Saturday, 30 May 2009

BOOK REVIEW : “Never Let Me Go” by Kazuo Ishiguro

When I read Ishiguro’s “Pale View of the Hills” for editor Moon Rat’s book club, I was so irritated by the gaps in the story that I missed the subtleties and swore I’d never read another book by this author. Luckily, Moon Rat’s February book club discussion raised the veil for me. I thought I’d give Ishiguro another try. And I’m very glad I did!

In “Never Let Me Go” Ishiguro is intense, intriguing and impeccable. From the deceptively child-like narrative style to the precise choice of a single word (donors don’t die, they “complete”), Ishiguro’s mastery is unquestionable. This novel was, quite simply, gripping.

On the surface, the story meanders through the memories of a young woman – Kathy H – who is on the brink of leaving one career for another. From being a “carer” she will soon become a “donor” and, through a series of ordinary reminiscences, a dark, sinister and compelling world is created.

This unsettling novel raises some vital questions about the nature of our world and our humanity. I’ll concentrate on two.

Kathy, Ruth, Tommy and the other “students” live in a protected and privileged environment. Yet it is clear from the start that their future is bleak and inevitable. In the same way that other “students”, who have been brought up in less privileged communities, are doomed to donate vital organs to save the “normals”, so too are the Hailsham graduates.

But, while the manner of dying for all clones is similarly predestined, it is very different to the “normals” for whom their lives are sacrificed. The “normals” have a better chance at living longer, more healthy lives, because of the “completions” of the donors and yet, despite this sacrifice, the students like Kathy and her friends are alienated from, and feared by, the “normals”. Because of their differences, because their existence is perceived as soley to serve the “normals”, their lives are seen as somehow less worthy.

What does this say about humanity and the way our current world can find no compassion, no understanding of those who are so very different to what has been decided is the "norm"? Or for a world in which animals - like humans, also sentient beings - are bred solely to feed/serve humans? To me, Ishiguro suggests a chilling answer: no matter how scientifically evolved we may be, we are still uncivilised enough to be capable of cruel and calculated behaviour towards other sentient beings, whether human or animal.

But are Kathy and her friends sentient beings? The great poignancy of the novel lies in the way in which, despite their regulated environment which estranged them from all that is considered normal, these children attempt to create their own sense of family and love and worth. Despite a cold and hostile world that would prefer them to be invisible, these children awkwardly struggle with relationships in all their aspects, which would suggest that they are capable of feeling and thus, like “normals”, have souls.

Would a clone have a soul? If we clone human beings, will we get two beings who are both physically and psychologically identical? Or will we get robot-like creatures who, lacking a soul, are human in everything but their capacity to love and be loved; unable to create art as “proof” of the existence of their souls?

The episode of Ruth’s search for her “possible” is the most obvious exploration of this issue, as is Tommy’s struggle to be “artistic” and his blind fury when he is mocked for not trying hard enough.

But, in fact, it is through his characterisations throughout the novel that Ishiguro explores the question of whether clones will have souls. For me, there was always something slightly off-kilter; slightly false and forced about the emotions and reactions of the Hailsham students and their fellows. The “veterans” at the Cottages took their cue on how to act as a couple “in love” from TV shows. There were the endless discussions at Hailsham on the relationships between the seniors and how they should or shouldn’t act. Throughout Kathy’s narration there was the sense of a calculated, ruthlessly controlled something that dominated her existence, almost as if she knew how she should be feeling, but couldn’t quite feel it in reality.

Even at the inevitable, tragic ending there is this hint of robotic distance from any real emotion. “The fantasy never got beyond that – I didn’t let it – and though the tears rolled down my face, I wasn’t sobbing or out of control, I just walked a bit, then turned back to the car, to drive off to wherever it was I was supposed to be,” Kathy says.

But is this the reaction of an intelligent deeply emotional woman who, through environmental conditioning, has never really been allowed to get in touch with her deepest self, or is it the reaction of a woman who, while intellectually and rationally knowing how she should feel, can only act out emotions she does not, cannot, really feel?

This is but one example of the mastery Ishiguro displays in this novel. There are so many layers, and so many possible answers to the questions he raises, that “Never Let Me Go” is one of those stories that linger in the mind. This is a novel that has not yet let me go and probably won't, until the pages of my copy are shabby from constant reading and re-reading!

Friday, 22 May 2009

WRITING TIPS: Seven Basic Plots

Seven is an important number.

In my blog post Writing: The Way of The Warrior I correlated the seven underlying principles of bushido with writing.

The number “seven” again takes on importance in Christopher Booker’s “The Seven Basic Plots: Why we tell stories”.

