Writers Have to Write

Originally posted on Joanne Guidoccio:

Welcome to my Second Acts Series!

Today, we have author Susan Coryell sharing a lifelong passion for writing and the long, winding road to publication.

Here’s Susan!

susancoryellWe writers know who we are; writers have to write. That about sums up my “Second Act” in life.

What happens when a full-time career/working mom knows she is a writer and feels the need to write with simply no way of making time to do so? I believe it was the late Erma Bombeck, a writer of humorous columns, who laughed at her own solution to the problem: “There is a lot of untapped time between midnight and five a.m.”

Not only was I an active working mother—I fancied myself the busiest mom in the East. Full-time public school teacher, department chair, soccer mom, Sunday school teacher, night-student in grad school, mother of three and wife of a small business owner (who…

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Book Review: Go Set A Watchman Harper Lee

Go Set a Watchman

Go Set a Watchman

It seems almost superfluous to write a review of this book as so much has already been written about it but here I go anyway.

According to reports this was a novel Harper Lee wrote in the 1950s and couldn’t get published. An editor suggested she set it much earlier in the heroine Scout’s childhood and make more of the courtroom battle of her father Atticus Finch in his bid to acquit a black man of rape of a white woman. The second book became of course To Kill A Mockingbird. Go Set a Watchman is therefore a kind of prequel though it does stand alone and can be read without any knowledge of the later book. Supposedly Harper Lee wanted this book to be released as it was, unedited. This has caused some reviewers to refer to it as a rough draft but I don’t feel this at all. It is a completed work though with a completely different tone to To Kill a Mockingbird. It is a period piece and the use of the word negro and the references to poor white people throughout as trash was quite jarring to me. In one phrase Lee refers to “the smell of clean negro”. Some characters use the n-word. However, such dated language is found in many old books and one just has to accept it as part of the time.

The book opens with Scout, now a twenty-six year old woman returning home to Alabama after a stint working in New York. It starts out almost as a love story as she toys with accepting a marriage proposal from a childhood sweetheart. As the book unfolds the plot really turns on her relationship with her father. As a child she worshipped him as a godlike figure but as an adult she becomes aware of his flaws. She becomes horrified to learn that he has racist views like most of his contemporaries. He sees black people like children and doesn’t think they are ready to vote, hold professional positions or run their own affairs. This flawed Atticus has been the subject of much furore in the press.

The book seems then to be a coming of age novel. Scout sees her father as he really is, not as she thought he was as a child and she sees her home town and its inhabitants as they really are, familiar to her and yet also alien. I felt a strong kinship with the main character as anyone will who has left home and then returned to see their roots differently. She fits and yet she doesn’t fit. She is the Watchman of the town, observing it and trying to be its conscience. She is stunned by her father’s racism, his opposition to NAACP, his one time attendance at a Klan meeting. As the book develops she manages to reconcile with her father through the advice of her eccentric uncle.

There is much to enjoy in this book. The atmosphere of the rural South is caught beautifully and the flashbacks to childhood are exquisite. Scout has a carefree rural childhood, barefoot in the dirt, skinny-dipping in the creek, drinking lemonade and ice cream on endless sultry summer afternoons; truly a childhood we wished we had all had but few of us did. I love books set in the Southern states even though I have never been there.

Lovers of To Kill a Mockingbird may not like this book so much. It is not simple, not black and white, not a children’s book. Everyone is flawed just as in life. Everything is shades of grey. Life does not have simple solutions and nobody is coming to save the day at the last moment. These are hard truths which few wish to hear but if you are willing to put the schoolroom edicts behind you this is a very adult, very beautiful book.

Book Review: Victoria Hislop The Sunrise

This was an historical novel charting the progress of two families during the time of the partition of Cyprus. One of the families is Greek Cypriot and one is Turkish. The book begins with the idyllic life of many in an upmarket beach resort. This is destroyed by the Turkish invasion and subsequent partition. We follow the fortunes of several individuals during this time.

