17 August 2009

The Tyranny of Fiction

My reading time is mostly at bed time. I try to read for about fifteen minutes – sometimes it is more and sometimes it is less. In between volumes one and two of The Story of Christianity by Justo Gonzales, I read a lovely novel – The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer.

I noticed (once again - this is not new) that when I am reading non fiction I read for shorter lengths of time. This is not because the subject matter is boring. It just takes more concentration and at the end of the day I run out of steam more quickly. This has the built in benefit of turning out the light and going to sleep in reasonable time for a fresh start in the morning.

Fiction however is easier to read. I read more. The nights become later. Then it becomes harder to get up in the morning. The morning quiet time becomes compromised. In the end I decide to read at length, in part because I can't resist a good plot, but more so just to get the novel finished so that routine and order can be restored.

So there is nothing for it but to make the decision to limit fiction to the times when we are away on holidays…and I know exactly what I am going to read when we go away later in the year…for the next year or two until our boys are bigger/more independent and the days free up a little.

Which feels OK.

As I said, the source of my literary distraction this time was The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society which is an epistolary novel. No surprises that I would love a novel crafted entirely from letters.

This one is a delight. Set just after World War II, it is the correspondence between Juliet Ashton, a writer from London, and the members of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society – and then later between Juliet and her friends in London, as she finds herself in Guernsey meeting the recipients of her earlier letters. It is a gentle, quietly humorous read with gorgeous characters, based on life in German occupied Guernsey during the war.

Here is a glimpse, with some sage advice for would be writers.

Dear Sidney,

Elizabeth's cottage was plainly built for an exalted guest, because it's quite spacious. There is a big sitting room, a bathroom, a larder and a huge kitchen downstairs. There are three bedrooms, and best of all, there are windows everywhere, so the sea air can sweep into every room.

I've shoved a writing table by the biggest window in my sitting room. The only flaw in this arrangement is the constant temptation to go outside and walk over to the cliff edge. The sea and the clouds don’t stay the same for five minutes running and I'm frightened I’ll miss something if I stay inside. When I got up this morning, the sea was full of sun pennies – and now it seems to be covered in lemon scrim. Writers ought to live far inland or next to the city dump if they are ever to get any work done, Or perhaps they need to be stronger-minded than I am.

Sadly this is a one-off as the author died just before the book was published. It's well worth a read – I'd highly recommend it – but only if it isn't going to do a mischief to the good routines of your daily life!

* The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer p. 161

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