Part One reviews the seven classical plot types. Here are the seven basic plots:

1. Overcoming the Monster
2. Rags to Riches
3. The Quest
4. Voyage and Return
5. Comedy
6. Tragedy
7. Rebirth

In turn, each plot takes the Hero through five progressive stages:

1. The Call Stage
2. The Dream Stage
3. The Frustration Stage
4. The Nightmare Stage
5. The Resolution Stage

Booker’ s detail is precise and his insight into what makes a story work is invaluable, as are his many practical examples drawn from movies and novels. In this way, Booker brings a clear sense of what plot types work and why. I highly recommend this book to anyone who is serious about their writing.

I was interested to note that I have a tendency to favour “voyage and return” or “rebirth” plots. What do you think your favourite plot type is?

AWARD: A double joy!

Marty at Dark Star Discovery and Lady Glamis at The Innocent Flower both awarded me with this beautiful blog award:

Thank you, Marty and Michelle. I’m honoured to receive a blog award (in Latin too!) Here's the explanation that goes with it:

"These blogs invest and believe in proximity - nearness in space, time and relationships. They are exceedingly charming. These kind bloggers aim to find, and be, friends. They are not interested in prizes or self-aggrandizement. Our hope is that when the ribbons of these prizes are cut, even more friendships are propagated. Please give more attention to these writers! Deliver this award to eight bloggers who must choose eight more and include this clever-written text into the body of their award.”

I had such a hard time choosing 8 other bloggers to award it to that I decided this award is one I’m just going to enjoy by myself. :)

Know that all the blogs I follow (and that includes you…and you…and you…) enrich me in one or another way and, for that, I thank you!

Happy Blogging!

Saturday, 16 May 2009

ADMIN: Setting priorities

I'm dipping my toe back in the blogosphere as life is slowly normalizing here.

But my normality now has a new shape, which means I do need to make allowances for more time for family responsibilities while at the same time getting to work on my new novel. My deadline for starting this novel, which has been bubbling for a while, is 1st June 2009.

I'd previously tried to limit myself to one hour's blogging a day (okay, you can stop laughing now! :D) but, of course, one hour stretched to two which stretched get the picture?

I've set myself some new guidelines for the computer which will take effect from 1st June 2009:

1. Facebook: great in theory, but not enough return for the time it takes. So, while I'll keep my FB page, I'll access it randomly at best.

2. Weekly Blog Posts: At least once a week I'll post a new writing related blog topic. It'll range from discussions to book reviews to writing tips. I'm aiming for Monday to be blog post day.

3. Daily Blog Posts: From 1st June this will be a short daily report on the progress of my new novel. This may not be of great help or interest to you, my lovely readers, but I need a regular motivator and I'm afraid my blog (and its readers) are it!!

4. Blog Comments: Like every blogger, I simply love to get comments on my blog. Like every blogger, I try to answer every comment. But I often find I run out of blogging time and can't pay a return visit the bloggers who have been kind enough to comment. Rather than comment on a comment on my blog, what I'd prefer to do in future is go directly to the reader's blog and spend time interacting there. There will, of course, be exceptions, for example, I'll answer questions or issues raised in the comment section on my blog.

5. Visiting Blogs: In addition to (4) above, I'll do my best to visit my favourite blogs once a week, and will also try to visit new blogs referred by my usual blogging haunts. This way I can keep up with what's happening in people's lives as well as what's happening in the writing/blogging world.

I hope this new system will be a good balancing act for all the plates I've currently got spinning and spinning in the air...

Image from

Thursday, 7 May 2009

SOCIAL: Taking a short blogging break

Hi all

Just to say I had to rush my dear Mom back into hospital with her heart again. Luckily just an overnight stay from a bad reaction to the heart medication, but my husband and I want them here (where I can keep a close watch on them) so I have both my elderly parents staying with me again until my Mom's health settles. As you may know my dad is frail and needs 24/7 care. I've been trying to keep the blogging up as well, but find I need to prioritize more. So - sadly for my blogging addiction - I'll have to take a short break from blogging.

Hope to be back in the blogosphere within two weeks!

Until then, happy writing and happy blogging!

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

SOCIAL: Move over Superman!

Last night the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) held the graduation ceremony for all the graduating students of the Faculty of Commerce, Law and Management. The keynote speaker was none other than my husband, Beric Croome.

We live twenty minutes away from the Wits campus and left with what we thought was plenty of time. But a torrid two hour journey in rain and gridlocked traffic made us late.

Above: At the function after the graduation ceremoy. Back: Beric, friends Liz and Hugo Marcus. Front: me (in blue), Professor Maeve Kolitz and Professor Dave Kolitz.

