Tuesday, January 22, 2008

How to educate oneself

(Picture is my hubby - yes, he is very tall - in mouth-watering admiration of a vintage car. And no, it has nothing, well not much, to do with this post.)
Someone read my biography and asked "How do you 'accidentally' educate yourself?" You see, since I finished school before the age of 15, I claim I educated myself by wide and voracious reading. The question made me think, though. I thought the answer was a given, that I read a great deal. But that was making the mistake of thinking everyone is the same as oneself. I don't want this to sound like bragging, because there are plenty of gaps in my general knowledge and whole fields where my ignorance is total. But, when I think about it, there are prerequisites for the act of learning through reading.
1. The desire to read. Strange as we may find this fact, there are quite a lot of people who don't even want to read books. In fact I once saw an estimate that only two per cent of the literate human race read on a regular basis. That was quite a few years ago, and I certainly hope the figure has risen. But I do know people who read only the newspapers, and/or magazines. My husband, a man marvellously skilled in practical matters, reads only science and motor magazines, as well as newspapers. He has never read fiction in his life. He doesn't see the point. If he wants to relax, he goes fishing. He encourages and supports my writing, and he has, I note with an apology to him, read a couple of my short stories, but it's just not in his makeup to read books. He, however, is brilliant compared to others. In the small town in which we live, there are people who get all their information from television and gossip. They never read anything but their mail. No, not even the newspapers. No magazines, no books, nothing at all. So - we have to like reading to do it at all. And golly, I do like it!
2. An interest in the world, or an interest in any of the subjects covered by books. Fiction, non-fiction, history, geography, any human endeavour, curiosity about this human planet. How long do flies live? Why has the population of Egypt skyrocketed since the building of the Aswan Dam? Is the world really going to the dogs or has it been the same since the beginning of recorded history? Is George Bush Jr. as dumb as he's made out to be? Who won the last election in Uzbekhistan? Was there an election in Uzbekhistan? How do you spell Uzbekhistan? And so on. And of course the answer is, a lot of people don't care. Oh, they'll have heard of George Bush but they'll have accepted whatever character analysis their favourite TV current affairs has pinned on him. These people want to know only: the price of petrol, what their neighbours were up to with the lights on at 2 am, and where and at what odds their chosen football/cricket/tennis/rollerball/frog-racing contestant is competing this weekend. In a sense I can sympathise with the sports thing. I like the cricket myself, and addiction to any sport is a great escape from the mundane/unpleasant/stressful parts of everyday life. But not looking beyond one's nose is a past-time which, however nicely it suits some, I personally couldn't cope with. I want to know how the Chinese are going to handle their massive pollution problems; why the Aztecs let a few Spanish soldiers on horses destroy their civilisation; when the human race will discover it is/is not alone in the universe (a pause here to beat off the UFO believers); where precisely on a map of Europe is Luxembourg; and why is it a fact that a child with two feet can lose one shoe. But so many decent honest folk haven't a speck of interest in anything but their own immediate surroundings.
3. A retentive memory. I was forty-seven when I found out that most other people had the recall powers of a goldfish. (OK, I too saw the episode of Mythbusters in which Jamie trained a couple of finny friends to remember a simple maze. But you know what I mean.) A lady I knew from a church we had attended, a lovely person, met us again after a four-year hiatus and asked if we were there when so-and-so was there. She could not remember, after only four years. I was gob-smacked. I remembered every single member of that congregation. I remember most of the things I read, most of the important happenings of my life and an awful lot of the trivia. I'm not pointing fingers here because none of us can help either our genes, our upbringing, or the workings of our minds. I just happen to be blessed with a good long-term memory. And I recall phone numbers, pin numbers, page numbers and recipes for pan-fried nong-bats. I remember birthdays and to who I gave what at Christmas. Do not, however, ask me (a) what I intend to get at the shop without a list, (b) the important phone call my husband asked me to make a few days ago and (c) my shoe size.
Well, I do possess these three prerequisites for learning through reading. I learned accidentally because I didn't read to educate myself. I read (1) because I love stories, (2) because I'm interested in anything and everything, with the exception of the lives of celebrities. And it all added up to an education because (3) my parents' DNA happened to include the code for brain storage of most things thereby read. And (4) reading beats housework any day of the week, any moment of the day. It even insulates one against a passing distraction like that blessed ice-cream van that tootles past our house playing "Fur Elise" like a giant and demented music box just when I'm deep in Kim Stanley Robinson's 'Red Mars'.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Long Books

