Reading to put your brain in the right state – Steven Carroll, The Time We Have Taken

When I’m working on something, I like to read from any of my favourite books to put my brain in the right frame of mind. You know, slow it down a bit and find a rhythm. I pick up a book and open to any page and read. Today’s read was from Steven Carroll’s The Time We Have Taken pg 132  (Fourth Estate paperback 2007)

You can see the influence from one of Steven Carroll’s favourite authors, Proust, in the long sentences, the rhythm, and the use of the senses.

The smell of previous-night’s-beer is unmistakable. And with the whiff of old beer she is simultaneously seeing Vic falling through the front door, stumbling through the house, and that old familiar feeling of wretchedness is upon her once again, and the memory of that wretched madness that swelled her heart to the point of exploding all those years ago is now more than a memory. It’s a smell. And smells make things happen all over again. And she knows she doesn’t want these memories again, but knows they won’t go till the smell does. Then she sees further signs of disruption, even as she’s dwelling on this business of smell and weight and love and why it had to be like that. For she has entered Michael’s old bedroom, which has changed little since he left, and noticed immediately that the bed has been disturbed. Slept in. And with the observation comes an involuntary shiver. A half-hearted attempt has been made to make it, a quilt thrown over the bed almost contemptuously. Brazenly. And as this strangers perfume– which she knows to be a common, cheap scent that young girls these days go for — as this strangers perfume mingles with the sight of the shabbily remade bed, the word ‘tart’ comes to her again. And she is convinced that Michael has not only sneaked back into the house when she was not there like some creature with guilt written all over his face, he has dragged a tart back into their house, her house, with him. And she knows straight away that this is not the act of her Michael, upon whom she rested the weight of the love she was left with (when Vic couldn’t carry it any more), her Michael who had always told her that her dresses were just right when the street sneered. No, it wasn’t him, but some other Michael with a tart in his ear.

Recoils like snails shot with vinegar: Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre

 

 

It’s not the first time I’ve quoted Vernon God Little, and since I’m only part way in ( and being a fan of DBC Pierre I’ve also quoted from Lights out in Wonderland ) I don’t think this will be the last time you see me quoting from this book. He really does have a way with words to be envious of.

 

On mothers. (I am one, I can quote it. ):

 

Between you and me, it’s like she planted a knife in my back when I was born, and now every fucken noise she makes just gives it a turn. P7

 

One for the writers:

 

When the rubbing of her thighs has faded, I crane my nostrils for any vague comfort; a whiff of warm toast, a spearmint breath. But all I whiff, over the sweat and the barbecue sauce, is school – the kind of pulse bullyboys give off when they spot a quiet one, a wordsmith, in a corner. The scent of lumber being cut for a fucken cross. P11

 

Describing the weather without  putting yourself and readers to sleep can be a challenge, no fear here:

 

Outside a jungle of clouds has grown over the sun. They kindle a whiff of damp dog that always blows around here before a storm, burping lightening without a sound. Fate clouds. They mean get the fuck out of town, go visit Nana or something, until things quiet down, until the truth seeps out. Get rid of the drugs from home, then take a road trip. P13

 

One I wish I’d thought of first:

 

Gurie’s chin recoils like snails shot with vinegar. P26

 

 

Jesus Sandals and Anchovette, by Joanna Atherfold Finn

 

 

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Delicate and sweet writing from the point-of-view of an eight-year-old child, but what is really great about this piece is that it’s written in second person. I haven’t read a second person story before this that isn’t in the form of letter or diary. (If you know of any, comment below I’d love to read it) In this instance it gives the reader a strong sense of being right with the character and somehow helps to put you in the mind of the child. There’s nothing bad to say about this; it’s gorgeous, a must read.

This story is from the Amanda Lohrey Selects series at Spineless Wonders Publishing.

There is so much information about the little girl (and the family) to be gleaned from these few opening sentences.