The ceremony started at 18h00. At 17h59 we finally made it to the parking and, after a mad dash to the Great Hall, the graduation could begin. Luckily, most of the students and their parents/supporters were delighted at the delay as many of them had been stuck in the same traffic and our tardiness gave them chance to arrive in time for their special day.

Other than to say I’m simply bursting with pride at how impressive he looked in his flowing red cape (my own personal Superman!) and black academic bonnet, I'll let his speech talk for itself. Here, in its entirety, is the keynote address Beric delivered to +/-800 people, including academic staff, graduating students and their family members:

“Good evening Chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand, Vice-Chancellor of the University, distinguished guests, graduands, ladies and gentleman.

At the outset, I would like to express my sincere thanks to the University of the Witwatersrand for asking me to present this speech on the occasion of this graduation ceremony. This graduation, as is the case with all graduations, is an auspicious occasion. This ceremony marks the culmination of years of perseverance and devotion, excitement and a sense of relief on completing the requirements for your degree. For that you, the graduates, deserve our heartiest congratulations. It is appropriate also to acknowledge the contributions made by your parents, relatives, friends and significant others and mentors, for ensuring that you reached this milestone. Without the support and encouragement of these people, it is unlikely that you would be at this ceremony today.

You are graduating at an important time in the life of South Africa. We have just completed the fourth democratic election since 1994. The election results have now been certified by the Independent Electoral Commission, which conducted itself admirably in dealing with the high turnout of voters in the election. The IEC, together with the police, ensured that the election was free and fair and conducted with little or no violence of any significance.

The people of the Republic of South Africa have made their decision as to who should represent them and, during the course of tomorrow, the four hundred parliamentarians elected by the electorate will be sworn in. The parliamentarians are required to swear an oath of allegiance to our Constitution, undertaking that they will serve in the best interests of the people of South Africa.

As part of the Presidential inauguration ceremony, our newly elected President will also be administered the Oath of Office by our Chief Justice. He is required to confirm that he will uphold the Constitution and all other laws of the country.

No doubt, you are wondering why I am raising the question of the oaths of office to be administered by the Chief Justice to our future President and his cabinet.

Below: President of the Convocation of the University of the Witwatersrand, Professor David Kolitz, and guest speaker, Dr Beric Croome.

It is appropriate to draw your attention to the Hippocratic Oath that used to be undertaken by medical doctors upon their graduation from an institution of learning. In essence, that oath required the doctor to take care of his or her patients whilst adhering to certain standards of ethical conduct.

A similar oath, that may not be as well known, is the “Themis Oath”, which is a pledge undertaken by the graduates of the School of Law in current-day Greece, based on an oath that was taken hundreds of years ago.

Upon graduating, the graduands of the School of Law in Greece are required to affirm as follows:

'Before the President and the Dean of the School of Law, I give my solemn pledge to faithfully abide by the ordinances of justice with all my heart and soul, and that on leaving this sacred institution, I will render my services to all those that need my education and training, always in peace and ethical conduct. I will pursue the path of righteousness in life, and dedicate myself to that which is true and just, and to the protection of virtue and wisdom. May this pledge be accompanied by the blessings of the professors and my beloved teachers, and may the gods be with me during all my life.'

The question that I ask is this: Just as we expect our parliamentarians and other public officials to take an oath, should universities in South Africa not require graduands to undertake an oath or pledge along the lines of either the Hippocratic Oath or the Themis Oath, adapted to the particular field of study concluded by the graduand?

An oath such as the Themis Oath, prescribes the standards of conduct expected of law graduands in Greece and the sentiments expressed therein can contribute to the enhancement of ethical conduct in the future careers by all graduands of the universities of South Africa, including you, who are the future of South Africa.

As graduands, you have an important role to play in society and you are privileged to have been educated at an institution such as the University of the Witwatersrand. There is no doubt that the degree obtained by you will stand you in good stead as you carve out your careers in this country.

The university has provided you with the tools required to conduct your chosen profession and has instilled certain values in you as to how you should conduct yourself in future.

I want you to carefully consider the words contained in the various oaths I have referred to, because a truly democratic South Africa needs you to pursue your careers in both a peaceful and ethical manner in the dealings that you will have with all members of our community.

Remember, too, the framework of our Constitution and the Bill of Rights, which enshrines the values agreed on by the political parties as we moved from the previous dispensation to the democratic South Africa.

Our respect for these democratic values of our country affects not only how we conclude transactions in business, but also applies in our daily lives as we travel on the roads from one destination to another and also in our interactions with people from all walks of life.

It is important, therefore, that in our daily lives we all uphold the values ratified by Constitution. We need to respect the rule of law in our dealings with one another and in all aspects of our lives.
Above, from left to right: Acting Vice-Chancellor, Professor Y Ballim, Dr Beric Croome and Professor David Kolitz.