I so admire those writers who can hold your interest through a thousand pages or so. It's no mean feat. Most of us have to contend with sag-in-the-middle even inside two hundred pages. The secret is to have a great story, full of detail and interest.
First one I think of is Margaret Mitchell's "Gone With The Wind". Next is M.M.Kaye's "The Far Pavilions". Stephen King said the latter is a good book to take on a long sea voyage. Never fails in its imagery. And gosh, I know why she shortened the hero's name to Ash. Imagine having to type 'Englebert' or 'Humphrey' a few thousand times...
At present I'm reading "Red Mars", one of the science fiction trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson. He not only has a great story full of realistic characters, he also had to render the landscape of the red planet correctly and come up with the machinery, tools etc to colonise it. Amazing. And I'm reading the series back to front, since the first one I found was "Green Mars", third of the line. Doesn't matter, each book stands alone. Now I 'm on the lookout for "Blue Mars", number two. Yes, it's on the bookfinder sites, but I have to leave it until next Christmas, when I usually give myself two weeks off writing and treat myself to reading a long book. I cannot read and write at the same time, being a slowcoach. So Red Mars, started at Christmas, sits next to my chair waiting for me to have time to dip into it for a few pages. Not the ideal way to read, but there's so much substance there I'm quite satisfied with a taste, like a chewy and delicious snack.
What else? James A Michener specialised in long 'uns. I read both "Hawaii" and "The Source" in 1970 while I breast-fed our youngest child. I've read "Centennial" as well. His secret is to have a long and interesting history and tell it in plain language. Something happening in every paragraph.
And I've read Tolstoy's "War And Peace". Honest, I have. Years ago, in my twenties. I wonder sometimes how it would seem to me now, forty years later. But hey, if I'm going to write a long and interesting book of my own, I don't think I'll have time to read old Leo again.
By the way, the picture has nothing to do with the post. It's my husband's paternal grandparents. I just thought it was nice. Be grateful I can post a photo at all. I'm technophobic.

Friday, November 9, 2007



Monday, September 3, 2007

Excerpt from my novel 'The Pirate And The Puritan' to be released at The Wild Rose Press on 28th September

Nothing could help her now. Perhaps if she swallowed her pride she could beg for mercy... Her mind caught the thought, beg for Mercy. Only yesterday she would have smiled at it. Today it was a meaningless play on words. Today she knew that to beg would accomplish nothing, except perhaps amuse the grim captain.

And how could she beg? Only by falling on her knees before him and holding up her hands in supplication. She could not speak, nor could she write down any plea. The slate that had hung at her waist since her eleventh year was gone. She had hit a pirate with it, broken it on his head. He had merely guffawed, pushed her aside and continued his slaughter.

In the past she had hit, not as hard, more men than one with it, men who thought that because she was dumb she could not carry tales of stolen kisses. This pestering had not lasted long, once they learned she could write. And now her slate was gone, though the small cloth bag of chalk and rag still hung from her belt of plaited worsted cloth. She could write on the bulkhead...

She heard heavy footsteps in the passage beyond the door and Jedediah came in with a wooden bucket of seawater, which he dumped on the table. He left without looking at her or speaking to her. However she heard through the door as he mumbled, of all things, "You needs a clean shirt."

He was answered by a cold sharp voice, which Mercy recognised. "More than a shirt."

She stood quickly and wiped the tears from her face with her bound hands. The captain would not have the satisfaction of seeing her cry.
Not yet. Her fingers trembled on her cheeks. She bunched them together in her skirt, straightened her shoulders and stared ahead. She saw, surprised, that the light through the horn windows was dim. The long terrible day approached its end, though that was no solace. Under the cover of darkness men did things they would not dare, in daylight.

But she decided.
I will live through this. I will not fight. I will not give him the added pleasure of subduing me. I will give him the least pleasure possible, by submitting. I will survive.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

And More...

"The Left Hand Of God" by William E. Barrett; he also wrote "Lilies Of The Field". I find him restful to read. As opposed to some who put my teeth on edge! Purely personal taste of course. Oh, the first book is early 1950s and the second was a movie in the early 60s with Sidney Poitier.

Science Fiction: "The Shrinking Man" by Richard E. Matheson. Very moving.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

More Favourite Books Just As I Threatened

I'm sitting in my 'library'. It should be a spare bedroom but we're old and only occasionally get a grandkid or visiting rellie needing a mattress on the floor. So it's my 'study' or 'library'. Wow, how cultured can you get? But there I was blogging on yesterday about favourite books, surrounded by them on all sides except the desk and window, and too lazy to get up and jog my ageing memory by looking around the shelves.

I adore ALL Georgette Heyer's 18th century and Regency romances. In fact, though there's few books I want to read more than once, I re-read Georgette completely every ten years.

Then there's "Clan Of The Cave Bear" and "The Valley Of Horses" by Jean M. Auel. They both kept me awake till 2 a.m. for several mornings while I experienced the adventure of reading them. My ambition as a writer is to keep other writers awake reading my books until the small hours.

Rudyard Kipling - maybe out of fashion but "The Jungle Books", "Rewards & Fairies", "KIM" etc. were a marvellous discovery when I stumbled across them. He's still a great writer and one of the masters of the short story. And do you know, I read in his biography that he wrote all his life to the column width of the first newspaper he worked on? His editors must have loved him.

