Tag: Review

‘Hard Times’ by Charles Dickens. A Review

What is the point in writing yet another review of a classic? None. Other than for personal satisfaction and as a reminder of what I managed to finish. Just.

This isn’t one of my favourites, even though I feel as though it should be. Written in 1854, ‘Hard Times’ was originally serialised in 20 parts, and explores the world of fact and a simultaneous neglect of the world of the imagination – and does so in a way that is clearly a satire on the society of the day. ‘Hard Times’ (originally called ‘Hard Times – For These Times’) was Charles Dickens’ tenth novel and the world it explores is a fictional northern England town, Coketown. So far so good. But yet not good at all.

I have little time and even less inclination to read books I don’t find compelling, just for the heck of it. Unfortunately, I became impatient quite early on in my reading of this book, my inclination being very much reduced.

Because of this I went onto YouTube and decided to listen to an audio version first – just to get me in the mood, and to see if I could better connect with the story and the characters. But even this didn’t help.

‘Hard Times’ is a terrifying voyeuristic tromp through the realms of good old-fashioned Victorian misery. The fear and stifling practicality of Mr Gradgrind’s school destroys the joy of many of its children. The foul-smelling canal accompanies Josiah Bounderby’s rise from the gutter and his proposal of marriage to the much-much-younger and ground-down Louisa. I’ve read elsewhere that strong-yet-pathetic yet likeable Louisa is a fictionalisation of John Stuart Mill. But I just found her incredibly sad and depressing, and not in a way that I could extract inspiration from her.

Ok yes, this is an intricate and complex story. Sub-plots abound.  Personally, I wonder if it might be a better book if the sub-plots (such as Sissy’s story) were to remain in the foreground and not be side-lined.

My reading group were irritated by the dialect writing, and so was I. I was even more annoyed by the writing of Sleary’s lisp. Stephen Blackpool with his alcoholic wife and his sweetheart Rachael were a good and endearing story, but the way the dialogue was written removed any softness and identification by me. It is as if Dickens uses dialect as a substitute for deep characterisation. And it grates.  

To me, ‘Hard Times’ is a essentially the constant and predictable moaning of opinionated middle-aged, middle-class, annoying old men: shallow characters who go over the same ground over and over and over and over again.  The book could have been reduced by about a third and not have lost anything substance-wise.

There is enough morality and politics in this book to satisfy anyone who enjoys that kind of social commentary, but perhaps not enough story and humanity to satisfy those of us who enjoy psychological depth and complexity.

Review of ‘The Last Runaway’ by Tracy Chevalier

‘The Last Runaway’ was written in 2013 and was selected for me to read by my teenage daughter. She was hovering around the historical fiction shelf, which is usually the least likely location for my own hoverings, and she emerged with this book through an entirely random choice. Our guinea pig was also rather taken by it, as he ate a few inches of its cover when I put it down on the sofa to make a trip to the kitchen.

Anyway, the story’s a good and powerful one. In the year 1850, Honor agrees to accompany her sister on a one-way trip from England to America. Grace dies before she meets up with her betrothed – the marriage being their reason for travel. But she feels as if she can’t return to England, and instead continues her journey and moves in with her sister’s intended. Her own intended, back in England had broken off their relationship to marry outside their shared Quaker faith.

Though life in American isn’t easy for Honor, she meets new people, lives a good life and eventually meets the man she will marry, farmer Jack Haymaker. An article on the Publishers Weekly website summarises as follows: ‘They marry and Honor, drawn by her sympathies into helping the Underground Railroad, is forced to choose between living her beliefs and merely speaking them. The birth of her own child raises the stakes, and she takes a unique stand in her untenable situation. Honor’s aching loneliness, overwhelming kindness, and stubborn convictions are beautifully rendered, as are the complexities of all the supporting characters and the vastness of the harsh landscape. Honor’s quiet determination provides a stark contrast to the roiling emotions of the slave issue, the abolitionist fight, and the often personal consequences. Chevalier’s thought-provoking, lyrical novel doesn’t allow any of her characters an easy way out’. I’ve quoted that in its entirety as it basically covers the entire plot of the book without giving too much away.

What I will say is that ‘The Last Runaway’ won the Ohioana Book Award and was in the Richard and Judy Book Club, autumn 2013. Though it isn’t Chevalier’s most well-known novel (that honour goes to ‘The Girl with a Pearl Earring’ which was made into a film with Colin Firth and Scarlett Johansson) it is certainly popular and well-respected, even amongst other writers. For instance, on Amazon, Rose Tremain says ‘I have always admired Tracy Chevalier’s un-showy brilliance, and this moving story of a young English Quaker girl trapped between duty and conscience in 1850s Ohio is the best thing she’s written since Girl with a Pearl Earring’.

I don’t want to give any spoilers, which can be quite difficult in a book review. So, I had a look on Tracy Chevalier’s website instead and found some really interesting points of reference for reading groups – about the constant sense of movement (from the Underground Slave Railroad), and the feeling that home is not a permanent place, about survival and the importance of silence,  about relationships outside the Quaker community, about the horrors of Honor’s journey and her history, about the differences between the UK and the US and how they are reflected within their patchwork styles, and about dealing with  both loss and hope.

