Still Unconvinced by the Kindle

Standing in the garden with my handful of crushed gum leaves, I remembered a story by Paul Jennings about two feuding neighbours in the outback who could transfer injuries onto each other by playing a tune on a folded gum leaf. I absolutely adored Paul Jennings’ stories when I was a kid. They were quirky and funny and clever and always ended with a twist. I had every single short story collection (at that time – a new one was published in 2002) and I read them over and over again.

It never occurred to me that I would one day be living in Australia, where the books are set. Suddenly all I could think about was those stories and how desperate I was to read them again now that I was closer to the places and the people they described.

Shortly before coming out here I bought a Kindle, thinking it would enable me to travel light with all the books I wanted. I’ve been let down on that score. Most of the books I want to read aren’t available on Kindle yet. Paul Jennings’ books, for example, Ali Smith’s Hotel World, Nicola Barker’s The Burley Cross Postbox Theft. I don’t really consider this a reason not to buy an e-reader. I’m sure it’s just a matter of time before the huge backlog of printed books gradually appears in e-book form.

What is a huge disappointment as far as the Kindle is concerned are the typos. You so rarely see errors in printed books that on the few occasions that you do, they are burned into your memory forever (‘tina of fish’ in one of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books is one that has stuck with me since I was seven years old). I’ve only read two books on the Kindle, How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran and Down Under by Bill Bryson, but both were littered with typos: missing letters, two words joined together, a hyphen in the middle of a word from where it’s been wrapped over two lines in the printed text but appears on one line in the e-book version. Some examples from Down Under which I noted during my last reading session: ‘battered portion offish’, ‘accli-matizer’, ‘bom-bable’. It’s absolutely unforgivable.

So far no typos in my e-book version of the Lonely Planet Guide to Australia, but the maps are shocking (I think I just have to wait for technology to catch up) and the links infuriating. Any time I click on a link it takes to me to somewhere completely random in the text which has nothing to do with what I’ve just been reading. There was one time that clicking a link took me to the right section of the book, but since it only happened once out of dozens of clicks, I have to conclude that it was just a lucky accident.

Another disadvantage: I can’t flick through pages to see how long till the end of the chapter. This is important to me since I usually read in bed. I have to know how many pages in a chapter so I can decide whether or not I’m going to be too tired to finish reading it.

All these bad points aside, I genuinely believe that e-readers will save the publishing industry. It’s so easy to buy books with the Kindle – one click and you’re away, any time any place – that book buying is bound to increase. I just hope it doesn’t mean the death of libraries. Bendigo Library came to the rescue the other day when I had reached the height of my despair about not being able to download Paul Jennings’ short story collections onto my Kindle. I sat in the kids’ corner with a pile of his books at my feet and devoured story after story. It’ll keep me going for a little while until I get a permanent address, then I can borrow all the books I want.

Know Better Now

(In response to Donna’s ‘It’s my birthday and I’ll suggest a Ramones themed anthology if I want to’ challenge.)

necklace“Honestly Mum, I didn’t do it,” I say as Mum is shown into the office by the same smug looking security guard who rugby tackled me as I left the shop.

Mum’s face is white. “I know you didn’t, Tracey. I’m sure this has all been a misunderstanding.”

The shop manager snorts. “We found this in her bag. The alarm went off when she tried to leave the store.”

Mum looks at the gold chain dangling from the manager’s podgy fingers. The quivering crystal drop deposits flecks of light on the desk. Colour rises in her cheeks. Only ten minutes earlier I had shown her that necklace and asked her to give me the money for it.

I know it’s looking bad for me. Mum does too. “What are you going to do?” she asks the manager.

“We can end the matter here, as long as Tracey agrees not to enter the store again. We have the necklace back and I think she’s learned a valuable lesson.” He smiles condescendingly at me. I wish I had a baseball bat so that I could smash his fucking teeth in.

“I didn’t do it, all right?”

The manager presses his fingertips together. “If you’re going to kick up a fuss we could always review the CCTV footage. I’m warning you, though, that if we see evidence of you stealing on camera I’ll have no choice but to prosecute.”

“Come on Tracey, let’s go,” Mum says.

I’m staring at the manager, hating him so much that he should dissolve into a greasy spot in front of my eyes. But he doesn’t. He stares right back at me, so I call his bluff. “Go ahead. Watch the footage.”

***

The black and white screen is divided into four. My stomach turns cold as I walk into view in the top right frame. Mum’s fingers wrap round my arm. “It’s not too late. Let’s just stop this now and go home.”

“Your mum’s right, Tracey. Why risk getting a criminal record when you’ve got your whole life ahead of you?” The manager is sweating. He knows as well as I do that the cameras may show nothing.  I can’t back down now.

