very small circulation magazine called the Monthly. He remembered dropped in his offering “stealthily one evening at twilight” after the place had closed. The sketch was followed by many more and led to fame within months and a 30-year stellar career.

We cannot watch fly-on-the-wall documentaries about life in Victorian England but we do have Dickens, who transposed so many of the characters and everyday scenes around him into his work. The people loved him for his crusade against the appalling social injustice of the day and we still have the privilege of learning from the great master of storytelling.

By the Old Gods and the New

wallpaper-daenerys-dragon-1600

It is one hundred years since French mathematician Émile Borel first coined the metaphor of the typing monkeys. Finally, a mathematical theorem everyone could remember and broadly understand, even without a proper grasp of the concepts of infinity, probability and time.

(Quick reminder – an infinite number of monkeys typing on an infinite number of typewriters given an infinite amount of time will eventually produce the works of Shakespeare.)

Here’s another one to ponder, more historical pattern than a theorem. Isolate a group of people for long enough and they will make up their own religion. In Game of Thrones, George R.R. Martin has done a masterful job of illustrating this human phenomenon.

From the Old Gods of the Forest to the Faith of the Seven, the Drowned God to the Lord of Light, there’s something for everyone in Martin’s brilliant array of belief systems. Fire, water, sand, horse blood, ancient trees – anything can be ascribed sacred properties in his fantasy kingdoms, as in the real world.

Of course not all religions evolve over countless generations, some enterprising folk fast forward the whole process by putting together their own faith package either from scratch or rehashing a new version of what’s gone before. If Martin has the imagination to create a dozen religions, clearly there are enough creative individuals out there with the ability to produce one.

Once the basic stuff is established – the back story of the religion, who or what to worship and a description of the afterlife – there is the option to make up a set of rules for everyday life. It doesn’t matter how silly these rules are, people will lap it up.

Baseball caps must be worn at all times by anyone over the age of ten, breakfast must be eaten within four minutes of waking up, no drinks may be consumed cold, brush you hair only with your left hand, no sex on Mondays, no work on Tuesdays, hop on one leg on Wednesdays. Throw in something about women being simple minded, dangerous, or in some way tainted with evil and you are onto a winner.

My own religion Clarism involves a lot of tea lights and a special devotion to butterflies and tomato plants. I’ll spare you the complicated story linking these elements. Followers are marked with chalk on their foreheads and always carry pepper on their person. Each new convert is allowed to add one line to our holy book in the quest for the one true story. And we’ll all live forever in the eternal lake of dreams.

The Woman Who Went to Bed For a Year

No it’s not me. The most I have managed is half a day. Great title though. When I saw that this novel was written by the British icon of young adult comic fiction in the 1980s, Sue Townsend, I was intrigued. I hadn’t read anything of hers since the early titles of the Adrian Mole series.

The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year is a cautionary tale for wives and mothers everywhere. When your identity – and all your time – is subsumed by what you do for other people, you may suddenly find yourself a lost cause.

On the day her twins leave home for university, Eva climbs into bed and stays there. She doesn’t have a plan or a manifesto, just a conviction which evolves into a phobia that she cannot leave that bed.

Against this backdrop Townsend introduces a host of characters, some loveable, some dreadful but all very human and highly amusing. The best laughs of the book come from the antics of Eva’s appalling husband Brian, closely followed by his long-suffering mother.

What I like about the book is that it’s entertaining first and thought provoking second. It will be enjoyed by young women – should even be handed out in maternity wards as a guide to the pitfalls of mothering (and marriage!) – but perhaps most appreciated by older women.

On a practical level what I took away from Townsend’s story was a decision to step back ever so slightly last Christmas. Eva’s long description of the exhausting self-imposed burden that the family’s Christmas celebrations had become rang warning bells for me. This time round I shared the festive secrets and the to-do list, and will do my best to resist the temptation from now on to scale up the traditions and obligations from year to year.

Strange and terrible stories

Around the age of two and a half my twins discovered stories. At the same time I discovered the power stories had over them. It started with Goldilocks. The naughty little girl, the bear family, the repetition, the danger – I could not retell it often enough for them, always with the same cadence and gestures. They were hooked and stories like these got me over plenty of sticky moments, especially while travelling, when they were restless or bored.

By the age of four the girls were regularly demanding made-up stories. These they preferred to books, because they could be made to order and they lasted longer! The request was always the same. It should be about a little girl or animal, or both. One twin would demand that something “strange” and “terrible” had to happen, while her sister would modify this with “but not too terrible”.

So began a series of strange and terrible stories, usually involving the diminutive protagonist getting into some kind of danger herself, or rescuing an animal from danger. I got tired of this formula long before the children did. One story I told them about a Neanderthal family made a big impression. What really got them was that the people had not developed language yet and communicated by grunts, tone and sign language. Language truly is the greatest gift of our species.

