Inside the mind of a writer www.scskillman.co.uk

Posts tagged ‘this life’

Review of “The Fault in Our Stars” by John Green

I’ve just finished reading The Fault in Our Stars by John Green.

The Fault in Our Stars book cover

The Fault in Our Stars book cover

This story of two young cancer “survivors” is a story that eats into your marrow. And if you haven’t seen the film or read the book, and would like to, don’t read on, for my review contains plot spoilers!

Even though I had already seen the film, and knew what was going to happen, I found the book itself utterly compelling. Two young people facing death every day with no religious belief in a conventional sense, told through the honest, sharp, hard-hitting viewpoint of Hazel Grace, a 16-year-old girl living on borrowed time, is very strong.

To me the most interesting character, however, is Peter Van Houten, the ghastly novelist who’s written a fantastic book and won the admiration of millions, yet is destroying himself with alcohol, throwing away all the value of what he’s achieved.

And the message within that particular subplot: don’t expect an author to be like/worthy of the book he/she writes.

The Fault In Our Stars also makes me realise how profoundly annoying sentimental pious language can be to non-religious people, especially in the crises of life; and that leads me to reflect on the power of language itself, and how words can build bridges or destroy, or create wars – as we constantly see in the history and in the current state of our world.

How powerful it was for Hazel to receive Augustus’s letter at the end – and how critical it was that they were Augustus’s own words, and not Peter Van Houten’s. That at least was one decision Van Houten made that was right – even out of his alcoholic haze.

And the story also poses the question: how true is Hazel Grace’s outlook on the world, from the point of view of a young person living with imminent death every day? Her cynicism is a refuge for her, a way of dealing with the pain and the horror of her situation, when even saying things that are horrible, is comforting.

Another thought arising from the story: in our Western society, we all talk so much rubbish around death, it’s frightening. There seems to be a conspiracy of not saying what you really think and feel – especially at religious funerals for non-religious people.

One of the saddest moments for me in the book and in the film was at Augustus’s funeral when Hazel decides to say all the anodyne things she knows her audience will like to hear, instead of saying what she truly feels and thinks about Augustus and his death.

I really do think religious language used carelessly and thoughtlessly at the most critical times of our lives can be a tyranny – when we use it as a mask and a means of self-deception, instead of a way of communicating the truth.

At the end of the story, what is left is love: the love Hazel and Augustus felt for each other despite knowing they had no future. That must be the single most important message of the book – the one impossible fact of love in the face of death.

Review of “The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared”: a Lesson in Opportunism?

I’ve just finished reading The One Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson. What an amazing book this is – one which makes you reflect on the nature of life, the irony of events and choices, the workings of chance, and the value of opportunism. As I read it I felt sure it would make a fantastic movie.

100 Year Old Man book cover

100 Year Old Man book cover

Opinions of novels are always diverse but for me this story works as a long rumination on the workings of fate and chance in human affairs, centred around the life story of one man who is a master opportunist – a story which encompasses all the major political events of the 20th century, interspersed with the picaresque tale of his adventures after escaping from his 100th birthday party at the Old People’s Home in 2005.

The simplicity of the telling, bare of any kind of moral subtext, draws you on.

Throughout his life the main protagonist Allan has lived on his wits – amongst many ironies, he finds himself being bankrolled by one of the 20th century’s greatest tyrants, Mao Tse Tung, and accepts it without conscience. His actions are guided not by moral or religious principle but by expediency and opportunism.

Yet in the tradition of all great picaresque heroes (Tom Jones, and the main protagonist of “Slumdog Millionaire” come to mind) we like him and we are gunning for him.

At the age of 100, Allan breaks out from his imposed daily routine and encounters unexpected things. He responds to them and moves forward, dealing with new events as they arise – not fleeing back to his safe routine. He lives on his wits and he doesn’t let moral principles hamper him – like ‘being good’ or ‘doing the proper thing’ or worrying about what others might think of him, or who would approve, or if he might get in trouble, or what might be the consequences.

Surely there is a lesson for us here, without feeling we have to use the amoral Allan as a role-model: “Just break out – move forward into the unknown – meet new and unexpected events – deal with them – make decisions – and keep going.”

In other words, I say to myself: perhaps in this life it is no bad thing to become more of an opportunist!

In Memory of Hattie, a Beloved Pet Cat – and the Gracefulness of Letting Go

This is Hattie, born 1996, who died on 21 September 2013, at home, in her basket, peacefully, in a deep sleep.

