The Reader Who Forgot To Read

The title of this post, my first for the year (how did it get to the 13th already? Who let this happen? Was it YOU?), reflects the way I feel about myself over the last 12 months. I have considered myself a reader for most of my life, and while I have always been slightly too ambitious setting goals that I almost never quite make, last year is a bit of an exception. I lowered the goal (due to the whole moving abroad thing) to just 30 books – an easy goal, something I should have had no problems with achieving – and then instead of not quite making it I sort of just exploded upon lift off. I don’t even know what my total read books were for the year, but I’m guessing between 15 and 20 – I did not update my Goodreads account regularly enough to know this figure.

So you’ll notice this year if you look at my sidebar (or visit my GR account) that I have set my goal for 52. It is time to make amends for my severe lack of reading, because….because…well, because I miss it. I feel empty without it, and there are so many books I want to read and so many books constantly being released that I want to read as well as that list of old books that just keeps growing and there’s all my books in Australia I’m going to ship over soon and there’s lots of good books at the library I want to borrow and read and and and I might die soon or something (probably not, but you get my point).

Last year turned out quite different to what I expected (and I’ll explain about that in a later post), and while I had a great year it was also a mentally tiring year as I turned myself into a bit of a sponge, soaking up the culture, history and on occasion the language of this huge country of Sweden I now call home. This in itself gave me plenty of fuel for writing, and so although my writing was erratic I did churn out some 100 blog posts, about 25 short stories, two thirds of a really, really bad novel (which, on reflection, had some really good ideas I need to play with in a different context), and maybe 35 – 40 poems. But now I feel I need to get back to taking some inspiration from the written word again, getting my head into a big variety of different stories and writing styles while I determine where to take my own writing next and how to start pushing it up to the quality I want. After all, I did promise myself I’d publish one of my stories before I turned 30, which is sort of kind of in about 16 months.

So, onwards I march to a year of reading a book a week. I’m already a week behind, which sounds about right, although I am also halfway through two books. The upside of all this is that if I stay on track I’ll actually be able to write weekly book reviews again, something I suspect I haven’t managed to do successfully since my blog began back in 2012. As well as this I have a whole bunch of other blogging goals and projects to work on, and yes I will be adding more recipes to the food blog soon (also, I should properly introduce that blog).

What are your reading goals for the year? For those of you who are bloggers as well, what are your blogging plans?

Reader’s Block?

The daily prompt today on The Daily Post asks what the longest time is you’ve gone without reading a book, as well as what book helped break the dry spell. We so often talk about having Writer’s Block, but is Reader’s Block even possible?

Well, yes. Yes it is. In fact it happens to me more than I’d like to admit.

Most recently, it has happened to me this year. I’m unsure how long it was exactly, but I think it was a few months of not reading. I dare say that the whole emotional side of moving overseas to literally the other side of the world, to a country that speaks a language I do not, to a culture with which I’m not super familiar, sort of left me not in the mood to read. It’s as if all my spongy brain absorption powers were required for even the smallest parts of day to day living, and so there was no sponginess left to let any kind of book soak in at all. I did find the energy to write during that Reader’s Block period, and I was even creative in other ways too, but reading just seemed completely off my radar, even when I went to the effort of buying books specifically to trick myself into reading again (because I am a firm believer that I need to read in order to write, so without one of these the other one will soon dry up).

The-Girl-Who-Saved-the-King-of-SwedenThe book which broke the drought, I’m pretty sure, was a book called The Girl Who Saved The King Of Sweden, by Jonas Jonasson. As the title and the author name may suggest, he is a Swedish author, but a highly successful one whose first novel, The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out Of The Window And Disappeared, was one of the most successful books in recent history in Sweden and which went on to become popular around the world and even made into a movie. This, his second novel, really blew me away – while his first novel was funny and charming in all its oddness, this book was glimmering with intelligence and creativity and a hilarious plot I could never dream of writing. It far surpasses his first in every way for me, and I guess that’s what I needed to snap me out of my little “I don’t wanna read” tantrum I was having.

So what about you? Have you ever had Reader’s Block? If so, what enabled you to break it and get back into books again?

Finding your writing voice

Quill and inkwellIt’s one of the hardest but most important things that you need to do as a writer, especially as a writer of fiction. There are so many things that contribute to and influence it, but at the same time it has to be uniquely yours somehow. And the truth of the matter is that there is no miracle cure for finding your writing voice – it takes a long time, and a lot of effort.