This craving for stories stays with us for life. We meet friends and family to swap stories; we read books, watch films, follow television series. The news media are also part of the great storytelling tradition. These sources are all feeding the same need, which goes far beyond entertainment. We seek out stories to make sense of the world, to understand ourselves and others, to explore our worst fears and greatest hopes. Long live strange and terrible stories!

Back to Blackbrick

May I introduce myself? I was the person sitting next to you on the flight last Sunday who had to keep closing her book because she was welling up. I also had to keep going back to it because I was hooked by the plot. What was I reading? Back to Blackbrick by Sarah Moore Fitzgerald. I don’t normally read young adult fiction; it all looks a bit deliberately silly to me – judging by the covers (I know!). But this novel is different. The main character Cosmo is like Adrian Mole’s sweet younger cousin. He has all the right instincts in the face of life’s challenges, without the judgement or the conviction to make the right moves. Cosmo can’t really handle his emotions and yet he is the character who remains truest to those he loves.

Who hasn’t dreamt of going back in time to see how our forefathers lived? The Blackbrick of the title is the stately home where Cosmo’s grandfather lived and worked as a boy. Distressed at his grandfather’s decline brought on by Alzheimer’s, Cosmo goes back to Blackbrick and discovers a way to unlock the secrets that overshadowed his grandfather’s early life. There are some pretty adult themes in Back to Blackbrick – bereavement, the perils of the class system and the stigmatisation of unmarried mothers. But here is a writer who can make you smile when she describes the tragic advance of dementia, who celebrates the bonds of family and friendship no matter what. If you are looking for something a little more meaningful to buy your teenagers or bright pre-teens, Back to Blackbrick is it.

Sarah Moore Fitzgerald’s book was launched earlier this month in Limerick and Dublin, published by Orion. The US version will be published soon as far as I know and translations are in the pipeline. So, bearing in mind the small disclaimer that I was once Sarah’s sweet younger cousin (less sweet now), rest assured this is an exceptional piece of fiction.
http://www.amazon.co.uk/Back-Blackbrick-Sarah-Moore-Fitzgerald/dp/1444006592

True History of the Kelly Gang

Last October I stepped off a bus in Wicklow town on the east coast of Ireland into hard driving rain. I made a run for the old town jail, a place I’d been meaning to visit for a while. On the tour of the building, which dates from 1702, visitors are transported back to crueller times, just as the inmates of the prison were once transported to Australia. You learn about the inhumane conditions the prisoners, including children, were kept in, the miserable rations they were given on the ocean voyage and the petty crimes, borne of poverty, which sealed their fate.

Under the Banishment Act, Irish convicts from Wicklow Gaol were sentenced to transportation up to 1856, around the time the infamous outlaw Ned Kelly, son of an Irish convict, was born in Victoria.

Kelly, whose remains were only given a proper burial in January this year, is a hero to many (though not all) in Australia but whatever your political colours, Peter Carey’s truly original novel True History of the Kelly Gang is captivating. Narrated in Kelly’s voice, the words come tumbling onto the page charged with passion and pain. It is such a convincing account, the period details and nineteenth century Irish-Australian idiom so fresh and vivid that within a few lines, you are there in the hot, dusty township walking in the footsteps of the little boy Kelly.

Carey’s novel is a story of a pride, prejudice and the abuse of power. It is also the story of a son’s love for his mother and the human capacity for endurance. When you read True History of the Kelly Gang you wear the clothes of the downtrodden colonials, eat their food and feel their burning sense of injustice. It must be one of the most accomplished fictional representations of the life of an historical figure. You believe Ned Kelly is speaking, you want it to be him – and you don’t want it to end.

Growing up with books

Every writer starts out as a reader. If I cast my mind back to my childhood, books were a central feature of our lives. The greatest influence came from my paternal grandmother who lived with us growing up. She was a remarkable woman. Born in her father’s brewery in Kilkenny, Ireland in 1911, she had a small but fantastic library of books. Nanny, as we called her, trained as a Montessori teacher in London in the 1930s and later worked as a governess. She had a wonderful way with children. She introduced us to her favourite authors over the years and one of my sweetest memories is of sitting wedged into the armchair beside her as she read aloud.

There was the Swallows and Amazons series by Arthur Ransome about a family of kids living in the English Lake District and My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell describing his years living on the island of Corfu. Nanny was crazy about Dickens and read through Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, Dombey & Son, Nicholas Nickleby and  A Christmas Carol for us. She had a beautifully illustrated edition of the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen.

The more girl-oriented stories included The Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild, A Little Princess and The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, Little Women and Anne of Green Gables were in there too as was the fantasy novel The Midnight Folk by John Masefield.

Stories featuring animals began with the Beatrix Potter series, moving on to Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne and The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame.

My own favourite children’s book of all time is The Animals of Farthing Wood by Colin Dann, the story of a group of animals forced to flee when their forest is destroyed. Tom McCaughren’s Run Swift, Run Free series also featured foxes’ adventures. The list goes on and the great thing is I now have the pleasure of starting all over again with my own children.