Vienna in the time of COVID – Chapter 14

I’m going to tell you something about myself: I like books. 

No, no, that’s not right, come one, Jonathan, no need to be coy about this. The truth is I love books, I am in love with books, at any given time I am having an affair with books, often with multiple books at once. There, I said it. 

My love affair with books started at an early age, fostered by my parents’ own love of literature, and by the time I hit highschool I had a full-blown book addiction. When I entered Year 9 (for any international readers, Australians in Year 9 are aged between 14 and 15 years old), I found myself in a homeroom without a single member of my circle of friends. To begin with, I was crushed, I felt hard done by, I felt alone. And then I remember I could borrow a friend any time I liked. 

To be clear, I am not referring to some strange and sad friend-loaning service set up at our school where for a certain price you could rent a friend, I am referring to the library and the many excellent books on its shelves that I could borrow as I pleased. 

Rather than do the thing normal kids would do when finding themselves in a classroom devoid of friends, which is to make new friends, I chose instead to invest any additional time during class outside of my scholarly pursuits to books. I kept whichever paperback I was reading at the time in my pencil case and as soon as I had finished the worksheet/equation/essay we were instructed to work on, I would collect my friend from its secret storage space and get reading. While the other kids were wasting their time with superficial things like talking and laughing and socially bonding, I would be exploring Narnia, and Midkemia, and the Drenai Empire.

For anyone who may be inclined to pity lonely little Jon, please don’t feel too bad. I did eventually lift my head out of the pages long enough to commune with my colleagues, and apparently the bookworm image was working for me as my first girlfriend was in that very class. Take that, jocks.

As a reader, I generally favour genre books. These genres have many different names — fantasy, science fiction, magical realism, speculative fiction — but I just like to think of them as books where one small facet of the impossible is made possible and then we see where the story goes from there. These stories, while removed from reality, help me make sense of reality, help me see things from a different perspective, and, when necessary, help me avoid social interaction. Triple threat. 

Given that the whole world is currently hibernating, it makes sense that a resurgence of reading will follow. Now that the coronavirus has taken away our restaurants, our movie cinemas, our pubs, and our table-tennis tournaments (I don’t know, maybe, I don’t know what you do in your spare time), all of us suddenly have a lot more time on our hands. 

If pubescent-Jon can teach us anything, it’s that the social interaction we are all currently lacking can be substituted with reading, and so with that in mind I would like to recommend some titles that have brought me joy, have made me think, have kept me turning the pages long into the night, and have kept me company through the lonely times.

American Gods by Neil Gaiman
The author himself has said that, when writing this book, he set out to tell a long and rambling story, and in one sense he accomplished this. The book is long and covers a lot of ground, but it is intriguing, interesting, weird, and always enchanting every step of the way. It combines a wealth of folklore and presents the gods discussed in its pages in a way that feels human and real. Neil Gaiman is one of my favourite authors and this is one of my favourite books. Beyond being a great writer, he also seems to be a rather great human, which makes reading his work all the more enjoyable.

American Gods

Paddle Your Own Canoe by Nick Offerman
Nick Offerman is famed for his portrayal of Ron Swanson in the television show Parks and Recreation, and while there is a lot of Ron in Nick, there is also a lot more. This book, which is part autobiography and part ruminations on life and how to live a good one, is overflowing with humour and wisdom and a collection of very entertaining anecdotes. It also pairs very well with a good whiskey.

Paddle Your Own Canoe

Sourdough by Robin Sloan
This book is warmth all the way through, from the characters and their passions, to the bread that is baked, and to the ultimate conclusion. Robin Sloan writes about our world but from a perspective that is a delight to share. He finds mythic in the mundane and passion in the pedestrian. Reading his books is like having a long conversation with a good friend over a cup of tea.

Sourdough

14 by Peter Clines
This was a book that made me lie. I would lie to my employer about being sick, I would lie to my friends about being busy, and I would lie in bed (see what I did there) not sleeping, only reading. I did all this because I absolutely had to find out what was happening and what would happen next. For me, this is the ultimate page-turner and, while it made me knowingly deceive friends and family, I regret none of it.