You look out the back window of the lime-green Galant to the curved struts of the rusting balcony, the top step where you grinned (gap-toothed) for your first-day-of-school photo, the pine tree with its dying centre. Behind the gate is your cubby house with foundations so deep it can’t be moved. Next door, Mr Carter is spraying his cumquat trees. You picture Mrs Carter inside sitting at the kitchen table doing her crossword, and Jesus hanging from his cross, observing her forlornly. She has told you he is all-knowing. You wonder why he doesn’t drop a hint now and then.

The sentences are dripping with descriptions of colour and images,

A row of blue-headed pins protruded from her pillowy lips. Her smooth forehead bobbed as you revolved in tiny increments.

and descriptions that can pull you back right there with the little girl. We know where they are even before it’s made clear.

He leads you through glass doors with his hand clamped around the back of your neck, past nicotine-yellow tables, over kaleidoscope carpet. A row of men are perched on stools, their thick arms bent across blue towels, their hairy legs dangling. Their hair is shrinking into their skulls. They are stunted and swollen like the puffer fish you poke with a stick on the beach.

 

 

Black Juice, by Margo Lanagan

 

books

 

 

 

This is a short story collection, one of five by Margo. I read the e-book version from Amazon

These passages are from the first story in Black Juice, singing my sister down. The sentences are plump with meaning and expression in a subtle and beautiful and intriguing style. This particular story will also break your heart. Love it, can’t wait to delve into more.

 

And Mumma was talking, wearily, as if she’d been going on a long time, and soothingly, which was like a beautiful guide-rope out of my sickness, which my brain was following hand over hand.

 

The style has a biblical tone with the repetition of the word ‘And’ at the beginning of many sentences, and also the repetition of sentences – which I love, but avoid doing myself for fear of being criticized for it.

 

–and into my Mumma, whose arms were ready. She couldn’t’ve carried me out on the tar. We’d both have sunk, with me grown so big now. But here on the hard ground she took me up, too big as I was for it. And, too big as I was, I held myself onto her, crossing my feet around her back, my arms behind her neck. And she carried me like Jappity’s wife used to carry Jappity’s idiot son, and I felt just like that boy, as if the thoughts that were all right for everyone else weren’t coming now, and never would come, to me.

Crossing ethical lines: Midnight Blue and Endlessly Tall by Jane Jervis-Read

9781922057433

Midnight Blue and Endlessly Tall by Jane Jervis-Read

Xoum Publishing 2013

121 pages.

 

Jessica is a divorced and single health worker whose children have moved on with their lives, leaving her to negotiate her relationships from a distance and to grapple with a ‘hollow and sore heart’. When she becomes increasingly entangled in the life of her client her own needs allow her to go where logic might tell her she shouldn’t.

From the beginning we know we are in the hands of an author who cares about words and what lies between them. Jane Jervis-Read creates a haunting and wanting aura with her sensitive writing:

But she will already be walking out the back, screen door sighing closed behind her, slippers scuffing the concrete, spanning the distance between the kitchen and the shed. The corrugated roof casts a shadow over the entrance… But inside the shed a world awaits. From the window I watch the shadow drink her in. p2

When Jessica takes on the job as carer to Eloise we follow her tender path along a road that both she and we know she shouldn’t go down. It echoes the decisions we fail or neglect to make, or choose to ignore, that allow us to follow the heart in search of something we need. It puts the question to us that we may not like to explore, should we go to places we know we shouldn’t for the sake of cotton-balling the heart?

It meant something when Eloise pulled me in. It meant I am sad and the world is falling like leaves around me. It meant you are a warm heart next to me and your heart loves and listens where mine is hollow and sore and calling out like a wild, hungry mouth. It meant I need you…Something is starting and something is ending. I need relief from my sorrow and you are it, your hand is it, your warm heart beating beside me is it. p66

As we would in reality, Jessica questions her actions and explains them away with care:

She was crying with growing intensity. You don’t leave someone alone in that state. You don’t say, Sorry but my shift is over.’ You can’t clock off. This may be that sort of job to some people but not to me. p53

And Jervis-Read does not shy from bringing truth to the story by allowing Jessica go into this blindly. Jessica knows she goes where she should not; she knows she has blurred ethical lines:

