Bicycles and Books

In preparation for a cycling holiday I am due to go on later this year I decided to sign up for ‘Ride’ classes at the gym. I haven’t cycled regularly since I rode my bicycle to school many years ago so was a bit nervous. Reactions like ‘Are you sure you can manage?’ from friends didn’t help. Suggestions were given like using a stationary bicycle at the gym and doing my own thing at a more moderate pace instead of attending a class. But that seemed far too boring. So I went ahead and booked. On the online class booking app I was instructed to ‘choose

Me cycling in Munich in 2014

my position’. I chose the bicycle as far away from the instructor as I possibly could. I fished out of my cupboard my brand new, frightfully luminous pink, disgustingly revealing padded cycle pants. When I added the demure little skort over the top I looked suitably modest. I was ready. Let the Ride begin!

Now, before I let you know how the Ride went, I’ll talk a bit about books as no doubt you’re wondering what books have to do with bicycles.

Well, when contemplating a boring session on a bicycle by myself, my helpful friend suggested I listen to an audiobook while pedaling away. Good idea! I had recently finished listening to the audiobook The Lioness of Morocco by Julia Drosten. This book would’ve kept me in the saddle for almost 13 hours – a decent amount of training for a holiday I would say. But would it have kept the boredom away? On the whole, yes. It’s a charming romance set in a place and era I know very little about. The main character is a likeable, although rather simplistic, Englishwoman. What I did feel got a bit longwinded was the ‘saga’ nature of the story. The family and their children, and children’s children got me wondering when it would end – a bit like a gym cycling session? Another saga I’d recently finished was the historical novel Sarum by Edward Rutherford. In this ‘novel of England’ the story follows five families from 7500 years BC right up to 1985 AD. Eight hundred and ninety seven pages – and about one year – later and I would’ve had calves like a Tour de France cyclist had I listened to that while training.

Well, back to my Ride session. I did pretty well thank you very much and didn’t suffer too much from sore muscles in the derriere the next day. Success! Whether I continue with the classes or do my own thing in the gym, my holiday is approaching and time is short. So, to hasten my training along, perhaps I’ll increase the speed on my next Audible book – Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – and instead of training to a saga, I’ll puff away to a short story. Either way here’s to bicycles and books!

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Beginning and Ending a Year of Books

Last year I blogged about reading lists and enjoying the curl-up-in-bed book All the Light We Cannot See http://bit.ly/2CuB8vJ by Anthony Doerr. I mentioned being surprised at how many books I’d read in just a few weeks. Keeping lists can do that for you.

I start 2018 similarly surprised by how many books I managed to read last year.

Some of those include: Bloodlines by John Piper, Questioning Evangelism by Randy Newman, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak and Gospel Boldness by Rod Thomas. Rod is a Christian missionary in Japan and it is clear that his book Gospel Boldness flows from his work in that country. He encourages Christians to confidently share the gospel, saying that clarity in this area is ennabled by God’s Spirit and is something that can be cultivated. Bloodlines by John Piper is an honest and thought-provoking discussion on the gospel of Jesus Christ and racism. ‘The achievement of the cross [on which Jesus died],’ says Piper ‘in reconciling all ethnic groups through faith in Christ is part of how the work of Christ on the cross magnifies the greatness of God’s grace.’ Piper urges Christians to abstain from partiality and to support God’s plan to gather a diverse and unified redeemed people.

I appreciated Questioning Evangelism for its fresh approach to engaging people in respectful, intelligent discussions about Jesus. Newman is funny and supports genuineness, caring and listening – the antithesis of the one-size-fits-all, in-out, disrespecting sales pitch approach to people I have seen in the past.