Chevalier’s website also shows us how deeply she was emerged in the world she’d extracted for Honor. She learned to make a quilt in the traditional Quaker style that Honor would have used, and she also undertook masses of research about the town, Oberlin, which was an important stop on the runaway slave escape network – the Underground Railroad, which enabled slaves to move from the south to the safer north.

The story is sensitively written and descriptive, but not boring and self-congratulatory as is often the case with historical novels.  Honor is an interesting and complex character who is living in an equally interesting and complex time of US history. I don’t like historical fiction, but I did like this book very much.

I would recommend this to anyone who enjoys historical fiction, but also to those who don’t. The story is of social expectations, rebellion, love and frustration, and these are universal themes, no matter what your religion or your time of living.

Interview with Lesley Atherton about her book, ‘Past Present Tense’

Interview with Lesley Atherton re: ‘Past Present Tense’

A: This book is about hoarding and nastiness as well as being about family and relationships. It’s an obvious question, but why on earth would anyone want to write (or read) about hoarding?!

L: Well, it’s down to my own personality really. I’m a natural acquirer of unnecessary items but have always managed to stop short of becoming a hoarder. I’m more of a clutterer. Give me a wall and I will put things on it.
Give me a shelf and I’ll fill it. I wish I wasn’t like this, but I am.
Waste Not, Want Not. Make Do and Mend.
So this led me to begin watching programmes about hoarding and getting some deep compassion and understanding of the sufferers as well as those who must live with a mess not of their making.

The main character of ‘Past Present Tense’ is Tanya, who discovers that the dad she thought was dead is actually alive, and is buried under his own clutter in his own hoarded house. I was able to put myself in her position. I was able to also put myself in his position. I hope that’s come over in the writing. There is so much misunderstanding of the reasons behind hoarding. I know that one of the fallacies is that the people just need to get up off their bums and start to clean.

But for the majority of hoarders, it isn’t laziness that causes the collections and clutter, it is more a feeling of connection to the items, and to the memories and feelings those items hold. There are elements of anthropomorphism too. Hoarders don’t just feel responsible for the items they own, but also feel compassionate towards them and often their relationships with the objects are more meaningful than many of the relationships they have with other humans.

Like I say, I’m not a hoarder, but I do understand where the hoarding motivation comes from. I currently own 76 musical instruments. I play only 3 of them regularly, and play none of them daily. Why do I not sell them? Because I like them and enjoy the ownership of them. I like them to be there when I’m ready for them. And there are so many other reasons too: creativity, appreciation of beauty, appreciation of usefulness, and the desire to be able to entertain myself!

I know I’ll never be a minimalist. Blank spaces irritate me. But I really do need to have far less stuff. I hoped that writing about hoarding in this way might interest those people who live with hoarding, either their own or that of others.

A: Is the writing based on the work of anyone else in particular?

L: No. Just me, though one of my reviewers felt that the inner dialogues of the early chapters were reminiscent of Sartre’s ‘Nausea’. It’s odd really, but in recent years my reading has definitely taken back place to my writing. On the plus side, it means I’m not overly influenced by new books I’m reading, but on the negative side, I’m also behind the times. But that works for me. I don’t mind being retro. I can’t imagine being anything else.

A: That’s your personality?

L: It is. I don’t really do trends. I am who I am.

A: I understand you’re working on another book at the moment.

L: Yes, I’m finishing the manuscript for my novel, ‘The Waggon’. It requires completion before September 2019 as I will be submitting it as the final assessment for my Masters Degree in Creative Writing. It’s currently at the 65,000 word stage, but there’s quite a way still to go. After that, I’m going to be starting on a book about teenage Aspergers, and will continue with my publication of other peoples’ work through Scott Martin Productions. I have a few ideas for novelettes and many ideas for short stories, and will also be working on my blog.

A: You’re unstoppable. Do you still have time to attend writing groups?

L: I do. Currently I go to two weekly groups, and two monthly groups. I also attend two monthly reading groups. Why do you ask?

A: I was just wondering if you still find them of use, now you’re published and have more writing experience. Isn’t it something you grow out of as time goes on and you know what you’re doing?

L: In my case, no. My Tuesday group, in particular, is like family. I don’t know what I’d do without them
socially, and they give me great confidence creatively too. My advice to anyone who wants to write, is to
engage with other interested souls online and in person. Once you get over the first feelings of fear at
sharing your work, it really is liberating!

A: I can see that. Thanks so much for answering my questions!

L: Thanks. It’s been fun 🙂

‘The Year of the Runaways’ (by Sunjeev Sahota)

Questions relating to Masters Degree exercise

Sahota’s novel is perhaps less stylistically innovative than some of the other novels we’ve read on the unit. How did you respond to his prose style? How would you characterise it (what key features would you identify)? Does ‘stylistic innovation’ matter to you as a reader?

The prose style is basic but I do view it as a kind of positive in this book.The ways Sahota writes does enable clarity and reduces the ambiguity we’ve seen in many of the other course novels, though I have to agree with certain reviewers who have described it as workmanlike, pedestrian and overly simplistic. The reader can tell who is speaking and won’t need to re-read sentences in order to make sense of them.It is a good job really, as there is already potential for confusion with the lack of clear characterisation and the use of Punjabi.I do find that when a book is complex of plot, or when the characters and places are words you aren’t familiar with, then I, as a reader, do appreciate a simpler format and style.
Stylistic innovation matters little to me when I am reading.What matters more is that the story is well told and effectively written, whether this is in flowery descriptive prose or in short, terse tag lines.Provided the style matches the material rather than overwhelms it, all styles have their plus points.
The Year of the Runaways follows four main characters – Randeep, Avtar, Tochi, and Narinder – through the use of discrete narrative sections. In this regard it might be compared to other novels on the unit, such as NW, Arlington Park, and The Heart Goes Last.
 