I’ve been writing for most of my life in one way or another. I turn 28 next week, and I know I was about 8 or 9 years old when I wrote a story around the length of 20 pages that my wonderful teacher at the time typed up and bound – essentially “publishing” it for me. That probably had a lasting effect on me, no matter how silly that story about robots and the end of the universe actually was. Although my writing came and went at different points throughout school and then university, it also came back often with more ferocity.

Then about five or six years ago I started taking my writing more seriously. I started reading more books, better books, harder books that pushed me out of my comfort zone from time to time. I started looking for different styles of writing, started learning what kinds of writing I was drawn to as an adult – something I had not previously assessed consciously. I started writing. A lot. Things like NaNoWriMo helped me with that (I have reached my goal on NaNoWriMo every single year since 2009, something I’m quite proud of actually). I started writing poetry regularly again, tried my hand at script writing, and this year just now I got back into short story writing. To top this off, I’ve been blogging now for almost two and a half years, and have recently put some regularity back into my posting schedule as you might have noticed.

Despite all of this, I feel like only just now with five novel drafts, two novellas, a movie script, hundreds of poems, a bunch of short stories and some 350 blog posts, only now do I feel like my writing voice is starting to shine through. I noticed it when I was writing my short stories last month in particular – I was not only thoroughly enjoying writing them, but I was liking them when I reread them. It’s not that they’re perfect, far from in fact, but there was something about these stories that really felt like me. Yes, my influences in them are quite clear, but I haven’t just copied someone else’s style or idea and then changed it to suit myself, it’s just that my voice has picked up similar traits to these other writers. The characters in the stories were likeable, the language was more sophisticated without becoming cluttered up, and the humour was natural – I didn’t feel like I had to force things to be funny much, because the situations themselves just became funny. Most importantly, the whole feel of the stories was very me – there were elements of me and the way I think permeating so much of the writing, and it’s the first time I’ve ever strongly felt that.

What I am getting at is this: don’t stress if you feel like you’re struggling to develop your own voice, or if you feel like your voice is too similar to the voice of another writer(s) you like. At some point, your own voice will come, something that carries your influences with it but more importantly bursts with elements that are very much who you are at your core. And nothing can magically make that voice appear – all you can and need to do is to just keep reading and keep writing. Read broadly, across a range of genres if possible (even if you only intend to write in one, you can pick up so much from others), and write broadly, across a range of different forms, as you’ll learn lessons from one form you can apply to another.

Keep reading, keep writing, and be patient. You’ll find your writing voice when it’s time. And then nothing will stop you!

What I’m reading lately

I haven’t done one of these “what I’m reading” type posts for a long time, and considering I’m currently reading several books (as I so often do), I figured why not write such a post now?

Breath coverBreath by Tim Winton: Tim Winton is an author I have never quite managed to read. But, in this case, I know why. It might sound odd, but as he is an Australian writer who writes what seem to be very Australian stories, I found myself kind of cringing at the thought. But it’s an odd kind of cultural cringe – I think Australia does have a lot of great stories and I genuinely believe they should be shared, but I think for me personally I like to read stories set abroad, because I like to discover the world outside of where I have spent most of my life. Deep down though, I know this cringe is silly.

Breath is a book which is, essentially, about surfing, and no doubt stems from a strong love of surfing by the author. Contrary to popular belief, not all Aussies surf, and I certainly can’t (although I do love the beach and couldn’t live too far from it). But what I find amazing about this novel is that the main character’s reminiscences of growing up and learning to surf are so descriptive, so evocative, that I kind of want to try it myself, despite my total lack of co-ordination for such sporting endeavours. What is also jumping out at me as I speed through this captivating story is the writing – Winton is brilliant with language, and I think I have a lot to learn as a writer by reading more of his stuff. Take this following sentence as an example of what I mean, as the main character considers why they performed such daredevil feats as kids:

It’s easy for an old man to look back and see the obvious, how wasted youth and health and safety are on the young who spurn such things, to be dismayed by the risks you took, but as a youth you do sense that life renders you powerless by dragging you back to it, breath upon breath upon breath in an endless capitulation to biological routine, and that the human will to control is as much about asserting power over your own body as exercising it on others.

It’s moments like this, when I’m reading, that I remember why I want to write, why I want to push myself to keep improving and write the best stories I possibly can.

