Student recommendation: Pablo Páramo, by Juan Rulfo

How many times do have to be recommended a book, or a writer, to read before you give in and do what you’re told? Well, if you’re a student, and the recommendation comes from your lecturer, once should be enough – right? On the other hand, it took me three people telling me to read Juan Rulfo’s incredible Mexican novel Pedro Páramo before I finally got around to it.

I can’t remember who the first recommender was. I’m not even sure how long the book has been in on my shelves – in a cool-looking edition by edgy British independent Serpent’s Tail in 1994, though it first appeared in 1955. It wasn’t a review copy, doesn’t look like a charity shop lucky dip, and I don’t think would have been something I’d have bought first-hand unless nudged towards it. I remember trying it, and putting it down, un-hooked, a few pages in, despite its arresting opening:

I came to Comala because I had been told that my father, a man named Pedro Páramo, lived there. It was my mother who told me. And I had promised her that after she died I would go see him. I squeezed her hands as a sign I would do it.

The second nudge came from an unknown bookseller in Marfa, Texas, where my wife was attending a conference. She wanted a book to bring back for me and asked for something I’d not be likely to know. They suggested a different book by Rulfo, his earlier collection of short stories, The Plain in Flames. (The original Spanish title, El llano en llamas, is better – in fact it’s damn near perfect.) I read that book, and was pretty much pole-axed by it, for the violence and sparse beauty of its stories; afterwards, I tried Pedro Páramo again, and still couldn’t get on with it. Life’s too short, yeah?

Then just last week Juan, a Colombian second year student at St Mary’s, mentioned Rulfo’s name in conversation as a definite must-read of South American fiction. Okay, I told myself, third time lucky. This time I’ll definitely read it.

In truth, Pedro Páramo is a difficult book to read, especially considering it’s only 120 pages long. Partly this is down to the style – spare and indirect, and much of it told through dialogue – and partly it’s down to the structure, which jumps around all over the place. We don’t stay with that protagonist, who turns up in Comala, only to find that it’s a literal ghost town, with everyone in it dead. The novel also shifts back in time to Pedro Páramo’s childhood and adulthood, where we find out how he got the reputation he did. ‘“Do you know Pedro Páramo?”’ the narrator asks the man who guides him to the town. ‘”Who is he?”‘

‘“Living bile,” was his reply.’

Not much happens in the book’s 120 pages, but there are lots of stories of things happening, and most of those are bad: murder, rape, extortion. It’s a revenge story, a surreal Western bound up in the fevered religion of the region – if you’ve seen the weird Clint Eastwood film High Plains Drifter then you’re half way there. It’s so weird, in fact, that even on this final, successful reading attempt, I had to give up at page 60 and go back to the start. I’m glad I did, and I’m glad I got there in the end. I may even live to read it again.

Jonathan Gibbs is a Lecturer in Creative and Professional Writing at St Mary’s, Twickenham. He is always on the lookout for recommendations from students of books to read.

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Library Finds: Never Let me go by Kazuo Ishiguro

One of those books that I would read again and again (if only my life as an undergraduate would permit it).

It’s extremely affecting. What is happening is not exactly revealed until halfway through the novel, but somehow this contributes to how poignant the story is. 

The characters are beautifully put on the page and their relationship is intricate and cleverly shown, their friendship and love, which at times turns to hate, is what drives the narrative forward and not so much the scientific theme behind it. This isn’t a very easy read, even though the prose is simple. Ishiguro makes us look into what makes us human with an extremely honest eye. 

Highly recommend it, but do keep the tissues nearby.

A book from the St Mary’s library collection, reviewed by Erica de Silva, second year English and Creative and Professional Writing student.

Getting into Peril – the journey from fan to editor

Scrolling through Facebook, I found a unique opportunity from an author that I follow. Joss Stirling – her real name is Julia Golding – is a YA writer from Epping Forest in Essex. Her books include the Savants series, savants being people with extraordinary mental powers, whose destiny is to seek their soulfinder – their other half. There are six books in this series, published under her pen name, the first being Finding Sky.

