Clever Girl, by Tessa Hadley

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I like to read stories about ordinary lives, so I looked forward to this novel by Tessa Hadley. In ten discrete chapters, we experience the life of an ordinary Englishwoman named Stella from childhood to middle age. Written in the first person, we see Stella’s life as she sees it: her experience of the events of the last half of the 20th century.

Hadley beautifully captures what life was like during that turbulent time: we get Stella’s teenaged rebellion of embracing punk culture with her androgynous boyfriend Valentine, and later her avoiding the arguments about politics in her commune, and so on to the end of the century. Hadley also shines at using quick, precise details to capture a person, place or thing. When she finds buttons at an old bombsite, they are “a coral rose, wooden toggles, a diamanté buckle, big yellow bone squares, toggles made of bamboo.” Of Stella’s grandmother, she says:

She bought her clothes from the children’s department (cheaper), and went to the hairdresser’s every week to have her hair set in skimpy grey-brown rolls pinned to her scalp: not out of vanity, but as if it was her duty to submit to this punishing routine.

As writers, we’re told that the first page of your novel should not only grab the reader but also introduce the main character, the time and place, the main character’s goal, and a hint at who or what might stand in the way of achieving it. Looking at this novel’s first page, we can confidently check off a few items. Our narrator is a child living alone with her mother in the 1950s and early 1960s, though only later do we find out they are in Bristol. She and her mother get along well, sharing the same tastes.

The first paragraph is about Stella’s missing father, “unpoetically” named Bert. Her mother says that he is dead but in the same sentence we are told that “I only found out years later that he’d left, walked out when I was eighteen months old.” As it turns out, this undercutting of Stella’s present-day experience by the interjection of knowledge acquired in the future will continue throughout the book. As a result, there is little suspense. We know, for example, who will die before the scene plays out.

Another aspect of this paragraph gave me a qualm. It seems to indicate that the book is going to be about how Stella’s life is shaped by a man. Sadly, that turns out to be true. Each chapter is focused on a man who changes Stella’s life. The only references to the women’s movement of the seventies come from an intense lesbian at Stella’s commune.

What about Stella’s goal? A structural difficulty with starting the book with her as a child is that children rarely can articulate a goal that will carry through their lives into middle-age, but even within each chapter she doesn’t seem to have a goal. We have the clue of the title. There is this sentence on the first page about her father having absconded rather than died: “I should have guessed this—should have seen the signs, or the absence of them.” From these slight tokens, I guessed that Stella’s goal through the book would be to grow into her cleverness. Accurate enough, as it turns out, though references to it are few and overwhelmed by the drama of deaths and dirty dishes and diaper pails. The rare times she mentions something related to her emerging intelligence (“cleverness” is pejorative and somewhat demeaning to me, but means something different in England) I began to be interested, but it didn’t last long.

The book would have been a lot stronger if this goal—or any purpose on Stella’s part—had been sharpened and used to tie the incidents together. Without it, the book is not so much a story as a hodgepodge of happenings.

For what might stand in her way, we have this sentence about things that were powerful at that time: “shame, and secrecy, and the fear that other people would worm themselves into your weaknesses, and that their knowledge of how you had lapsed or failed would eat you from the inside.” As it turns out, what stands in her way are her abrupt changes of direction, the consequences of her decisions or more often non-decisions. I can see where these could be a result of that fear. She even says at one point that “I couldn’t bear the idea of being exposed in my raw, unfinished ignorance.” Even at the end she says, “I still feel sometimes as if I’m running away, escaping from something coming up behind me.”

I’m confident that Stella’s fears, sudden changes of direction, and concealed cleverness, not to mention her way of letting men define her life, accurately reflect the lives of many women. However, I found myself observing her from a distance; I did not care what happened to her. Perhaps that’s because I found little to admire in her. And oddly, she always fell on her feet. As a single mother myself, I found it unrealistic that she always found someone willing to take care of her and her children.

Other roadblocks also magically melted away: for example, she suffered no teenaged angst because she had the perfect boyfriend; the woman who learned her husband was having an affair with Stella immediately volunteered to give him up so they could be happy; plus the wife’s children showed no resentment towards Stella for breaking up their family. Since Stella didn’t have to struggle to overcome her obstacles, the story lacked drama and I couldn’t muster any concern for her.

The lack of suspense bored me. Things certainly happened to her (She says, “I thought that the substantial outward things that happened to people were more mysterious really than all the invisible turmoil of the inner life.”), but without any buildup to them, there was no tension. She would also change direction with no warning, such as when from one sentence to the next she loses interest in the university degree she’d spent pages acquiring and heads off in another path. Without foreshadowing or dramatic tension, these events coming from out of the blue don’t create the kind of narrative I expect from a novel. The book feels like a random collection of incidents. Life can be like that, but it doesn’t make for an interesting book.

