Tag Archives: stories

Reading and Writing Challenge Month – Days 8, 9, 10 and 11


I apologise for the failure of the blogging aspect of this challenge over the past few days. But I’ve had an epiphany. My laptop is evil and an agent of procrastination and distraction. Its seemingly harmless, sleek frame conceals the delights and dangers of the world wide web and countless other ways to fritter away time pointlessly. I therefore attempted to simply knuckle down. This post will take the form of a basic list, as I am keen not to waste time or disrupt what rhythm I have. Rest assured I am making better progress behind the scenes.

So a list of what I have been reading/read, predominantly comprised of short stories:

–          Lady Chatterley’s Lover (ongoing) by D.H. Lawrence

–          Love by Grace Paley

–          The Hitchhiking Game by Milan Kundera

–          The Lady with the Little Dog by Anton Chekhov

–          Lovers of their Time by William Trevor

–          Mouche by Guy de Maupassant

–          The Moon in its Flight by Gilbert Sorrentino

–          Spring in Fialta by Vladimir Nabokov

–          Yours by Mary Robison

–          Death in Venice by Thomas Mann

–          Cat in the Rain/One Reader Writers/Homage to Switzerland by Ernest Hemingway

–          There will Come Soft Rains by Ray Bradbury

–          Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman (collection) by Haruki Murakami

Some readers might find it amusing to know I made the grave typo of “Bling Widow” in the above last line.

A great number of the above short stories come from the collection My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead, compiled and edited by Jeffrey Eugenides. This was recommended to me by Tomcat and as usual I thank him for a trustworthy tip.

The next few days will see discussion of these stories and others, along with some attempts of my own I hope and I’ll plough on with some novels.

Reading and Writing Challenge Month – Days 5, 6 and 7


What’s the old saying; one step forward and two steps back? After finally making progress by finishing The Day of the Triffids (and easily answering a question on its opening line from University Challenge this evening as a result) I then went to see a friend for the weekend and did no reading whatsoever. I took an assortment of books, I intended to read and she intended to revise, but neither of us succeeded. I could hardly be rude could I? This is my excuse I know. But the break, not from this challenge but from life, did me good. So in reality this post could be entitled simply Day 7.

To make matters worse I haven’t devoted today solely to reading. Distracted by writing I haven’t actually read a great deal. However I do feel that I have a plan of action and that I made some considerable strides in terms of understanding today. I finally read Chekhov’s The Lady with the Dog in its entirety, along with an introduction to a collection of his stories by Richard Ford. I’ve also read some more of Haruki Murakami’s short stories and I plan to read Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice before I sleep tonight. Lady Chatterley is on the back burner for the time being, but next on my list, whilst I get my head around different short story writers and hopefully attempt an article on them this Wednesday.

Reading the introduction to Chekhov’s stories really helped me appreciate the unique value and insight of short stories compared to novels. Much like essays they can single out a particular issue or aspect of existence for closer inspection. Chekhov’s writing was economical and concise in making its points, something I need to begin to hone. His stories also reveal life’s hidden truths that we’re sometime reluctant to acknowledge, often from mundane events and goings on. I shall hold back the rest of my musings for another time.

I also recalled a Ray Bradbury short story from The Martian Chronicles that I’m going to re-read, as it’s another example of a type of short story and something else they can do.

Tomorrow night I’m going to attempt serious physical exercise for the first time in ages. I shall be a shattered and broken man. Hopefully my eyes will still be able to read. Until then I suppose.

Looking for love – Reading and Writing Challenge Month


After an indulgent weekend rest, I’m beginning to make some headway with short stories. It’s starting to seem like there are some broad categories of tale. Many are symbolic and first person. The following tiny attempt at something is based on the style of some of Haruki Murakami’s short stories.

One Wednesday I went looking for love. I’ve no idea why that particular day made a search seem necessary. Usually I’d dismiss such an undertaking as a foolhardy waste of time and effort. But that day it seemed possible I might find something resembling love at least. I didn’t have a rational hope in my mind or blind faith in my heart; just the sense that I might glimpse something if I took time out to look for it. And an overwhelming need to stop for a moment.

Perhaps it was the way the sun fell in dusty rays on my pillow. Or, in fact, not my pillow at all, but the forever vacant one next to it. The way the feathery grains wafted over the empty, unruffled fabric. The way they swirled upwards in a golden bliss. The way they danced with their infinite, weightless friends. The very fact that I could see them, rather than a face cloaked in sleep or a sprawling arm, highlighted my loneliness.