The rule of law encompasses the provisions contained in the Constitution, as well as other laws of the country. It is essential that citizens respect the laws of the country, regardless of how much of a nuisance they may be. This can be as small a thing as a driver on the road not going through a red traffic light, or talking on a cell phone, thereby jeopardising the lives of people on the roads.

It also requires citizens to respect the property rights of others and this includes the purchasing of stolen goods or acquiring, what appears to be, unbelievably cheap DVDs which are the result of illicit copies made in violation of copyright and other rights held by the original artists thereto.

Thus, we as citizens of this country, all have a responsibility to recognise and voluntarily choose to adhere to the dictates of ethical behaviour in our interaction with each other as citizens of the country. If we each dedicate ourselves to pursuing that path of righteousness, we can only enhance and improve the life of all citizens in this, our beloved country.

In closing, I would like to refer to the words of American editor and speech writer, Jack C Yewell:

'Giving of yourself, learning to be tolerant, giving recognition and approval to others, remaining flexible enough to mature and learn, yields happiness, harmony, contentment and productivity. These are the qualities of a rich life, the bounteous harvest of getting along with people.'

Like we did as a nation in the recent successful elections, if we all respect that which is both true and just, virtuous and wise, and if we can recognise the value of others, regardless of their background, these can only yield a future South Africa that provides a bounteous harvest of harmony and peace for all her citizens.

Nkosi sikelel' iAfrika
and congratulations and best wishes to the graduands and their families.”

Monday, 4 May 2009

DISCUSSION: What responsibility does a writer have?

Last year I wrote about the disturbing trend in many of today’s movies, which appear to show human beings as capable of nothing but evil and mayhem. Last week Davin Malasarn of ‘The Literary Lab’ blog wrestled intriguingly with the question of whether some books are simply too “dark” to be written.

I, too, wonder where an artist’s responsibility begins and ends. Is the drive for artistic freedom of expression such an imperative in today’s world that literally anything goes?

If a rock band’s stage act “inspires” a schoolchild to slice his friends up in a cry for attention, as recently happened in the so-called “Samurai Killings” in South Africa, are the artists in any way responsible?

In the same vein, if a genre writer portrays an extreme view of the world – whether too dark or too rosy – or a literary author writes an erudite tome on the travails of humankind, leaving his readers reeling with despair that human happiness is unattainable because our darkness is too deep to overcome, one has to ask oneself: is this what art is supposed to be?

If the purpose of art is to tell it like it is, does that leave the author with only one responsibility, namely, to be as true to his voice as he can be, irrespective of the possible effect of the work on his reader’s psyche?

Artistic talent is a gift from God, and whoever discovers it in himself has a certain obligation: to know that he cannot waste this talent, but must develop it.
Pope John Paul II

While this is a valid viewpoint, there is another which could be considered. An artist – any genre, any medium – has been given a sacred gift.

I believe, as does Marilyn Brant in her wonderful blog post “How to Save a Life” that art has the capacity to save lives. Dramatic? Maybe. True? Definitely. Music and art and novels have provided many a soothing panacea for the ill, whether ill in body or mind or spirit.

And it is this capacity for healing – this great potential that art has and which artists carry in their gift – that places a huge responsibility on the artist’s shoulders.

Let an author find his truth by using the sacred gift of his talent responsibly.

Not by sacrificing artistic freedom for, to create anything that has meaning to both author and reader, there has to be a relationship of integrity between the inner world of the author (from whence sprung the text) and the external world (from which the reader approaches the work). In other words, the text must tell the truth as the author sees it.

However, the author should also accept that - no matter whether the work is defined as “commercial” or “literary” - every word written has the potential to influence the reader. Readers do, of course, have their own free will with which they make their choices in life. But it’s when the artist ignores this potential for influence – this power over the reader, one could say – that art becomes dark.

The pen is mightier than the sword
Edward Bulwer-Lytton, (1803–1873)

Any author – or, indeed, any artist in any medium – should remember that they have a responsibility to the divine nature of their gift. When they abdicate that responsibility in favour of a ‘truth’ that denies the divine nature of their gift then, inevitably, they must also bear some responsibility should that inner vision impact negatively on the external world into which they release it.

I suggest that, from the first moment we put pen to paper, we as authors need to consciously accept responsibility for what we write. If we do not use discretion and wisdom as we wield the power of our talent, it is then that our art becomes dark and very definitely dangerous.

We have enough people who tell it like it is.
Now we need a few who tell it like it can be.
Robert Orben

How far do you think an artist's responsibility should go?