Together we watch the black and white me on the screen lifts the necklace from its peg on the wall. I remember looking at it. I remember thinking, Mum would really like this. I remember how expensive it was.

Mum appears on screen beside me. There’s no sound, but our conversation is still fresh in my head. “Wow,” she said, when I showed her the necklace. I wanted her to have it but she said she couldn’t afford it. She’d just had to pay for my new school uniform and besides, when would she wear it now that Mike had dumped her? “If you give me my next three month’s pocket money in advance, I’ll get it for you,” I said. And she smiled and said that was very sweet, but I shouldn’t spend my pocket money on her.

Mum walks off screen. I’m still holding the necklace. I remember feeling the weight of it in my hand and thinking how easy it would be to just drop it. It would slither straight into the carrier bag over my arm. I glance round the shop to see if anyone is watching, then… I hang the necklace back up on the peg.

“See! I told you I didn’t do it!”

The shop manager has been perched on the edge of his seat, so sure that he’s got me. Now his mouth opens. For a moment he just stares, then he cries, “Wait a minute! Between this point and you leaving the store that necklace somehow got into your bag and I’m going to find out how you did it.”

He fast forwards, then stops when I appear in the bottom left frame. There I am, fingering some silk scarves when Mum comes up behind me. She’s telling me that she is going to Boots and I can meet her there when I’m done. Then, while I’m still studying the scarves, her hand reaches out, cupped like half of an oyster shell. She tips it downwards and the necklace flows into my bag.

The manager and I both turn to look at her. Her face is pressed into her cupped hands.

Some People Swore That The House Was Haunted

(I wrote this in response to Tsuchigari’s recent post about a Three Minute Fiction competition.)

Some people swore that the house was haunted. John had looked round the building, heard the wind howling through the broken windows and felt the timber framework shift and groan with the weight of the centuries

Belief was a matter of choice. He knew the strange noises could be explained by the house’s age and derelict state. If the villagers chose to believe in ghosts, that was all the better for him. He snapped the property up at a bargain price and began work to convert it into a hotel. He would make a killing from his investment.

But getting planning permission proved to be a frustrating process. While paperwork was shunted from desk to desk, his funds were trickling away: the roof of the house had to be repaired, the rot removed and damp dried. His golden opportunity was turning into a lead weight around his neck.

One evening when he arrived home, there was a message on his answering machine from a council inspector who had been to view the property that day. “There’s a complication,” the message said, “which may delay building works.”

That was it. He’d had enough. He drove out to the house, emptied a container of petrol in one of the ground floor rooms and tossed in a match. From the edge of the road he stared at the house, the fire a glowing red heart pulsing within its walls. A white flash in an upstairs windows caught his eye – for one icy moment he thought it was a face – then there was a roar as the flames ripped through the building and he realised it was just smoke that he had seen, smoke and debris which were now rushing into the cold night air.

Even when it had been reduced to a smouldering heap of charred wood and stone, the villagers still believed the house was haunted. Two boys claimed to have heard groans coming from the ruins; they were sure it was a ghost mourning the destruction of its home.

It was clear the blaze was deliberate, which meant the insurance company wouldn’t pay up. John didn’t care; at least the building was no longer a drain on his finances. And that would have been the end of it, if the council inspector hadn’t phoned a second time, three days after the fire. “It was probably that squatter who burned the house down,” he said. This was the first John had heard of a squatter. “I’m sure I must have mentioned it,” the inspector said. “Evicting a squatter’s tricky business. It would have set back building work by quite a bit; a real spanner in the works.”

It was with a sick stomach and an aching heart that John returned to the ruined house. “Is anybody there?” he called. Nothing. Silence. Relieved, he started to walk away but stopped when he heard a horrible, gurgling moan. “Is there somebody there?” he called again, but this time the words were a dry scrape in his throat.  Now the moan came more loudly and was followed by a frantic scratching from somewhere deep under the rubble.

The boys had said it was a ghost, but what if it was a man, burned and crushed by the ruined building, slowly suffocating to death? The implications of what he had done were too much to bear.

Belief is a matter of choice. John chose to believe in ghosts. He turned his back on the house and walked away a haunted man. Nothing was ever the same again after that.

My Stint at Story Shop

I did a practice run with some colleagues last Friday, with a dry mouth and a shaky voice, which I think got most of the nerves out of the way. On Sunday morning, the day of my reading, I practiced once in front of my sister, both of us in our pyjamas, and decided that I would imagine it was just the two of us again when I did the real reading to a group of strangers.