But my favourite (and only fiction) book on this list has to be The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (2005). This is my second reading and I relished it perhaps more the second time around. The narrator (death) is well-developed, the characters perfectly individual, the descriptions unusual, and the subject matter (Germans who didn’t support what the Fuhrer was doing in WWII) deeply touching. The style is such that you simply cannot get lost, or confused. The short sentences and chapters make for easy reading, and even though the narrator explains what is to come before it happens, these revelations don’t spoil the story. I cried as my eyes raced across the pages and as my heart ached for Papa, Mama, Rudy, Max and Liesel. The Book Thief is on the shelf of my bookcase reserved for lifetime favourites.

The Book Thief was my last read of 2017, All the Light We Cannot See my first. How interesting that both had WWII as their subject, and children as their protagonists.

I look forward to my 2018 reading material. Here’s to a fruitful 2018 of books!

Learn from More’s Fierce Convictions

In January this year I read Seven Women and the Secret of their Greatness by Eric Metaxas. The brief biographies contained therein whet my appetite for more about the women Metaxas discusses. I particularly wanted to know more about Hannah More so was pleased when I recently came across the full biography of this 17th Century woman by Karen Swallow Prior. The book is called Fierce Convictions.

I’ve always loved biographies. They provoke envy, spark my imagination and inspire me to be more than I am. In Fierce Convictions Hannah More was a writer, a teacher, a dramatist, a Christian woman, and a reformer – roles I could either identify with or greatly admire. More used several of her skills throughout her life, and became more motivated by her firmly held convictions as she aged. Her skills and principles were used to promote the Christian faith and social reform. And the subsequent influence she had on society was all the more remarkable because she was a woman.

More’s first career was as a teacher. Pairing this skill with a desire to uplift and ‘moralise’ the poor More became famous for starting and running many ‘Sunday Schools’, schools held on Sundays for the benefit of educating the poor. At that time in English society poor people were not given access to education so More went against the norm. Probably the most important of More’s anti-establishment work was her involvement in the anti-slavery movement. She worked closely with William Wilberforce to campaign for Britain to outlaw slavery. She died just weeks after the anti-slavery bill was finally passed. As a woman More could not be a parliamentarian but she became one of the ‘Clapham Sect’ a group of influential members of society who all worked to bring an end to slavery.

More was a prolific writer, starting her writing career as a playwright and poet, and continuing throughout her life to produce material aimed at changing public sentiment. Her works were enormously popular, although their appeal faded as tastes changed. Karen Swallow Prior presents a fair, well researched and balanced view of More. And more than her subject’s successes and weaknesses, Prior presents a person who had integrity and was motivated consistently, and more than anything else, by her Christian convictions. Certainly a woman I could learn from.

 

 

 

Leaving a Literary Legacy

A Japanese Maple in the garden of Chartwell House. With Robyn Turton

As I walked to the post office on a sunny autumn day in London to send off some magazine competition entries, I was reminded of the film The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio. This 2005 release starred Julianne Moore and Woody Harrelson and was a lovely based-on-truth story about a mother of 10 who entered competitions and with her winnings saved her family from ruin. The difference between the luck-of-the-draw competitions I had entered and the ones Evelyn Ryan (Moore) went for in the 1950s was the skill required. Ryan needed to write clever, succinct jingles that were better than all the other entrants’ attempts. Judging by the number of times she won she was indeed very skillful.

My daughter and I watched the film on a mobile phone in an AirBnB in Canterbury, Kent. We had taken

The Wife of Bath & Robyn Turton. Which is which?

off a few days to visit this county and were pleased with the number of other skilled writers we had come across on our journey. The first, on our way to Canterbury, was Winston Churchill. We had visited Chartwell House, the WWII home of this gifted man. Apart from being prime minister of Britain and a decorated military man, Churchill also wrote almost 50 books and was an amateur painter. A tour guide at the house pointed out an interesting comparison. Adolf Hitler, too, was an artist and had applied to study at art school but had been refused. What if, posited the guide, Hitler had been accepted at art school?