14

Fragile Things by Neil Gaiman
Did you catch that it’s Neil Gaiman again? I warned you that he was one of my favourite authors. Fragile Things is a collection of his short stories and so is the perfect book if committing to a huge novel isn’t your thing. Each of the stories is seeded with an idea so unique, so interesting, and so cool that I am swamped with jealousy that I didn’t come up with it. Even in the introduction to the collection, he tells a story that is gripping and thought-provoking. In the introduction! He’s really just showing off, and damn him if it doesn’t work.

Fragile Things

Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James
Often considered a modern masterpiece, this novel encapsulates…no, I can’t do it. I was trying to be funny, but even as a joke, I can’t endorse this book. It is trash. It is a trash book. Go read something else.

Whether you read my recommendations or not, that’s okay, but I do recommend that you at least read. While we can’t currently go out and explore our world as we would like to, books can allow us to instead go in and explore a multitude of other worlds, and by doing so, forget about our isolation for a while.

Lastly, I would like to ask a favour. If anyone has a book they love, one that has stuck in their brain and won’t get out, I would deeply appreciate it if you could recommend it to me in the comments. As a book addict, I am always on the lookout for my next hit.

And really lastly, I swear this time, if anyone would like to read a short novella that I wrote that is, hopefully, as silly and as fun as these posts, then I invite you to download a copy from the following links. I wanted to give it away for free but Amazon wouldn’t let me, so instead it is yours for only 99 cents.

Australia: https://www.amazon.com.au/dp/B086L2W7D7 

Austria: https://www.amazon.de/dp/B086L2W7D7

United Kingdom: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B086L2W7D7

United States: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B086L2W7D7

 

On Monday: The new normal.

FRAMING REALITY

Once when I was having a short story of mine work-shopped my lecturer stated that I had written an anecdote, not a story. This irked me at the time; I felt he was being pedantic and finding fault to complete his role as educator. This was perhaps a bit arrogant because after giving it some space, I looked back on this particular story and saw that he was absolutely correct. I had written an anecdote.

The difference between an anecdote and a short story is one of framing. An anecdote, as my lecturer explained, is a situation, an occurrence that lacks the correct framing of a story. This framing is a familiar one we’re all taught from primary school: beginning, middle, and end.

My anecdote had characterisation, dialogue, imagery. It had things happening. What it didn’t have was a point.

After realising the truth behind my lecturer’s advice, I gave the problem a lot of thought. I attempted to create a story that had correct framing. Unfortunately, being not yet twenty at the time and having spent a lot of my childhood in front of the television left me reaching for clichés to structure my stories. I used episodic formats and overused ideas. In other words, my stories weren’t very good. I became frustrated.

After months of frustration I pinpointed the cause of my irritation; life is messy.

I wanted to capture reality in my writing. I wanted to take the chaos of my experiences and display them in my text as they had felt. Even if what I was writing was fantasy, I wanted in to feel real. And life is messy. It lacks format, and at times it even lacks a point. I was frustrated because I felt my anecdotes more accurately represented reality than a neatly framed story. Granted, they were basically a description of events, but then so is life.

I didn’t write for a while after that realisation. I decided I’d wait until I thought of a story that had the correct framing, but at the same time allowed me to express my version of reality. And for a long time I didn’t think I could do it. I thought that any attempt to reshape ideas and events into a neat package was sacrificing my representation of a messy reality.

It took me a while to realise that I was looking at it from the wrong side. I had a story line and was trying to squeeze reality into that shape. But that’s not a writer’s job. What I actually had was reality, and what I should have been doing was looking for the story within it. Because even though life is messy, it’s a writer’s job to take that mess and search for a meaning. To find the point.

A well written story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It has motifs, and loaded dialogue. It has subtext. It has a point. It’s a writer’s job to scroll through the mess of reality and find these elements in life. By writing an anecdote I was simply being lazy. I was failing to cut away the excess to find the structure buried inside.

By writing a story you’re finding the point amongst the mess. You’re pulling out the meaning from the chaos of events and structuring it so that meaning is more evident for the reader. An anecdote may capture a messy reality, but then so too does a diary entry. Or, god forbid, a blog. And while these types of writing have their purpose, they aren’t a story.

A story isn’t simply about photocopying reality; it’s about finding the meaning in the mess.

Thanks to my lecturer for pointing this out to me by criticising my work. It was the best thing he could have done.