Book rave – And Then Like My Dreams {a memoir}

Last night I dreamed about a real person I had never met, Charles ‘Chic’ Stringer. I was, I think, on holiday with my husband and he took this lovely man’s hand very carefully, because we knew that Chic was now fragile… that’s all I can recall.

Chic is the subject of And Then Like My Dreams by Margaret Rose Stringer – a book like no other I have read. Entertaining, unique, breathtakingly honest, funny and heartbreaking, AND all true. In this story the blood, the glory, the coffee and the cream of love are so real it makes fiction and newspaper accounts look like feeble ghosts.

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The structure of the book is also unique. While it is told, like any other memoir, in the first person, Margaret Rose (M-R) and her beloved husband, Chic, inhabit the film world, so she slips regularly and seamlessly into screenplay mode. This gives the narrative a rare light and shade quality and is often used to hilarious effect. Footnotes are scattered throughout. Occasionally they supply further information, more often they are chatty asides, a personal reinterpretation of the truth and often very funny.

I have not even mentioned that half way through Opera (my personal rave) turns up. M-R and Chic live and love mostly in their home, Australia, but they also take four magnificent trips into Europe (where M-R clearly learns to speak French and Italian fluently, but fails to mention this strength). Food, photography, engineering, cats, language, France, Spain, Italy and Germany also feature.

There is only one ending to the book, as we know from the very start. Chic is going to die. We don’t want this book to end, but it continues to be gripping, and yes, even sometimes funny, to the bitter end. M-R wrote this book so that others would know about Charles ‘Chic’ Stringer, Stills Photographer, and never ever forget him. Her own larger-than-life personality flows over every page as does her love, wonder and grief. But she has succeeded; we will envy what she had and we will never forget Chic.

writing magic

A few weeks ago a friend lent me a book she had been unable to put down.


John William’s book Stoner sets out from page one to kill expectations. The tone is matter-of-fact, and the novel opens with Stoner’s death at the end of a clearly unremarkable life. This life is led almost entirely within the walls of an American university, though, crucially, Stoner is the only child of a small farmer.

So why has it become a bestseller here in the UK? The prose is mesmerising in its clarity and simplicity. The life it unfolds is unpromising in modern terms; bare, unambitious, and with few happy contributions from chance. Yet, this is an extraordinary and moving novel. I have rarely felt more sympathetic towards a protagonist. This remains true, in spite of the fact that much of his experience is marred by the limitations of his own personality. His background and upbringing are hidden shackles which the reader continues to hope (and not in vain) will crumble just a little some day.

It is also a story about the ordinariness of love and the magic of the written word.

The darlings he killed

A fascinating and salutary article about how life can sometime rob a writer. Mark Lawson, journalist, broadcaster, writer has had both fiction and non-fiction books snatched from him, half-written, by a variety of circumstances. In a his article he talks about each of these lost enterprises with modesty, humour and insight.

Novel People – Faulks on Fiction

Faulks on Fiction (Sebastian Faulks) is the kind of book you are so unwilling to stop reading that you read every last word – and discover that he would have preferred the title Novel People. 

This is a book about the people who inhabit fiction and it has walked straight into my personal favourites’ list for two main and several minor reasons. First, he uses, with delicious freedom, exactly the right word for what he wants to say. This is non-fiction, so Faulks is not constrained by his potential reading public or his characters’ vocabularies (or even an ageing brain) in his choice of words. He does not use obscure words, simply the right ones. The writing is also entertaining and fully accessible to the layman.

Secondly, as a reader and writer, to have all these characters from classic fiction (some of which I have read and others not) opened up for me to investigate both as people and as examples of their roles (e.g. hero, villain) in the stories they inhabit, is pure joy. This provides an extra dimension for a re-reading or a first reading of such books and an invaluable lesson in anatomy for a struggling writer.

The sections and chapters can be read separately and if you loathe Amis or love Austen (or vice versa) you can dip in and out. I find it very satisfying that he distances himself so convincingly from the ‘fiction is autobiography’ school. He has chosen a good eclectic mix of characters over the whole life of the English novel and he scans wider horizons each time he selects one.

Do I have any quibbles? My feminist side might have asked for a few more female writers. This book is a trawl through significant writers of the last two centuries. It will I hope become a school text. Many female writers are mentioned, but far fewer women than men make the cut and that saddens me. So Woolf, Zadie Smith, George Eliot and Mary Renault are mentioned, but Byatt, Murdoch and Drabble, for instance, don’t get a look in. These are not writers for whom I carry a flag and Faulks is very clear about the reasons for his selections. Also many great male writers are missing too. Still I am sad.

I will re-read this book over and over again. I will keep it among my dictionaries and style-guides for reference as a writer. I think it speaks usefully to writers of every level. As a reader, I will pick my way through the books it unwraps and that I have not yet read. As you can see I am struggling to put down.