In Canterbury itself we of course saw some reminders of the author of the famous The Canterbury Tales – Geoffrey Chaucer. Chaucer is credited with being one of the first people to write in English (albeit in Ye Olde English) and his stories are full of ribald humour and so are appealing today. Somebody who wrote in more ‘modern’ English several centuries later was Charles Dickens whose home was Rochester, another city in Kent. My daughter and I did a walking tour of this delightful old city where we saw landmarks that Dickens himself refers to in many of his works. These included ‘Satis House’ from Great Expectations (properly named Restoration House) and Rochester Cathedral which takes centre stage in Dickens’s unfished work The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

‘Satis House’ in Rochester, Kent

It was lovely to have walked in the footsteps of these real historic literary greats – from Chaucer to Dickens to Churchill. And as I strolled back from posting my luck-of-the-draw competition entries I pondered on The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio, who herself – however different – left a literary legacy  of her own.

 

 

 

Book Clubs, Blurbs and the Booker

The book club I belong to works like this: We aim to have 12 members. Each member selects a book they would like the club to read. These books then form a list of 12, one for each month of the year. Everyone buys/borrows their own copies of all the books and when it is your book and your month you host the club, and you conduct the discussion.

Possession by AS Byatt was the book for May – my selection. Good decision, yes? Hmm, I don’t think so. For one thing it was 511 pages long. According to Ten Ways to win the Booker prize (http://bit.ly/2scYmlC) by Mona Chalabi and George Arnett, 374 pages is an average for a Man Booker winner. For another thing, the book was full of poetry. This proved to be a good and a bad thing. One book club member ‘loved’ the poetry, while most of the rest skipped this part in favour of the plot. Gasp, skipped some pages!? Well, since I was conducting the discussion I didn’t skip. I slogged my way through which meant that by the time I’d read the book, prepared the discussion, baked the food and cleaned my house I was exhausted.

But wasn’t Possession an excellent choice because it was a Man Booker winner? Not necessarily. For us anyway. In the ensuing discussion it turned out that most of us (South Africans) didn’t like the works of JM Coetzee, another Man Booker Prize winner. This got me thinking about how books are selected for this prestigious prize (which carries a top winnings of GBP 50,000). Ten Ways to win the Booker prize (http://bit.ly/2scYmlC) says to win: you can’t be too young; you should choose a short title; get a private education; study at Oxford; be a man (if possible); write about death loads and love a fair bit; and get published with Jonathan Cape.

Well there you have it. I must say I hadn’t chosen Possession because I knew its author AS Byatt was a Booker winner. I didn’t (know she was a winner). I chose it because the blurb made it sound so exciting. ‘Possession is an exhilarating novel of wit and romance…. A novel for every taste…. You turn the last page feeling stunned and elated, happy to have had the chance to read it.’ It wasn’t (exciting). For me, at any rate. Which just goes to show that: 1) It wasn’t a novel for every taste. And,  2) Booker prize recommendations and blurbs don’t necessarily equal books that everyone will enjoy.

Onto the next booker prize winning book for next month: The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy (this author writes about death loads…).

Holding onto Life: By Remembering the Dead

Much in our existence revolves around “holding onto life”. Taking holidays, doing things we love, remembering those who have died. I pretty much did all three of these activities together recently when I holidayed at Le Canonnier, Mauritius, walked The Coffin Route in England’s Lake District, and read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood while on those trips.

1967, Holcomb, Kansas, USA — Author Truman Capote poses at the grave of the murdered Clutter family, made famous in his novel and in the film. — Image by © Bob Adelman/Corbis

Capote’s book, which was published in 1966, is termed a “non-fiction novel”. Today the equivalent term might be “creative non-fiction”. The genre describes a story that is essentially factual, but written to read like a novel as opposed to, for example, an essay or a newspaper article. In Cold Blood relates the true story of the murders of four members of the Kansas-based Clutter family by criminals Perry Smith and Richard (Dick) Hickock. Readers therefore begin the book knowing the outcome. But this doesn’t detract from the product. Capote’s unique descriptions, careful character portrayal, and flowing style kept me totally engrossed – even through sections that seemed obviously lifted from official reports.

