Sunday Supplement ~ Diana Wynne Jones

Browsing through back issues of Michael Dirda’s Reading Room I came across a short piece he had written after the death last year of Diana Wynne Jones.  While not a great reader of adult fantasy, I do think that some of the best children’s books are written in that genre and to my way of thinking Wynne Jones was one of its finest exponents.

Probably best known for the Chrestomanci series and her teenage novels, Hexwood  and Fire and Hemlock I first came across her through  the less often cited, Power of Three. At the time I had just been given responsibility for the School Library.  Please notice the verb there, given.  I hadn’t asked for it.  I had no relevant experience, other than being an avid reader.  But, I was the most junior member of staff and no-one else wanted the job.  It says something about the importance given to libraries in schools, then and unfortunately, now.  Anyway, I thought I’d better do something to educate myself in what was in there and so each weekend packed a couple of books into my bag and read my way through the next forty-eight hours.  You won’t be surprised to hear that those were some of the happiest weekends of my life.  And, the first of  Diana Wynne Jones’ books that I picked up was Power of Three.

Like many of her books this is based around myths drawn from other cultures and tells the story of Gair, a child who is convinced of his profound ordinariness in the face of his more talented siblings only to discover that the fate of not only his race but the other two that share his world rests with him.  I wouldn’t say it was her greatest book but then even more minor Wynne Jones is compelling and it was enough to ensure that from that point I read everything I could get my hands on.

Her death was a cause of great sadness and so it was with some surprise but great pleasure that I discovered recently that a posthumous book of essays and reviews has been published.  Reflections came out at the beginning of last month and my copy has just arrived.  Here are essays about the origins of some of her own novels, reflections on the works of other writers such as Tolkien and C S Lewis, as well as discussions of the finer points of writing fantasy and writing for children.  It is a treasure trove for anyone who loves her work and mourns the fact that there will be no more.

So far I have only read the first piece, The Children in the Wood, which asks how the writer can take that world of make-believe that children inhabit so naturally and introduce it into a book in a way that will seem real to the child reader and retain the power of their own creative energy.  The next piece is about the narrative shape of The Lord of the Rings and if the weather tomorrow is as appalling as it has been today then I am going to turn my back on the wind and the rain and enjoy her thoughts on Tolkien instead.

Having her essays is never going to be a recompense for the fact that there will be no more novels but being able to touch her mind and share her thought processes however indirectly is definitely better than nothing.

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Sunday Supplement ~ Is That The Post?

I haven’t yet read Julian Barnes’ novel The Sense of an Ending.  It’s coming up for one of my book groups later in the year, so I’m saving it .  However, yesterday I overheard someone saying that a letter plays an important part in the plot and that made me stop and listen because the same is true of the book I am reading at the moment, Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry.  Indeed, in that case the entire plot is initiated by the arrival of a letter and the reaction it prompts in the eponymous Mr Fry.

Most stories require an incident that disturbs the status quo to get them started.  Something has to happen to shake the characters involved out their everyday existence or why would we want to hear about them.  When I was teaching, the children would call this the kick off point. (The technical term is the inciting moment, but kick off point sounds more like a game of football and as any teacher knows, you need to keep the lads on board.). However, the same kick off point can lead to any number of variations in the case of a game of football and the same is true for a story.  What does that letter contain?  Is it an invitation, a threat, good news, bad news?  The possibilities are endless.

I once suggested to a class that we all take the arrival of a letter as the  kick off point for a story just to see how many variations we got.  It wasn’t long after the Ahlbergs’ wonderful picture book, The Jolly Postman, came out, so most of them actually wrote the letter, popped it into an envelope and stuck it in their essay books.  We had party invitations, announcements of grand prize wins, threatening letters and my favourite which was a ransom demand.  This was also at the height of popularity of those books that asked the reader to make a descison at the end of each paragraph and then directed them to a specific part of the story to continue the narrative.  If you decide to pay the ransom read paragraph two, directed the instructions.  If you decide to ignore the letter go to paragraph five.  Bloodthirsty as only a ten year old boy can be, it was perfectly possible to get to the end of this particular story and find a dead body waiting for you.

I have a nasty feeling that the same is going to true of Mr Fry, but please don’t tell me if that is the case.  I’m enjoying the journey far too much.  What you could tell me, however, is whether or not there are other books that start in this way.  I’d rather like to make a collection of them.

Sunday Supplement ~ On Dairies

While out running errands yesterday morning I found myself with twenty minutes to spare before going to pick up a friend for lunch and so found a convenient seat and pulled out my e-reader.  When I first bought this device I read on it a lot but these days I find that I use it most often when I’m out and about with the likelihood of a few minutes to spare here and there.  It’s major attraction is how light it is and for that reason alone it wins the approbation of my osteopath, who has very strong views about my habit of lugging six hundred page epics around with me.  Because I’m most likely to be reading in reasonably short bursts I keep books on it that lend themselves to fragmentary reading and currently that means Susan Hill’s record of a year reading only those books she already owned, Howards End is on the Landing.

The chapter to which I turned yesterday centred around books which are themselves collections of fragments, namely diaries and journals, and as I read of Hill’s journey through her own hoard I realised just how drawn I’ve always been to the works of people who recorded daily snapshots of their own existence and then thoughtfully shared them with the public at large.  I think I must have started with Peter Hall’s account of his time as Artistic Director of the National Theatre, certainly I’ve enjoyed several other journals recording the development of particular theatrical productions.  If you like the theatre and haven’t read either Antony Sher’s Year of the King about his Richard III or the diary he and Greg Doran kept of their South African Titus Andronicus, called Wozza Shakespeare then I can strongly recommend them both.

I’ve also collected a number of writer’s journals.  The first of these would have been Katherine Mansfield’s Letters and Journals which I read when her short stories turned up on the syllabus for the final year of my degree course.  One particular entry has stayed with me ever since:

June 10 1919

I have discovered that I cannot burn a candle at one end and write a book with the other.

re-worded by me at the time to read

I have discovered that I cannot burn the candle at one end and write essays with the other.

Sometime later browsing round the wonderful but no longer surviving Silver Moon Bookshop on the Charing Cross Road, I picked up Journal of a Solitude, the first of several diaries by the American writer, May Sarton.  I read each of these as they became available despite the fact that I was vaguely conscious that had I actually met the lady we wouldn’t have got on and the same was true of Frances Partridge’s six volumes, which irritated me tremendously but which I read because they carried on the story of people I’d already come to know through what have to be my favourite examples of this type of literature, the letters and journals of Virginia Woolf.

Why I find these so compelling I’m not sure because I’ve always found Woolf’s novels very hard going.  Perhaps they remind me more of her essays, which I do relish very much indeed.  Twice now I have read through them in their entirety, on  both occasions reading a month in the letters followed by the same month in the journals.  If you have the time to climb this mountain (eleven volumes in all if I remember rightly) then this is the way to do it.  In the letters you get the polite version, the public face, and then in the journals you find out what she really thought, how she actually felt about the people to whom she was writing those letters.  Some writers clearly keep journals with publication very much in mind.  I doubt that was the case where Woolf was concerned, certainly not while many of the people involved were still alive.  The fallout would have been tremendous.

Reading Hill’s account of the time spent reacquainting herself with the many letters and  journals on her own bookshelves has wetted my appetite for more in this vein, but it would be nice to discover something new.  If anyone has any suggestions for examples out of the ordinary I would really appreciate it.