"The Desert Column" by Ion Idriess. If you're not Australian you've probably never heard of him, or his books. It's a superb account of his days as a Lighthorseman in the Middle East in World War I.

"Softly Tread The Brave" by Ivan Southall. Another Australian, this time from World War II. This is the true account of the incredible service of two Aussie mine-disposal officers in England during those dark years. Leavened by dry humour.

"Joan Of Arc - Self-Portrait", compiled by Willard Trask from the Maid's own words at her trial. Rivetting. Read a good biography of her first, like Edward Lucie-Smith's "Joan of Arc."

"Seven Pillars Of Wisdom" by T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia). Brilliantly written, a great adventure, occasionally harrowing. And if you can find a copy, read in tandem with Lowell Thomas's "With Lawrence In Arabia".

"Bugles And A Tiger" by John Masters. The experience of a British Gurkha officer in India before World War II. Another excellent writer, never wastes a word.

The stove is calling again...

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Favourite Books

(I know the picture of my hydrangea has nothing to do with books, but my I.T. expert son has taught me how to add photos to the blogs, and I just stuck it anywhere!)
It seems obligatory for writers to tell everyone what their favourite reads are. Well, fair enough if you're interested - in which case, bless you! Writers of course, like the rest of the human race, come in all shapes, sizes, ages and their tastes and opinions are just as varied. Hmm, let me think.
First book that springs to mind is "The King Must Die" by Mary Renault. Came out about 1964. (I'm old.) Marvellous re-telling of the legend of Theseus and the Minotaur, no stuffy Greek myth style but an immediate and human story. The first reading of any good book is an adventure, but this one was a revelation. It was followed by "The Bull From The Sea" about Theseus's later life, and preceded by "The Last Of The Wine", about the war between Athens and Sparta. It helps to know a little of the background, but the stories stand alone.
I write romance so I'd better mention romance writers. Favourite Australian authors in the genre are Lindsay Armstrong ("A Difficult Man", "An Unsuitable Wife" and "An Unwilling Mistress") and Meredith Webber. June Monks's Country Sunshine is delightful. Favourite American is from the Eighties, Rebecca Flanders, I found her work very moving. British, Sally Wentworth, especially "Chris", which was deeply emotional. I'll remember more in time.
I've been a science fiction fan for fifty years. Favourite books in that line are Ursula K. Le Guin's "The Left Hand Of Darkness", just about anything by Arthur C. Clarke, the early works of Robert Heinlein, "The Gods Themselves" by Isaac Asimov, "The Dancer From Atlantis" by Poul Anderson (most of his work in fact), "Orbitsville" by Bob Shaw, most of Larry Niven's work including "Destiny's Road". I own an aged and battered anthology by Eric Frank Russell, who is rare in the genre because he can write stories that are both brilliant and funny: the book is called "Far Stars", and if you can find a copy, BUY IT.
Adventure. Unlike other girls I didn't much like girls' fiction, although L.M. Montgomery of "Anne of Green Gables" must be everyone's favourite. I liked Biggles - the pilot created by W.E. Johns, and my daughter loved them too. For adult adventure you can't go past C.S. Forester and the Hornblower series, though all his books tell great stories. "Brown On Resolution" and "The Gun" are my favourite non-Hornblowers.
Humour. I have a special admiration for those who can write it. P.G.Wodehouse who wrote the Jeeves stories is/was a master. Gerald Durrell injected it into most of his zoo-collecting stories, but I especially like his "Fillets of Place", (or Plaice), which is a compilation of several short and hilarious pieces. I gave it to a friend to read to cheer her up after she'd had an operation, and she almost burst her stitches laughing. And my all time favourite is "I'll Trade You An Elk" by Charles Goodrum, which must have been published in the late fifties or early sixties. His dad ran a zoo pre-war in Wichita, Kansas, U.S.A., and the best part of his side-splitting anecdotes is that they're all true!
What else? Oh yes, ANYTHING by Mary Stewart. Favourite is "Touch Not The Cat." And then there's M.M. Kaye, particularly "The Far Pavilions", which at nine hundred pages never became boring and I was never tempted to skip a word. Same with Colleen McCullough's "Morgan's Run."
And just about anything by Winston Graham, though his earlier work is a bit dated now. But his Poldark series is great (he's British) and "The Walking Stick" and "The Forgotten Story" are my favourite non-Poldarks. The Walking Stick particularly interesting because it's told in 1st person by the female protagonist. (It was filmed too, with David Hemmings and Samantha Eggar, in the Sixties.) I adore the way the man writes, so apparently easily, the stories just seem to 'happen.'
I'll carry this on another day. Right now I have to get tea ready. ('Dinner' in the U.S. or other civilised places like southern states of Australia.)