One friend who liked the book a lot said that it was the story of a person who floated through life, letting things happen to her, and didn’t live up to her potential. She added that it was an important book because many people don’t live up to her potential. That may be true, but doesn’t make it a compelling story. Another friend pointed out that nothing that happened to Stella changed her; she didn’t grow or become wiser, so she still sounded child-like as she aged.

I don’t mean to be overly negative. There are many things to like about this book: the novel-in-stories aspect, the evocative images and wordplay, the recognition when you stumble across things from your own past. One friend said that recognising so many incidents made her feel as though she were reading the story of her own life. Adding something to be achieved and suspense over how that might happen would make this an excellent novel. Even an ordinary life can be a good story.

What does the first page of the novel you are reading tell you about the rest of the book?

Stirring the Mud: On Swamps, Bogs, and Human Imagination, by Barbara Hurd

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I loved this book so much that the person from whom I borrowed it actually gave it to me (thanks, Anne!). Reading it, I was reminded of Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, a book about encountering the natural world and the human condition, a book that stunned me. So much so, now that I think of it, that the person from whom I borrowed it gave it to me (thanks, Jill!).

Stirring the Mud is a slight book, only nine essays, but I’ve been reading and rereading it for weeks, pondering the images and leaps of thought.

To love a swamp . . . is to love what is muted and marginal, what exists in the shadows, what shoulders its way out of mud and scurries along the damp edges of what is most commonly praised.

My love for the natural world tends to lean toward trees and streams, long walks on ocean beaches, and the rosemary and warm tomatoes in my garden. I’ve had an inchoate fear of swamps since childhood, when one third of our property by the Chesapeake Bay was a swamp. Or at least, that’s what my mother called it, warning us to stay out of it because it was full of snakes.

What unnerves me now about swamps and bogs, having stumbled into more than a few, is the uncertainty, the way what seems solid suddenly gives way under you. Hurd persuades me to treasure this experience. She reminds me that this feeling is both the fear and the joy of creativity: each time I start to write, I plunge into uncertainty.

Reading these essays, I came to love standing with Hurd as she lets her shoes sink into the mud, water seeping in to wet her socks, thinking about what grows there, what is lost there, what is preserved there. She examines the liminality of these places, how mysteriously hidden their edges are.

When by some act of grace, the lines we think are there dissolve, something else appears, something timeless and rich, an intermediate zone, languid and latent, the lushness of something about to be and in no particular hurry to make it happen.

I appreciate the information she includes to provide context, telling us for example that Finzel Swamp is a palustrine wetland and explaining what that means. Most of all, I love her close observation of the swamps she visits and the way she includes us in the experience.

One time, not far from the alders at Finzel, I found a small congregation of Indian pipes sprouting out of the leaf mold. Two inches high, these albino plants resemble a sculpture of dripped wax turned upside down in the dirt. The color of breast milk, bluish, almost translucent, they are saprophytic plants, meaning they need decay in order to live. I don’t know what it is about such ghostly whiteness that suggests silence, as if color were also sound and the absence of one means the absence of the other. Lovers of the damp, they don’t look like pipes to me but like nuns, their heads bowed, lips open, mouthing a constant and silent syllable.

Look at the lovely consistency of imagery in that description: congregation, dripping wax, ghosts and nuns. Even their name suggests the pipes of the organ with their open mouths, singing. And other images set against them, muddling them: breast milk, decay, absence.

I know I will keep coming back to this book. For the last few years I’ve been pondering margins and thresholds, but Hurd’s essays have caused a fundamental shift in my thoughts. I realised I’d been thinking of margins and thresholds as horizontal, stepping through a door for instance. Hurd makes me consider the vertical, what is below me, invisible if my eyes are trained on what may be in front of me. Similarly, based on reading poet David Hinton’s work, I’ve been letting go of the idea of time as linear and instead thinking of it as a constantly changing present, a present that I am sinking into ever more deeply.

What do you associate with swamps or bogs?

A Spool of Blue Thread, by Anne Tyler

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My book club rarely comes up with a unanimous verdict on a book, but we all loved this book by Anne Tyler, as we have loved other of her books we’ve read. It’s not just because she writes about Baltimore, and specifically the part of Baltimore we are most familiar with. No, it is something more.

In this, her 20th novel, Tyler introduces us to the Whitshank family. You know families like this one: while there are tensions and long-held grudges between Abby and Red and their four grown children, there is also love and concern and care, even if these emotions are sometimes tempered with frustration or incomprehension. They take for granted their connection with each other, just as they know that if asked to go for a walk on the beach, one is expected to agree.

Part of the glue holding them together is their belief that they, as a family, are special, though Tyler undercuts this assertion by telling us that it is based, among other things, on their ability to keep pets alive to a great age. There are also the stories that they tell about themselves. One has to do with the way Red’s father came to build and then own their house on Bouton Road. The house itself is a character, a vessel for all of their narratives: the wide, deep porch where Abby discovered her love for Red, the curving staircase that funnels sound up to someone hidden upstairs, the kitchen where the real heart-to-hearts take place.