Happy memories of Hattie, beloved family pet 1996-2013 (photo credits: Abigail Robinson)

Happy memories of Hattie, beloved family pet 1996-2013 (photo credits: Abigail Robinson)

When a much-loved family pet dies we need to decide what to do next.

But we kept Hattie lying in her basket for a day and a night, nestled in her blanket, where she died.

And it was not macabre, but beautiful, and consoling.

There is something sacred about being in the presence of a peaceful death, after a life well-lived.

Lying there in the stillness and quietness of letting go, her fur still felt soft and her body pliable, and I imagined several times that she was still breathing.

She has filled 17 years of our lives with fun, laughter and affection. She has beguiled us, outwitted us, annoyed us, delighted us and demonstrated something powerful: absolute persistence wins.

I blogged about Hattie a while ago. There, I wrote about the perpetual fascination of cats.

And now Hattie has again demonstrated something powerful about this life.

The gracefulness and the quietness and the beauty of letting go.

Then, all that’s left is love.

A Pilgrimage By Steam to The Shrine of a Martyr in Canterbury Cathedral

“This world nis but a Thurghfare ful of wo

Canterbury cathedral and its pilgrims

Canterbury cathedral and its pilgrims

And we ben Pilgrimes passinge to and fro.”

So says Chaucer’s Knight, towards the end of his tale as recounted by Geoffrey Chaucer, the author of The Canterbury Tales.

Gloomy those words may be, but they totally belie the racy, colourful and much-loved tales told by the Wife of Bath, the Miller, the Nun’s Priest and many others.

And they all made their pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral. So did my husband David and I make the  pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral last Tuesday – by steam train!

The Cathedrals Express (photo credit: David Robinson)

The Cathedrals Express (photo credit: David Robinson)

Steam Dreams operate the Cathedrals Express. The locomotive pulling our train was The  Tornado, a lovingly built A1 Steam Locomotive. It took part in the BBC Top Gear Race with Jeremy Clarkson, and had its own very own programme made for the BBC, a documentary called ‘Absolutely chuffed’.

I was very impressed with the speeds it achieved, as as it journeyed from Newbury to Canterbury.

Only when you travel by steam do you experience the pleasure and delight of seeing many different people waiting alongside the railway embankment, or in back gardens, keen to wave at you as you pass by, or standing in fields with cameras. Steam engines evoke great affection, excitement and notalgia and of course can now not be thought of apart from the Thomas the Tank Engine stories.

And at the end of the journey – Canterbury Cathedral.

Few things in this life can compare to the awe and wonder that a great cathedral can inspire; and at its centre, a shrine to a martyr; in this case, Archbishop Thomas Becket, who was murdered there in 1170 by four of Henry II’s knights in response to the king’s exclamation: Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?

The Martyrdom, Canterbury Cathedral (photo credit: David Robinson)

The Martyrdom, Canterbury Cathedral (photo credit: David Robinson)


The sight of the single candle burning in the great space which once held Thomas Becket’s shrine, before it was destroyed on the orders of Henry VIII, was very moving.  So too was the chapel where great saints and martyrs of the twentieth century are commemorated, including such people as Dietrich Boenhoffer, Martin Luther King, and Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was murdered while he celebrated Holy Communion.

Spiritual energy is concentrated at the sites of these places of pilgrimage – and I was very conscious of this as I lit a candle at the votive light stand, at the entrance to the chapel in the Cathedral which is now called The Martyrdom.

The number of people visiting British Cathedrals has risen by 30% in this millennium.

St Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Abbey and Canterbury Cathedral are again among the top visitor attractions in the UK, according to the latest statistics from the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions (AVLA). The 4,500,000 visitors to those three famous churches are only part of the numbers visiting more than 16,000 Church of England buildings across England.

I’ve visited all three of those attractions in the past couple of years. And from all of these, together with my latest visit, to Canterbury Cathedral, I clearly see the reason for  the trend noted in the paragraph above: a cathedral is a place where we may make contact with the numinous, our sense of the holy. It is a place which fills us with awe and lifts our hearts and minds to something much greater than ourselves.

And pilgrimage now is more important than ever, by whatever means we choose to travel.

The Joy of Singing, from the Challenge of J.S. Bach, to A Community Choirs Festival in Stratford-upon-Avon

Singing is  a gift of God, and a channel for empowerment.