Outside my gloomy bubble, the sun smiled and everything was right in the world. The worker ants dashed about bathed in optimism. Something told me that it was going to be a good day, if only I was sure to stand in the middle of it. I could hardly lie in bed, daydreaming of aimless floating, when the grass was so green and the sky so blue. I had to get up and look.

I threw the window open and rushed about my flat in an inexplicable, excitable daze. Wednesday, some people said, was a hump day, from which the downward slide to the weekend began. It was the beginning of the descent from monotony to freedom and relaxation. My working hours were sporadic, but it just so happened I had to be somewhere for one o’clock. I might have finished looking by then; I might not.

Whole water droplets, untouched by the deadly stab of a towel, quivered in the chill from the window as I pulled on some clothes. I was out the door early, way before the rising sun had climbed above the clustered buildings of my road. I travelled light, reasoning that love could do without any extra baggage. Even my watch, which I regarded practically as a vital organ, lay forgotten about somewhere near the bed. My cavernous empty bed.

At first I simply walked. Up streets, down alleys, across roads. My creased, hastily buttoned shirt billowed around my waist like a skirt in the wind. I drew glances from passersby and tore past determined commuters. Rounding a corner onto a key London artery, I recoiled like a vampire in the harsh, all consuming stare of a fierce mid-morning sun, focused like a laser between two squashed buildings into my eyes. I felt them roll back in their sockets, suddenly burning with the vibrancy of it all. I staggered to a nearby wall, colliding with an irate businesswoman, greedily sucking hasty gulps from a cigarette, discarded yards later. I caught my breath.

Where best to stand for a fleeting glance of love? Where was the pivot, the enlightening epicentre of this shiny, beguiling day? Panting against my grimy patch of wall, I spied a gargantuan bookstore and made my way inside. Calmer now amongst the scent and flicker of turned pages, I allowed the dream of a likeminded, slender hand reaching out for the same book to grow in my mind’s eye. Browsing here today I would find love, I thought.

It didn’t happen. And neither did it happen at the cinema, where I lingered about the foyer, peering round pillars for the elusive moment. Hopes were raised and dashed by beautiful women scanning my favourite poetry or chatting noisily about a film I wanted to see. One o’clock came and went.  It’s funny but I never once seriously considered approaching any of them. I think deep down I disliked the notion wheeled out by some, so called, “romantic” men, that it was possible to fall repeatedly in love with numerous women from the most meagre meetings. Inexperienced I may be but I’d formed my own ideas of love.

I didn’t go in for this chance encounter, novelistic crap. If I’d known anything like real love it was born first out of friendship. It surely couldn’t blossom just like that, in a single moment in all its complexities, between utter strangers; could it? So I gave up hope and set off home; trudging forlornly without any of the energy or automatic spring to my step I had left with that Wednesday morning, cursing such a total waste of such precious time. I began rehearsing the pointless phone call to work, explaining my absence.

But near the station I saw a record store, the type that was the domain of collectors and enthusiasts. I found myself wandering in. Subconsciously at least I clearly wanted one last throw of the dice, even when I knew things didn’t work like that. It didn’t take long for regret to wash over me on stepping inside. I felt almost instantly conspicuous, an agent behind enemy lines with their cover about to be blown. It wasn’t that I disliked music. I simply knew nothing about the dusty vintage jazz or limited edition punk littering this place. And I despised any form of artistic snobbery. Glancing at the other customers I could tell most of them did it for superiority, for bragging rights rather than passion.

Except one couple that is. Only they weren’t a couple, exactly. He was rifling through boxes of records, almost in a frenzy, whilst she leafed through the odd selection, drifting quietly just behind him. I felt myself instinctively drawn to them. They were fascinating. Though standing so close, it was clear they were not together. And yet it seemed as if they would be; they ought to be.

It felt too cliché to be real. Both were absorbed in their browsing, their mutual passion evident despite their completely contrasting methods and expressions. Both backed gradually towards each other, their gazes locked intently on the records. Then as he made an erratic eureka lunge for a treasured collectable, there was the inevitable clash and she dropped her own prize.

After endless seconds of token British apologies and awkward eye contact, they both shared a kind, selfless smile for a snapshot of a moment. It was a smile that said they knew each other, and had done for years. And yet it was also a smile of discovery, of innocence and renewal. I had watched the whole unremarkable incident. They left the shop separately. As far as I know nothing came of it, not that I chased the matter up. But it made me feel as if I’d seen love; if only a rough edge of what its purity could be.   