The book explores familiar themes of reversal of fortune, people not being what they seem, lust being mistaken for love and the capriciousness of fate.

I quite enjoyed this book though it is difficult to place. It is really too heavy for a light holiday read and yet not heavy enough for a true literary great work. The characters seemed to lack depth so I struggled to care about them. I enjoyed the descriptions of the hotel and the island. The prose was sometimes a little clunky and amateurish. Sometimes it read like a first draft. This surprised me. Yet another book that sold well for reasons I can’t quite fathom.

Volunteering with The Suffolk Wildlife Trust

Last year I spent about six months volunteering with the Suffolk Wildlife Trust. It was one of my more pleasant volunteering experiences.

The Suffolk Wildlife Trust is a small charity which has nature reserves all over Suffolk. I volunteered at Lackford Lakes which is a few miles from Bury St Edmunds. It is largely a reserve for birdwatching though there were also rare orchids and moths and butterflies to be seen.

My role was to greet visitors and explain the work of the Centre to them. I also served tea and coffee and refreshments. My favourite task was actually filling up the bird feeders which could be seen from the picture window. It was also good when I got to refill the leaflet boxes as I could then walk all around the reserve taking in the view from each hide.

Lackford Lakes was absolutely beautiful. The habitat was largely wetland with man made lakes though there was some planting of shrubs and trees. Walking around on a sunny day was as near to Paradise as it’s possible to get. There were many birds to be seen including kingfishers, hobbies, herons and cormorants.

The volunteers were lovely and mostly retired. I enjoyed their company and they were friendly and welcoming as well as really knowledgeable about birds. We had some good chats and laughs together. The manager was also really nice. There was only one paid member of staff I didn’t really like as she seemed to like to boss people around and throw her weight around but she was the only fly in the ointment.

In the end I left for another opportunity. I used to feel a bit of a fraud as I wasn’t an expert on birds and I couldn’t really see my role developing into anything unless I wanted to take some kind of ecology course. It was possible to volunteer to be more hands on helping with the practical tasks on the reserve. I kind of regret leaving as I miss it very much but I felt the need to build into something else.

I would recommend volunteering for the Suffolk Wildlife Trust to anyone with some time on their hands and an interest in birds or if you are looking for work experience.

Lackford Lakes truly is a magical place.

The Miniaturist Jessie Burton Book Review

The MiniaturistThe Miniaturist by Jessie Burton
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was a much hyped book. In my temporary Christmas job at Waterstone’s I was told to push it at every customer who came to the till. Is it worthy of such hype? Not exactly. It is a beautifully presented hardback; the ideal Christmas gift.

The novel is a sweet and light confection like the delights one finds in the bakers of Amsterdam. The story is set in the seventeenth century. Nella, just eighteen, arrives from the country to marry a rich Amsterdam merchant, Johaness, who ignores her completely. The household consists of Johaness’ bitter and cold sister, Marin, a female servant and a black manservant, Otto, from the tropics. Nella is given a dollhouse to amuse herself. The mysterious miniaturist sends pieces to fill the dollhouse whose fashioning suggests a rather too intimate knowledge with the goings on of the house. Nella becomes intrigued and endeavours to find out the identity of the miniaturist. Johanness’ dark secret is revealed to all and tragedy befalls the household.

The book is delicately written, Nella is a likeable and relatable heroine and the characters are well drawn, However, I couldn’t help feeling that something was missing. The historical details of seventeenth century Amsterdam were fascinating and this was the main interest of the book to me. More could have been made of this. The story had the feel of a Victorian melodrama and was perhaps too flimsy a tale for the hype the book received. I yearned for more depth. The novel felt slow to start but did involve me in the maelstrom from the middle onwards.

Worth reading but I am puzzled by the five star reviews and glowing publicity.

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General Election 2015 Is Socialism Dead?