Her thigh slid between mine. I waited. What was I thinking in this moment? I can’t remember. Only the feeling of heat, from her bath-thickened flesh…Maybe I told myself, ‘You have come this far without knowing why – what reason is there to step out now?’…How wild and misguided a life can become, but the body maintains this simple truth: the elegant curve from the waist to the hip. p 83

And nor are the characters allowed to waft away in romantic views; the story is not without the tendrils of uncertainty you might find in a relationship wrought with baggage, illness and dependency:

Eloise smirked. She leant towards me and her robe fell open at the top. ‘I’ll follow you,’ she said. ‘If you go.’  p 63

The characters are beautifully painted on the page. We feel for Jessica as she navigates the emotions left in the wake of her divorce from her husband, and the feelings of estrangement from her children that seem to open her up as they go on with their lives:

Was I a good mother to my children? I think I was. Why then did they move away? p67

And out of this we accept and forgive Jessica. Had we only had access to the facts of the story – lonely carer takes advantage of a patient overcome with sadness for the loss of her life due to mental illness, and engages in physical intimacy – we might judge and condemn Jessica. Enormous credit goes to Jane Jervis-Read for enveloping the facts in a beautiful story that leads us to understand and forgive the characters.

When Eloise sobbed that guttural sob I recognised my own voice in her throat. I recognised the sobs of my children, of my mother too. I remembered my mother weeping when my father died and how I had held her. Eloise clutched at me and pulled me in through the blankets. She cried in my arm. p53

Midnight Blue and Endlessly Tall is a beautifully written, honest and elegant tale of longing and loneliness; it turns the light on what a person will allow themselves to do to abate and caress those feelings and it tackles the questions around crossing ethical lines. Set in the university area around Carlton, Melbourne. I highly recommend you take on this novella and see how you fare.

Jane Jervis-Read and Alice Grundy from Seizure talk about her novel and novellas in general in a great audio interview here

You can purchase Jane’s book here.

Passages Of Writing: The Plagiarist, by Hollis Seamon.

The Plagiarist

Short Story by Hollis Seamon Published in The Bellevue Literary Review.

Why: This beautifully written fictional story will take you through a gamut of emotions. I struggled to single out a couple of passages as the story as a whole is wonderful. It brought me to tears. I’ll be filing it as a sort of how to guide to short stories. I encourage you to read the whole story at the following link, it won’t take much time as it’s short:

http://blr.med.nyu.edu/content/archive/2004/plagiarist

The boy’s face flushed an unhealthy plum and tears began to roll down his cheeks. He kept his eyes focused on his boots – they were leaking slushy, salty water onto Althea’s blue rug. Ever so slowly, he nodded.

Althea flung herself back in her chair. Jesus. The poor slob. The poor stupid kid. She closed her eyes. Her heartbeat was thudding in her ears again – boom, boomedy, boom, boom, boom. Her head made it into a little song….She put a hand to her chest and coughed. Coughing, she’d read somewhere, was supposed to stop it, this runaway pounding of a deluded heart. It didn’t. She coughed again. The EKG electrodes, glued to her chest, jiggled. She opened her eyes.

The boy hadn’t moved, hadn’t wiped his tears. They were running into the woolen scarf bunched around his neck.

and,

Blood thudded in her neck and throat; her palm throbbed. It occurred to her that she might have to smack him. She just might have to whap him upside his dim, tear-stained, smiling, biscuit-colored cheek. Christ. She folded her hands tightly together on her desk.

Passages Of Writing: The Heather Blazing by Colm Toibin.

Book: The Heather Blazing, Colm Toibin. First pub. Picador 1992. This ed. Picador 1993.

Why: I’ve been looking for good examples of opening paragraphs, and this seems to fit the bill.