At the end of the book the reader is taken to the simple graves of the four Clutters. It is merely a “single gray stone”, which lies “in the far corner of the cemetery”. Without Capote’s book many people, myself included, would never have known or cared about the Clutters, or their murderers, and the senseless ending of their lives. In this way Capote helps us “hold onto life.”

Cannon

A cannon overlooks the calm Indian Ocean. Photo Brenda Daniels

I started In Cold Blood while enjoying a week of mild April sunshine (and short rain showers) at the Beachcomber resort of Le Canonnier on the northern coast of Mauritius. This type of holiday – a Beachcomber all-inclusive package – is like being in paradise. Calm seas, copious food and relaxing activities lull the mind and body into believing that nothing outside the resort gates exists. But even paradise has a dark history of life and death. I joined a “Beautiful Story Tour” one afternoon and heard a few facts told in a creative way. Le Canonnier, our tour guide explained, was the site of a military garrison in the 1800s. Cannons, an ammunition building, a large tree which was originally the fort of 50 soldiers, and a now-defunct lighthouse bear witness. And beyond a hedge, nestled in the thick, green grass the grave of a young doctor can be glimpsed. This doctor had treated indentured labourers who disembarked a ship just south of today’s resort, before contracting one of his patient’s illnesses and succumbing. I would never have noticed the grave – the remaining indication of a life having been lived – if our guide hadn’t pointed it out.

The life of English poet, William Wordsworth, is much more well-known to me than that of this fateful Mauritian doctor, and therefore easily remembered. This is of course due to the former’s published and widely loved poetry. But also to the careful memorialisation of his English Lake District home, which I visited on a trip in early May. What I saw in fact detracted from the romanticism surrounding the poet, portraying as it did the “non-fiction” side of this “creative” writer’s life. As charming as the cottage may seem from the outside, inside it is dark, cold, smoky and wonky. No wonder William and his sister Dorothy loved their garden so much.

My daughter and I walked to Wordsworth’s home in Grasmere from Ambleside via “The Coffin Route”, a rough woodland track away from the main causeway where the sight of dead people may have caused offence.

Funny how this route is now the most delightful one for walkers wanting to escape the realities of daily living by enjoying nature.

Remembering the dead on these trips was certainly an enjoyable “holding onto life” for me.

 

Movies and Novels: Fact or Fiction, Fake News or Entertainment? Part 2

Part 2

In Part 1 I reviewed two books: Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly and Reel History by Alex Von Tunzelmann.

When I compare the two media of storytelling – novels and filmmaking – I have to wonder, though, why films come in for more criticism than do books for lack or otherwise of accuracy. Perhaps it’s a matter of classification. A reader will know that when he/she is reading an historical novel that it is part-fact, part-fiction. He/she will accept the ‘suspension of disbelief’ (a theatre term) and enter willingly into the story. Author notes or history books may confirm which parts of the story are factual. If movies were categorised like books are (that is, for example, non-fiction, fiction, historical fiction) would the viewer approach movies with a similar acceptance of their levels of historical truth, as readers do books? Would they enter the ‘suspension of disbelief’ with discernment, knowing that what they are watching is a mixture of fact and fiction? At current modes of film classification (action, thriller, drama and so on), perhaps the viewer doesn’t have sufficient guidelines that what they are watching is part creation, part historical fact. But I’m being generous. Perhaps the bottom line is that we as moviegoers are so dumb that we gullibly accept as truth whatever is simply flashed across the screen at us. And we need experts like Von Tunzelmann to put us straight.

Certainly in the current climate in which ‘fake news’ is, well, making the news, learning to be discerning viewers is an important skill. And this is the vein in which I think Von Tunzelmann’s Reel History book/column could be taken. A tool to help us see when important aspects of history in movies may be inaccurately portrayed. Becoming overly pedantic about what’s true or false in movies, though, is to take away from this media’s main purpose: that of entertainment. I think Von Tunzelmann’s book inadvertently highlights this as well: that movies are NOT purveyors of truth. They are about entertainment.