In terms of stranding, what differences or similarities can you see between Runaways and these other novels? Do you feel that Sahota’s approach has any significant advantages or disadvantages in relation to the others?What effects does Sahota’s approach to stranding have upon the way we interpret the novel’s characters? As in most of the other books we’ve looked at, plot and action aren’t always entirely clearly drawn. Clear stranding therefore does help, as does the revealing of character history. Did you find the novel more ‘readable’ as a result of this approach?
I am not sure that I find this novel overly readable.I like the style and structure but the lack of book’s length and its clarity regarding the characters did cause problems for me.One Goodreads review says “it’s as if Sahota has decided that realism demands minute attention to detail, no matter how uninteresting the detail. Yes, the lives of the young men are a grind, often boring, repetitive and exhausting, but the detailing of it puts a serious drag on the book’s momentum”.
 
The novel utilises third-person narration. As we have discussed in previous sessions, point of view has a fundamental effect upon the meanings generated by a novel. How would the novel have changed had Sahota opted to use the first person for each character?
The use of first person would have given the stories a more personal feel, and this wouldn’t have necessarily allowed us to view the characters in the same way.We’d be much more subjective rather than objective.Also, the novel seems to have been built on the external lives of the characters rather than the internal dialogues which are inevitable as a result of the use of first person.
 
The first chapter – ‘Arrivals’ – introduces the novel’s four main characters before focussing upon each on in turn. How successful do you feel this opening is? What kinds of expectations does it establish for the reader? How does it ‘frame’ the subsequent story?
I quite enjoyed the opening to this book, though it wasn’t always clear who everyone was.I found it gave a strong sense of how the young men lived and how seedy their lives had become.Yes, it does ‘frame’ the story by rooting its beginning in a time and place, but the reader doesn’t get a clear sense of who the story is about.What I found interesting was the acceptance mixed in with the conflicting interests, the religion and the secular society, loyalty and reasons for being where they were.The beginning of the book gave the reader a window into the kinds of people, the seedy locations, the overcrowding and some of the generalised anxiety involved.
 
Are the strands given equal weight in terms of length? Did you feel each character was equally well served?
Each of the strands is substantial enough to work as its own, but none of the stories would be enough to keep my interest.I do feel that a novel should be more than a group of interconnected stories, and I don’t think this novel succeeded.I can’t clarify about what element should tie them together, and on the surface it does appear that there are very clear connections between the characters, but to me, it seemed it was only their proximity and their lives.Psychological links are what I want, and I didn’t really get them here.
Narinder is the only character who hasn’t been completely squashed by the way they are all living, perhaps because she’s a local and understands the country’s systems a little better?Who knows?
I also wasn’t sure that any of the main characters were actually fully rounded – perhaps this is what stopped my feeling the links between them.Narinder is the most likeable because of her sacrifice but all the characters have sacrificed themselves quite large extents.All have suffered and all were important to the story’s flow.
 
How successfully does the novel deal with time (for example, you might think about the sections which employ analepsis, and the ‘present’ of the year in the title)?
It is hard to get into the world of this novel and to comprehend how these young immigrants must be living.We hear about what goes on but don’t get much feedback on how they feel about it.The novel takes place over a year and cover how life treats the main protagonists during that time.During the story, much is mentioned of their pasts, and this use of analepsis is necessary in order to get some sense of what the characters are background-wise in comparison with where they find themselves at the time of the novel’s writing. I don’t feel that the novel dealt with time all that clearly owing to the characters’ lack of inner lives. Though the majority of the novel’s narration and dialogue is in English, Sahota uses a great deal of Punjabi dialect throughout. Some of that usage is accompanied by clarification: ‘Not far from the train station he stopped outside a theka, a liquor store’ (41), or ‘“Vo he tho hai mera naam,” Kishen finished. A schoolyard phrase, about their names being all they owned’ (58). However, the majority of dialect is not defined: ‘So, even in England she wore a kesri. A domed deep-green one that matched her salwar kameez’ (3), or ‘Three days after Navratri, the rains came, blasting the red earth.’ (59)
 
How did you respond to the frequent use of Indian dialects in the novel? What sorts of effects does it generate? How does it position the (non-Punjabi-speaking) reader?
The frequent use of Indian dialogues can be dealt with in a number of ways.The reader can sit in front of a computer or dictionary and look up each unknown word, as I did when I first began reading this book.However, after a little while this impedes the flow of the book.It gives the effect of making the non-Punjabi speaking reader feel more of an alien, perhaps this being intended because the characters are all aliens in a foreign place too.I quite enjoy the frequent use of Punjabi words, but found the three male characters’ names and characters to not be well defined enough, so I got mixed up almost all the way through the book!A Goodreads review puts it very well- “
 
Given the presentation of his characters’ speech and thought into English, is Sahota’s use of Indian dialects necessary, in your opinion?
Because there is little interior life for any of this book’s characters, the story is all about who does what – and when.It is left to the reader to work out how the characters are feeling, emotionally.In some ways this makes the reader feel that the characters are more helpless and this draws us in a little into their lives with a sense of curiosity.Few comments are made by the characters regarding how bad their lives are, though they clearly live pretty unpleasant lives.It is my feeling that the static nature of the characters only really comes to life when the Punjabi words give them a sense of racial identity.
 
