Monday, November 30, 2015

One Hundred Favourite Novels

I have been rereading Jane Smiley's Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel, (2005.) Smiley, an American novelist most famous for A Thousand Acres, examines the novel as a form of literary expression from thirteen different perspectives. She read one hundred novels as preparation, starting with some very early works. At the end of the book she explains the merits and shortcomings of each, in her opinion. I was pleased to recognize many of the titles as books I had read. Her list included Wodehouse's comic novels about Jeeves, early English novels like Pamela and Robinson Crusoe, several books that were the best sellers of their era, some classics of yesteryear that have not held up well over time - and more..  Anyone who writes fiction should read Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel. The title comes from the poem "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird."

Smiley's list of one hundred novels inspired me to list my hundred favourites, books that have enlightened and entertained me and educated me about certain fictional devices and methods of presentation of my stories.  Here is my list, in no particular order.  Maybe later I will go through it and tell you why each book is important to me, and why I think you should read it too.

Lives of Girls and Women
Who Do You Think You Are,  by Alice Munro.
This Nobel Prize winning author writes short stories, but in these two works the short stories all have the same protagonist and serve as chapters of each novel.

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt

The Lacuna,
The Poisonwood Bible
Flight Behaviour    by Barbara Kingsolver

P is for Peril
R is for Ricochet
T is for Trespass by Sue Grafton
I have read all of Grafton's alphabet mysteries except for "X" and enjoyed them all, but these three seem to me to be the most compelling.

The Chimney Sweeper's Boy, by Barbara Vine (the late Ruth Rendell)

The Chaperone, by Laura Moriarty

Longbourn, by Jo Baker (Pride and Prejudice from the servants' point of view)

The Ballad of Frankie Silver, by Sharyn McCrumb
(I like all of McCrumb's Appalachian historical and contemporary novels but this is my favourite.)

Martha Quest
A Ripple from the Storm
The Four-Gated City, by Doris Lessing

Braided Lives
Gone to Soldiers by Marge Piercy

Painted Fires by Nellie McClung
 (My mother introduced me to this novel about a young woman immgrant to Canada from Finland and her struggles to make a life for herself.)

These are the first twenty I thought of. More to come later.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Story Starters

The best ideas for short stories come from something we have glimpsed, found interesting, witnessed or experienced. Sometimes, however, the self-generated idea doesn't work out, though, and we are faced with the blank page. Having the urge to write but nothing to write about is like looking at a closet full of clothes but finding nothing to wear.  To others it seems like a non-problem, but it is all too real.

Waiting for the muse to visit can become tiresome for those of us who like to be productive. Accordingly, in teaching writing classes, I provided participants with some ideas, knowing that we bring ourselves to every project and that whatever idea a student chose, the resulting story would turn out to be unique to him or her.

Here is one list of ideas:

1) Start a story that begins: The one thing Chris didn't want as a birthday present is a ............., but here it is.

The writer must decide what Chris especially doesn't want, and why.  In yesterday's blog I mentioned that Vera Brittain in the movie Testament of Youth didn't want a piano because to her it symbolized a restricted, conventional life.  Think of who has given Chris this gift? A relative who chose a gift that makes a judgment or sends a message? In what way does the gift  pose a problem?  What does Chris do with the gift, ultimately.

In my story, "The Strain", in my collection of short stories, Winter Moon, available from me at ruthlatta1@cyberus,ca, the central character receives a Christmas gift that she doesn't want because it is not at all useful in her difficult life.

2)  Another idea: List five things that you would never lend to anyone. The list might include your car, your lipstick, your spouse, an item of lingerie, your child, your home for a party, money....  Choose one of paramount importance to you Then invent a plot in which you, or the central character, is asked for the loan of this particular thing or person.

Ask yourself: What exceptional circumstances would make the central character break this rule? How does the central character feel after lending the item or refusing to do so? How does the borrower react?

In one of my classes a woman wrote a story about a busy, beleaguered young wife and mother who has a single woman friend whom she envies, because the single woman has an active social life and the young mother is at home bogged down in housework and children's needs. On impulse the young mother bought herself a lacy push-up bra some time ago but hasn't worn it. The single friend asks to borrow it for a hot date. As the conversation continues the single woman confesses that it's tiresome and sometimes degrading to search for "Mr. Right"/ "The One", so the young mother gives her the push-up bra, silently thinking of all the good things in her own life, like her husband and young children.

Lending a husband to help a neighbour with some simple, everyday task, like raking leaves, could be problematic if the wife thinks the neighbour is going to make a play for him.

3) Another idea:  A couple who are happy in a committed relationship with each other are enjoying a domestic evening when the doorbell rings. On the doorstep is the ex-partner of one member of the couple. The ex wants something. 

Your job as the writer is to decide what the ex wants and how it affects the couple. My writing students' ideas about what the ex wanted ranged from money to a kidney to a home for a child.

I had good luck with this idea. My novel, The Old Love and the New Love, is based on it. In my novel the ex wants a safe place to hide out for a while.

Good luck with these ideas.