I don’t know if I was in my right mind that Wednesday. Most would probably say I wasn’t, given the circumstances. Back then the operation seemed a long way off, but it was still an ever present, looming reality. Now I only have hours to wait. I think of that weird Wednesday and my sudden compulsion to search for love. I remember it as I try to bring myself to trust absolute strangers with everything I have. I cling to it in case anything should go wrong and I am left with a brief window of time to properly fall in love, and be loved in return.

A note on Faulks on Fiction


I used to be a massive fan of Sebastian Faulks. And I’m still a fan. But as with most things greater wisdom comes with age. Faulks is far from a faultless writer, despite the eagerness with which I devoured his works and the undoubted merits many of them have. With Engleby, a disturbing first person narrative, he proved he is capable of versatility. But many would accuse him of churning out almost identical historical tales. Birdsong was the perfect fusion of history and literature, but other novels have been weighed down by excessive research. Balancing storytelling and a fascination for history is a problem I sympathise with greatly, but nevertheless a damaging weakness.  However he seems to take to presenting rather naturally.

Last night the first episode of a new series entitled Faulks on Fiction aired on BBC2. Overall I found it immensely enjoyable and refreshing to see such a marrying of literature and history given pride of place in the television schedules. It focused on enduring, iconic characters of fiction. Faulks and those he interviewed made various insightful and valid points. But the programme was also often necessarily simplistic. On the whole this didn’t matter because it allowed an engaging chronological sweep; history through the lens of characterisation. What did matter was the weakness of the entire premise behind the series.

Faulks argues that characters can be divided into heroes, villains, lovers and snobs. This first episode was on heroes. And you can’t help thinking Faulks himself doubts the strength of his point. The programme works best when it’s simply exploring great characters, not when crudely grouping them together; categorising and labelling in a forced, basic manner. Some of the staggering generalisations really undermine the more thoughtful, original points Faulks makes.

 In interviews Faulks has piqued the interest of many by classing the character of James Bond as a “snob”. In many ways this seemed like a publicity stunt to hook viewers. But if Faulks genuinely believes this it might explain the disappointment of his tribute Bond book, Devil May Care, when he was supposedly “writing as Ian Fleming”. Faulks cites Bond’s love of brands as the reason for his snobbery instead of heroism and would no doubt, if pressed, point out Bond’s sexist attitudes too.

The fascination with brands and even the outdated prejudices are products of the time and the author, not the character of Bond. Fleming peppers his narratives with luxurious products to stimulate the rationed masses of 1950s Britain, not purely for Bond’s love of them. The moments of prejudice are also clearly when Fleming’s own voice shines through, over and above that of his adored creation. Having watched this episode, Bond would undoubtedly have slotted in alongside countless other flawed heroes.

My views on the programme pale into amateurish bias when set against those of a fellow blogger however. Last night an interesting, thought provoking, funny and spot-on live blog analysed Faulks on Fiction as it happened. The start of the post suggests doubts in this particular reviewer’s mind; doubts I believe to be absurd given the depth, accuracy and skill behind previous entries. Read and support this valued writer:

http://tomcatintheredroom.wordpress.com/2011/02/05/faulks-on-fiction-an-on-the-fly-review/

127 Hours


Let’s brainstorm awful ideas for movies. The sort of film that should never be made or would only be attempted by foolhardy, insufferable idiots. Mmm let’s see. It’s actually harder than you might think to think of truly terrible premises. First of all I thought of a bed ridden man who likes to photograph boxes or gravel or picture frames (not the images just the frames), or something unbelievably dull. But make him a bed ridden man and he suddenly has an element of sympathy and interest.

An ordinary man with a fascination for gravel or sand then, who likes to talk about this obsession to the few people in his life, other boring folk perhaps or patronising do-gooders. Actually scratch that. Maybe just a saucy account of a weekend away for Tony and Cherie, a blow-by-blow description of dinner at Gillian Mckeith’s or X Factor runner-up Ray Quinn’s struggle to publish a novel.  In fact that one sounds quite funny.

Hang on I’ve got it. Take one guy; make him a bit of an arrogant, irritating prick. Then have him set off on some mad, impulsive trip without any means of contacting anyone. Make sure he doesn’t tell anyone where he’s going; we need to keep human contact to an absolute minimum. When he’s penetrated suitably deep into the wilderness, way, way beyond civilisation or chance of rescue, trap him somehow. Like throw him down a canyon and have him wedged by a rock so he can’t move. Then pick a random amount of time, something silly but memorable like 89 or 127 hours, and just leave him stuck there, barely moving. That should be truly awful.