In a more general sense, how do these two types of usage (defined and undefined) position the reader, respectively? Is one approach more successful than the other, in your opinion? Might either approach work well, depending on the novel?
When the usage is defined, the writer is assuming that the reader is not a Punjabi speaker or familiar with the details of these lives.This puts the reader in a position of being an informed alien.When the usage is not defined, it gives another alien sense.It’s like being at a meeting where everyone else has a clear understanding of the agenda, specific business-related acronyms etc, and you are lost in a sea of strange language.You struggle on as well as you can but are always looking for clues to make sense of the situation.This book’s approach, using both defined and undefined, does actually work.It is one of the stronger elements of the novel.
 
Similarly, how important is it for the reader to have a grasp of the contexts of the novel – the Indian caste system, Hindu nationalist violence, the Sikh religion? Does the novel assume that the reader already possesses such knowledge, or does it impart it? How relatable did you find the story and its characters?
It isn’t important to have a grasp of all the contexts, though I think it is vital to realise that when the people come to another country, it isn’t all about economics – it is about family honour, politics, class, and so many other things.If a reader had no idea,then the background writing of India does give some background.Even if we don’t fully understand, we can appreciate some of what these desperate characters may be going through. There is a lot of veiled sociological criticism but, as a Goodreads review reads – “…
 
We have discussed the language of place and setting in relation to other novels on the unit (most notably Arlington Park and The Road). Think about the way in which India and England are described in The Year of the Runaways. Are these settings adequately distinguished or individualised, in your opinion?
Having never been to India I cannot speak from person experience, but I do feel that the setting is quite well described.I felt about the setting much as I did with that described in “Time for a Tiger”. “The Road” has a strong sense of place, though the details of place are more sordid and person-specific, rather than area-specific.“Arlington Park” uses a location built around a sense of middle class superiority yet simultaneous lack of satisfaction.The settings described by Sahota are specific and vibrant (in the case of India), but damp, drab and unfriendly (in the case of England).What the book lacks regarding character differentiation, it makes up for with the setting differentiation.
 
How does the novel explore the relationship between the ‘runaways’ and England? How ‘complete’ a picture of the country and its people does the novel offer?
The three male ‘runaways’ have little or no relationship with the country or society of England.Their existence within England seems to have been forced upon them by circumstance, and have become entirely an economic transaction, there being little or no inter-racial integration.This must be intentional, for how on earth could the workers be so exploited if their friend groups were able to defend them and give them a sense of contrast with the outside world of non-immigrant working people in England.Because of this, I didn’t feel there was a detailed or evocative image of England written.England was a backdrop for squalor, as was India, and, though there were clear differences between the European and Asian scene settings, I didn’t get a clear sense of place for the writing about England (though I did for India).Narinder, the only female runaway, was the only one to originate in the UK.She spent time alone, on public transport, at temple and community centre etc.She was able to do this, being a legitimate UK citizen.So, although she still spent much of her time within her own community, she did have more of a historical and current relationship with the country than the others did.
 
How did you respond to the end of the novel? Did it provide a satisfying pay-off?
Although I generally enjoyed the book’s simple prose, the use of Punjabi and the feel of the novel, I didn’t really feel the plot was satisfying, particularly the ending.  The only main female character seemed inserted into the action.  A man needed a visa wife, and in came Narinder.  Though her character was the most likeable and had the most convincing psychological status, she was required to give legitimacy to her husband but her story was very much too short, especially considering it was one of the major pivots for the whole book.  This was a book which was too long, disconnecting, and which lost my interest very quickly.  Like Narinder, the epilogue seemed added on as an afterthought and as a result it was unsatisfying.  I would have preferred the story to end inconclusively, possibly with the threat of deportations and the promise of a good job giving the reader something to consider about the characters’ future, rather than the reader being presented with a future of little interest. 

‘The Harmony Silk Factory’ (by Tash Aw)

Questions relating to this book as a set text for Masters Degree

‘I’ve always been drawn to novels with complicated structures, richly textured stories that don’t reveal everything at first glance.’ – Tash Aw.  The Harmony Silk Factory is notable for its tripartite structure – ‘Johnny’, ‘1941’, and ‘The Garden’. Each section is narrated by a different character and characterised by a different genre of writing: investigative research; a diary; memoir/confession. Which strand do you think is the most successful, and why?
The three parts are narrated by 1) Jasper, Johnny’s son 2) Snow, Johnny’s wife, and 3) Peter Wormwood, Johnny’s best friend.Although I didn’t love the character of Snow, I found the journal entries to be relatively compelling, though I had little interest in the chaperoned honeymoon.For some reason, Snow seems more in-the-minute than does the seedy Wormwood.However, I preferred the factual elements of Jasper’s strand.He seems to tell a fuller story, and one that is not limited to a few events only.His historical recollections seem more readable.
 