Friday, November 13, 2015

movie review: Testament of Youth

In 1933,  English peace activist and novelist Vera Brittain published Testament of Youth, an autobiographical non-fiction book that made her famous. It is the story of a generation decimated by World War I.  In 1913, Vera, then twenty, wanted to attend Somerville College, a women's college at Oxford University, and was studying independently, hoping her parents would agree to let her take the admission test.  Shortly after she began her studies there, Britain declared war on Kaiser Wilhelm's Germany.Soon her brother Edward, her boyfriend Roland Leighton, and two other close friends from Edward's school were in the army, fighting in France.  During the course of the war, all four were killed. Vera left university to train as a nurse in order to be useful, and eventually was sent to work in the war zone in France.

This compelling story is still in print and has been the subject of two film adaptations, the first a BBC series (1979), the second the 2014 film starring Alicia Vikander as Vera and Kit Harington as Roland Leighton. Now on DVD, it is a coming-of-age story in which Vera leaves behind a confined, ladylike existence and becomes engaged in the great events of her era.

Near the beginning of the movie, we see Vera reacting badly to the piano her parents buy her for her birthday. It cost the equivalent of a year at Somerville College and it symbolizes for her the domestic, ladylike life her parents want for her. They don't want her to become a "bluestocking", but to find a husband.   She throws the books that she has been studying out the window and confronts her parents, Edward and his school chum, Victor, declaring that she will never marry. Just then a handsome young man comes through the open door. He is another of Edward's school friends and he hears her loud remark,and commets. "That's clear, then!"

During the course of his visit (he is Roland) they get to know each other well. They share an interest in literature and poetry; both plan to become writers. Roland's mother is a well-known writer and supports the women's suffrage movement, so Roland is no stranger to independent women.  Together they vow, "No more fear!" Edward convinces his father that he should let Vera go to university and she and Roland look forward to seeing each other there every day.

But in the meantime, after an idyllic summer, war is declared and the young men feel it a duty to sign up, especially as they believe they will beat the Germans by Christmas. Vera's father, who seems to be prescient about the long bloody conflict ahead, forbids Edward to join up, until Vera says that he has to let Edward be a man.

Vera's nursing instructors give her a hard time because they think she will put on airs and not work hard. She throws herself into her work, caring for young men like her brother and his friends, and urges Roland in her letters not to try to spare her feelings but to write to her the realities of war, as she is not afraid to confront things that are real.  Their relationship has its ups and downs. When they managed to spend time together prior to the war, they are heavily and comically chaperoned by her aunt.  When Vera sees him off to France he is ill. On his first leave he is angry and uncommunicative with her, convinced that she can't understand what he goes through in trench warfare and also sure that "leave makes you soft." Someone he knew went home on leave, got engaged, then came back to the trenches and forgot to keep his head down. 

In a dramatic confrontation by the sea Vera demands that he talk to her and make her understand. When he tells her the story about the engaged man who forgot to keep his head down and was picked off by the enemy, she assures him that they don't have to get engaged or married. At that, he says that a wedding might be nice - she in a white dress, surrounded by their friends, having cake. She accepts his proposal to be married on his Christmas leave. He writes later that he has been posted behind the lines and will be out of danger.

But Roland was sent to the front and was shot while mending wire. Vera doubts the official story about a noble, painless death because she knows he spent anentire day in hospital before dying. She ferrets out the true story, but, in a letter to their friend, Victor, who is just being sent to France, she  repeats the official line about a painless death.

Roland Leighton's personal effects included poems addressed to Vera. Two of them, "Violets" and "Hedcuville, November 1915". the latter written the month before he died, are quoted in the movie and available on the internet if you search under his name.  Both are heartrending. In the latter, he tells Vera that in the beautiful natural setting where they first met, she may meet "another stranger" and that it would be "better so". His resignation to his fate is deeply upsetting.

One of the terrible ironies is that, as a nurse in France, Vera finds her brother among the wounded brought to a field hospital, and saves his life, only to have him go back into the war and ultimately die.

The film takes some minor liberties with facts. In 1925, Vera married George Catlin, a political scientist, war veteran and peace activist, but she did not know him during the war years. The movie has them meet twice during its time frame.  It also shows Vera meeting Winnifred Holtby, a fellow Somerville student and writer who became her close friend until Holtby died in 1935. The film has Winnifred caring for Vera when she collapses from post traumatic stress disorder, but, in fact, that happened later in the early 1930s when Vera had to relive her wartime experiences while writing Testament of Youth.  But these small inaccuracies are necessary to give viewers a hint of what happened to Vera after the time frame of the movie. and they do not detract from its power.  I happened to see it just after Remembrance Day.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

"A CAKE" - poem

A few months ago, this poem was published in Good Times.


by Ruth Latta

I'm going to bake a plain white cake,
the sort that Mother used to make,
with flour, sugar, milk...Let's see:
What else is in the recipe?

The cookbook's in a cupboard, lair
of bake pans, clutter. Here is where
some serviettes have taken rest.
I may well need one for a guest.

I must clean out this hidey-hole,
not be a sloven, lose control
of cupboard space. Beneath the sink?
Oh, what would Betty Crocker think?

The page where "White Cakes" ought to be
is missing, left out, lost to me.
The loose leaves here are old and worn.
My plans for cake have died stillborn.

A thought occurs to save the day -
the food store, just a block away.
In "Bakery" there is plain white cake
much like my mother used to make.

recent reviews published

Above is the link to my review of the short story collection Bonds of Love and Blood in Compulsive Reader