Leo Tolstoy & Nick Hornby

I was going to title this Tolstoy versus Hornby, but that’s not what I mean.

Having recently finished Anna Karenina I picked out of my bedside stack a Christmas present (at least two years old) of Nick Hornby’s Juliet Naked. I had started it once before, but as the subject matter appeared to be the insane fan worship of a has-been rock star – not exactly central to my interests – it got queue-jumped.

I hesitate to admit it, but my enjoyment of my in-bed morning reading has now risen sharply. Hornby’s language is a chuckling delight. For instance, the fan and the colleague he has inadvertently started sleeping/living with arrive at work together: “Gina kissed him goodbye, on the lips, and squeezed his bottom playfully while colleagues watched, stupefied with excitement.”

Of course, Hornby is a lighter read than a Russian classic. Tolstoy’s people and the period are distant, and his use of language may well have lost some of its verve in translation. Also, while I was reading Anna Karenina, I did enjoy it, but there is relief in finding a character springing off the page in a sentence or two, and of internal monologues that make me smile in recognition (and don’t last for five pages).

With Anna Karenina there is a vast and satisfying depth to the characters, but so little humour and how much I miss it (and how difficult I find that in my own writing). It is difficult to love a character if you don’t get to smile while reading about them.

One Good Turn

Kate Atkinson’s One Good Turn (A Jolly Murder Mystery), has been sitting deep in my bedside pile for more than a year (possibly two). It is, as it claims, a jolly murder mystery, with what, for the individual characters, feels like unlikely co-incidence after co-incidence, but is for the reader a slowly building chaos, the result of the lifestyle and criminal choices of one man. There are hilarious scenes, a sense of real life and events (Russian brides, cheap labour, fringe comedy, theatre and circuses in Edinburgh, novelists as real people). One of the funniest moments is when an intellectually challenged heavy finds himself in the same place as most of the people he’d like to kill and is spoilt for choice. The last line is brilliant and yet fitting.

A jolly good read!

The Secret Life of Bees

I finished the Secret Life of Bees, by Sue Monk Kidd a few days ago. This atmosphere was so warm you could almost bath in it, yet not saccharine or without dark events. I was happy to linger on the page and spend time with the characters. Although I wanted the story to reach a satisfactory conclusion that seemed less important than spending time with the people and places. I really enjoyed the directness of Lily’s thinking and speaking, she felt like a kid I would like to meet. That doesn’t happen to me very often.  It was good to read a different take on the black/white relationship from the usual ones. The antagonism was there but outside the stories of the main characters. I also found it startling to think that although the background to this story feels like ancient history, it all happened during my lifetime. Although there have been massive changes in the relationships between ethnic groups, we clearly still have a long way to go.

In our discussion group the story provoked a great deal of reminiscence about badgers, hedgehogs, etc. The bees play such a central part in the story that they made us all think about our connections with local wildlife, though I admit that I found this concentration on the backcloth rather than the story a little disconcerting.

age and procrastination

I have noticed an interesting effect of age. I no longer put off doing a major job properly. So in the garden, finding the protective mortar flaking off the lowest level of bricks in one area – which was in the same state four years ago when I was laying paving slabs there – I know that I must deal with it. I have this feeling with all heavy work in the garden; best to do it now, I may not feel like it in a year or so’s time, and best make a good lasting job of it.

This feeling spreads to other areas not necessarily involving physical strength. There is no longer anything to be gained by waiting for a better/quieter/more mature period in my life. While the tendency to cook up long term schemes and projects has not left me, perhaps I am finally learning to live in the moment.

I read that you should only touch a piece of paper once – meaning that when you open a letter you should answer and file it in one go. Looking at the pile of paper in the box that masquerades as my in-tray, I still have a way to go on that front.

Of course it may not be age at all. I have just finished reading an unpublished memoir of a WWII Far Eastern Prisoner of War (Dishonourable Guest, by W G Riley). Riley is a young Signalman who starts POW life in Changi, works on the Thailand-Burma Railroad, gets transported on the doomed Hokofu Maru troopship, and is one of the 23 Britons rescued in the dramatic Cabanatuan Raid at Luzon. I have read many POW memoirs in the course of the last three year’s research. Elements are the same, but each man’s story is unique. You would have to be very obtuse to reach the end of even one of these memoirs and not learn to appreciate the moment.

Riley made, in his son’s words, ‘anguished attempts to get the work published’. His whole life was affected, not only by his experience as a prisoner, but also by his need to get his  story written and known. It was never published as a book, but his son, Steve, had the second version of the text (the first was lost) typeset and printed 1988. This certainly puts the odd rejection by agents or publishers into perspective.