Stirling has now written the first book in a new series, called Peril. Peril is about seventeen-year-old Meri Marlowe who is able to see peril – a colour in the UV spectrum – but may be the last of her kind. She is being hunted by mortal enemies who will settle for nothing less than the end of her race. She has been on the run for years and is now hiding out in a climate-changed London. The other main character is Kel Douglas. Kel is one of an ancient people whose skin is covered in peril-coloured patterns when they come of age. By day he is an ordinary student, the rest of the time he is bodyguard to the heir to the throne. That’s until he meets Meri.

There are some gifts you do not want. Mine has marked me out to be hunted.

Joss Stirling announced the title of her book on her Facebook page with the release date for July. She then followed up with a post saying that she wanted some of her fans to read the final draft of Peril before it was officially released. The first 50 people to send her a message, offering their help, would be chosen. Luckily, I saw the post early enough to become involved. So I messaged her, saying I would love to provide some feedback as I liked the Savant series.

This was her reply:

That sounds great, Jess. I’m planning to release the book on 13 July. I can change anything right up to the last moment so if you were able to send me your feedback by then, that would be ideal. A review on whatever platform you use would be fabulous. I’ll also have a very short window (24hr) of a bargain price (99c or 99p) for the early birds so you might want to tell your friends. Now I need your email so I can send a copy to you! I’d prefer not to use the Facebook attachment route.

She emailed me the final draft of Peril in a PDF format, password-protected of course. Stirling named the 50 fans the Peril Super-Team. She gave me a list of specific questions about the book, just some things for me to look out for as I read the book. She gave me an explanation of each question as well, but here are the headings:

  1. Joss does dystopian?
  2. Fantasy of colour?
  3. Characters?
  4. Who would I like to see in part 2?

I read Peril, only pausing to note some typos. I enjoyed the book, and then answered her questions honestly and as best as I could. I wasn’t sure where to send the feedback so I emailed her and then copied a similar message into her Facebook messages.

Joss Stirling’s reply was:

Dear Jess, Thank you so much for your thoughtful feedback. You’ve even managed to spot two typos no one else has done – it is amazing how many there are and I get blind to them after a while. Please look out for thanks by name in the final – hopefully typo free – version. I’ve changed a few things in response to the feedback which I’ve found really constructive. If you had time to leave a review on line it really helps the visibility of the book. Best wishes.

A really important lesson that I learned whilst doing this was that, even if you think your book/script/etc is finished, it can always be improved. Sharing your work with others will show you ways to improve your work so when you finally submit it (or hopefully publish it) it will do your ideas justice.

Another lesson I learned from this is that besides spelling errors, we should think of questions to ask our readers, and really engage with their views of your characters or plot. I thought when that final draft, after editors have worked their magic, it would be ready to go. But Joss Stirling has made changes to her book based on the feedback of her readers about important aspects to the story, not just the technical makeup of the book.

Furthermore, besides what I have learnt from this opportunity, it was really exciting to see my name printed in a book, especially in Joss’ book as I went through my teenage years reading her series. If you would like to read Peril, or her other series, you can find it on Amazon.co.uk. If you follow her Facebook page, she occasionally reduces her books for 99p only for a limited time. I am grateful to Joss Stirling for giving me this opportunity.

Jess Evans is a third year Creative and Professional Writing student

Autobahn

I remember being a child in the back of the car, gunning it down the Autobahn in Germany. The speed limit is 80mph, and as you could imagine, it was thrilling to feel your back sink into the seat as high speeds sent a wave of force through your body. But it was not the Fast and Furious thrill I remember about the long stretch of motorway, no. It was the car accidents.