How does Aw modulate language, technique, syntax, sentence structure in each? Is there, in your opinion, enough differentiation between the voices of the novel’s narrators?
The use of the diary for Snow (with “Still no sign of Honey” short sentences), the use of the posthumous reflection on his father’s history for Jasper (and resultant semi-respectful thoughts of his father), and the rambling, over-exaggerated drunken Wormwood’s obsessiveness do differentiate to some extent.However, it was difficult at the beginning of each section, particularly the final one, to understand who was speaking and this did detract from the overall effect of the novel.
 
How does each strand relate to the others? Is the ‘implied reader’ of each strand the same?
The implied reader of Snow’s diary, is herself.It doesn’t read like a journal aimed at as-yet-unknown ancestors, or ramblings laid down for non-specific posterity.Jasper’s gives his account in order to make history aware of the true nature of his father, therefore he speaks to those in the future regarding the past.The implied reader of Wormwood could be the entire audience for a staged tragedy.Jasper is telling us what actually happened and justifying why he hates his dad, Snow is giving details of events in her life, and Wormwood is romanticising the past in nostalgic ramblings.
 
How do we evaluate the reliability of each strand?
Jasper has a point to prove, as does Snow.Wormwood has a life story to back up.As such, all are reliable to each character.But whether they tell the ‘true’ story or not, is a different matter.
 
To what extent does each strand ‘reveal’ the personality of its narrator (Jasper, Snow, Peter), as well as those of its central characters?
Jasper is bitter, confused.  Snow is introspective and a bit sneaky.  Peter is flamboyant and a dreamer.  Yes each strand does reveal the personalities of the writers, best in the first and last, less strongly with Snow as her journal is less retrospective story telling and more reflective of the way the character feels at that moment in time. 
 
Finally, why does Aw arrange the novel in this way, in your opinion?
The novel is arranged in this way, likely because we would feel far differently if the last section became the first.  We would see Johnny as a romantic anti-hero rather than as the very flawed and unstable human being he clearly was.  Also, the historical section does need to come first to give a context in time and space.  Snow’s section seems to fit perfectly in the middle.  She is writing in the present and the others are writing of their pasts. 
 
Zadie Smith’s NW shares some formal similarities with The Harmony Silk Factory: three lengthy ‘strands’, ordered serially (rather than recursively), with a voice, style and perspective peculiar to each strand. What else might this comparison reveal? Do you feel that one novel combines these features more convincingly or successfully that the other? Do these similarities produce the same results/effects?
In addition to the comparisons already mentioned regarding Harmony Silk and NW, I noted a few others.In particular, the sense of time and place is strong in both, as is the need for escape from surroundings which may not be sympathetic for the characters.
Also, like Johnny, Natalie was neither saint nor out-and-out sinner (certainly Wormwood seems to have seen the good in him more than others might). Another connection I felt between both books, and others probably won’t agree with – “As in NW, the language, dialogue etc was good, but the whole book just didn’t appeal to me.
 
How important is the order in which we meet the narrators? How might the novel have altered had Aw elected to reorder these long chapters? How might the novel have been altered had the narratives appeared recursively and in smaller sections?
Jasper’s section gives the character of Johnny a contemporary stance, and also allows the reader to connect a little with Johnny as a villain.The other two sections do not allow for as much connection or empathy.It is interesting how, when the story arrives with us in chunks, we fit right into that mind set for a substantial period of time.Then, the chunk changes and our attitude changes also.
 
A small cast of characters (Johnny, Honey, Peter, Snow, Kunichika) reappear throughout the novel. Does Aw reproduce these characters consistently from one section to the next? What risks might this approach run in terms of character development?
I did not feel that the characters were consistent.In fact, in many ways they were also not strongly drawn at all.For example, Peter and Honey became interchangeable to me, and it was only in the final section, when Wormwood got his voice, that I realised who and what he was.
For example, Kunichika’s character (and Snow’s reaction to him) do not seem similarly drawn in the different sections.He is described as a scholar as well as a vicious killer.Snow appears as an angel, an adulteress, confused, a child, and a responsible woman.Johnny is a bad man but also a good enough man to warrant Wormwood planting a garden in his memory: all this for a gangster, an inscrutable businessman, communist and textile merchant. Each of his narrators sees him differently.
The Hickling article says that “Aw makes a credible job of modulating the varying tones of voice by which the smiling villain of the first part comes to be seen as the weeping cuckold of the third”.The inconsistency of the representation is not particularly dangerous.Most readers are mature and experienced enough to know that narrators are largely unreliable and at best are subjectively reliable.
 
In your opinion, how important is it that the reader of HSF has some prior knowledge of Malaysia? How successfully does the novel introduce its world to the reader? How vital to the novel’s story is its setting? Might this approach pose any challenges to the reader or the writer?
I have no prior knowledge of Malaysia or of its social and political history and neither do I tend to find books of this type to be particularly gripping.In this novel, the story’s setting both in time and place is quite essential: the travelling fabric seller, the social insecurity etc.The challenges I would think relate mainly to the lack of empathy of understanding from those readers who know nothing of Malaysia.On a related point, I thought it interesting that neither Snow nor Wormwood were involved in the Harmony Silk Factory’s brothel story.I had expected this setting to be a major one for the entire plot especially as the book’s cover displays a beautiful women with a flower in her hair, looking seductively over her shoulder.In reality, the setting is not the brothel, it is about the valley, the country, the islands and the boat, and, once Jasper finishes telling his tale, it almost feels as if the Harmony Silk Factory never existed.So, the major, Factory is more of a starting point than a backdrop which permeates the entire story.I didn’t find this particularly satisfying.