After an initial period of apathy I kind of got into the general election campaign. Lifelong leftie, to varying degrees, I got behind Ed Miliband and became a Milifan. I read all the articles, posted supportive items on social media and quite enjoyed the coverage enlivened as usual by the irrepressible Michael Crick on Channel 4 News.

I liked the way the Labour Party had swung a bit more to the Left. I was taken with the idea of more taxation of the super rich and rent control in the big cities seemed a good answer to our housing crisis. I warmed to Ed who became like a geeky superhero who could save the World, well the UK anyway.

Come the evening of the election I stayed up late to watch the first results roll in. When the exit poll came out I was gutted. It seemed the sound campaign of the Labour Party had counted for nothing. Feeling more than a little deflated I went to bed.

The next morning I woke at six and listened to the radio. I checked my Twitter feed. It was worse than I thought. We were heading for a Tory majority government, not even a hung Parliament to hope for. I felt shock. I felt even more horror at the fact that the Scots had got virtually unanimously behind the SNP bar South Edinburgh where I used to live. The horror! The horror!

I couldn’t think straight for a few days. I couldn’t believe it had happened. I was living in a country that was completely alien to me. I couldn’t analyse the reasons. I am not sure I can yet but I’ll try.

It seemed the electorate wanted to give the Lib Dems a bloody nose. I don’t blame them for that. Everyone thought they would be a brake on the more rabid Tory policies which they weren’t. Nobody could forgive them for tuition fees. Fair enough. However, their votes didn’t go to the Labour Party but the Tories. This I am not sure I understand. Then I did. The papers (Murdoch) stoked up fear of a Labour/SNP coalition. Nicola Sturgeon was painted as some great threat to Britain. Miliband would be in thrall to the SNP berserker hordes. Terrified by this they swung to the Conservatives. And then some. So I understand but I find it difficult to forgive.

The Tories provide a strong economy everyone says. Well maybe though it doesn’t seem that strong from where I’m standing. So most people must feel reasonably well off. So they vote for stability. They vote essentially for themselves. Fine. If the Conservatives were a centre right, fiscally sound compassionate party this would all be dandy. But they aren’t. Where I can’t stomach them is in the social policies. Don’t get me wrong, I won’t suffer from their policies. My husband is in the higher tax bracket. We will actually be better off under the Tories. But neither of us voted for them. Why? It’s the lack of care. The Tories have cut welfare not for economic reasons but for ideological ones. The bedroom tax is an outrage from people who have more than one house. The disabled are attacked. The terminally ill are found fit to work. This smacks purely and simply of Nazism to me and I cannot vote for it just because I will be a few pounds better off. If you can how do you live with yourself? The Tory agenda is to dismantle the NHS and the Welfare State. Who knows if any one of us may need these one day? Even if we don’t don’t we have basic human decency and think that those that do should have them? I live in true Tory blue East Anglia. I look at my neighbours with wonder. What sort of people are they? Don’t they believe in all the things our grandparents fought for? Don’t they believe in libraries and the Arts? Is money everything?

As a lifelong socialist I begin to doubt it even myself. It’s been tried all over the world and mostly failed, delivering poverty to many and repressive regimes. There must be another way. Is centre right politics the only future? If it is I still could never vote Conservative. I will not vote for social division and massive inequality, scapegoating of the poor and the disabled, demonising of the unemployed and an ever growing North South divide. We are returning to Victorian values. Go and read some Dickens to see what lies in the future.

I don’t know what to suggest but the Labour Party has some hard choices to make. Perhaps it should become more Left and embrace truly socially democratic progressive policies. Would the middle Englanders buy this? I am not sure. Should they go back to the centre ground? Choose from the Tories or the almost Tories. This won’t work either as the Tories will always do Toryism better.

Maybe revolution is the only answer. Sweep all the rot away, the snouts in the trough, the fiddling, the paedophile cover ups, the house flipping cynicism.