The Man Who Forgot His WifeThe Man Who Forgot His Wife by John O’Farrell: I started reading this novel a long time ago, but oddly forgot about it for some (oddly coincidental) reason. I didn’t get very far in, so I decided to start over and this time make sure I finish it.

This novel, by the very funny O’Farrell (who has written equally humorous non-fiction and fiction books over the years), is about a man, Vaughan, who quite literally forgets his wife, and everything else in his life. After a week in the hospital with nobody coming to find him, his best friend finally appears and explains what Vaughan’s life was like before his fugue, including the devastating news he is going through a divorce. And once Vaughan meets his soon-to-be ex-wife, he falls for her all over again which only serves to enrage her more.

It’s nothing ground breaking in terms of plot and ideas, but it is quite funny and it has its own charm that comes with so much of what O’Farrell writes. It does lead you to wonder how you would live your life if you forgot everything and had to start again, and how much of who you are is really embedded deep down and how much is based on memories and experiences.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de ZoetThe Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell: From the author of Cloud Atlas, an immensely popular novel I’ve been meaning to read for a long time, comes this tale set in 1799 in Japan. At a time when Japan had shut out the outside world entirely, not letting people out or people and ideas in, the one gateway into the country was an artificial walled island where European traders met, which was connected to the port of Nagasaki. The story focuses on this place, and around the Dutch clerk Jacob de Zoet.

I don’t have much more to say on this, other than that the opening chapter is totally not what I expected and quite confronting. But there is something intriguing about the writing, and more so about the plot, which is pulling me in. I suspect once I really get into it, I might go quiet for a couple of days.

HallucinationsHallucinations by Oliver Sacks: My favourite neurologist writer, Oliver Sacks, has been positively pouring out books over the last few years, including my favourite book of his, Musicophilia. This latest one focuses entirely on hallucinations – all the different kinds people have, the different causes of them, and how they tie in with other types of neurological disorders and phenomenon. Whether you’ve ever experienced hallucinations or not, this is fascinating reading. I’m almost finished this one, so will probably have a review of it up in the not too distant future. Definitely one of my favourites by Sacks so far.

I’ll post up reviews of all these books once I am finished reading them, but in the meantime what are you reading lately?

The Time Keeper by Mitch Albom

While people who visit other countries usually come back with souvenirs, and quite often truckloads of clothes, I predictably came back with a lot of books – I went with 4 and came back with 12, plus a nice writing journal, a wine journal, and a recipe journal. One of the books I bought while in England was Mitch Albom’s latest work of fiction, The Time Keeper, and I read it entirely on two train trips – from Derby to Durham, and then back again a couple of days later.

The idea behind this story captured me perhaps more than any of Albom’s previous fiction (generally I prefer his nonfiction work such as Tuesdays With Morrie, which is apparently one of the best-selling memoirs of all time), and as the title suggests it revolves around the concept of time. It begins by telling the story of Dor, the inventor of the very first clock, the first person to begin counting time, and the person who becomes Father Time as a consequence (and, seemingly, as a punishment). The beginning of his story is set in biblical times, based loosely within The Tower of Babel story. Meanwhile, two separate stories develop in the modern day – a rich business man who feels he doesn’t have enough time and yearns to live forever by cryogenically freezing himself in secret from those he loves, and a teenage girl who wants to bring her time to an end prematurely. Slowly but surely, these three stories entwine and crash into each other, with quite inspiring results.

As always, the book is simply written, making it easy to read and digest in the space of an afternoon. But despite this accessibility, it is also very clever and thought provoking, questioning the human obsession with time, and how this causes us more misery and suffering than joy. I must admit that after reading it, I thought about how much time, and quite literally clocks, are everywhere in my life, and being a school teacher my day is dictated by bells that go off at very specific times. I am always at my happiest when I have days off, don’t set alarms, and can do things without rushing or feeling the pressure of having more to do – and I am sure I am not the only one who feels this way.

Personally, this is my favourite of Albom’s fiction books so far. It really captured both my imagination and my intellect, and while it seems sad in a lot of ways, the ending is quite satisfying and uplifting. If you’re a fan of his other work, you will no doubt like this, however if you’re new to Mitch Albom I would recommend starting with Tuesdays With Morrie first – his writing style is probably not for everyone.

If you’ve read The Time Keeper, I’d love to hear your thoughts on it!

What books have you been reading lately?