When I was small on the long car journeys, we would always pass at least one crash. Sometimes a handful. My mother and father always told me not to look, and for a time, I passed these fatal accidents with my head pressed into the back of a headrest, or crushed into a siblings’ chest. I can’t remember how old I was when I started ignoring the warnings, when I would turn my head and look.

I would turn and look as we sped past, and flashes of gory horror would imprint themselves in my brain. White sheets over mannequin lumps, red-stained, like a fancy dining table cover that someone spilled a fine burgundy all over. Heads leant against rails with sticky-looking black covering them in the darkness. It was always so dark, I always assumed it was oil or tar over the windshield. One time, I even saw what the inside of a skull looks like. I learned what leaking petrol smells like. I didn’t gawk for an age, as I said, it was always just a flash.

I don’t know if it was some kind of morbid curiosity or fascination that made me look. I felt nothing other than pity for the afflicted as we drove away. I never felt any trauma from looking. But there was one very strong reaction I had to these snapshots: my seatbelt.

I was notorious for only pretending to wear mine, or complain about it being uncomfortable, but when I started looking at the tragedies we whizzed past, my hand would start seeking out the comfort of my belt. Whenever I entered a car, my pudgy child hand would push the square glinting metal into the boxy red and grey plastic, wait for the click and then give it a tug, an afterthought. To make sure.

I always thought that it was funny how I was told not to look at a tragedy, that it would upset me. Traumatise me. Disturb me.

What it really did was instil something subconsciously, even as a child. I started to understand why all those German fairy-tale books at my Oma’s house could have quite grisly endings. Funny that I was never told not to read them.

That we look, and we learn. And we guard against.

A piece of flash fiction by third year Creative and Professional Writing student Stephanie Marquardt.

Giving the gift of great books to Twickenham

As part of our Induction Week for 2017 St Mary’s Creative and Professional Writing students went out to spread their good taste in books to the lucky people of Twickenham. Look out for copies of these books – and more – featuring the Book Fairies stickers, and all with postcards inside saying what it is about them that the book-giver loved so much. Thanks to all the students who took part for their generosity. (We of course gave them all a new book to replace it, a book that hopefully they’ll love just as much.)

 

The weather held out for us, which was a nice change after the skies decided to open over the St Mary’s grounds for the half hour – and only the half hour – that we held our short Welcome reading event.

 

Summer reading: Looking outwards, and looking back

Today’s recommendation comes from Jane Kremer, who will be shifting degree programmes to join Creative and Professional Writing in September, after stepping up and taking part in our student readings this year.

My recommendation is funnily enough a book that I got from our lecturer Jonathan after a reading. It’s called Guapa by Saleem Haddad and impressed me so much that I even consider it my new favourite book. Here’s why you should pick it up this summer: Throughout, the book has been written with a highly capturing writing style and plot. It deals with a young gay man – Rasa – who lives in the Middle East and stands in front of the shattered remains of his only big love in life. The plot reflects both on the relationship and why it failed, as well as on the main character’s childhood and upbringing.

I found it especially fascinating because the book gave me an insight into a completely unknown world – and I’m sure it will have a similar effect on anyone who has grown up up in Europe or other westernised countries.

The book reflects on the culture-clash of growing up with a Middle-Eastern father and a Western mother; on gay life in the Middle-East; on the political happenings during the Arab Spring. Then, when Rasa goes to study in the US while 9/11, he experiences a rapid shift of identity. After having felt different because of his homosexuality, his consciousness now shifts towards being a Muslim and he experiences what it’s like to wear this label in America.

The book is one of the rare works that manage to keep their quality up until the very last page – the ending is great, neither shallow nor otherwise disappointing.

A good book for people who like to broaden their horizons a little and who like to experience the feeling that they’re growing through the main character’s experiences! =)

This summer I will try to re-read El Principito (The Little Prince) by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, and as you can see from the title, I will try and read it in Spanish. I remember that I really liked the book when I read it as a child, so it will be interesting to see what I think of it now, perceiving it through adult eyes.