I don’t know.

I do know that I am close to despair and inconsolably sad about the future of humanity. We really don’t seem to care about anything other than ourselves and our families. There is no longer any such thing as society. How incredibly sad.

Oh and the Scots, the Scots… well I’ll blog about them another day.

Book Review. Richard Flanagan The Narrow Road to the Deep North

This is a masterpiece of a book. Perhaps it is too long. Other than that it is perfect. The prose is delicate, sometimes exquisite, never flinching. The atmosphere is of endless sadness: human cruelty, futility, the desolation of mood pinpricked only by small acts of kindness of the few.

The story follows an Australian doctor, Dorrigo Evans, during the Second World War who finds himself a prisoner of war looking after the men building the Thailand to Burma railway for the Japanese. The mid section describing this is brutally described and very hard to read. He thinks often of his short-lived love affair with another man’s wife. The final section describes the aftermath as the war ends and the soldiers go home. Dorrigo’s life is empty in spite of family and material and professional success. There is something empty inside. There is some attempt to get into the mind of the Japanese and Korean guards, to understand how they could do such horrific things for their Emperor sun king.

If you are looking for an easy read this book is not it. If you are looking for the truth it might just be. It took me a long time to read not because I wasn’t enjoying it but because sometimes it was too hard to take.


Easter in Aldeburgh, Suffolk

When I think of the English seaside I usually think of rundown resorts, amusement arcades, tat and nostalgia. It seems like most of them have had their day.

However, Aldeburgh on the Suffolk coast is bucking the trend. It is an amazingly neat and tidy coastal village. Everything is newly painted and well kept. There is a pebbly beach to walk along but no sand so not bucket and spade territory. There are several fish sheds lining the beach where fresh fish and crab can be bought. The main street has mostly independent shops and restaurants with a few chains. On Easter Sunday it was buzzing with day trippers and London weekenders. There is a very busy chip shop.

We went on a walk which took us along the beach and into the fields and woods beyond. We saw ponies on the heath and gentle cows. It’s also good for birdwatching. We rounded off with sea bass in a restaurant in the town.

Aldeburgh seems to appeal to the smart set so there is plenty of money sloshing around.

It was a lovely way to spend a bright Spring day. Give Aldeburgh a try.

The Battle for Number 10 Ch4 Milliband, Cameron and Paxman

So the election 2015 is approaching and I am trying to persuade myself that I am interested, engaged and that I care.

Ch 4 got the ball rolling with ‘The Battle for No 10′ last night. It wasn’t a head to head between Cameron and Milliband as I expected but an interview with Paxman and then questions from the audience. The politicians were kept apart like prizefighters before a match.

Cameron was his usual self. I felt my eyes glaze over as he started to speak.Hard working families…snore. he did manage to get a reference in to his dead child as he does in every interview. Tasteless. It is hard to believe that he is the Prime Minister, this oleaginous PR man. Ugh. Paxman grilled him efficiently but he didn’t really go for the jugular. Cameron had the air of someone going through the motions, not caring any more.

Kay Burley gazed at Cameron adoringly. I had never come across her before as I don’t watch Sky news. I liked her pink dress. I didn’t like anything else about her. She seemed a bit dim and biased against Milliband.

Milliband did well. Paxman decided to go for the personal insults. This is the level of British politics. Ed handled it well. Yes he is geeky. Most intelligent people are. It’s no big deal. He seemed to genuinely care about Britain and its people. He even managed some passion with the “Hell yes, I’m tough enough” retort. I liked him. He’s no Winston Churchill but our leaders these days seem to lack gravitas across the board. When it came to audience questions Burly started chipping in from the side in a way she didn’t with Cameron. Obvious bias again. The same old questions recycled over and over – socialism, his brother…yawn.

So I was entertained and almost enthused. Ed has 98% of the media stacked against him but he is a battler. Go Ed! You’re tough enough.