The Hobbit group-read part 2 (chapters 7-12)

This week (just pretend I posted the first part of this series a week ago, and not yesterday), the questions are being asked by Lynn and some weird dude (i.e. me). They focus on the middle third of the book, from meeting Beorn to meeting the dragon, Smaug – so an action packed few chapters. Again, feel free to join in the conversation here on my blog, or by heading over to Writers’ Bloc, the lovely people who are hosting and running this group-read.

The answers to the questions (yes, I’m answering my own questions too) will be in italics, as last time.

Lynn’s Questions

1. If you’ve already read the LoTR (or for that matter seen the film) what do you make of The Hobbit so far as a prequel to that book?

I’m finding myself becoming particularly interested in The Hobbit when I discover things which begin to explain aspects of LOTR, such as seeing Gollum and the ring. At one point I even went back and looked into who Gimli from LOTR was related to, figuring it had to be one of the dwarves from The Hobbit, and sure enough it was – he’s the son of Gloin. Overall, I find it interesting to see the way Tolkien’s ideas are forming in this book, where they hadn’t really formed to the complicated extent which they would over the twelve years he would then spend writing LOTR, which was initially meant to be a much shorter sequel to The Hobbit, until he switched the focus to the ring itself.

2. I haven’t found the writing in The Hobbit overly descriptive, it’s written almost in a way that takes it for granted that the reader will bring a certain element of knowledge to the reading.  Have you enjoyed Tolkien’s style of writing?  Does it make it easy for you to imagine the world that he’s come up with?

Overall, yes, I do like this style of writing – not over describing, and leaving some elements up to the reader’s imagination. I think this aspect of his writing also makes it worth reading this before seeing the films later this year, because at this point we can all still come up with our own interpretations of his world, but once we see the film, it’ll be hard to divorce that interpretation from the reading if we don’t already have our own ideas.

3. Well, it’s been far from an easy journey.  The stretch through Mirkwood was particularly hazardous – although I’m a bit puzzled about the names – Flies and Spiders.  Spiders yes, but flies??    Anyway, given the situations that they’ve faced so far, which one would be your worst nightmare?

I’m guessing with that chapter, the dwarves and Bilbo were the flies? I’ve got to admit, being attacked by giant spiders would be pretty horrendous, but then if you had an awesome sword that terrified them, that’d make it more fun, too. I think going downstream trapped in a barrel would be horrible, just the sheer claustrophobia, and lack of certainty about whether you’d survive, or where you’re even going.

Matt’s (my) Questions

4. In Chapter VIII, “Flies and Spiders”, there is a moment when Bilbo kills his first giant spider, and something in him changes – he seems to make this dramatic and instant transformation from whiny, annoying hobbit to heroic slayer of beasts of burden. Do you think this transformation is too quick or forced, or too unrealistic (as far as realism goes in a forest with giant spiders)?

I guess this is sort of hinted at in earlier chapters, when he escapes a couple of situations on his own, without the help of Gandalf or the dwarves. But he is still whiny and annoying. When he kills that first spider and changes, it does seem too sudden really. But, on the same note, it’s good to finally find him more likeable as a person, so it’s somewhat a fair compromise, I suppose. And I am probably being super picky, too.

5. On the topic of heroism, it seems a major idea in this book is that anybody can be a hero – Bilbo is a very ordinary person, living and longing for an ordinary life, yet he does have heroic traits in him which appear when they are finally needed. Do you agree with this idea? Can anybody be a hero? Could you rise up if you were put into this situation, or is there even a way of knowing without putting yourself into such a situation?

I think it’s very true. We can all be heroes when we need to be. I think many of us often are, at least a few times in our lives, even if we don’t realise it, even if nobody else realises it. Just because you aren’t celebrated in stories, doesn’t make you not a hero. Part of life is being confronted by seemingly impossible and impassable situations, and finding a way to overcome them, and when we do, we always feel a little bit different. Bilbo’s story is obviously a more dramatic manifestation of this, though. And I don’t think we truly know how we will handle such situations until we are in them (war is a classic example of this).

6. For me personally, I have found chapters VI to XII much more interesting than the first part of the book. Have you found them more interesting, and if so, why exactly do you think so?

Ooops, I meant to write chapters 7 to 12, not 6 to 12. Anyway, I’ve found them more interesting mostly due to the lack of Gandalf. Don’t get me wrong, he’s an awesome character, but there were a few instances of very near deus ex machina in the story, where everything was about to go wrong, and then ta-dah, Gandalf magically saves the day! Lame. Once he goes, Bilbo is forced to grow into a new character, and the threats in the story feel more real and menacing. Also, they finally get to Lonely Mountain and meet Smaug, which is when the action really starts. Hooray!