Community Choirs Festival

Community Choirs Festival

This weekend has been an amazing time of singing.

And I’ve learned a few things about this life too.

On Saturday night, the choir I sing with, the Warwick & Kenilworth Choral Society, gave a performance of Bach’s B Minor Mass that truly honoured the composer’s purpose.  This was against all expectations – our own, and those of the conductor.

And yet, despite weeks of agony and doubt and struggle in rehearsal (plus the temptation, I suspect, for several singers, to give up) we succeeded.

“There will be some stunning moments,” said the conductor at the final afternoon rehearsal, “and some very hairy moments. Just find the next cue when you can come in.”

Not for a single rehearsal had the first sopranos ever sung it without getting lost.

And yet, on the evening itself – we sang it all the way through, even the most difficult bits, and didn’t get lost.

At the end,the conductor (probably rather bemused), said, with a beaming smile: “Well done. That was superb!”

This experience has taught me, that whatever we dare to believe, sometimes God’s grace snatches success out of the most unpromising places.

From a major choral work to a community choirs festival in Stratford-upon-Avon on Sunday.

Here, a gathering of different community choirs from around England, all came together to learn some new songs, under the guidance of four Natural Voice Practitioners – dynamic, fun, energetic and inspirational.

Untrammelled by inhibition, these gifted singing teachers gave of themselves for the joy of others.

The whole day was a totally uplifting, empowering experience.

Through a mixture of harmony songs – slave songs from the American south, songs from the Eastern orthodox church, or songs arising from Australian aboriginal or North American Indian spirituality, to “Price Tag” by Jessie J – the different choirs delighted with their singing.

I was enthralled to watch the varied styles of the conductors. Some conducted in a tradiitonal manner, others danced and bopped around in from of their choir.

And at the end the four teachers treated us to a hilarious and top-rate performance of the Beachboys’ song God Only Knows What I’d Do Without You.

A wonderful life-enhancing weekend of singing!

The Lovely Bones Film – New Insight Onto a Terrifying Subject

What could be worse than losing someone you love through untimely death?

Poster for The Lovely Bones movie

Poster for The Lovely Bones movie

And what could be even worse than that?

Losing them through murder.

And then worse than that?

Just imagine – the person you love, who is murdered, is a child, with all life and hope ahead of them.

This is the nightmare scenario for many parents.

And I would share those feelings absolutely. For this reason, when I first read about Alice Sebold’s novel The Lovely Bones it immediately struck me as a novel to avoid reading.

But I watched The Lovely Bones movie on DVD recently.

Why, you may ask? The reason was because my teenage daughter wanted to see it. She’d seen a trailer and found it appealing; she likes the young star of the movie, actress Saoirse Ronan; and her friend had recommended her to see it.

So I added it to my “LoveFilm” list and it duly arrived a few days ago.

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold was a book which has elicited very mixed responses. Although we are told “it  received much critical praise and became an instant bestseller” on its publication in 2002, nevertheless I have spoken to people who have described it as “depressing”.

A young girl is raped and murdered by a serial killer and watches her family fall apart, from limbo.

From my point of view, as a romantic suspense author, I thought this a painful and difficult subject to handle in a novel.

Yet upon watching the movie I was totally captivated. The delicacy and beauty and wisdom with which the subject was handled reversed all my expectations.

Without reading the novel, I had thought the premise of the story essentially flawed. Firstly, telling people in this situation to ‘move on’ for its own sake, seems specious. Evidence tells us that in such cases victims above all desire justice – and until they have seen justice to be done, they cannot ‘move on’.

Secondly, to my mind, telling the story from the viewpoint of a murdered child in limbo, seemed to me a device that changes the subject in an artificial way right from the beginning. In this life, any such tragedy would be instantly rendered less agonizing if you knew for sure the lost person was in fact very close to you, present with you, and also in heaven. And of course the idea of wandering around in “limbo” as part of the post-death spiritual journey, is derived from Catholic tradition, and one of the explanations popularly given for ghosts.

I believe that in real life we never do have such immediate and uncontrovertible assurance – with or without religious faith.

So I thought it a very dubious quasi-spiritual approach to such a theme. And yet, in the hands of a skilled director – in this case,  Peter Jackson – a book can be turned into a movie where these difficulties recede, and another message comes through.

In some respects, the subject invites comparison with the book The Shack.