Summer Reading: Hockey, jocks, pies and interruptions

Today’s Summer Reading recommendation comes from current 2nd Year Creative Writing student Amie Carden. Take it away, Amie…

My summer recommendation isn’t actually a book. I’ve been getting into webcomics recently, this one I binge read for hours after it was recommended to me by a friend of mine. With a cute art style, Check, Please! is about Eric Bittle, who is starting university in Massachusetts on a sport scholarship. Eric is a 5’6, blonde, amateur pâtissier who vlogs about his life and newly invented recipes. The loveable tiny member of the team really makes an impact on their team plays and on their living habits.

“It’s a story about hockey and friendship and bros and trying to find yourself during the best 4 years of your life.”

An adorable comedy around the friendships within a prestigious hockey team.


On a completely different note, I’ve been aiming to read this book for years. Since watching the film adaptation years ago, Girl, Interrupted has made me very intrigued as to what was missed out from the original diary, by author Susanna Kaysen. How many psychotic episodes didn’t make it to the final cut? What happened to them all after their stay in the ward? So this summer, I’ll be reading a memoir that shows just how insane it was to be sectioned in the 1960s.

Summer reading: international, anarchic and avant garde

Today’s Summer Reading recommendation comes from Juan Gutierrez, a current first year Creative and Professional Writing student:

Collected Poems by Raúl Gómez Jattin

Some might say Collected Poems contains the ramblings of a schizophrenic, a pervert, and a bum. Others might say it contains the beginning of all modern Latin American poetry aesthetic. It is all a part of the myth that has become Raúl Gómez Jattin’s life and work. His legacy is as spread out as it is controversial and he is both adored and despised by many. His work has not been forgotten, and his voice influenced an entire generation of poets in the rebellion to the rigid tradition of old Latin American literature. Collected Poems is an anthology that gives the English-speaking world a glimpse into the bizarre uniqueness of experimental Latin American poetry and the author’s brilliantly troubled mind. Raul Gomez Jattin paved the way for an academic acceptance and understanding of homosexual poetry and an anarchic structure. His poems capture the power of the Caribbean joie de vivre and his own existentialist conflicts, along with his sexual desires and his views on the people of Cartagena that surrounded him during his life. Aside from offering an interesting insight into a celebrated troubled man, Collected Poems is highly recommended also for the influence it has had on the Colombian literary landscape and the future of Latin American poetry.

Summer reading: for the footloose and fearless

Our next summer reading recommendation is from current second year Creative and Professional Writing student Philip Nash.

I’m going to recommend a travel narrative called The Places In Between by Rory Stewart. Stewart went on a solo hitchhike through Afghanistan, from Herat to Kabul, during a time of major terrorist threats when he could easily have been shot and killed. I was recommended it by a crazy American guy in my hostel in Utrecht who planned on hiking/hitchhiking from France to Greece.

Summer reading: Breaking the pattern

Our next summer reading recommendation is from Creative and Professional Writing lecturer Russell Schechter.

 Grey skies laden with menace. Chill winds gouging your skin like fairies with flick knives. Barbecue-blackened sausages which are somehow still trichinosis-pink at their core.

Ah, summer in England!

And time to read for fun. Oh, frabjous season!!

Here’s my suggested summer book guide: read what you want. Read what you really enjoy. And then read something completely different. If you never pick up non-fiction, read a biography. If you hate crime novels, read a murder mystery. Break your reading pattern and expand your horizons – for at least one book.

(What a mealy-mouthed recommendation. Criminy, just what you’d expect a miserable Creative Writing tutor to say.)

So here’s something more particular. Read a John Wyndham novel. It’s not exactly contemporary (he peaked in the 1950s), but good-golly-Miss-Molly was a he smart, economical and entertaining writer. Day of the Triffids. The Chrysalids. The Midwich Cuckoos. Pick one – you can’t go wrong. (NB Day of the Triffids is in the library!)

And remember to bring me back some rock from your holiday.