I got some good feedback from my colleagues and sister: show a bit more emotion, vary the tone of your voice, don’t read too fast, project your voice. I was lucky enough to  interview Michèle Roberts when she was up for the festival and she gave me some great advice: “Imagine that there’s a friendly being in the front row that admires your work and wants you to do brilliantly. I tend to imagine that my grandmother, who is dead, is sitting in the front row because she loved me and I loved her very much. If you know your text really well you can keep glancing at the audience and they love that because it means you really know that they’re there and you’re in touch with them.”

Luckily I didn’t have to imagine the friendly beings. My brother and sister were both there to support me so I instructed them to stand at the back and quite far apart so that I could look from one to the other and give the impression that I was making eye contact with the audience. The plan was that they were to smile when I looked at them which in turn would make me smile, but in practice it was quite a sombre story so the most I got was lips pressed together in acknowledgement that I was looking at them.

There were quite a lot of people there, but I was related to half of them so it was not as nerve wracking as I had imagined. Cousins from both side of the family came, an altogether weird situation which would normally be reserved for me or one of my siblings getting married. “Not much chance of that,” my sister said.

I think the best thing to come of it was my brother telling me afterwards that he was inspired to write a story that would be better than mine. And I feel inspired to write more fiction too, and a lot more confident about reading it in public. If you get the chance to read your story in front of an audience, go for it! I can tell you that there is life on the other side. And if you have any advice to share about short story or book readings, I’d love to hear it.

Michele Roberts and Helen Simpson – Edinburgh Book Festival 2010

“Walking about in London in flip flops you get these little curds of mud between your toes, tickling your bare feet. It’s a form of sexual bliss!” declares Michèle Roberts, introducing her recently published collection of short stories, Mud, to the Book Festival audience. Indeed it is a very muddy collection, from the “turned, buttery earth” in the title story, to the “stinking mud caking the cobbles” that signifies to Polly a backwards slip in time. For some characters mud is a source of nourishment and growth, for others it is associated with secret hiding places and private magical worlds; some, like Polly, are made dirty by it. 

Mud is also a very sensual collection, full of smells and colours and tastes. The book is subtitled Stories of Sex and Love and Roberts says, “Sex and love are often connected to food and eating in my fiction. They are difficult to write about because the language available to us is not good enough, for me anyway. It’s a language of lying.” She points to pornographic langauge about throbbing members and wave-crashing orgasms as an example.

Roberts reads to the audience from the humorous story A Vegetarian in France. I must be a very serious reader because I always find fiction funnier when it is read aloud. Poor Larry with his omelettes!

Afterwards Helen Simpson reads the short story Diary of an Interesting Year from her collection, In Flight Entertainment. It switches rapidly between moments of hilarity and devastation, the brief one line entires proving that sometimes what is left unsaid can be more revealing than what is put into words.

Simpson sees the short story as a “zoom lens. Sometimes it’s criticised for being small, but it’s not small; it’s just not panoramic. It’s a close up.” She describes herself as “a coral reef type of writer. There’s a little bit added each year. Short stories are wasteful in terms of money and time to write but you’re never bored. That’s why I write. Your only duty as a writer is to write about what stimulates your imagination.” Five of the stories in In Flight Entertainment feature climate change, a topic that is “hard to know how to dramatise without moralising. There are lots of statistics, it’s a depressing and boring subject unless you are a physicist. I’m just a layperson. I’m not very good at science.” So why did Simpson choose to write about climate change? “I like a challenge I suppose.”

In each of the five stories Simpson tried to find a different route into the subject. “One is a sales pitch and that was meant to be a comedy. She’s a carbon coach but that’s almost not satire; people are doing that now. One is an apocalyptic love story and one is about a death on an aeroplane where people are getting annoyed about the delay.” According to Simpson, deaths on aeroplanes occur quite frequently but not to worry, it’s usually in first class. Something to do with the age of the population who can afford to  fly in comfort. “I think they store bodies in the overhead lockers,” Simpson says. “Or else stretch them across three seats in first class, even if you die in economy. Apparently the first class passengers get quite shirty about that.”

New Writery Stuff

The Scottish Book Trust’s New Writers Awards are open for applications from unpublished writers living in Scotland. £2000 and the chance to work with a writing mentor? Not to be sneezed at.

Previous winners of the award are starting up a New Writers Blog where they’ll be writing about literary projects they’ve been involved with, events and workshops they’ve found useful, and posting samples of their work. The first post, where Billy Letford talks about writing poetry under roof tiles, went up on Tuesday.

I’ll be reading one of my short stories at the Book Festival this year as part of Story Shop. My slot is 4pm on Sunday 22nd August. If you’re around, come along. As nerve wracking as it is to read in front of people, I think it would be worse to be talking into an empty room. Story Shop is taking place every day during the festival so I’m going to catch as many of the readings as I can. I’m looking forward to hearing some brand new Scottish fiction.