On a related point, how important to the novel is the time in which it is set? How essential is the novel’s primary setting during the Second World War to its plot? To what extent is The Harmony Silk Factory a work of historical fiction?
Historical fiction is a genre of writing where both plot and setting are located within the past.The book is mainly set in Malaysia before the Japanese invasion (true place, true events), but the story (being fiction) also inserts made-up events, characters and places to this truthful framework.As such, this is therefore a work of historical fiction, as well as one of conjecture, fantasy and imagination.It’s interesting that so much is going on but it is not a crucial part of the story.The “demise of colonial rule in Malaya, the fledgling rise of communism, the impending Japanese occupation. Nothing is set. Neither the circumstances of the story, nor the characters” (from a Goodreads review). The setting in time and place is crucial, but any accuracies don’t make it a better or stronger story.
 
To varying extents, all three strands revolve around Johnny Lim. How consistent was the portrait of Johnny throughout the novel? Given the extent to which Johnny is described by the three narrators, how complete was your sense of the character? Did you respond to this feature of the novel? What might Aw have been trying to achieve?
The character of Johnny was definitely not consistent.He is variously described as innocent, sweet, interesting, criminal, violent, psychopathic etc.I feel that Aw was trying give the readers an awareness of the characters narrating more than the characters being described.I am unsure about this feature of the novel, though it almost felt that the reader was being treated as a gullible bystander, so it did wind me up a little.I agree more with Hickling’s comment about the book’s “maddening inconsistency” more than its “mysterious appeal”.
Johnny, like all the other characters, was unlikeable, no matter who related his tale.
 
What other themes does Aw foreground in the novel, and how does he do this?
Hinkling believes that it is the binding image of silk that holds the book together.I can understand why he might write this, but I did not feel it at all.It is interesting that the character the story revolves round is not allowed a narration of his own – intentionally, as I am guessing that this is about the way that one person can be perceived differently by everyone he encounters, even himself.
The themes of the novel include love, hate, betrayal, obsession and greed. The author displays this by having all three narrators take independent attitudes to these themes.According to Time magazine, the book is a “tale of love and betrayal that transcends mere location”. Again, I do not entirely agree, and all the themes are not of equal strength, just as not all the writing is equally compelling.

‘Get Everything Done and Still Have Time to Play’ by Mark Forster

I love books like this. They basically buy into what I’ve always felt – that work and play are seriously allied. Work is best when seen as a form of play, and play benefits from being taken as seriously as work. It is all about getting a balance. The book recommends we all increase our ‘depth’ activities such as walking, yoga and reading, but mainly it is about useful activity.
As is the case with many of these books, much of the advice seems logical – like decide on one thing you’ll do the next day (work or leisure related) without fail. Or start small with organisation and become a little more demanding with yourself day by day, pushing yourself only to your maximum capacity.
One of the statements that really resonated with me was that you can’t manage time (because time just ‘is’) but that you can manage what you give attention to. It is easy to be busy without achieving much – because you’ve been taken over by trivia. We need to know the big picture and where we want to be. This way, we don’t avoid trivia and stress, we just deal with them in a focused way.
What I took away from this book was the importance of dealing with your own resistance to the big, scary, important tasks. I know that I can spend happy hours on paperwork, but when it comes to something more scary, I always feel like I need a clean desk before I can even approach it. Hence important stuff does not get done with the priority it deserves.   
Real effectiveness depends on the ability to cut through to what really matters and to concentrate on that. I know this, because the alternative is unthinkable…
When you follow the disorganised path of least resistance, the way you live your life is almost completely the result of outward stimuli – connected with other peoples’ disapproval and expectations. But if you overcome resistance and take action before resistance builds up, if you break large tasks into smaller ones and increase the pains of not doing the task, resistance is more pointless. You need to get resistance working for you by setting up good routines and as much automation as possible.
Say NO, in order to make space in your life for new projects. You need to focus on the right things – not the insignificant busy-making tasks which take attention from the bigger picture.  The author recommends you cost out the activities you deploy your attention on. Split things into must do, should do and could do, and do the ‘musts’ first! Start a daunting project TODAY. Do the thing you fear most first, and this just makes everything else seem relatively easy. We will only change something if the pain of doing it is greater than the pain of changing.
Free-flowing tasks which don’t have time scale are often those for which we have the most resistance. Natural inertia prevents us from starting, but it is also what keeps us going thereafter. The best antidote for fear is action.
When you use resistance as a guide and a motivator, what is important gets actioned first, days become easier, anxiety and tension are dispersed, procrastination is eliminated, real work gets done, ‘busy’ work withers away, concentration is maintained, and crises are prevented. If you don’t use this as a guide, the entire opposite happens.
I took a lot from this book the first time I read it. I still listen to the advice now.
Resistance is FUTILE!