That’s it for this week. We’re on the home stretch now, and the final part of this group read will be up next weekend. In the meantime, feel free to leave your thoughts on the book and these questions.

The Hobbit group-read, part 1

Over the last couple of weeks, roughly, the guys over at Writers’ Bloc have been hosting a group-read of The Hobbit, a book which I have never read before (shocking, I know). Essentially, we’re reading a chapter a day, and at the end of each week some of us are taking it in turns to ask questions to the other readers based on the chapters read in that week. I am part of the interrogation team discussion leading in week two, and those questions will be posted up later this weekend, but for now, I need to go back and answer the questions from week 1, which can be found here (but which I will also show on this post).

Feel free to join in the discussions if you have read the book before, either through comments on my blog or particularly at the Writers’ Bloc page (which you should definitely visit and join in the fun).

Inkeri’s Questions

1. In the book Bilbo gets visited by 13 strange dwarves, and just lets them in to eat his cakes and drink tea. In the modern world it would be really weird if people just started barging in your home. Why didn’t Bilbo just tell them to go?

I guess because Bilbo was just flustered, and they were pretty insistent. Also it was clear Gandalf had something to do with it, and I suppose I wouldn’t want to mess with a wizard on any level, unless I was one myself. Interestingly, it reminded me of an old Monty Python sketch (I say this about far too many things), where people kept barging into a man’s home right as he was about to seduce a woman who he was with, and slowly but surely his house turns into this party, and when he tries to throw them out they accuse him of rudeness and eventually shoot him, continuing to party. Of course it’s all very silly, but kind of funny all the same. Anyway, back to the question, I guess it hints at a time long past, where hospitality would extend even to strangers barging into your home. These days most people would just call the police.

2. Where would the dwarves and Bilbo be if Gandalf wasn’t with them? It’s seems to me that it’s him who saves them from the scary situations.

It does seem a lot that way, and I’m pretty sure that Gandalf “having to leave them for business down south” in later chapters was Tolkien’s way of making the story more interesting by taking out the character that keeps saving everyone too easily. I actually think for me, as much as I love Gandalf, the way he kept saving them almost made the first few chapters kind of predictable. But without him, they probably wouldn’t have gotten very far.

3. Bilbo plays a game of riddles with Gollum. He ends up winning by asking “What have I got in my pockets?”, which Gollum is unable to answer. Do you think it was a fair, as it wasn’t actually a riddle?

I guess it’s technically not fair, as Gollum shouts, but then neither was stealing his ring. Nor does Gollum do a lot of fair things in his story through Tolkien’s various tales. I figured if I was in Bilbo’s shoes, I would have done the same.

Tanya’s Questions
4. For those of you who haven’t read The Hobbit before, is the tone of writing one you’d expect from a book that has been loudly proclaimed as a classic? And for those of you who have read it before, how did it feel – like coming home to a much loved book, or were you surprised by how much you’d forgotten?

For me, as a first time reader, yes and no. It does feel like a classic, it does feel like a children’s book in some ways, but frankly, the first few chapters I really struggled with. I expected it to be gripping from the start, but it only became really interesting about the point Gollum and the ring came into it. Maybe I wasn’t in the mood for such a book, I’m not entirely sure. I think as the book goes on, yes, the tone of writing does seem to fit, but it does also remind you that this book was written in the 1930s, unlike a lot of other fantasy literature. Having said this, I think this slightly older tone fits the genre much better, once you become used to it.

5. We’ve seen quite a few songs so far. Do you pay attention to them, or do you skip them altogether? Do you like how silly they are, or do you think them an interruption?

I do read the songs actually, and quite like them. They make for a nice break from some of the writing sometimes, and often can be quite menacing at the right moments, and also quite funny at other moments. I think reading this book without reading the songs is like reading a picture book without reading the accompanying words – you can still make sense of it, but it isn’t as fulfilling. 

6. What has been your favourite scene, so far?

In the first six chapters, my favourite scene was probably the riddle scene. Apart from the familiarity of Gollum and the ring, I found this scene just more entertaining, and it’s the first time Bilbo has to think on his own two feet. It’s also the first time he shows any sense of heroism or initiative, or even just a backbone.

So there we have it! Tomorrow, Writers’ Bloc shall post up my questions on the next six chapters, which I shall then also blog about on here, and answer myself.

In the meantime, what are your thoughts?