In this book, too, a young girl is lured to a ‘killing place’ and murdered. The story follows the reaction of Missy’s father to this tragedy, and moves on into an exploration of God which, I dare to believe, hs the power to transform our habitual attitudes.

I felt that in each story a device of separation is used: defamiliarisation. It seems that some of the worst experiences in life can only be truly understood from a distance. This has long formed part of the genres of mystery and imagination.

This was well underscored by the music – slow, languorous and dreamlike behind the “In-between world” and edgy clanging discordant notes as the murderer starts to saw wood and construct his next killing den. The visual effects too were very powerful; shadows moving across rays of light “in the blue horizon between heaven and earth” like images in dreams,  and the creepy dismal gloom of the world of grief which the family inhabit, with the father’s initial denial and continuous refusal to let go. Very striking too was the silence behind the murderer as the blackness slides aside to reveal him sitting in his house.

The words “I knew then even though he loved me he had to let me go ”  restate the theme, as do the words, “I begin to see thing in a way that let me hold the world without me in it.”

Have you seen the movie? Do you believe that a flawed premise in a novel can be transformed by a movie director? Please share your own thoughts, on this, or on the issues it raises.

Why Les Miserables Is So Popular

How is it that the story of Les Miserables has tapped into the emotions of so many?

Les Miserables movie 2012

Les Miserables movie 2012

I first read Victor Hugo’s novel in my late teens/early twenties, and a central idea stayed with me over the years (though not necessarily in the exact words Victor Hugo used):

You have been taken away from evil, and been given back to God.

When questioned, often even the actors and actresses in the movie cannot necessarily explain why Les Miserables has such power.  This may of course be because they’re so close to the story. Ann Hathaway was a recent example. When asked this question, all she could reply was, “I don’t know. It’s just a great story.”

But I’m fascinated by what lies behind this: for Les Miserables is an intensely religous story. And this is a society in which the majority of people would not describe themselves as ‘religious’ (if collectors of statistics are to be believed). And so this begs another question: Why is the opinion I quote below such an uncommon one?

The authors have pared down Victor Hugo’s great wallow of a novel to its dumb, pious moral (Christian forgiveness always wins, though you might not live to break out the champagne).

(David Edlestein)

I would dare to believe that the majority of the 60+ million people who’ve seen Les Miserables as a musical over the past 3 decades do not agree with him.

I believe that part of the success of Les Miserables is due to the fact that it has many hot story moments.

And these are bound up with the archetypal themes of the story, redemption, forgiveness and unconditional love.

As a romantic suspense author, I know only too well how vital these hot story moments are.

For me, the most emotional moment in the movie was when Cosette (played by Amanda Seyfried) sings, “Papa, you are going to live.”

Superficially, this is just a young girl who refuses to believe she is about to lose the dying man in front of her. And for Valjean, this must be his supreme moment when he is given a sense of belonging.

But the power of these words, for me, works on another level; as does most of the movie. Cosette is re-stating the theme; the theme of eternal life through spiritual redemption.

In creative writing, we cannot afford to ignore the different levels on which a story moment may work. For me, our ability to do this is a matter of both mystery and imagination.

Although the characters of Les Miserables are in extreme, unjust circumstances, their emotions are, I believe,  emotions many of us share on the spiritual journey.

Though you might not dare to believe your own deprivations compare with those of Valjean, Fantine and Cosette, being minor by comparison,  we do feel the same.

Over the course of this life, at different times, we too may feel the same wretchedness as Fantine, the same self-doubt and guilt as Valjean, the same obsessiveness as Javert, the same grasping small-mindedness as the Innkeeper and his wife.

I believe that we’d feel the same if we were also visited with a great act of grace; and especially if we were in Jean Valjean’s position, and heard these words: “My brother you no longer belong to evil. With this silver, I have bought your soul. I’ve ransomed you from fear and hatred, and now I give you back to God.” (words the Bishop speaks to Valjean after he has given him the  silver Valjean tried to steal). When I read the Bishop’s words to Valjean in Victor Hugo’s novel, for me they had the power of a blessing, one which would stand by you throughout your life – as of course they did for Valjean in the story.

Over the past 3 decades Les Miserables has been seen by more than 60 million people in more than 40 countries and in more than 20 different languages.

I believe that Les Miserables shows that many more people respond to themes of spiritual redemption and forgiveness and unconditional love, than would ever call themselves ‘religious’.

These are archetypal themes, and they are written on our hearts.

What do you think? Please share your thoughts in the comments!

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