‘The Road’ (by Cormac Mccarthy)

Questions and answers from Masters Degree in Creative Writing

This is perhaps the most stylistically distinct book on the reading list.  The novel’s typical sentence structure is unlike any others in this unit, matching a pared down prose style with an austere, unadorned world.  Yet despite its literary minimalism, it would also be true to say that McCarthy is a lyrical writer.  Do you think McCarthy finds poetry in sparseness? 
 
I do feel that McCarthy finds a lyricism and poetry in sparseness.  Sections I particularly felt illustrated this include pg 210 “They left the cart in the woods and he checked the rotation of the rounds in the cylinder.  The wooden and the true.  They stood listening.  The smoke stood vertically in the still air.  No sound of any kind.  The leaves were soft from the recent rains and quiet underfoot” (repetition of ‘stood’, concentration on movement and lack of movement – vertical smoke, still air, silence, quiet leaves, rotation, etc).  The sparse sentence – “The wooden and the true” could be interpreted in a great many ways, so the seeming simplicity doesn’t always simplify intended meaning.  Much seems to be more like prose poetry than standard descriptive prose. 
 
Also, I consider the following to be really endearing writing – “He’d a deck of cards he found in a bureau drawer in a house and the cards were worn and spindled and the two of clubs was missing but still they played sometimes by firelight wrapped in their blankets”.  It has almost a breathless quality, lacking in punctuation, but it is both sparse and lyrical. 
 
Many of the other novels we’ve looked at employ elaborate prose styles – polysyllabic, hypotactical, linguistically playful – whereas McCarthy uses a pared down and noticeably paratactical style.** Does this make McCarthy’s language any less charged?  Is The Road’s compression and concision in fact more powerful and/or provocative than the contrasting prose styles on this unit?
 
Pared down writing of a type referred to as ‘paratactical’ is undoubtedly the intentionally selected style for this novel.  According to an article on literarydevices.net, the function of parataxis is that it is “…useful in explaining a rapid sequence of thoughts in poetry and prose.  They could evoke the feelings in a similar way as though they happened at once.  It is a helpful device when describing a setting.  In simple word, parataxis helps the readers to focus on a particular idea, thought setting or emotion.  Also, cultural theorists use it in cultural texts where a series of events are shown side by side”. 
To get inside the mind of a complex person in a complex society (for example, the characters in “Arlington Park”), description and connection are required.  The psychological intensity needs description.  However, in “The Road” the society has been reduced to desperation levels and the human beings equally so.  I feel therefore that the short and snappy prose is both powerful and provocative.  Its lack of description and frippery simply mirrors the world in which the characters all live.  It makes the reader uncomfortable and miserable, and that is how this probably should be.  It also enables the reader to connect with the difficulties of the man and boy, in a way that detailed introspection may not.
 
Why do you think McCarthy writes in this particular style?  Think especially of the novel’s sentence structure – sentences that often read like individual clauses subtracted from larger sentences, so that something seems to be missing either from the beginning or the end of the sentence.  Does this make the novel’s images seem isolated, or does the prose work by a slow process of accumulation and accretion?  What is the effect of parataxis?
 
I believe that this style is used intentionally.  The world of the book is fragmented and the prose is too.  To some extent the imagery in the novel is a series of tableaux, but are connected by the isolation and desperation within.  I don’t feel the prose works because of accretion and accumulation but certainly the endless style consistency does add to the numbing effect of the writing.  Perhaps there is some element of accretion owing to the fact that the book does work towards a climax (the death of the man), at which point it ends. 
Can you find any notable uses of simile or metaphor? How does McCarthy use these devices?  Does his minimalistic style lend itself to lyricism, or is a significant effort of modulation required?
 
The beginning of the book uses these devices when the man is dreaming – “Their light playing over the wet flowstone walls.  Like pilgrims in a fable swallowed up and lost among the inward parts of some granite beast”.  Interestingly, the very final paragraph of the book (pg 307) uses these devices – “On their backs were vermiculite patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming.  Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back.  Not be made right again.  In the deep glens where they lives all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery” – regarding trout in the streams.   
Regarding the rest of the book, there are far less than might be expected in a book of this length and depth.  I wondered if perhaps this encourages the reader to consider that still in the man’s mind there is a lyricism and appreciation of beauty and coincidence etc, and towards the end, we get this again and feel a little more hopeful – as if we may be looking towards new beginnings and new adventures to be had, etc. 
Parts of the book which do use metaphor etc, tend to refer to thoughts of the past or the future – pg 43 at the waterfall – “He’d stood at such a river once and watched the flash of trout deep in a pool, invisible to see in the teacoloured water except as they turned on their sides to feed.  Reflecting back the sun deep in the darkness like a flash of knives in a cave”. 
The novel has very distinct tones (ominous, forbidding, weighty, almost biblical) and textures (rough, hard, mineral), and uses a consistent palette of greys and shades (ashen, leaden, ‘the gunmetal light’ [p. 4] …) How does McCarthy evoke these qualities, and to what effect?
 