Abby and Red, in their 70s, are starting to experience the effects of aging. Red has trouble hearing and has pulled back from the family construction business started by his father. Abby has begun to blank out for periods of time, finding herself in odd places when she comes to. Over their protests, their dutiful son Stem and his family move in with them, only to be joined unexpectedly by Denny, the black sheep son.

Abby’s baffled love for Denny, a rebel from a young age whom she has never understood, won my heart for this story. I know so many families where one child seems to absorb all the oxygen in the room, driving parents and teachers to distraction. In some ways I was that child, with my constant refrain: Leave me alone! Tyler’s portrait, not just of Abby, but of Denny himself subtly evolves through the book and is just so utterly true to life.

My book club had a long discussion over one critic’s remark that this was a “comic novel”. We agreed that Tyler’s humor is everywhere, but that it is subtle and witty rather than comic. One person, reading it a second time to remind herself of the story, suddenly noted all the little clues scattered in the text that would come to fruition later. Tyler’s craft is astonishing; she distracts us with a compelling story so that we do not notice her writer’s guile.

What we love about Tyler’s novels is her genuine compassion for her characters. She does not shy away from their faults and peculiarities, but she never mocks or criticises them; she instead treats them with respect and dignity. In a recent post on Writer Unboxed, literary agent, author, and writing teacher extraordinaire, Donald Maass suggests that readers are drawn to positive characters, those who have a hopeful outlook on life (though not the uniform optimism of a Pollyanna). These are the kind of characters we readers want to spend time with, whose spirit inspires us. Maass says in another post, “Generally speaking, we choose company that is pleasant. People who are warm, open, curious, compassionate and interesting are good to be around. We gravitate to people like ourselves, who share our outlooks, interests and values.”

In a story, characters encounter obstacles that try them to their limit (in a workshop with him, I started calling Maass The Don—thinking of The Godfather—because of the creative ways he kept pushing us to torment our protagonists). A positive character, confronted with barriers, does not wallow in helpless despair but pushes forward. As Maass says, “The human race is hopeful, yearning, seeking a more perfect world and full of faith that we can make it one.”

It is this quality that we love in Tyler’s novels: her ability to give us people who, with all their quirks and flaws, yearn for something better and have faith that they can get there, people whose stories play out in families so true that we recognise them immediately.

What do you look for in the protagonist of a novel?

The Comic Toolbox, by John Vorhaus

The Comic Toolbox

I am seriously unfunny. I mean, I enjoy a good joke or comedy routine as much as the next person, but fail when it comes to producing one. It’s embarrassing. I only know one joke, well, actually two but the second one is so silly it doesn’t really count: What’s yellow and not a banana? Oh, wait, it is a banana. Silly.

The only person I’ve met who was more humor-impaired than I is my friend, John. He and I were both technical trainers and decided to spice up our dry material with some jokes. I tried to memorise a few with lukewarm results. But John wrote out jokes on index cards and kept a handful in his shirt pocket. When things seemed slow in the classroom, he’d say, “Must be time for a joke.” He’d pull out his cards and leaf through them. Brilliant! The joke itself wasn’t half as funny as the whole performance of selecting it.

I don’t have any ambitions to write for a sitcom or do standup, but I would like to add more humor to my fiction and poetry. I wanted to improve my comic-relief characters. Plus, I’ve been so impressed by Shirley J. Brewer’s use of humor in her poetry that I want to experiment in that vein. But how?

What a joy and relief, then, to stumble on John Vorhaus’s book! It is just what I needed.

He takes a two-pronged approach. The first prong is to create a safe zone. He uses several techniques to ratchet down the fear of failure. One that is most helpful for me is that he breaks each exercise down into progressively more specific questions. Instead of wracking your brain trying to think of something funny to say, you are given a discreet task or question to answer, with plenty of examples. And Vorhaus himself is seriously funny; it’s hard to feel intimidated when you’re snorting with laughter.

The second prong consists of the tools implied by the title. I love tools. I was surprised to discover that what makes a joke work is essentially what makes a story work. I shouldn’t have been surprised, because of course a joke is a story. Vorhaus isolates the factors that make it funny. Using movies and television shows as case studies, he demonstrates each tool in action.

There must be a hundred tools here. The one I liked best was how to create a comic character. Amid discussion and illustrations, he boils the technique down to five elements. Boom! One minute and I had the bare bones of a comic character. Thirty seconds and I had another. Even better, I could see the gaping holes I’d left in the comic characters in my work-in-progress.

There are sections on parody and satire, situation comedy and sketches, but always tools and more tools. This book delivers on its promise: the subtitle is How to Be Funny Even If You’re Not. Finally there is hope for me! I can see that this is a book I will refer to again and again.

Have you ever wanted to write comedy? What are your favorite comic movies or shows? Who is your favorite comedian?