Imagine pitching this idea to producers. Not a chance of getting your dream realised. Unless maybe you’re Danny Boyle and the industry hangs on your every move since Slumdog Millionaire. And also let’s just say it’s a true story to properly get their juices flowing, their minds racing ahead in time to the prospect of awards success, emotional crowds gushing praise in theatres everywhere. Watching someone motionless and isolated shouldn’t work, and it couldn’t be further away from the vivid romp through India that was Slumdog, but somehow Boyle makes it not just tolerable but inspiring and riveting.

It certainly helps that the film itself is 94 minutes as opposed to the real time, 127 hours, long. It also helps that Boyle’s playful and distinctive direction grabs you from the very first scene. Knowing the claustrophobia that’s to come, Boyle peppers the opening to the film with visual interest and movement. Watching climber Aaron Ralston get ready is a marvellous experience through Boyle’s eyes.

The screen splits and divides into two or three, with intricate close ups of bottles filling with water and hands rooting around in drawers and shelves. These loving details are then impressively contrasted, first with an atmospheric night drive and then a frenetic bike ride across a bright orange, stunning Utah landscape. This scenery, with its back drop of sheer blue sky, is properly showcased with gorgeous wide shots. At the same time Ralston’s speeding movement is conveyed with fast editing and camerawork. When he comes off his bike to energetic music your adrenalin is really pumping.

The soundtrack to 127 Hours is terrifically good. A.R. Rahman, who worked with Boyle on Slumdog, really excels here with a difficult task. The opening and endings to the film are particularly wonderfully scored. I was not a fan of Slumdog’s score, or indeed the film itself, so it’s refreshing to see Boyle doing something completely different despite the easy options no doubt available to him now as an Oscar winner. He clearly cares about this incredible true story and set about bringing it faithfully to life. He couldn’t have done this half as well without the excellent James Franco.

Franco plays thrill seeking climber Ralston as both a slightly annoying arse and a clever, likeable everyman. In the early scenes he meets two female climbers and effortlessly impresses them with his knowledge of the area and daring sense of adventure. His youthful, flirty antics with them in startling, deep blue waters give the ordeal that follows far greater emotional resonance. Franco portrays the panic of being trapped superbly, as well as the calmer more reasoned moments. He’s completely believable and does well without other actors to spark off of to continually engage us.

The story also works so well due to flashbacks of Ralston’s life, showing his regrets and key memories of loved ones. These segments humanise Ralston; he isn’t just a physical machine stuffed with practical climbing knowledge, seeking an adrenalin fix. He’s made mistakes like all of us. And Boyle’s script and direction leaves the flashbacks realistically and suitably vague. In a starving, dying of thirst state delusions are bound to be half-baked. More importantly the gaps can be filled by the audience; everyone longs for their own friends and special, loved people in their lives, as Ralston goes through the levels of despair.

And passing through these levels he arrives eventually at resignation. Ever since the boulder trapped his arm he has quietly known what he’ll have to do, what he’ll have to endure and sacrifice, to escape back to his life. Incidentally the moment when the boulder falls and snares him is the only part of the film that feels less than real, as the rock bounces for a moment like the polystyrene prop it probably was. Apart from this the close, stuffy, handheld camerawork injects genuine realism alongside the fantasies.  

And the moment when he cuts through his arm, the single headline grabbing fact either attracting or repelling viewers, was believable. What was refreshing was that on a number of occasions you think he’s going to, but doesn’t. The film keeps you on its toes, waiting for the pivotal moment, and when it comes it shocks you and continues to shock as he battles through the unimaginable pain.

Whilst the gore shouldn’t disappoint those seeking it, the blood and horror wasn’t as bad as I was expecting it to be. I’m normally quite prone to sickness at such things but I barely looked away. It’s undoubtedly horrific but unavoidably compelling too. And crucially 127 Hours isn’t about a guy cutting his arm off. It also doesn’t have any other overriding, commanding themes and messages. The beauty of the story is that it can be about whatever you want. And whatever you make it about in your own head, the eventual rescue is as uplifting as cinema can be.

I’ve seen six of the ten films on the Oscar Best Picture list now. Of these six, 127 Hours is only better than Inception in my opinion. Black Swan I enjoyed the most and The King’s Speech, The Social Network and Toy Story 3 are all better films in their own ways. However the true story behind 127 Hours is more remarkable than any of these tales, despite the fact its circumstances inevitably limit the scope and entertainment value of the film. Some critics have unfairly suggested 127 Hours only made it onto the shortlist because Boyle is a past winner. It’s a film that excellently and faithfully brings to life an amazing true story, with directorial flourish. And at times, thanks to Franco’s charm, there are surprising laughs to get you through. It doesn’t deserve to win Best Picture, but it more than warrants its nomination.