McCarthy evokes the darkness and misery of the novel not only by the use of stark sentences, but also by the use of stark words – bleak, black, limp, long, cold, grasping, grudging, scared, shuffled, frail.  It just goes on and on.  The first time I read this book I was completely unable to finish it as I was very vulnerable at the time.  Finishing it this time, feeling stronger, I nevertheless did find the tone of the writing to be biblical in its inevitable apocalyptic portrayal and the ultra down-at-heel nature of the characters.  There were no kings in their towers, and no slaves etc.  Each person is as miserable and scared of each other as the next.  Also as one example, there were many little things – like when the man goes through a house and finds an apple on the ground outside. Pg 127 “He’d stepped on something.  He took a step back and knelt and parted the grass with his hands.  It was an apple.  He picked it up and held it to the light…”.  There is an air of miracle and of the parting of the red sea: the apple symbolises the purity of fresh food (now dried and withered) and the fall of humanity in the garden of Eden. 
The novel isn’t broken down into chapters, but is instead made up of short blocks of text.  Why do you think McCarthy has chosen to structure his narrative like this?  And what affect does this have on you as a reader?  How does it affect narrative qualities like pace and suspense?  Does it add or remove a sense of scale (e.g. a sense of the relative importance or impact of specific moments)? Does it make it harder for the writer to modulate between different moods, emotions, experiences, different levels of significance?
 
There is no end and no real beginning to the story.  The short blocks of text give us a feel of a lack of structure to days and to lives, and to the grim monotony of their daily misery. 
I am not sure if pace and suspense are altered as a result of the block rather than the use of chapters etc.
Perhaps it does make it harder to discern the different moods, levels, emotions, significance etc.  But I actually think that the sameness of absolutely everything makes even small real events stand out a little more. 
How does McCarthy use dialogue?  What effect does containing snatches of dialogue in short isolated sections have?
 
Dialogue is presented as part of the prose, with no defining punctuation.  Unlike “NW” and “Arlington Park”’s treatment of dialogue, I did not find the unusual treatment in “The Road” to be pretentious and irritating.  I actually found it to be the absolute best option. 
Using the short dialogue sections does make things interesting.  It makes the reader feel that silence is the status quo and conversation of any kind is exceptional so therefore deserves its own section.
 
Why the removal of some punctuation (particularly in words like ‘cant’, ‘didn’t’ etc)?  And what is the effect of removing speech marks?
 
The effect of removing speech marks almost seems to be a depersonalisation of the humans, and mixes their utterances with standard prose.  The people are as much a part of the desolate scenery as the deserted houses landscape is. 
I suspect that punctuation was removed in order to make the reader more aware of the sliding effect of the misery – in other words, all senses of grammar and punctuation is lost because civilisation is also lost. 
 
How do thoughts of the man’s past life filter through into the present?
They tend to filter through regretfully as dreams, more than as positive reflections. 
 
How does McCarthy fill us in on the past, on both a cosmic scale (e.g. what has happened to the earth) and a local scale (the past life of the man and the boy)?  Is the narrative method oblique or direct?  What role does mystery play in the novel?
 
There is a lot of unclearness regarding what has actually happened to the earth and the people on it.  The mystery element is actually beneficial to the way the story plays out.  We don’t need to know about the people and the places and what happened.  We just need to know that it did.  We also need to know that everything, even the earth, has lost its identity and the oblique narrative expresses this well. 
How does McCarthy frame the book’s philosophy, ideas, symbolism?  Is there profundity in the novel, or is it too strained/forced? Does the narrative slip into allegory at all (e.g. the boy and the man stand for something larger)?  (The section pp. 178-85 listed in the close-readings below is worth looking at in these respects. Is this a parable?  A fable?  Or just a story?)
 
I don’t feel that the profundity of the novel is strained and forced.  Yes, I believe that the boy and man do stand for something larger – but they don’t need to.  They stand on their own as characters.   The quote on pg 179 is interesting “People were always getting ready for tomorrow.  I didn’t believe in that.  Tomorrow wasn’t getting ready for them.  It didn’t even know they were there”. 
 
Who says this on p. 209: ‘Do you think that your fathers are watching?  That they weigh you in their ledgerbook?  Against what?  There is no book and your fathers are dead in the ground.’ ? And the section on pp. 279-80 beginning ‘He got up and walked out to the road’ to ‘To seal my mouth with dirt’; and the novel’s final paragraph? What is happening to the voice in these moments?
 
My first assumption was that the man had been responsible for the quote about fathers watching.  My afterthought was that it could have been the narrator breaking through. 
In these sections, the novel becomes more allegorical and more fantastical.  It is harking back to better times and looking forward to better times – temporarily removing the characters from the misery. 
 
How is time treated?  Think of the many painful moments that last and linger, and then how suddenly a series of days will simply pass in a clause (‘In three days they came to a small port town’ p. 280); or how the harrowing thought of the boy unable to leave his dead father is stated with no ornament (‘He stayed three days’ 301).
 
Time is treated as a fluid entity that is almost incidental.In a place where there is no reliance on jobs, on punctuality, or keeping appointments etc, the time itself is not necessary to be considered.So, the boy staying with his dead father for three days indicates that’s the time it took him to deal with it, rather than some arbitrary boundary that needs to be bidden.
 
**(Parataxis is when sentences and/or clauses are kept short and declarative, usually orchestrated by coordinating conjunctions [most commonly ‘and’] rather than subordinating conjunctions [‘therefore’, ‘because’, ‘so that’, ‘which…’, ‘perhaps’ etc].  Hypotaxis occurs in more complex sentences, often made up of multiple clauses which use subordinating conjunctions and qualifications.  Henry James’ writing is a prime example of the hypotactical style, and Ernest Hemingway’s of the paratactical.)