Of course there’s no better opening than Lights Out in Wonderland, by DBC Pierre, (  just my opinion remember )  but this has it all:

-A character name that makes you feel like you’re saying ‘Mmmm Mmmm’ like you’re having a good time;

-action rather than reminiscing, reminiscing is nice but an act to place you there with the character is great;

-a time – Friday morning end of July;

-a place – looking out a window at a river in Dublin;

-a job – law related;

-and it even gives you a sense of state of mind – contemplative, using words like ‘stillness’ and ‘quiet’.

Add to that a bit of colour – brown and grey;

Within a couple more paragraphs he adds a suggestion of a bit of danger, bombs and balls of fire, and a question for us to ponder – a ruling on a court case. It’s all there in the first two pages.

Eamon Redmond stood at the window looking down at the river which was deep brown after days of rain. He watched the colour, the mixture of mud and water, and the small currents and pockets of movement within the flow. It was a Friday morning at the end of July; the traffic was heavy on the quays. Later, when the court had finished its sitting he would come back and look out once more at the watery grey light over the houses across the river and wait for the stillness, when the cars and lorries had disappeared and Dublin was quiet.

Passages of Writing: Point Omega by Don DeLillo


Book: Point Omega, Don DeLillo. Picador 2010.

Why: It’s intimate, kind, sad and quiet. The set up of this little piece is that these two men, who don’t really know each other that well, are waiting for something. Can’t say what in case you’d like to read it yourself. Suffice to say there is tension around them and this intimate moment is shrouded in sadness and kindness.

I stood behind him with a pair of scissors and a comb and told him it was time for a haircut.

He turned his head slightly, in inquiry, but I repositioned it and began to trim his sideburns. I talked as I worked. I talked in a kind of audiostream, combing and cutting through the tangled strands on one side of his head. I told him this was different from shaving. The day would come when he’d want to shave and he’d have to do it himself but the hair on his head was a question of morale, his and mine. I said many empty things that morning, matter-of-factly, half believing. I removed the wormy rubberband from the weave of braided hair at the back of his neck and tried to comb and trim. I kept skipping to other parts of the head. He spoke about Jessie’s mother, her face and her eyes, his admiration, voice trailing off, low and hoarse. I felt compelled to trim the hair in his ears, long white fibers curling out of the dark. I tried to unsnarl every inch of matted vegetation before I cut. He spoke about his sons. You don’t know this, he said. I have two sons from the first marriage. Their mother was a paleontologist. Then he said it again. Their mother was a paleontologist. He was remembering her, seeing her in the word. She loved this place and so did the boys. I did not, he said. But this changed over the years. He began to look forward to his time here, he said, and then the marriage broke up and the boys were young men and that was all he was able to say.

p 90.

Passages of Writing: The Last City by Nina D’Aleo

Book: The Last City, Nina D’Aleo. Published by Momentum, Aug 2012 E-book

Why: I’m a sucker for gorgeous writing and Nina’s writing is just that – it’s beautiful and voluptuous (in a non-sexual way) and flows like a dream with rhythm and timing.

The Last City is published by Momentum who are putting out fantastic new work. I’m only half way in but I can’t put it down. The characters are real (testament to Nina) and the story is engaging and moreish.

Blurb from the pub: An intoxicating blend of noir crime, science fiction and fantasy The Last City is Blade Runner meets Perdido Street Station.

The women for sale loitered around their territories, sizing up passers-by with eyes intent on picking flesh. The winding whistle of a gypsy busker’s flute drowned the sounds of unsavoury purchase.

p10

The Mocking Witch of O’Tenery Asylum had taken her in, along with the other throwaways, runaways and screeching crazies. She saw herself in her mind, waking silent as a shadow through the asylum building, the labyrinth of rooms haunted and lurking in a permanent state of semi-darkness. Low ceilings pressed lower and constricting walls crept closer until she felt as though she was sliding on her belly. Suffocating in the rancid air of rotting waste and a thousand unwashed bodies. Eyes peered at her from behind rusted bars that were now now more than grisly reminders. Scorpia’s government, the Standard, had long since abandoned the derelict building and its broken wards. Now only their minds kept them prisoner, and Ev’r knew the truth better than anyone: there was no escaping yourself, no matter how far or fast you run.

p24

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